Getting legal in Spain – another bureaucratic ordeal in sunny Barcelona

September 17, 2023

Back in the day, I moved to Spain on a tourist visa.

I don’t recommend anyone do this – but I was 21 years old, mostly broke, talentless, and incapable of planning for the future anyway.

My basic plan at the time was: overstay my tourist visa first, figure out how to get legal later.

Luckily, this happened to be 2004, right in the middle of the golden age of immigration to Spain.

The economy was booming, and thousands (or millions) of people were arriving just like me, hoping to work hard for a monthly envelope full of illicit 20s and 50s, and planning to deal with whatever the consequences were later.

Eventually, in my case, it worked out – I got help from a few people, and did a long process called Arraigo Social. Today I’m a fully legal resident.

It was my first taste of Spanish bureaucracy, and I was young enough not to care much about the result. If Spain didn’t work out, I could go somewhere else.

But through the whole process, cheap Spanish lawyers in dingy offices were telling me “you know, your best bet is just to marry a Spanish girl”.

Old passport, meet new passport.

I didn’t take them seriously – it usually seemed like they were joking. Plus, I didn’t believe in the institution of marriage… And I also wasn’t getting a lot of good offers.

Why not? Well, I didn’t have a mullet, or a car to make out in, and my parents didn’t have a beach house in Benidorm. I was so far from being “husband material” it was a joke.

In any case, it’s a popular sitcom trope.

Citizenship marriage! Just do a quick City Hall wedding and everything will be alright, thinks the TV writer from the wealthy suburb in Connecticut, who’s never seen the inside of an immigration office.

The reality –  if you’ve ever tried to register an international marriage or talked to someone who has – is quite different, and much more time-consuming.

Registering a civil partnership in Catalonia

Today La Vanguardia (a Catalan newspaper) has published a long report on fraud in the “pareja de hecho” system in Catalonia.

It’s interesting reading, particularly because I’ve been through that system myself.

Here’s the story: Morena and I moved to Barcelona because she’d been offered a job up here.

Soon after we arrived, we visited a lawyer to ask about renewing her work permit the following year. The lawyers – long story short – said it wasn’t going to happen, and that she’d have to apply for a new visa some other way.

Elephant in Thailand.

I contemplated the idea that Morena might be deported, and immediately cast aside my reservations about bureaucratizing my love life. “Let’s do the pareja de hecho thing”, I told the lawyer.

Little did I know…

What that turned out to mean was that we were going to spend a year or so doing a “family reunification” visa, consisting of the following steps:

  1. We registered our civil partnership (AKA pareja de hecho) with a Barcelona notary.
  2. An architect was sent by the city to see if our living conditions were adequate. Ours were, but of course they have to check. You hear of situations where seven people are sharing a studio apartment all the time.
  3. Morena’s current residence permit expired, and she flew back to India for several visits to the Spanish embassy in Mumbai.
  4. Meanwhile, I presented a bunch of papers about my financial solvency, etc to the various immigration offices here in Barcelona. And finally…
  5. We waited for a few months, and hoped for the best.

In our case, everything turned out fairly well. Morena got back to Spain with a new visa. The only hitch was when all the police stations were closed for several months due to the Covid situation and she couldn’t apply for her final ID card.

When things re-opened, she was well past the cut-off date to apply for the card – it wasn’t clear if she was going to be legal or illegal. But since everything had been closed the whole time, they gave her a pass, and it was fine.

Getting legal: fraud in the Pareja de Hecho system

La Vanguardia’s article exposes the seedy underbelly of this Pareja de Hecho system, in which people are paying several thousand euros to register fake civil partnerships.

Apparently, they have a whole process set up: a lawyer will find people willing to register a “pareja” in exchange for some money, they’ll also find a landlord who will add complete strangers to the “padrón” in exchange for more money. After that, the “couple” file the papers for family reunification and hope, just like we did, that they’ll be approved.

Registering the partnership in front of the notary is the easy part in all of this, and is basically “no questions asked”: ours took about half an hour, and only cost around 150€.

Apparently, though, the ease of setting up a “pareja de hecho” in Catalonia is bringing foreigners in from far and wide to do the simple process with the notary. Other parts of Spain require a year or two of living together, for example: the law changes according to the Comunidad Autónoma.

I’m not giving any sort of legal advice here, of course, because I’m not a lawyer, and all this stuff is pretty confusing – plus it could change at any time. I do, however, recommend that you talk to a good lawyer before getting involved in any sort of Spanish bureaucracy. And don’t do anything illegal.

But all this begs the question:

Why is it so difficult to get married in Spain?

People have been getting married for a long time.

It’s one of those basic things that most people tend to do, at least once in their lives.

So why does Spain make it so difficult?

I know several couples who have discovered that they can get married from one day to the next in other countries, and have done so, rather than wait out the years-long bureaucratic nightmare in Spain.

The fraud in “parejas de hecho” in Catalonia is only becoming popular because it’s so difficult and time-consuming to register elsewhere – and not necessarily easier if you’re getting legitimately married.

Church somewhere in Western Ireland.

Once again, I’m not a legal expert, but even Spanish people have trouble with the bureaucracy involved in getting married. And for foreigners, everything is – as always – much more complicated.

Now that Morena and I are officially married in India, I’m working with yet another lawyer to get the new situation registered here in Spain.

According to him, this could take “months or years” – and might not work at all. But we can try. If our application is rejected, we can always go and get married again in Gibraltar, or Denmark – two places that make marriage easy to do – and try again with a new marriage certificate.

Anyway, I hardly want to make this whole blog about how Spanish bureaucracy sucks, but I’ve got a couple of final points here…

Don’t sign an 11-month lease!

Thinking about this, I remembered another difficulty we had with the whole “family reunification” thing back in the day: we’d signed an 11-month lease on our flat in Barcelona, which turned out to be invalid as a permanent place of residence.

We didn’t know anything about this, of course. We just needed a place to live. So when we’d started the visa application process, a woman from City Hall called and said they couldn’t inspect our house because we weren’t living there full time.

No, we definitely were living there full time, I explained. (This place was about 35 square meters and located on a plaza filled with schizophrenics, but that’s another story.)

“Well, not according to your contract.”

I wasn’t sure what the City Hall woman meant, so she explained the whole thing to me.

“What!? You want us to move?” I shouted, as politely as I could, when she was done.

“Well, no, just talk to your landlord about extending the contract. I’m sure you can work something out.”

Our landlord (technically, landlady) was having none of it. With a 12-month contract we’d have basic tenants’ rights, and she wasn’t going to sign anything like that.

So we moved. Expensively, to another tiny place a few blocks up.

Which brings us to another aspect of the problem here…

It’s really hard to rent a flat in Spain

Smaller towns might be different, but in Madrid, Barcelona, and other Spanish cities, renting is quite expensive, and the landlords tend to ask for a lot of deposits and other silly requirements.

Of course, they just want to protect their investment, but the whole system ends up exploiting a lot of people who don’t have other options.

There’s also the issue of the language gap, and people who don’t have knowledge of how the system works. El Periódico reported back in 2018 that 12 percent of people in Catalonia were living in some sort of “infravivienda” – the polite word for an overcrowded hellhole.

That twelve per cent increases to nearly 50% if you’re talking about people born outside the European Union. Which is just shocking. These “infraviviendas” may be illegally occupied, may be overcrowded, may have multiple people sleeping in shifts in one bed.

Abandoned in Jerez de la Frontera.

Really puts my landlord problems into perspective – all this real estate and bureaucracy is stupidly inefficient and expensive, but Morena and I have enough income that we can handle it. The people paying some mafioso 8000€ to set them up with fake documents (or a fake pareja) are probably borrowing that money from some other mafioso back home, with implications that are not pleasant to think about.

Then they try to rent a place, and the landlord wants thousands more as a deposit, or doesn’t want to let them sign up for the “padrón” – the official paper you need for literally anything else – because it will complicate his own attempts at tax fraud.

Anyway, it’s all a large and complicated situation which deeply affects a whole lot of people here in Spain – but luckily, the good people in the government are working hard to solve the problem…

Oh wait, no they’re not. Actually, they’ve spent the last few months trying to get Catalan accepted as an official language for use in the EU parliament – a measure that, unfortunately, improves the life of absolutely no-one.

Oh well. That’s about all I’ve got for today.

I hope you’re doing well, wherever you are in the world.


Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve got several okupas on my block, living in a commercial space that used to be a bakery. They seem to be a large family – there are 6 or 8 of them – and they appear to be gathering scrap metal to get by. Chatarreros: it’s a whole urban subculture around here. The only time these things become newsworthy is when the houses catch fire and someone dies. Which has happened twice in the last couple of years.

P.P.S. Any questions about getting legal in Spain? You should probably consult a good lawyer. But feel free to comment here anyway…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. The reason the landlord doesn’t want a 12 month lease is that then it’s vivienda habitual which screws the landlord in just about every way there is. i.e. – the gov’t decides you’re contract is not longer up to 5 years, but now 10. The gov’t decides that they can’t raise your rent as previously agreed upon in the contract, etc. They always say they’re helping you, but nobody wants to provide housing under such shitty conditions therefore they give temporary contracts. In the end Spain gets what it votes for. It’d be nice if all the leftists noticed what was happening and started to blame their own inability to understand the basic fundamentals of economics, but…. I’ve long given up on fixing stupidity.

    1. Yeah, I guess it’s tough to actually create laws that protect renters and landlords at the same time. Allegedly the new “ley de vivienda” that they promised would do great things has just had the immediate effect of getting a lot of landlords to take their places off the market, and prices are still going up. Anyway, I stopped expecting good things from the PSOE a long time ago :-/

  2. CC: se nota mucho que eres propietario, quién sabe en qué cantidades.
    Cuando se te ha hecho un contrato de alquiler por determinado tiempo, no se alarga automáticamente por ley. Otra cosa es que el propietario te ofrezca un NUEVO contrato conforme a la nueva ley, con otros plazos y posiblemente un aumento del precio. Pero esto es optativo, y en ningún caso una obligación del dueño. De todas maneras, no sé si en Cataluña se actúa de otra manera. Ignoro si tienen transferidas las competencias en materia de vivienda. Un saludo.

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