Spanish Bureaucracy – how to deal with red tape in Spain

September 5, 2023

People love to complain about Spanish bureaucracy.

But does it have the reputation it deserves? Is it really that bad?

Well, to be honest, I haven’t really dealt with much bureaucracy in other countries. I left the US when I was pretty young – too young to have to interact with the government much. So I don’t have a lot to compare it to.

But I do have a strong feeling that the red tape in Spain is somehow special.

Let’s investigate, if you will, the mysteries of Spanish bureaucracy…

(Quick caveat before we begin: as far as I can tell, none of what I’m about to explain is complicated by the fact that I’m also an immigrant in Spain. This is just the regular type of red tape they give to all citizens and legal residents. If you want the high-grade shit, try getting a work permit.)

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get started.

Is Spanish bureaucracy designed by sadists, or just idiots?

Here’s the story of my week so far, starting with a bit of context:

Several months ago, the Spanish tax people sent me a letter saying I was under investigation.

I emailed my accountant about it. He said not to worry, he’d get on the case. I pay my accountant to do bureaucracy for me, because I’m self-employed, and if I had to do everything myself I might lose my mind – or at the very least spend all my time doing paperwork and have no time left to earn a living.

(Incidentally, I found out later that the EU had made it legal for the different national tax agencies to investigate anyone for any reason, or for no reason… just a few weeks before I got my letter. So maybe that explains their sudden interest in me.)

Fun fact: the Camino de Santiago was originally designed as a form of penitence for people who had sinned against medieval Spanish tax code.

Several days of pointless back and forth later, my accountant sends a stack of documents off to the tax people and tells me to wait for a result. I wait for weeks, then months. Finally I decide to log onto the tax website to see if there’s been an update. Maybe the letter was lost in the mail.

A note about Spanish government websites: they may look and act like they were designed by a dim-witted middle schooler for a class project in 1998, but don’t worry, they’re not. They’re actually quite expensively designed and maintained by large teams of incompetents, at great taxpayer expense.

Anyhow, I can’t get into the tax agency’s website because I don’t have an updated app on my phone to confirm my identity.

Looks like my fun with red tape is just getting started

I download the app and try to confirm my identity via text message.

Error: You can’t confirm your identity by text message unless you’ve already confirmed your identity by other means. Would you like to try a video call?

Well, sure.

The video call tries to open on my phone. Boy does it try. The little wheel spins for several minutes, and nothing happens. Finally I give up and click on “try another way”.

Apparently they can confirm my identity by sending a letter to my tax address.

Would I like to try that?

Of course!

Error: For security reasons, you can’t confirm your identity by mail at your tax address. Would you like to try another way?

The only way left is to show up unannounced at a government registry office to identify myself in person. So the next morning (that’s today) I get on my bike and ride to the office, right next to the Generalitat de Cataluña building in the center of Barcelona.

Arriving at the office, I find there are no bike racks. After 15 minutes walking my bike in circles through the faux-Gothic splendour of one of Europe’s most touristy neighborhoods, I find a place to lock up and head back to the registry.

Error: The security guard informs me that the registry office is closed. Everyone’s on vacation for a week (or more!) because of the Catalan National Day – la Diada – on September 11.

Okay, I ask. Is there any other office that might be open?

“Sure! Calle del Foc, 57.”

“And where’s that?”

“All the way across town.”

I consider just waiting a week, but this tax thing might be important. I decide to take the bike ride.

A little bureaucracy’s never hurt anyone.

Or has it? I’m reminded of Franz Kafka’s book The Trial, the book that permanently traumatized me after I read it in high school. But that was fiction, and I’m an adult now.

I pedal across town, a sweaty bearded ginger on two narrow tires.

This might not be that bad. Besides, my other plan for the day is to apply for a mortgage, so it’s not like I’m going to have any “fun” otherwise.

Several kilometers later, I’m across town in an unknown neighborhood, at a shiny new office building belonging to the Generalitat. I walk in and the security person directs me to more security people across the lobby. I go through a metal detector, and then finally talk to my first bureaucrat of the day.

The Generalitat de Catalunya building on Calle del Foc, Barcelona.

She says the most dreaded sentence in Spanish bureaucracy: “¿Tienes cita?”

No, I don’t have an appointment. But I also wasn’t aware I needed one.

She sighs. “Well, I’ll see if I can fit you in. Es que estamos a tope.”

I look around the waiting room. There are less than a dozen people total, sitting around. A Pakistani family, a couple of Chinese people, and a few generic Mediterranean types who could be local Catalans, or could be Italian or Argentinian or anything else. “A tope” it is not.

Spanish Bureaucrat #1 gives me a number, and 10 seconds later that number flashes on the screen telling me to go to table 5.

So I go and sit down with Spanish Bureaucrat #2.

I try to explain the situation: the app, my identity, the tax agency.

“Okay”, she interrupts. “What kind of verification do you need?”

I explain again: the app, the tax agency, my identity.

She pecks away at her keyboard for a few minutes, then takes my ID card, then gives me several papers to date and sign.

“Go to this website and enter this code”, she says. “We’ve verified your identity.”

Whipping out my phone, I enter the URL, my ID number, and the code she’s given me. The security question to make sure I’m not a robot is, and I shit you not, “Type name of the the COLOR from this list of words: VERDE, PÓKER, PELUQUERÍA, CAMPANA EXTRACTORA, ESPÁTULA.”

I sign in, and apparently it works. Finally!

Looks like we’re done here.

Bureaucrat #2 gives me 14 more pages of documentation to take with me, and I ride back across town.

At home, I make a cup of tea, patting myself on the back for dealing so successfully with Spanish bureaucracy. I got my ID verified, plus a bike ride across town, and all it took me was an entire morning. I’m feeling so self-congratulatory, in fact, that I nearly forget what I needed the verification for.

Oh crap! The tax people.

I log into the website – ID verified. After half a day of bureaucracy, it’s time to finally get down to work: and by work, I mean more bureaucracy.


Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. The shocking conclusion to this story is that there was a letter on the tax website that for some reason hadn’t arrived at my house. And that the tax people are coming up with new and more elaborate ways to fuck me. I sent the new letter off to my accountant, then got on the phone with my bank to talk about the documents I’ll need to send them for my mortgage. In other words, a whole day wasted on Spanish bureaucracy – the high point was the unnecessary bike ride.

P.P.S. Just when I thought this day couldn’t get more pointless and annoying, I remembered I have an appointment with the dentist later. Hope it doesn’t go like it did last time. Got any fun anecdotes about Spanish bureaucracy? Hit me up, right here in the comments…

P.P.P.S. Update, November 2023: Okay, I’ve got two new bureaucratic adventures to share here. One is the chilling final result of this tax inspection process. And the other is my report on buying a flat in Spain. Hope you enjoy those two. Drop me a line, as usual, with your comments.

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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. Dear Daniel , good afternoon..I am always following your blog despite i might not be an active on commenting, maybe because you always put it so well so there is nothing to add, but when you said Spanish bureaucracy, oooh boy, I got a goosebump !! All the details you said about your trip is something I tasted here in Madrid but let me please introduce you to the holy grail of Spanish bureaucracy, loops !! Let me explain in short terms because it’s already complicated. My residency ended, went to extranjería and did a stupid but very bad mistake, I ticked on the box to get notified through digital channels, I thought the email at first but no , hell no, it was meant to get a message and opened with certificado digital. Anyway, I didn’t receive the resultado in paper , I was favorable thank God but I still need the resolución so I can get it to make the fingerprints. Here comes the loop !! It was a nightmare , if I can cry I would have cried but my tears went dey over the years. The loop is that I need a certificado digital to open el resolución de extranjería so to renew my residency and in order to get certificado digital I need a valid residency not a finished one !! I went to every place that can make certificado digital, agencia Tributaria, comunidad de Madrid, seguridad social, all of them need a valid residency and in order to have a valid residency I need el certificado digital to open the page of extranjería, that will help me get the residency at first place, and voila, an infinite non ending loop !! Of course I went to the office of extranjería and I literally begged for a printed copy but they kept refusing because it is only produced digitally, since I ticked the box. Their only solution is to resubmit my papers to produce a new resolución de extranjería but this time in paper , and as you know it takes months in extranjería already!! I was so desperate, I didn’t know what to do. But thank God I am blessed with a very sweet neighbor in my building , that suddenly crossed my mind, I know he is an employee in comunidad de Madrid, so I asked him if he can helps, after I told him my sad story. He turned out to know someone in seguridad social. I went to that employee with no cita, he was waiting for me and he produced my certificado digital in less than 5 minutes, no questions asked ! Just saw my expired card and that’s it ! So i broke finally the loop, I downloaded the resolución and went for fingerprints. I love Spain so much but bureaucracy here can really suck your soul and spit it in the trash bin.

  2. A Nice story.
    Pre Brexit I went to register on local Padron and said I lived there in my best, non existent Spanish. OK I could ask but if they did not say the correct answer I could not understand the reply.
    Strangely I got it, it was, and I paraphrase here “bog off and don’t come back without you residence certificate”

    So, I did “bog off”.

    I worked out what to do, went miles away (by car so, not too bad) parked, Police Station, Bank, Police Station, Man at desk, forms handed over, questions, Green cards and run away. WOW!! all by ourselves as well, really pleased.

    Went back to town hall next day and boom, all done.

    Found out that, had we gone just two days later to get our residencias all sorts of new things were needed, income, proof of things and many statements……

    So, What appeared to be the hand of “NO” actually was the hand of, by the skin of my teeth awesome.

    I wanted to go back and thank the rude guy at step one but you just know that some where, some time, there would be the favour returned.

    1. Hey Peter, thanks for sharing! I find that the “funcionarios” are mostly pretty nice, under that gruff exterior. I guess they’re secretly tired of bureaucracy as well, dealing with it as much as they do.

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