Study Abroad

Study Abroad in Spain: What to Know

Spain has become a popular study destination, hosting about 9% of all American students abroad. There are many reasons why Spain is an attractive choice: it has a vibrant culture, rich history, great food, beautiful beaches, and exciting cities.

If you’re a student who is considering spending a semester or year in Spain, take it from a former student who has traveled extensively there—it’s a great place to be, and you’ll likely want to go back again and again.

Spain:Rob Gillies

However, there are some aspects of life in Spain as a U.S. student that, in retrospect, would have been good to know ahead of time. Here’s what you should know before you study abroad in Spain.

Spain is safe

Overall, Spain is a safe destination for students and tourists. But, the biggest issue you should be aware of, is pickpocketing, especially in the larger cities and tourist centers like Madrid or Barcelona.

To prevent yourself from becoming a target of theft, be aware of your belongings at all time — especially in tourist areas —  and keep your cash and valuables secured and discrete.

Spain is a diverse country, explore as much as you can

One of the aspects of Spain that keeps me wanting to go back is its diversity in terms of distinct regional cultural differences. Most people know and speak Castilian Spanish, the country’s national language, but there are other official languages in regions like Catalonia, Galicia, and Basque Country.

It’s a common mindset that when students travel, they want to visit as many countries as they can, rather than more extensively exploring their host country. Each person has their own itinerary, agendas, and travel goals, but if I could offer one piece of advice, it’s this: Spain has so much to explore and experience, so take advantage of being there and see as much of it as you can.

Learn as much Spanish as you can before you go

I discuss the importance of learning the language of your host country before you depart home in the article “Study Abroad: How to Prepare for Life in Another Country,” and studying in Spain is no exception. If you’re able to communicate in Spanish, it’s easier to connect with members of the local community and it can drastically enhance the experience you have while you’re there.

So how much should you know? Many people in Spain know at least a little English, but as a rule of thumb, I would suggest at least trying to learn the basics: how to order food, ask directions, and make simple small talk. This knowledge will go a long way, and you’ll likely be glad you were prepared ahead of time.

Be prepared to operate on a completely different schedule

As Americans, many of us are accustomed to and comfortable with a set routine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, in Spain you’ll likely find that locals operate on a different time schedule. For example, during afternoon hours many stores, restaurants, businesses, and offices shut down. If you try to go out to dinner at 6 or 7 p.m., you will probably find many restaurants and bars will be closed or not yet serving dinner. Spaniards tend to eat very late by American standards, typically between 8 pm and midnight.

Knowing ahead of time that you should expect a change in your daily routine will help prevent frustration if you try to get things done based on what you are used to at home. Overall, do your best to be flexible and you’ll have no problem adjusting to the new way of life in Spain.

Embrace the culture

There are other aspects of American culture that cause students who study abroad in Spain to experience culture shock, most notably being the overall relaxed attitude when it comes to making or keeping plans, as well as local customer service standards.

As Americans, many of us like to know ahead of time what the “plan” is when being invited to meet up with friends, but to Spaniards the specifics of the plan seem to be less important than being with friends in general. I remember the first time I was invited to a get-together in Spain I asked “What are we going to do?” and I received a confused look in response. The point is that people in Spain seem to like to go with the flow.

Lastly, customer service standards are very different in Spain than in the U.S. in my experience. For one, tipping is not a standard practice anywhere in Spain (or anywhere else in Europe). Also, you can’t always expect employees at bars or restaurants to be proactive in taking your order or bringing you your check. In many circumstances, you may have to get the waiter’s attention, and sometimes it can take a while for the check to come. But don’t let this frustrate you! This is just a cultural difference, and if you are like me, you will actually come to appreciate—or even prefer—these customs.

You have reason to be excited

The final piece of advice I can offer you about studying abroad in Spain is to simply be excited for the experience you’re about to have. For many of us who spend time in Spain, it redefines our outlook on life and is a place we often think about once we are back at home. Experiencing Spain as a student is a wonderful opportunity, so you have plenty of reason to be excited!

Photo credit: Rob Gillies / Flickr

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.