How To Move To Spain: The Residency Card

I am turning twenty-seven years old in two days, and I’ve been thinking a lot about everything that has happened since my twenty-sixth birthday. It was, without a doubt, the strangest birthday I’ve ever had, and this superlative includes my fourteenth birthday, which mostly consisted of me crying uncontrollably for then-unknown reasons (spoiler alert: undiagnosed depression!) while my poor mother tried to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. Last year was my golden birthday—26 on the 26th—and I’d imagined it many times over. When the day arrived, however, it turned out to be about as far as humanly possible from the champagne-soaked celebration I’d pictured. Why?

Because I spent most of it trying to convince sour-faced Spanish immigration officials to let me stay in the country legally. Allow me to explain.

Last year I wrote a blog post about how I applied for a Spanish residency visa in under a week, and if you read it, then you know that I broke pretty much all the rules savvy expats lay out on the Internet for the bureaucratically uninitiated. But hey—I got the visa, so the spectacularly stressful ordeal goes down as a win in my book. If you want to learn about the non-lucrative residency visa and what I had to do to get it so quickly (hint: live in Washington, DC; get lucky; have savings to burn), then go read that post.

If you already have your residency visa and want to know what the next steps are, or if you just want to get a laugh out of the outrageously bizarre day that was my last birthday, then read on.

Part One: Washington, DC

Do not, under any circumstances, trust the Consulate General of Spain in Washington, DC.

Okay, I’m only half joking. The consular staff in DC—well, they weren’t nice, but they were responsive enough. In typical Spanish fashion, they were confused and amused by how high-strung I seemed about the whole visa process. It’s just becoming a semi-permanent resident of another country on another continent, what’s the big deal? I went in on a Monday, asked a million questions about my visa requirements, and walked back in a week later with a significantly lighter wallet and all of my documents. I brought bank statements, passport photos, copies of every ID I’ve ever had, a stamped background check from the FBI, and letters from multiple doctors ensuring the Spanish government that allowing me in the country wouldn’t result in an epidemic of disastrous proportions. I had signed manifestoes I’d drafted the night before about why I wanted to move to Spain so badly, at which the consular agent rolled her eyes but took anyway. And I brought a hard copy of the visa application, which I had filled out save for one small but important line: in-country address.

I asked the staffer reviewing my application whether I could leave it blank, explaining that I didn’t yet have any housing in Spain. She told me to put down any address.

Any address?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes,” she snapped at me, “it doesn’t matter where, just write something down.”

This is when, if my life were a movie, there would be a record scratch and a freeze-frame over which a narrator says ominously, “Oh, but it did matter. It mattered a lot.” Or a scene like the ones in the American version of The Office in which Jim looks directly at the camera and shakes his head.

But my life is not a movie, and so I foolishly wrote down the address that would later cost me hundreds of euros and no small amount of panic. At the time of my visa application, the only address I had there was the Airbnb apartment I’d booked for my first two weeks so that I’d have a roof over my head while I looked for long-term housing. With that final box filled in, I slid my forms across the marble countertop, said a silent prayer to sweet baby Jesus, and officially submitted my application for a year-long residency visa in Spain.

Part Two: California

Fast-forward several weeks, and I was emptying the mailbox at my parents’ house in southern California. I’d gone home for a while to spend time with my family before going abroad, and to recuperate from a series of unexpected events that occurred after I submitted my application. To be honest, I was feeling pretty low that day, and spotting the return address for the Spanish consulate on the envelope brought a smile to my face. I was happy to receive the approval, though, which consisted of the following two short paragraphs:

“Please note that your visa is valid for 90 days.

Once you get to Spain you need to go to the City Hall of the city you are going to live in to register, they will issue a certificate of ‘Empadronamiento.’

Then you will have to go to a ‘Oficina de Extranjería’ with your passport, the registration certificate, the residency permit fee receipt, the Police Report and the health certificate to apply for your residency card. This visa allows you to get your residency card in Spain. The card will be valid for one year and you may renew it there if needed.

Thank you,

Consulate General of Spain”

At the bottom of the page, a garish logo designed by Spain’s tourism office splashed across my line of sight: “I NEED SPAIN.” Do I? I wondered. But one of my best friends had told me that despite all my changes in plans, I would regret it if I didn’t get on that plane. You don’t have to stay, she said, but you do have to go.

Reviewing my approval, I was relieved. The move seemed easy enough. I didn’t have to know which city I’d be in; I’d just need to go to the ayuntamiento wherever I ended up deciding to live, if I decided to move after all, and finish the process from there. I’ve got three months to explore and have a good time before I have to worry about paperwork, I told myself.

Famous last words.

Part Three: Córdoba

After staying in Madrid for a couple weeks, traveling through Andalucía for several more, and visiting friends in the Netherlands and Carnevale in Italy, I flew back into Málaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol. I had fallen head over heels in love with Córdoba during my brief stays there, and the cost of living was a third of that of Madrid, which is where I planned to go if I didn’t find housing I liked in Córdoba. The entire point of my time abroad was to follow my heart, right? I was so enamored of the casa patios, the flamenco, and the sunwashed walls of the city that I figured I owed it to myself to at least give living there a shot. So, I booked a few nights at my favorite hostel there (where I’d later end up living and working, but that’s another blog for another day) and started trolling apps for rooms. After touring a couple dingy student apartments, I stumbled upon a small room in a medieval casa patio for a price that would make any Washingtonian green with envy. I signed on the dotted line, paid the security deposit, and the room was mine.

The house would end up becoming a fiasco of its own, but for the time being, I had what I needed to get my empadronamiento, which was the first step to getting my residency card. The empadronamiento is basically the equivalent of getting your new driver’s license when you move states in the U.S.; you take your lease to the city, pay a small fee, and you are an Official Resident of that particular city in Spain. Most Spaniards go through the process as well, though I met some friends who were registered in their hometowns or somewhere other than their place of permanent residence. This part of the process went off without a hitch: one early morning and two espressos later, I had documents proving that I had registered with the city. The next step was to go the Oficina de Extranjería, or the Foreign Affairs Office, show them I’d initiated the empadronamiento, and apply for the residency card that would allow me to live in Spain for an entire year.

The following morning, just about a week before the ninety days on my visa was up, I went to the office. I took a number and sat down with all the other immigrants and expats—interesting how we distinguish between the two, no?—and eventually was called to sit in the beige faux-leather chair that seems to be standard-issue at immigration offices across Europe. The staffer reviewed my documents, nodded pleasantly, and pulled up my visa in her electronic system. Then her face fell.

“But you were going to Barcelona, yes?” she ventured cautiously.

“Well, yes, but my plans fell through, so now I’m here because I love Córdoba a lot and I have a lease and the empadronamiento,” I blurted out, heat rising to my cheeks. “Did I mention that I have a lease?”

She looked at me blankly, frowned at her computer screen, got up, and left. After ten minutes consulting with someone who I assumed was her supervisor, she came back and told me that I couldn’t apply for my residency card in Córdoba. She said that because I wrote a Barcelona address on my visa application, all of my materials were sent to the office there, and I needed to complete the process there. I kept myself as calm as possible and tried to explain that I didn’t have an address in Barcelona, that the one I wrote down was just some Airbnb rental that I canceled anyways, and that the visa approval notice from the consulate didn’t say anything about needing to live in a particular city to apply for the residency card.

She didn’t budge. Neither did her supervisor, who came over to turn the computer monitor and show me that my immigration records were grayed out and couldn’t be accessed from their system.

In full-on panic mode, I asked her what I needed to do to stay in Spain.

“Well, you’re going to need to go to Barcelona.”

Part Four: Barcelona

I left the office, sat down on the grass outside, and called my mom. I pulled off my shoes and, dangling my bare feet over a fetid half-full decorative pond, broke down in tears about how this was all one big mistake and I should just come home. My mother, the ever-practical engineer who is also all too familiar with my nervous breakdowns, talked some sense into me. It’s just a puzzle, she reminded me. It’s a problem. Take the steps to solve it and you’ll be fine. One step at a time.

I took a deep breath, put my shoes back on, and went home. I was tempted to crawl into my bed in the drafty medieval house I’d just signed a lease on days before, but I dragged myself out to my favorite local bar for a glass of their absolutely terrible red wine.

The next day was Friday. I called the offices in Barcelona to see if there was anything, anything, that could be done over the phone. We live in the digital age. I refused to believe that I’d have to go halfway across the country for some paperwork. (That just goes to show you how little I truly knew about Spain.)

I pleaded my case to several different officials of varying titles and import over the phone, but none of them would help me. The phone call ended when the last person, a man with the crisp, haughty lilt typical of Cataluña, told me unkindly that I would just need to go back to the States and get a new visa. I definitely cried some more when I got off the phone with him. And just like that, with my 26th birthday looming on Monday, I bought a cross-country train ticket from Córdoba to Barcelona.

I arrived late Sunday afternoon, since I wanted to be at the Oficina de Extranjería early when they opened on Monday. I was staying in a skater-themed hostel with big-wave surfing posters on the wall and a halfpipe in the common room, because why the fuck not? Comforted by the presence of the inordinately hot actors from the movie Lords of Dogtown, I unpacked and bought whatever vegan food I could find at the nearest grocery.

I woke up the next morning disoriented and walked to the offices. Took a number, waited in line, more beige faux-leather chairs. These ones were less comfortable. When I finally was called up to the lectern in front of the bureaucrats’ offices, the gatekeeper looked my papers, then at me, then back at my papers. He asked me exactly what the hell I was doing in immigration offices in Barcelona when I lived in Córdoba. I started to blurt out the story and he stopped me mid-sentence, presumably because he could intuit how unstable I was, and told me to go talk to someone in the back. As I walked away, I heard him muttering under his breath about the incompetence of the southern provinces.

Eventually, I landed across from the director of the office, who was just as nonplussed as the dude at the front. Rather than try to fake her out with a Barcelona address that wasn’t mine, I fessed up and told her the whole story. There were lots of exasperated sighs and meaningful looks exchanged with other staffers. Aware that I was reinforcing the clueless American stereotype rightfully held by so many Europeans, I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me, but I just sat there and tried to remain expressionless but also somehow pitiable and adorable at the same time. She called Córdoba; they said they couldn’t do anything. She made the rounds and talked to other colleagues. Hours passed, and several people stopped by to inform me that I did the process all wrong and why did I write down a Barcelona address and I should’ve just come straight to Barcelona and did I know my ninety days were almost up? I bit my lower lip and nodded fervently, fully participating in my own chastising if that meant that they were going to help me not get kicked out of the country.

After much back and forth and talking-tos and pretty much any other form of bureaucratic punishment you can imagine, the director called Madrid. She nodded and frowned and nodded again. Then she hung up, looked at me, and said, “You owe me a beer the next time you’re back in Barcelona.” Madrid, bless the gods of central government, had told her to process my paperwork. It was a national visa, after all, they said, and I was legally entitled to live anywhere in Spain, even if I had royally fucked up the way I went about moving there. She took my fingerprints, sighed at me approximately thirty-seven times, and accepted my application. I walked out with instructions to return in forty-five days to pick up my residency card, and ink coating the fingertips of my right hand. I was elated and exhausted.

I went out for a vegan burger and ordered too much booze at lunch before collapsing in my hostel bed for siesta. When I woke up and ventured down to the halfpipe, I found out that my friends in DC had ordered vegan sweets to be delivered to the hostel, which is in the top three nicest things that anyone has ever done for me. I went out for a walk. It was raining miserably. I bought myself a pair of weird-looking earrings because I thought that they were the sort of thing Spain-Sarah would wear. And because I didn’t know anyone in the city, I went to a cat café next to my hostel for my birthday celebration. I ordered a beer and settled on a couch as a fat, fluffy cat crawled into my lap.

And that, dear reader, was my 26th birthday.

I hope it provided some tips and tricks around how not to apply for your residency card, or at least a bit of amusement (or schadenfraude, depending on how you feel about birthdays).

Un besito,