• Practicalities and Idiosyncrasies of Life in Madrid

    by Jill Arcaro-Gordon from Best Programs

    Time to get used to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of your new home away from home.
    When you come to live in Madrid, the burden of cultural adjustment will be upon YOU, and there will be significant changes to which you will have to adjust.

    Spain is a western country with attitudes, habits, and a standard of living that is broadly speaking the same as in Britain and the US. This doesn’t mean that you won’t need time to get used to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of your new surroundings, though. With this in mind, we will comment on the small oddities that will begin to strike you once you have settled down and the concerns that the majority of foreigners express before arriving.

    Jeremy Packer’s book, Jobs and Careers Abroad put it well: “Everyone who moves to another country will experience, to a greater or lesser extent, a phenomenon known as ‘culture shock.’ Its effects ranging from elation to disappointment, according to the person, the environment, and the experience he or she has.”

    But do not fret! After a stage of assimilation and growth in self-esteem, you will then enjoy the positive aspects of the new culture and accept them for what they are.

    Life in Madrid: Accommodations

    Housing will probably be your first and main problem in Madrid. If you don’t come with something arranged, you will find accommodation; although, it may take awhile or cost you money.

    The cost for living in a Spanish family with half board (breakfast and 1 meal a day) is around 800 €. A room in a shared apartment can be found for around 500 € a month.

    Remember, if you want an overall immersion experience look to participate in Spanish family life where you will have the opportunity to learn about the culture and be able to practice Spanish. There are advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side:

    • Social connections and resources for information and help. Remember that who you know in Spanish culture is much more important than how hard you work or how good you are.
    • Laundry and cooking.
    • Language practice.

    Inversely, you may run up against the following:

    • Limitation on independence.
    • Personality conflicts.

    The Family Concept in Spain

    In general families stay together much longer than you may be used to. It is common for three generation of families to be living together under the same roof. It is a way to increase the household income and to help one another. In addition, most young people don’t leave home until they marry, and if they leave home before marrying, it is often interpreted as a lack of love for their parents.

    There are legal protections to defend the family as an institution in Spain. Small shops are closed on Sundays so that there is time to spend together; inheritance laws automatically assign one half of parents’ inheritance to their children and one forth to their spouse. Marriage licenses are complicated to obtain, obliging the couple to think about the step they are taking very carefully.

    Meals & Family Life: Helpful Hints

    Sitting down for a family meal once a day is very common in Spanish homes. Please be courteous and notify if you change plans.

    • Most Spanish people tend to eat meals much later than you may be used to. Lunch is the most important meal of the day and dinner is a lighter meal.
    • Breakfasts are also light and consist of coffee and cookies, or something similar.
    • Spaniards are proud of their culture, so unless you have a special diet, try out the food. Food is a big part of culture.
    • Spain is the 2nd country in the world, after Japan, in fish consumption.
    • Garlic, olive oil and wine are stables and not especially expensive.

    You will not see many Spanish people walking and eating, but there is the favorite pastime of going to have “tapas.” Often these are eaten standing up.

    Life in Madrid: Eating Out

    n general, Spaniards eat lunch anywhere from 1:30 to 3:30, and dinner is frequently at 10:00 at night. Try eatting out at lunchtime rather than in the evening if you want a good menu at a cheap price.

    Waiters/ Restaurants

    Sitting and waiting should be observed as a comfort time to enjoy your company. Waiters will never ask you to leave. People go out to have a good time, so the noise level is high. Asking to take your left over food home with you (i.e. doggie bag) is virtually unheard of and often considered cheap. Tip by simply leaving your change or a few coins.

    Language Courses

    If you are serious about learning Spanish, try one of the private language schools where you are placed to your level, and you will learn grammar and practice speaking in a small class (4 to 10 students) with a minimum number of holidays. All the experts recommend the intensive language courses. This means around 4 hours of classes daily for a period of 2 weeks, minimum. The logic behind it is that it will give you a boost of confidence and a vocabulary basis to build on.

    The classes are comprised of foreign students which is a great way to meet people. There are often arranged excursions and other activities, like Thursday night discos, which are cheap and a compliment to the strictly academic.

    Sign up for an interchange with a Spanish speaker. Arrange for more than one so that if you don’t hit it off with one of them you’ll have someone else.

    The Catalan Identity

    Catalan is its own language and therefore it is incorrect to say to Catalans that it is a dialect of Spanish. Some feel so strongly about their identity that they don’t consider themselves Spaniards.


    Spaniards are big on greetings and farewells. They place a lot of emphasis on physical contact. When men greet men, they shake hands, when men greet women or vice versa, they apply a light kiss on both sides of the person’s face. Conversations occur at a much closer physical distance than you might be accustomed to and it is considered rude to step back.

    Body Language

    It is considered bad manners to point with your finger. Nodding is not used as a greeting.

    In Store Lines

    Expect to encounter very informal lines with people pushing their way to the front. Many times, a person will enter the shop where there is a crowd and say, “¿Quien es la última?”. They want to know who is the last in line, and you need to say, “Yo” (me).

    Shopping Hours and La Siesta

    Large department stores and shopping malls/streets are open on Sundays. Otherwise most shops and offices close for some time between 1:30 pm – 5 pm, so get what you need before they close, or after they reopen in the afternoon.

    Concept of Time

    Most Spaniards do not plan as far ahead as you do and many things are spontaneous, improvised.

    Concept of Noise

    The level of noise is much higher than you are most likely used to. Restaurants, even expensive restaurants, and public places are noisy. People are very talkative and socially orientated. They frequently go out in groups of 6 or 8.

    Concept of Service

    The concept of service in shops and offices and availability in business is very different. At times it might seem like everyone is out for coffee or in a meeting. This is why it is important to know people. People sweeping in a bar will expect you to move so that they can clean around and under the spot you are taking.

    Job Market

    There is unemployment in Spain so it is very difficult to find a job, especially for non-residents.

    Lock Doors

    Make sure to close and lock doors and gates properly- it may seem silly, but many locks here seem to have tricks to them. So try them out before you get locked out.


    Help to conserve electricity, water, paper, telephone and gas. Having a beer in a bar is cheap but these items are more expensive here than you think.

    Telephone Calls

    For international calls, the best thing to do is to go to an international call center called “locutorio”, of which there are many. You don’t usually have to wait and it will save you loads of money.

    Cellular Phones

    These can be bought for almost the value of the calls that goes with them. The ones with cards are popular because you spend what you pay for and there is neither a contract, nor a monthly bill. They offer you independence and security. Cell phone numbers always begin with a 6 and have 9 digits like all other European Union phone numbers. Watch out when you call one of these numbers; the longer you talk the higher the cost, but you can send text messages for around 15 cents. Wifi can be found in many public places. The most popular text messaging app is Whatsapp.

    Life in Madrid: Transportation

    Traveling around the city is really easy, unless you have a car. The metro and bus systems are well priced and convenient, as well as being very safe. Taxis are apparently among the cheapest in Europe. Uber and other transport apps are becoming popular.


    If you think you are going to travel a lot by metro and bus, buy an “abono transportes” (transportation pass). This lasts from the first day of the month to the last and will save you a lot of money as you jump around from bus to metro with an unlimited number of rides. The one you will need will depend on where you live and how old you are (cheaper for under 21). If you live in the A zone, buy the A pass, if you have to take any green buses, you will have to start looking at B1 (a little more expensive). If you ask in an estanco, which is where you buy your abono, they will tell you. You will need a passport-sized photo and a copy of your passport if you are under 21. Alternatively, you can buy a Metrobus pass for ten journeys, and of course a single ticket. Be careful, the single tickets that you buy in the metro cannot be used on the bus!

    The last metro is at 2 in the morning, so if you miss that you have to get a night bus, the buho, (meaning owl) which leave from Cibeles (where the central post office is) or Moncloa starting at 1am until 6am when the metro starts again.

    For more informacion, including maps and apps see: www.metromadrid.es

    Machismo For Women

    An unaccompanied woman may hear the flirtatious comments many men will call out. It is annoying, but not threatening. As a general rule, women should try to be more formal in their interaction with men they encounter in everyday situations as sometimes men mistake friendliness with an interest in forming a deeper relationship.

    Machismo For Men

    Remember machismo implies being a gentleman. It is nice if you give your seat up on the bus or metro for a senora, help to carry things, let others though the door first, etc.

    Free Time

    Madrid is a great place to spend free time, because, if you want to, there are innumerable things to do. Whatever you’re into, there’s going to be something for you in all price ranges. Spaniards are very gregarious and social. They are crazy about soccer and bullfights. Trying to understand the crowds reactions at a bullfight is interesting.


    There is a highly respected school of actors who train to dub movies, but it still does not make up for the fact that their lips don’t move with the words! There are also many cinemas that show films in v.o.s., which means original version subtitled in Spanish (version original subtitulada). It is custom to tip the ushers in cinemas and theaters.


    • There is no problem drinking the tap water in Spain.
    • Spain’s meat quality remains very good.
    • Organic products are a bit hard to find.
    • Condoms can be bought as openly as in Britain or the United States. There are vending machines on the street in front of many pharmacies. If you want to ask for them in a pharmacy, they have all brands.
    • The pill is available in pharmacies, without prescription. The morning after pill, however, is hard to come by and sometimes pharmacies do not stock it for reasons of conscience. In case of an emergency, a doctor will advise what you should best do.


    Past participants on our programs have reported feeling safe in Madrid which is not threatening compared to London or New York; people are constantly out in the streets, the metro is well policed and used by everyone at all times, and on the night buses, everyone is usually thinking about going to bed. That is not to say that a minimum precaution isn’t necessary, a certain amount is sensible. You have to be very careful of pickpockets of which there is a plague, but if you’re careful where you put your purse or wallet, this won’t be a problem either.

    Be Aware of Your Surroundings!

    • It is always better to walk in a group at night and avoid poor neighborhoods.
    • Do not get into a taxi if there are other people with the taxi driver.
    • Carry the following with you at all times:
      1. A copy of your passport (keep originals in safe place)
      2. Try not to carry more than 50 € with you in cash
      3. Name, address, and number of your lodging and school
      4. A map of the city
    • Do not carry the following:
      1. Your passport
      2. All of your credit cards
    • Pay close attention to your purse, backpack, wallet, bags, etc. while traveling on public transportation or while in areas where there are crowds.
    • Do not count money in front of people.
    • Do not wear expensive jewelry or provocative clothing.
    • Do not consume or transport illegal drugs.
    • Never offer money to the police. If you encounter a situation that you do not understand, insist on talking with someone from your school, host family or program.
    • Carry a cell phone. The emergency number for all of Europe is 112.
    • Make sure that someone knows where you are at all times. Leave your number with the school, family and friends.
    • Be careful when crossing streets (even if you have the green light). In many drivers’ view, pedestrians do not have the right-of-way.


    • Most Spaniards dress nicely. They almost never go barefoot on the street. There are dress restrictions at some nightclubs and churches. You will be turned away at the door if you are wearing sneakers at many clubs.
    • Men don’t usually wear open toed sandals or white socks.
    • Often the service you receive will depend upon how you are dressed.
    • In the winter people tend to wear dark colors.

    Life in Madrid: Obtaining a Visa

    This can be a complicated process, so be sure to start early. All North Americans have 90 days as tourists with no visa requirement.

    If you want to apply for a student visa, you will need a certificate of admission from the school you are going to attend. The Spanish Consulate will give you a 90-day visa, which must be extended upon your arrival in Spain. Now you are about to learn exactly why it is best to avoid, whenever possible, Spanish bureaucracy. Ken Layne in his article, “New Year’s in Madrid: Red Underwear, a Dozen Grapes and Great $25.00 Meals” says, “Most people I know living and working in Spain are doing so under the table, leaving for a brief trip every 90 days. This works for the short term, and landlords won’t request residency paperwork, but those without EU citizenship who plan to work indefinitely in Spain are in for a Kafkaesque experience.”

    To extend your visa, you must apply for a Tarjeta de Estudiante. The police station in Madrid that specializes in issuing visa extensions for students is located at BRIGADA PROVINCIAL DE EXTRANJERÍA Y DOCUMENTACIÓN, Avda. de los poblados, s/n – Metro: Aluche. They are open from 9 am until 1 pm Monday through Friday.

    The following is a website where a list of the documentation required for the extension of your visa can be found. Also many general questions regarding the visa paperwork can be researched here.

    More Notes on Visas

    • As immigration laws change, different documentation may be required.
    • Past participants advise you to gather and submit all of your paper work on a day when you have no other classes, appointments or obligations as waiting in the lines at the police station can take hours. Bring something to read.
    • After you have submitted everything, you will be told to come back no less than 3 weeks later to sign and be fingerprinted.
    • A month after this, you may return and pick up your Tarjeta de Estudiante.


    © BEST Programs, 2013 (2nd edition, 2016)


    Jill Arcaro is a journalist and founder of BEST Programs which has have been lessening the initial shock of living, studying and working in Spain since 1990. Her main interests are non-academically focused education along with culture and well-being. As an American living abroad she knows what it is to live a life true to yourself and not what others necessarily expect of you. You can have a “homebase” situation right when you arrive in your destination country, and do it economically through BEST’s programs. Whatever you would like to do in Spain, Russia, Belgium, Thailand, Cuba, Italy, Colombia or the USA, whether it be interning, working, studying or simply living, BEST can help you or knows who can. Jill is currently in South-East Asia working on a program to enhance the physical and emotional lives of hill tribes, orphans, disabled and elderly people.



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