The pros and cons of expat life in Barcelona
A popular destination for expats of all kinds, Barcelona is frequently quoted as one the most desirable cities in Europe to live in. We have gathered some pros and cons of the city from an expat perspective.
Pros: The beach
You may be going to Barcelona to work, but the fact that it is one of the few big cities in the world that is built right next to a beautiful sandy beach is a definite plus. The city enjoys hot summers and predictably cloudless days too, making Barcelona a wonderful place to relax when you’re not at the office. The beach culture does of course attract huge numbers of tourists during the summer, which to some long-term visitors such as expats is an annoyance. However, to others, this contributes to Barcelona’s undoubted energy and reputation as one of the most animated and vibrant cities in Europe.
Cons: the language
As with many minority languages, Catalan is both a delightful curiosity and an everyday obstacle at the same time. While a passing knowledge of Spanish (strictly called Castilian) will help you decipher signposts and basic written instructions, learning Catalan is not only difficult, but also less useful unless you are going to stay in the region for life – which excludes most expats. Catalonia is fiercely proud to be culturally distinct from the rest of Spain and expats would do well to remember this. This has led to reports of atypical coldness from the Catalans, but this is more frequently directed at non-Catalan speaking Spanish than expats from abroad. Then again, because of Barcelona’s popularity with tourists, many inhabitants are more skilled at English than their other compatriots.
Pros: low cost of living
The website Numbeo provides a cost of living comparison of European cities based on user-contributed data. Zurich tops the list with an index of 145 (compared to New York as the benchmark at 100): Barcelona has a rating of just 68, and is one of the lowest ranked major European cities. This makes it a cheap place to live: groceries, travel, eating out are all reasonable – yet the flip side is that economic opportunities are fewer and further between. Global assignees working for the large corporates are unaffected by this, but younger expats and students often struggle to find work.
The most frequent expat complaint about Barcelona is the endless – and apparently needless – bureaucracy. The classic example is the job of applying for your NIE (número de identidad de extranjero) – an identification number for foreigners in Spain. You will need the NIE for virtually anything official that you do, and it is the only thing that separates you from the indignity of being officially classified as a tourist. Many expats report long hours spent sitting in uncomfortably hot waiting rooms before having your carefully prepared forms rejected on a technicality. Although some mention a more streamlined process. In any case, the advice is to book an appointment online as early as possible in the day, to prepare meticulously and, if possible, take a Spanish-speaking friend or colleague. Oh, and photocopy your NIE and commit the number to memory. It’s that important.
Culture is everywhere in this amazing city but it is perhaps best exemplified by Antoni Gaudi. The influence of this extraordinary architect is everywhere, but there are three examples which no tourist should miss (so, as an expat, you have no excuse whatsoever). Thrill at the ornate textures, shapes and colours of the Casa Batillo, take a stroll through the unparalleled Park Guell, and gaze up in awe at the twin spires of the Sagrada Familia, against their inevitably cloudless blue backdrop. The latter is unfinished (completion date estimated 2026) but you will not see a more glorious construction site.
Cons: Mind your valuables
If there’s anywhere in the world where you shouldn’t leave your phone or bag on the café table, it is Las Ramblas, the central thoroughfare in Barcelona. Bustling with people – and therefore potential takings – it is the main hunting ground for the casual thieves who have made pilfering and pickpocketing an art form. Just keep your wits about you. If a stranger engages you in conversation, check first to make sure their accomplice isn’t helping themselves to your belongings. We’re not saying you should stay away from the tourist hotspots; just be aware that petty thieves operating in some of those areas are perhaps the best in the world. Keep your valuables close and you’ll be okay.
It’s Spain, but it isn’t Spain. Enjoy Barcelona for its Mediterranean climate, rich cultural heritage and highly affordable cost of living, but don’t overlook its quirks: the incidental anti-Castilian snobbery, the language, the eccentric architecture. It all combines to make Barcelona a fascinating expat destination –just remember to keep your paperwork straight and your hand on your wallet, and spend the rest of your time enjoying everything this wonderful city has to offer. Oh, and watch a FC Barcelona football game at least once.
*Images by Federico Giampieri, Naomi Hutchinson, Igor Ovsyannykov and Tyler Hendy