The Retire Abroad series inspired me to build a special tool for the FIRE community: The Earth Awaits. It’s a tool made to build you budgets for hundreds of cities worldwide, taking your family size, budget, housing needs, and a bunch of other things into account. I think it’s the best way to explore the places in the world you can retire– right now.
As we did just last month with France, today we will dive into Spain and discover a few beautiful, surprisingly inexpensive places to retire in style. I’m improving my Spanish at the moment, because Spain is high on our list of possible places to slow travel early in retirement.
Many retirees dismiss Europe as a possibility because of a perception that it’s simply too expensive. While there are many European countries with high costs of living, Spain is not among them, and a fulfilling and cosmopolitan life is possible on a very modest budget.
Retire in Spain: The Country Itself
Language: Spanish is spoken by all natives, but it’s important to recognize that Castilian Spanish is not the only language spoken in the country. In Catalonia (the area in and around Barcelona), the Catalan language is spoken by most locals, who generally consider themselves Catalans, not Spaniards. Likewise, in the area around Bilbao, the Basque language of Euskara is spoken by most locals. Almost everyone is capable of speaking Spanish, but in some highly nationalistic circles, it is possible to meet someone unwilling to do so.
People: Though traditionally a devout Catholic country, modern Spain is fairly liberal, with same-sex marriage having been legalized in 2005. Spain is ranked 12th worldwide for gender empowerment (compared to 15th place for the United States), meaning gender equality in Spain is somewhat better than the United States.
Spain has struggled since democracy was restored in 1978 with various separatist groups, most notably the militant Basque separatist group ETA (who announced an end to all armed resistance in 2011) and a more peaceful (but still very passionate) Catalans, who in 2015 overwhelmingly voted for independence in an unsanctioned referendum. Even in these sensitive areas, Spain is a pluralistic country with democratic values. It simply pays to be informed of local issues when visiting any area.
Education: Education in Spain is free and mandatory through the secondary level (roughly what the United States would call Sophomore year of High School). Students may continue for two years of what is called Bachillerato study, which is comparable to the end of High School in the US, Le Bac in France, and A Levels in other European countries. Before or after the Bachillerato, Spanish students may continue with vocational training, and qualified post-Bachillerato students may continue to University studies, though space is limited.
Spain’s public elementary and secondary schools are available to all, though the recent economic crisis may have affected the quality of education due to budget cuts. As a result, the city sections of this guide will focus on private and English-language education. If you choose to educate your children in the public system (and this may still be an excellent option), you should do your own research, as quality of instruction will vary by region.
Compared to the United States, university studies in Spain are staggeringly cheap. A year of public university may cost only a few thousand Euros. More on par with inexpensive universities in the US are private universities, which generally cost between 6,000 and 18,000 Euros per year. The highest ranked universities in the country are in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, and Navarra. Courses are generally taught entirely in Spanish.
Climate: Broadly speaking, Spain is a hot country. Along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, a cool sea breeze moderates the temperatures somewhat, though it is still quite warm. On the central plateau (the majority of the interior of the country), there is little to moderate the heat, so temperatures in excess of 95 degrees Fahrenheit/35 degrees Celsius are common. Temperatures are somewhat cooler along the northern (Atlantic) coast.
Snow is rare in most parts of Spain, with the exception of the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada mountains, where enough snow accumulates to ski in the winter. Most of the areas the receive snowfall are in the north and east of the country.
Visa: It is possible to apply for a retirement visa in Spain. The Spanish Consulate provides helpful English-language documentation of the requirements, but the most critical elements are medical and criminal histories, as well as proof of annual income of at least 25,560 Euros per year, plus 6,390 Euros per year per additional family member. You must also provide proof of international medical insurance.
For the early retiree, or for one without an official pension, it may be preferable to apply for the non-lucrative residence visa, which has most of the same requirements as the retirement visa, but allows the applicant to prove that they simply have enough assets to cover the length of their stay, rather than a given income. In this case, you must prove assets of 2,130 Euros per month of your stay, as well as 532 Euros per month per additional family member.
For EU citizens, you may both live and work in Spain without additional permission, as it is a part of the European Economic Area.
Tax: If you spend more than 183 days in Spain in a given calendar year, you are legally obliged to file taxes. The good news is that Spain has reciprocity agreements with many other western nations (the USA included), meaning you will receive credit for any taxes paid to your country of origin. The bad news is that the tax rates are fairly high. There are a number of ways to reduce the tax burden. One of the many tax accounting services on the internet should be able to provide a consult and help you plan for Spanish taxation.
In our case, much of our retirement income will be coming from rental income. Spain only collects tax on half of net rental income, and one may claim depreciation of the rental property. All of this means that were we to retire in Spain, we could expect to collect most of our rental income with little to no effective tax.
Political Stability: Spain was hard-hit by the economic crisis of 2008-2009, but it is still a very stable Western European country, and is the world’s fourteenth largest economy by GDP. Though there is spirited political discourse around both issues of migration and regional autonomy, Spain is a politically stable country.
Safety: Spain is, compared to the United States, significantly safer when it comes to violent crime. As of 2012, the intentional homicide rate is 0.8 per 100,000 people, compared to 4.7 per 100,000 people in the United States, and 1.6 per 100,000 people in Canada. Petty crime is somewhat common, though this tends to occur most commonly in tourist areas and is largely limited to thefts, pickpocketing, and scams targeting visitors.
Medical Care: Health Care is Spain is quite good, and there are both public and private hospital systems. To participate in the public health care scheme, you must either be registered with Spain’s Social Security (which requires a residency visa which permits it), or you must have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) from another EU member state.
If you enter Spain on a non-lucrative residence visa, all is not lost! You can purchase private health insurance which will run several thousand Euros per year, but gives access to full preventive care and hospitalization throughout Spain. In the article linked in this paragraph, a family of four purchased full coverage insurance in 2015 for 347 Euros per quarter. This coverage included full dental coverage.
Surrounding Countries: Spain borders Portugal, Andorra, and France, and all are easily accessible via road (unless you’re driving through Andorra during a snowstorm, but that’s another story).
For train trips eastward into France, if you take a traditional speed train, it is necessary to change trains at the border, as Portugal and Spain use Iberian Rail Gauge, which is incompatible with the trains of the rest of Europe. There are various theories surrounding this choice, including a rumor that it was to prevent French invasion. It’s more plausible that the wider Iberian Gage was chosen to allow more powerful locomotives (at the time of planning) to traverse the mountainous Spanish terrain.
For high speed lines completed in the past few years, however, trains use the international standard and no change of trains at the border is necessary (though it is still generally necessary to switch between carriers in Barcelona).
Train idiosyncrasies aside, Spain is highly accessible via budget European airlines, and it is possible to fly almost anywhere in Europe for tens of Euros on EasyJet, RyanAir, and other discount carriers.
When we look at a given city or town, we’ll look at the following criteria:
|Cost of Living||A numeric representation of cost of living relative to New York City. New York City has a COL score of 100. If a city is 70% the price of New York, then it has a COL of 70. This data is crowdsourced at Numbeo. If insufficient data is available, an approximate value will be calculated by totaling the values and comparing against the totaled values for New York City, then rounding to the next whole digit.|
|Nearest Major Airport||The closest sizable international airport with direct access to the USA.|
|Distance to Nearest Major Airport||Distance to nearest major airport in kilometers, and ease of access via train or other public transport.|
|Nearest Major Medical Center||How close is access to excellent Cancer, Cardiovascular, and surgical care? We hope not to face a serious illness, but everyone does eventually and it's wise to know where to seek medical attention.|
|Quality of Schools||What educational opportunities are there for those raising young children? If desired, is there an English-language school in the area?|
|Climate||Average temperatures and extreme seasons, if any.|
|Local Activities||Attractions and events which may be of interest.|
|Perfect For||Who is this locale ideally suited for?|
Most importantly, please note that these places are not ranked, objectively or subjectively. They are simply a collection of places where you can achieve retirement with a high quality of life and moderate cost of living. This list is in random order for that purpose.
Valencia’s history goes back to 138 BC, when the Romans founded a settlement on the Bay of Valencia, an inlet of the Mediterranean Sea. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, and is a fascinating mix of modern architecture, ancient Roman ruins, and everything in between. The city is gorgeous, and for a city on the beach, considerably less expensive than you might expect. A one bedroom apartment in a nice area of town can be had for far less than 800 Euros per month.
As Spain’s third-biggest metropolitan area, Valencia is at once a true city (786,000 people in 2015) and relaxing. Excellent food and shopping is available, but a quiet hike in the countryside is easily accessible as well.
Cost of Living:
Nearest Major Airport: Madrid-Barajas International Airport (MAD), though for European travel, Valencia has its own international airport as well.
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: 3h12m by train
Nearest Major Medical Center: Valencia has over ten hospitals, so there are many options. The University and General hospitals are quite highly regarded, and in a city like Valencia, finding an English-speaking doctor is possible (though not necessarily easy).
Quality of Schools: For English-language instruction, the British School of Valencia offers bilingual instruction in the center of Valencia. Education through the secondary level is available, with tuition between 5,000 and 7,000 Euro.
Climate: Valencia’s climate is Mediterranean. Winters are mild and cool (generally requiring a light jacket at the most), and summers are hot without being oppressive. Long stretches of beach are available to cool off.
Local Activities: Every March, the city celebrates the five days and nights of Falles, a celebration of Saint Joseph, and of local pride. Every neighborhood in the city constructs a massive celebratory monument, which is later burned at the end of the celebration. The whole city comes together in five nghts of feasting, celebrating, and poking fun at world events with silly sculptures called ninots. Brass bands roam the city, fireworks are set off, people dress up in period costumes, and everyone generally has a wonderful time.
Perfect For: Someone desiring a oceanfront city life without living in a city as large (or comparatively expensive) as Madrid or Barcelona.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, and the heart of Catalan culture. Many locals consider themselves Catalans rather than Spanish, and street signs, public transport posters, and documents tend to appear in both Spanish and Catalan. The Catalan independence movement enjoys strong support here, but the movement is peaceful, and Barcelona is a lovely city that is welcoming and delightful for tourists and retirees.
Like Valencia, Barcelona is located on the Mediterranean coast. It was the home of famed architect Antoni Gaudí, whose epic Sagrada Familia Cathedral is still a work in progress, with a projected completion date of approximately 2030. The home (and museum) of artist Salvador Dalí is in nearby Figueres, to give you some idea how densely packed with culture the area is.
Barcelona is a large city, and thus struggles with common big-city issues of noise and pollution, but it is also beautiful and largely clean and economical. It is possible to find a one bedroom apartment in trendy Eixample for less than 1,000 Euros per month. From there, the beach is easily accessible via metro, and high speed trains to France depart from the city center multiple times per day.
Cost of Living:
Nearest Major Airport: Barcelona El-Prat (BCN)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: The city has its own major airport, and thus has easy access to both domestic and international destinations.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Barcelona has a multitude of public and private hospitals. Cash-paying patients may use either, but those wishing to use public or private insurance must use the appropriate hospital. Expat Arrivals has a list of some hospitals in Barcelona.
Quality of Schools: Barcelona has many international schools, including the American School of Barcelona, the British School of Barcelona, and the Benjamin Franklin International School, among many others. Private school is very expensive, with high school costs approaching 20,000 Euros per year, so it’s definitely not the most frugal choice.
Climate: Summers in Barcelona last a full six months, from May until October. That said, summers are comfortable, with an average high of only 82 Fahrenheit (28 Celsius) during the hottest months, and an average winter nighttime low of 41 Fahrenheit (5 Celsius). Thus, Barcelona weather is extremely comfortable year round, and seldom reaches extremes of cold or hot.
Local Activities: The biggest festival in Barcelona is La Mercè, held in September. It is a celebration of Our Lady of Mercy, and has been a major tradition in the city since 1871. You may have seen images of giant towers made out of brightly dressed Spaniards (or Catalans, depending on who you ask) climbing on one another’s shoulders. These are images of La Mercè. Besides these Castellers, as the towers are known, there is food, music, theatre, period dress, and other amazing sights and sounds that are unique and family friendly.
Perfect For: Those who want to live in Spain, but also have easy access to the rest of Western Europe. Those fascinated by Catalan culture. Lovers of the beach, modern architecture, and delicious food.
As Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, Sevilla (or “Seville” in the English spelling) is the capital of Andalusia. Sevilla is an impressively beautiful city, and at just under 700,000 people in 2015, it feels cosmopolitan but intimate.
Because of its location in the south, the Moorish influence is more strongly felt than in some other areas. This is most visible in the details of the elegant Alcázar, but quite evident elsewhere too.
Sevilla can be quite hot, so the Spanish concept of siesta is very important to escape the often-relentless heat. The great news is the Sevilla is extremely affordable, and a great city from which to explore the rest of Southern Spain. A one bedroom apartment in a safe area can be found for well under 700 Euros per month.
Cost of Living:
Nearest Major Airport: Madrid-Barajas (MAD) is the nearest major airport, but Sevilla’s airport also has some international flights, depending on destination. For transatlantic flights, it will likely be necessary to depart from Madrid.
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: 3h42m via train
Nearest Major Medical Center: The two major hospitals of Sevilla are the Hospital Universitario Virgen del Rocio and the Hospital Universitario Virgen Macarena. Both are public hospitals, so if you would prefer a private option, do your research as there are a number of good ones.
Quality of Schools: There are numerous international schools in Sevilla, all highly regarded and all expensive. St. George’s British School and The Europa International School may be options, but as they top out at about 18,000 Euros per year, you may prefer to educate your children in the Spanish system instead.
Climate: Though Sevilla has easy access to the ocean, it is not right on the water, and thus does not benefit from the cooling breeze that Barcelona, Valencia, and other cities do. In July, the average high temperature is 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius), and the average low in January is 42.3 degrees Fahrenheit (5.7 degrees Celsius). The record high in July is 115.9 degrees Fahrenheit (46.6 degrees Celsius). It’s hot!
Local Activities: The biggest celebration in Sevilla is surely Semana Santa (Holy Week), occurring during the week leading up to Easter. There are numerous processions down the streets where locals carry huge wooden sculptures depicting various biblical events. The sculptures themselves are important works of art, and are objects of some reverence to religious locals. The processions vary widely, from somber and silent to joyous and musically-accompanied.
Perfect For: Lovers of hot environments, Moorish architecture, Andalusian culture, and the gorgeous surroundings of a city that was once the only port permitted to trade goods with the New World.
Mallorca (or Majorca in British English) is the largest of the Balearic Islands, a Mediterranean archipelago belonging to Spain. The island’s capital and only large city is Palma, which is home to approximately 620,000 people as of 2015. Mallorca is everything you might expect of an island in the Mediterranean- sun, beautiful waters, and ancient history dating back to pre-Roman times.
Like the rest of southern Spain, Mallorca was under Muslim control for hundreds of years, and the impact on the architecture, food, and language is evident even today. Palma was a major trade center in the Caliphate of Cordoba.
Today, Mallorca is a major tourist destination, both for the Spanish and others. The old city of Palma, the Cathedral, and the many small and charming settlements across the island make it an ideal place to relax. If your idea of a perfect place to retire is peaceful island living and relative calm, Mallorca may fit the bill.
In terms of costs, Mallorca is still very inexpensive relative to high cost of living cities around the world. In Palma, one bedroom apartment prices vary somewhat more widely than elsewhere in Spain, but finding a safe apartment in the 700-800 Euro per month range is extremely feasible (and you can spend quite a lot more for a luxury apartment).
Cost of Living:
Nearest Major Airport: Barcelona El-Prat (BCN) or Madrid-Barajas International Airport (MAD)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: 9 Hour Ferry Ride to Barcelona, though it is faster, easier, and cheaper to fly from Palma to Madrid and travel onward from there.
Nearest Major Medical Center: The majority of the hospitals on the island are in Palma. Hospital Son Dureta is a highly ranked public hospital, and Clínica Juaneda is a respected private hospital.
Quality of Schools: For a small island, Mallorca has a surprising number of international schools. The Balleares International College, the King Richard College, and The Academy are all English language schools. The fees are in line with the other Spanish international schools, which is to say expensive.
Climate: Mallorca’s climate is typically Mediterranean, with hot, sunny summers and mild, rainy winters. Summer high temperatures average about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius) and winter low temperatures average about 47 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius).
Local Activities: As a major tourist destination, Mallorca has both traditional and contemporary celebrations. One such example is the San Sebastian festival, which takes place in January. As Saint Sebastian is the Palma’s patron saint, this is an important local occasion. Along with traditional processionals (with “demons” being scared off by fireworks), bonfires, barbecues, and music are typical ways of celebrating.
Perfect For: Those seeking island living with a European flair, those looking for a European retirement but also some peace and quiet, ocean lovers.
No list like this one would be complete without considering Madrid. If retirement in Spain is what you want, but you can’t bring yourself to leave the hustle and bustle of a major world capital behind, consider Madrid. Yes, there’s some pollution, noise, and crowding, but there’s also an unparalleled arts scene, some of the best food in the country, and fascinating history and culture to unlock.
Despite being the capital and largest city in the country, Madrid is relatively young compared to other places on this list. In the 9th century, Muhammed of Cordoba built a palace and citadel in the center of what is now Madrid. The city grew as a modest outpost in the kingdom of Castile until, as a part of the newly-formed Kingdom of Spain, the king moved his court here. Though there was no official decree, Madrid was the de facto capital from that point onward. The city blossomed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as the Spanish experienced huge economic success while exploiting the new world.
Madrid remains the capital today as the seat of Spain’s constitutional monarchy. The best (or at least most well attended and funded) symphonies, operas, museums, and theatre in the country are found in Madrid. It also remains the seat of both the government and the economy. If something can be found in a capital city, it can be found in Madrid.
Compared to the rest of this list, Madrid has an average cost of living, though still quite inexpensive compared to cities like San Francisco, New York, or London. A quick search revealed many one bedroom apartments in Madrid’s best neighborhoods for 800 Euros or less per month.
Cost of Living:
Nearest Major Airport: Madrid-Barajas International Airport (MAD)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: The city has its own major airport, and thus has easy access to both domestic and international destinations.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Madrid’s La Paz University Hospital is considered the best in Spain. You have many excellent options for medical treatment, both public and private, as you would expect in a city of this size. Hospital Quiron is highly ranked, and Unidad Medica Angloamericana is an option (but only for certain treatments– this is not a full hospital) where all the doctors will speak English if you are uncertain about your Spanish.
Quality of Schools: Of course, Madrid has many, many international schools. My research shows that the International School and the Montessori School are among the best. Surprisingly, some of the Madrid international schools have fees that are less expensive (though still not cheap) compared to the other international schools in the country, so they may merit a detailed look.
Climate: Madrid is not coastal, and it is at a somewhat high altitude (~2000ft), so it experiences both more heat and more cold than the beach cities on this list. Average highs in July are 89 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) and average lows in the winter are 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius). Snow is not unheard of, though there is seldom much of it.
Local Activities: Madrid is a major city, so there are many festivals of all types. Carnaval is one such occasion, when the entire city parties for six days, culminating in the end of winter and “official” beginning of spring. You’ll find period dress, dancing, feasting, partying… pretty much anything! Of course, Bullfighting is a time-honored sport here, but our tastes don’t run that way, so we’ll let you learn about that tradition elsewhere (Why not take in a bloodless, deathless bullfight in nearby France?).
Perfect For: Culture and city lovers, those who love to be in the thick of things, lovers of modern Spain, those who prefer something more closely approximating “winter.”
Parting Thoughts: Buy a Village?
The above are but a few of the many, many places where you might consider if you retire in Spain. Hopefully they give you at least a little sense of what a Spain retirement would cost and what your lifestyle might entail.
Spain is still recovering from the economic crisis, but investment dollars are returning and the tax rates are going downward. NPR did a fascinating article on how many now-abandoned villages in rural Spain now sit empty, their former residents having long since fled to the cities. Though I don’t suggest you buy an entire municipality, it’s very probable that a comfortable lifestyle in a smaller community can be had for a fraction of the costs of living found in the cities. It’s something to consider and research, anyway.
What about you? Could you uproot yourself and move to Spain? How about another country- where would it be? Let me know where, and why, in the comments! Maybe I’ll pick your retirement spot for next month’s “Retire to…” article!