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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in Spain

by Mark Bennett

What's it like to study abroad in Spain as a PhD student?

The same reasons that make Spain one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world also make it an excellent place to live as a PhD student. Situated on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain extends from Europe towards North Africa and features a diverse range of landscapes and environments. As a PhD student in Spain you'll be able to relax on Mediterranean beaches, explore beautiful villages nestled atop hills overlooking broad plains, or climb mountains in the Sierra Nevada national park. Admittedly, you won't be able to do all of these at the same time, but that's ok: You've got three years to see everything Spain has to offer! This is handy really, as, in addition to the appeal of Spain's natural features, you'll also be able to explore the rich history a succession of civilisations and cultures have left on the country since pre-Roman times. In fact, Spain actually has the third highest concentration of UNESCO world heritage sites in the world - more than any other nation in Europe, except Italy.

Spain's excellent university system means that your time living in the country will be well spent, whatever you choose to enjoy and experience alongside your studies. You can read more about studying a PhD in Spain in our article.

Key facts for PhD students in Spain

  • Spain has a population of a little under 50 million. Around six million inhabit the metropolitan area of the Spanish capital, Madrid, which is located in the centre of the country. Other major cities include Barcelona and Valencia on the Mediterranean sea in the east, and Seville in the south.
  • Spain is a constitutional monarchy, with a Prime Minister officially nominated by the monarch based on the success of their party in elections to the Spanish congress.
  • Spain occupies a peninsula, extending from Europe towards Africa with an extensive Mediterranean coast. The majority of the country enjoys a hot climate, with warm and dry summers. More mountainous regions include the Spanish Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada, each of which experience cooler conditions with regular snowfall at high altitudes.
  • Spain is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, with substantial numbers of visitors each year and one of the largest tourist industries in the world.
  • The currency of Spain is the Euro (€).
  • Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion in Spain. It is not a state religion, but is the faith most commonly taught in Spanish religious education. Other faiths are not widely practised in Spain, but are freely admitted.
  • The official language of Spain is Spanish, which is also the first language of several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Culture, leisure and everyday life for PhD students in Spain

Spain can claim the credit for a surprising number of products and innovations that have become a part of daily life around the world. Spanish products and innovations include foods and drinks such as chocolate (brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century) and sherry wine (made and exported in the town of Jerez) to entertainment products and pastimes such as the novel (which developed from 16th century picaresque tales) and tiki-taka football (a style of play that, until recently, dominated the international game). So, next time you're enjoying a good book accompanied by a glass and a bar of something, you can thank Spain! Attempting to combine these activities with a game of smooth passing football probably isn't to be recommended however.

Within Spain itself you'll be able to experience Spanish culture at its best; whether that involves sampling some of the Spanish cuisine that doesn't get exported, or watching some of the world's finest athletes and sportspeople ply their trade on home soil. You'll also be able to partake in plenty of sporting and leisure activities yourself, whether you're interested in skiing in the mountains or putting out to sea for watersports in the Mediterranean.

Spain's hot climate means that business hours may be slightly different from those in your home country. During summer many shops and services close in the afternoon when the day is hottest (exceptions may be made in larger, air-conditioned, shopping centres). This is the traditional Spanish siesta and you may find that towns and cities are relatively quiet during this period. The Spanish compensate, however, by extending their day well into the evening with shops and restaurants opening late.

Food and drink

Spanish cuisine is internationally popular and much of it will already be familiar to you. Olives, grilled seafood and cured sausages such as chorizo are all familiar components of Spanish cooking and take advantage of the agricultural and fishing opportunities presented by the country's climate and coastline. Many of these foods are served in selections of tapas - small portions of appetizers and snacks that are often available in bars. Spain also makes a variety of cheese (or queso) much of which is produced using sheep or goat's milk. One peculiar variety, murcia al vino, is sometimes referred to as 'drunken goat cheese.' Despite what the name suggests, this isn't the result of allowing livestock to sample the sherry vintage; instead it refers to the practice of washing the cheese in red wine, giving it a unique flavour.

In addition to the production of Sherry, Spanish winemaking has a long and prestigious history rivalling that of its neighbour, France. Traditional Spanish grape varieties such as Tempranillo and Garnacha have become popular around the world, whilst Spain's own wine producing regions such as the Rioja are internationally renowned. Spanish beer is also popular, with a range of domestic varieties available alongside internationally successful brands such as San Miguel.

Accommodation and living costs for PhD students in Spain

University residences

Spanish universities are used to receiving large numbers of international students and this means that many will provide their own accommodation options for foreign postgraduates. These often take the form of dedicated student villages (or colleges mayores) with residences including single rooms in dormitory buildings as well as studio flats.

As a rule, demand for university accommodation exceeds the number of rooms available and you should therefore apply as early as possible. Prices will vary according to the location of the accommodation as well as the level of facilities and utilities included with it. As a general guide, accommodation in a mid-price range city will cost around €360 ($465) per month for an en-suite single room and around €500 ($645) per month for a studio flat, inclusive of utilities and Wi-Fi. Half or full-board options may also be available in association with university catering facilities and will usually cost around €180 ($230) per month or €300 ($385) per month respectively.

You can find out more about accommodation options in colleges mayores at the website of the Fundación Colleges Mayores, the organisation responsible for overseeing these student villages across a range of Spanish universities.

Private rentals

If you are unable to find accommodation in a colleges mayores, don't worry: a range of private landlords offer accommodation suitable for students in the vicinity of most Spanish universities. As a PhD student you may find that this is the most suitable accommodation for you in subsequent years of your programme, particularly if you have established friendships with other postgraduates with whom you can seek shared accommodation. If you are seeking private accommodation before you arrive in Spain you should get in touch with the international office at your university. They may operate a match-making service for students with similar accommodation needs and / or keep a list of approved local landlords.

Rental prices for private accommodation vary extensively, depending on location, facilities and the number of students sharing. As a rough guide you can expect rent in a shared flat to be between €300 ($385) and euro;500 ($645) per month, but the cost may be higher than this in some areas. Utility charges are also likely to be extra.

Boarding with a local family

Your university may run a programme matching international students with local host families seeking lodgers. This is popular in larger cities and can be an excellent way to acclimatise to Spanish life (as well as improve your Spanish speaking skills!). Costs for this accommodation will vary depending on the arrangement it is being provided under. In some cases no rent will be charged and you will merely contribute to the cost of meals and utilities. In other cases the arrangement will be similar to a private rental, though costs may still be lower overall. If you are interested in this form of accommodation you can contact your university's international office and see whether it is available to you.

General living costs

Living costs in Spain are fairly low, with the prices for most goods and services comparing favourably to those in other popular European study and travel destinations. Of course, your own costs will vary depending on your leisure interests and the utilities included as part of your accommodation arrangements. Universities will usually offer subsidised student dining options at their campuses, but if you have access to self-catering facilities you will also be able to purchase groceries quite cheaply from supermarkets, as well as take advantage of local markets, butchers and fishmongers. As a rule, you can expect to budget around €300 ($385) per month for food and around another €40-50 ($52-65) for transport in large cities. Full living costs, including accommodation, food, transport, utilities and basic leisure activities are estimated at around €900-1100 ($1,160-1,415) per month. Again, these will vary quite a bit depending on where you live, what routine utilities and regular transport you require, and what you enjoy doing in your leisure time.

Working as a PhD student in Spain

International students are permitted to work for up to 20 hours per week whilst studying in Spain. This employment is subject to various additional regulations, however. You will not be allowed to work whilst enrolled as a student if this is deemed likely to impede your studies and prospective employers will usually be required to apply to Spain's Foreign Nationals Office in order to get permission to hire you. If they do, the duration of your employment contract cannot exceed that of your student visa.

Regulations for EU and EEA students may be more relaxed, but you should seek advice from your university's international office and / or the local Oficina de Extranjeros (Foreign Nationals Office) in the region of your university. Ensure that you comply with all relevant regulations, whatever your status, or your registration (and right to live in Spain) may be at risk.

Whatever your nationality, you can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to all postgraduate students. These could be a great way of topping up your funding if you have difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

Other useful information for PhD students in Spain

In addition to finding accommodation, investigating employment opportunities and budgeting for living costs, there are other details you should investigate as you prepare for PhD study in Spain. Click 'more' for a concise introduction to banking, healthcare, transportation and communications for students in Spain.

Travel and transportation

Spain offers a modern transport infrastructure with high speed rail networks linking various parts of the country. Spain's larger cities also benefit from metropolitan subway systems. If you're looking to travel between your university campus or colleges mayores and other parts of your city you will be able to take advantage of various bus services, including night buses (búhos) that make it possible to enjoy the local nightlife and return home safely.

For international journeys or long trips within Spain itself, you may find it most convenient to travel by plane. Most Spanish cities have major airports with international and domestic services. You can find out more at the website of Aena, the group that manages Spanish airports.

Money and banking

International students are able to open bank accounts in Spain, but will need to prove their status as legal residents in order to do so. This can be done by presenting your National Identity Number (assigned during your registration as a foreign resident). If you do not have this number yet, you may be able to open an account by getting a non-resident certificate from your local police station and presenting it along with your passport. Opening an account in this way usually carries a €15 ($19) charge.

Communications

Spain has a modern postal and telecommunications system and you'll have no difficulty staying in touch with friends and family at home as you continue with your PhD. Various companies will provide phone services, including pre-paid cards. You may also be able to acquire a Spanish SIM card from your mobile phone provider or their Spanish partner - your best bet is to get in touch with them ask for advice before you travel. The international dialing code for Spain is +34 - friends and family will need to use this to call you on a landline.

Post boxes and post offices are common in Spanish towns and cities - in fact, it's quite likely that some kind of posting facility will be maintained on or near the site of your university. You can purchase stamps at post offices, or from other shops. Check the website of the Spanish postal service for details of mail services, prices and post office location.

WiFi internet access is commonly available in Spanish cafes and bars and may be installed in your colleges mayores or other private accommodation.

Healthcare

If you possess a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) you will be entitled to use Spanish healthcare services without charge in most routine cases. Citizens of other countries may need to acquire a private healthcare policy in order to receive a student visa, unless there is a reciprocal agreement established between their country and Spain. You should be able to acquire more specific information by getting in touch with your institution's international office, or inquiring at a Spanish consulate in your home country.

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