Dealing with Bureaucracy in Spain

Published on 29/06/2011 in Living in Spain

If you are going to be buying a property in Spain, or already own one, sooner or later you are going to meet an official of the Spanish Civil Service. It is highly likely that you will become frustrated and even hot under the collar, despite the air conditioning. You may put this down to the language barrier, but it runs much deeper than that. It is a cultural difference between attitudes of civil servants in Spain and in the UK.

The Spanish civil servant that you are likely to meet does not think for himself. He is doing a job. He's been told how to do it and that is what he does. Nothing more and nothing less. It is totally pointless to make some suggestions as to how things could be done better or ask why so many photocopies are needed. You will just be met with a blank stare and you will make no difference at all.

Spanish civil servantThere is a similarity between the officials of the two countries - they will not admit when they have made a mistake. The Spaniard however will adopt an entrenched and haughty attitude and poor customer relations will become very bad indeed. Don't believe that this is a plot against foreigners; Spaniards are treated in exactly the same way.

The history of the Spanish civil service goes a long way to explain their attitudes today. Many people blame the dictatorship of Franco but it goes much further back than that. Spanish history shows many changes of regime and the administrators were the favourites of the rulers of the time. Rules were always changing and the civil servants made themselves indispensible by making everyone else's life as complicated and difficult as possible. By the time Franco came to power in 1939 the civil service was inefficient and corrupt. The dictator perpetuated everything that had gone before by appointing his cronies.

"Who you know, not what you know" is still very much part of Spanish life when dealing with officials. The use of the "Enchufe" (Plug) is still common practice. This family member or friend is the insider who ensures your application goes through smoothly or your case gets to the right people. Foreigners do not generally have such insider connections so are at a definite disadvantage, but becoming angry about it is no solution. The system does not operate in the same way as in Britain so accepting and adapting are the best way to proceed. Getting your own insider is probably a much better plan.

Here are a few tips on dealing with officials in Spain:

  • Don't expect people to speak English. Many do but if you don't try to speak Spanish, why should they make an effort?
  • Remember that the person you meet isn't the one who makes the decisions.
  • Don't be intimidated, just persevere.
  • Don't get angry. If you lose your temper, you will lose the game.
  • Don't be fobbed off by lazy officials. Stand your ground if you can.
  • If despite that you aren't getting anywhere, leave and go back later when someone else will deal with you.
  • Do things in person. Spain has a face to face culture and letters have a habit of getting lost. Fill in forms by all means, but don't write letters.
  • Never, ever try to bribe anyone in any way whatsoever.
  • Learn to be flexible. Spanish officials can be black and white if they want to but if you don't anger them, they probably won't bother.

Many of these tips may not be necessary in your early days as you will have your agent and lawyer to guide you.

Just be aware of the differences in cultures.

Watch this highly-rated video recorded for a Spanish film festival:

Written by: Michael Liggan

About the author:

Altavista Spain is a real estate company in Marbella on the Costa del Sol, Spain. We focus our efforts on matching client requirements and sourcing suitable properties, but given our longstanding experience in real estate and knowledge of this market in particular, we are also able to identify those properties that offer great value. Michael Liggan is a driving force and our chief property bargain hunter.
For further information, please visit Alta Vista Spain's website at

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David H said:
07 July 2011 @ 16:23

Recently my wife and I tried to register with the Spanish health system and turned-up at the DSS office with all the necessary papers plus copies, but no Spanish language. Unusually, we were told to make an appointment by telephone. After a dozen failed attempts, in our best rehearsed Spanish, we paid someone to make the appointment for us. The same official then told us he didn't realise that the number had no service in English! Just how many man-years have non-Spanish speakers wasted whilst trying to get a simple appointment to have their papers stamped.

Patricia said:
01 July 2011 @ 13:32

I agree with Rob. It is well worth while using the services of an official Spanish gestoría, as they are indeed the experts and will expedite matters. Official gestorías are members of their professional association (colegio profesional).

Rob in the other Spain said:
30 June 2011 @ 19:57

There is a simple solution, hire a gestoria (spelling) they are the experts and generally the price is reasonable

Patricia said:
30 June 2011 @ 14:36

The saying is so true that you will catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
In general I have found officials quite helpful over the many years I have lived in Spain.


Anna said:
30 June 2011 @ 13:59

Oh how I laughed! what a wonderful article and SO true! as the article said its the same for Spaniards, but they have never known anything else, so just sigh and accept the attitude of these civil servants, (I use the word civil loosely!)
It is even WORSE than the article implies.
More please

Jane said:
30 June 2011 @ 10:44

This article doesn´t even scratch the surface. Why not write a ´really controversial´ one?

Jay said:
30 June 2011 @ 10:36

Yes yes yes yes. It is absolutely as bad as the article says. Sometimes you can meet someone who will be helpful and that it always a wonderful surprise but generally not. At times I get so frustrated that I wonder why I live here but then the next day I forget about it and remember why I love it most of the time.

Allan Hilder said:
30 June 2011 @ 09:34

Certainly not controversial. Managing an estate agency that specialises in country properties ( I spend a lot of time dealing with civil servants in various departments trying to get all documents to agree with one another and with reality.

I have also done renovations in highly sensitive areas (Albayzín in Granada, for example) which have required extremely delicate negotiations.

In the vast majority of these encounters the civil servants couldn't have been more helpful and have even told me ways I can take advantage of a situation to the detriment of their employer. I put this down to attitude.

My approach is never "this is what I need, it's your responsibility to get it for me" but "I've got this problem and I'm wondering how we can solve it together".

Obviously, speaking the language and knowing what you are talking about also greatly influences the outcome, but it is attitude that is most important. Many foreigners, the British especially, are paranoid and enter situations like this believing they are not going to get what they want and that the civil servants are there only to obstruct and not to assist, which is precisely the message projected by the excellent short film.

A change of attitude, a smile and a belief that all will be well is what is required

Nick Burroughs said:
30 June 2011 @ 09:33

You know you are doing well with Spanish officialdom when the rubber stamps come out! In most cases that is!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jane said:
30 June 2011 @ 04:29

Not controversial at all as far as I am concerned. Things are changing, but slowly, and the attitude of the younger civil servants, particularly the women, is not quite as entrenched.

As a woman, I have found the worst to be the middle aged men, who are nearly all incapable of dealing with women as equals. I speak good Spanish and my husband very little (enough for ordering drinks and exchanging pleasantries with the local shepherd, and of course he has an impressive grasp of DIY and construction vocabulary.

However, even after ten years, encounters with male middle aged functionaries generally get my blood boiling. It is always clear from the start who speaks the language but they resolutely address all their answers to him as if I were not there.

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