Healthcare in Spain: What you need to know

Tapas, sangria, flamenco…all these wonderful Spanish clichés await you in your new life in Spain.

Healthcare in Spain: What you need to know
Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

Just one thing before you grab your castanets and go. You should really take the time to look into the healthcare system in your new country. It’s always good to know the basics, just in case.

Unless you’re already fluent in Spanish and familiar with Spain, knowing where to start can send your head spinning. That’s why we’ve pulled together this nifty guide to help you get sorted, so if you feel la fiebre coming on, you know who to call.

Registering for healthcare

You’ll be pleased to hear the Spanish healthcare system offers free or subsidised health services and prescriptions for official residents and their family members. That means once you’re a legal resident and pay Spanish social security you get access to the same healthcare as Spanish citizens. ¡Olé!

Don’t panic if you’re not paying social security. There are also deals if, for example, you’re a retired British pensioner living in Spain and not paying into the Spanish system. 

When your situation is clearer, you can start the process of registering with a doctor. But first, you’ll have to register with the state healthcare system. Spanish healthcare is decentralised, and each of the 17 regions is responsible for itself. That means you should check with your regional health authority to find out what services are available to you and how to access them.

You’ll also have to register your address on the padrón at your local town hall, or ayuntamiento, where you will be given a certificate of empadronamiento. When you first register with your doctor, remember to take this with you – it also comes in handy for other situations where you may need proof of address.

If you’re living or staying for an extended time in Spain but not eligible for state healthcare, you can take out private healthcare insurance. Insurance companies like Cigna Global offer excellent packages that include access to its global network of hospitals, clinics and doctors, as well as a 24-hour helpline so you have support around the clock.

Finding a doctor

Most likely you’ll have a health clinic, centro de salud, or an individual practice, médico de cabacera, nearby. These offer all the regular primary care services, and you can usually find one through the phone book under medicos or your local healthcare authority.

In some of the more remote or less populated areas, you may have to travel to find a healthcare provider, or there may be a doctor or nurse available on specific days. If you know people in the area they might be able to recommend a doctor, and your embassy may also maintain a list of English-speaking doctors in your area.

Once you’ve found a doctor, you will need to register before you can make an appointment. This is when you’ll need to show your empadronamiento – which must have been issued within the last three months.

You should also take your TGSS (Tresoreria General de la Seguridad Social) certificate, passport, and Foreigners’ Identity Number (N.I.E.). All three are needed to apply for your health card, or tarjeta sanitaria individual, as well as a Sistema de Informacion Poblacional, which is a non-transferable card that gives you access to Spanish healthcare.

Each time you visit the doctor, hospital, or pick up prescription meds you will be required to show this card. It will mean you are entitled to receive state health without charge, so make sure to keep it somewhere safe!

Emergency care

If you need urgent medical care you should go straight to your nearest hospital’s emergency room, or urgencia (there’s a nice easy word to remember). Most chemists, or farmacias, will also be able to tell you where to go if you need urgent medical treatment.

Spain’s general emergency number is 112, so if you need a paramedic or require an ambulance then dial that number straight away. It’s a good idea to learn the Spanish translation if you suffer from an existing medical condition or allergy so there’s no confusion over how to treat you.

In case of emergency, you will be required to show your health card to receive state treatment. Or if you have private health insurance make sure to keep your details handy.

Cigna Global’s International Health Insurance covers emergency medical care, including reasonable transportation costs to the closest centre of medical excellence in the event that the correct treatment is not locally available in an emergency. It’s good to have this peace of mind while living abroad, so there’s no doubt over what care you and your family are entitled to in case of an emergency.

Find out more about Cigna Global health insurance

Specialist care

To see a specialist through the state system you will need to get a referral from your doctor. If you have private health insurance in Spain you can often skip this step and make an appointment directly with a specialist clinic, saving you time spent potentially worrying or in pain.

With a private health care provider like Cigna Global you will get an appointment faster than if you go through the state system. Cigna can also find you an English-speaking doctor so there’s no language barrier throughout the diagnosis and treatment.

Get a free quote from Cigna Global


Spanish farmacias are easy to spot, just look out for the flashing green cross in or outside the window. Unlike in some other countries, all medicine, including over the counter painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen, must be purchased in a farmacia. If you are new to your area and not sure where your closest farmacia is, you can find it here.

If you have a minor ailment or common illness, the highly-trained pharmacists can provide you with treatment. In the bigger cities where there are more tourists this can often be done in English; however, further inland or in remote areas this may not be as easy. If your problem is more serious or ongoing, you should still see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Make sure to take your health card along with you when you pick up any prescription medicines. You still have to pay 60 percent of the cost, but in general, medication is fairly reasonable. If you are a pensioner you are entitled to free prescriptions.

Something to keep in mind is that you are living in the land of the siesta, so most farmacias close for a couple of hours in the afternoon and re-open around 5pm. On weekends they can close earlier, so make sure to check and visit early on in the day if necessary. Some regions have emergency pharmacies that are open 24 hours so if it’s urgent you can pick up medicine out of regular hours.


Although the Spanish state healthcare system is one of the best in the world, it’s always useful to have access to private healthcare. Cigna Global specialises in healthcare for expats, offering flexible coverage at every level so you can enjoy your paella without worrying about all that cholesterol in the prawns.

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Cigna Global.

For members


Finding your tribe: A guide for Americans building a life in Spain

Finding your tribe can make the difference between feeling at home and being homesick, writes Barcelona-based writer Jennifer Lutz, who set out to discover how other Americans in Spain have made friends and developed hobbies.

Finding your tribe: A guide for Americans building a life in Spain

New life, new friends

Find a local bar, choose your coffee go-to, get on apps, become a club member, throw a dinner party, or just chat to the stranger at the table next to you.

There’s something daunting about leaving your friends behind to move abroad; I moved to Spain on my own and strangers still ask if I’m lonely (with lots of emphasis on me being single). I’m not lonely; compared to the States, I found it easy to establish relationships in Spain and made most of my friends in bars, coffee shops, and terraces.

“Just talk to people,” says Reem, a Sudanese American who moved to Barcelona from Minnesota. I met my community here, she told me, gesturing around Xiloteca Coffee, where an international crowd lingers, despite the botiga not having tables.

If chatting up strangers in cafes isn’t your thing, you can find more organised ways to connect. Gerard, an Argentinian-American, moved to Madrid with two small daughters and had the best luck enrolling in Tennis classes. “It’s a pretty small club and you get to know the other members,” he told me. Tess, an American woman living in Valencia had the best luck with Internations, which helped her to meet other internationals.

Moving to a new country isn’t easy, but when you’re a foreigner you join this sort of club — you’re all away from home and it’s really possible to find a family here in Spain.

Spaniards are active and sporty, which means that taking part can be an easy way for Americans to break the ice and get to know people in Spain. Photo: J Schiemann/Unsplash

You want to meet locals, you say?

Learn the language, choose local spots over flashy touristy ones, be patient, extend an invitation.

While you’ll likely have an easier time meeting other foreigners than locals, a few things will help you meet Spanish friends. First, learn the language; a little goes a long way. I learned most of my Spanish by speaking with locals at Bar Petit, a small neighbourhood spot, that I chose over splashier cafés with a touristic crowd.

When she moved to Granada after a year of struggling to meet locals in Córdoba, Kathryn Kuypers was determined to integrate. “I used the apps Meetup, Bumble, and Tandem to meet locals. I met up with a lot of Spaniards via these apps, but only became friends with a couple of them,” she explained. One of the friends she met on Tandem became her current partner.

Another great way to meet locals is to throw a dinner party for your neighbours and if you’re invited to someone’s home, be aware of cultural differences. I spent months bringing fancy desserts to my neighbour’s home; the day I offered to dress the salad is the day I became one of them.


‘Little America’

Join a club, attend events, choose a school.

I’ll be honest, the first year I lived in Spain, I had no interest in anything American (including my fellow nationals). With time, that changed and the handful of American friends I have are an important piece of my life here; sometimes you just want to speak with someone who has a similar background.

If you’re looking to keep a network of Americans around you (and to do some networking), you can check out any of the many international clubs active in cities throughout Spain. The American Society of Barcelona, the American Club of Madrid, or the American Club of Costa del Sol, to name a few.

With the expansion of remote work, American entrepreneurs have been settling in different areas of Spain.

Randall Purcell, Director of the carbon sequestration company Seafields, found his scene on the north shore of Ibiza. “The American community in Ibiza is really tuned in. I’m impressed by the small community of fellow entrepreneurs I’ve met here and attracted by communities built around environment and sustainability. It’s a lifestyle led by the belief that we can really do something; you can feel the excitement,” he says.

Another way to meet other Americans is through international language exchanges. If you’re moving to Spain with children and want them to have a community from “back home”, you might consider enrolling them in an American School.

Spaniards are very social and tend to meet outdoors with friends, so when in Rome (or Madrid)… (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

Keeping hobbies and finding new ones

Follow your passions, join a club, search your crew on Meetup, get outside your comfort zone.

Finding a community isn’t just about friends; it’s also about those activities that make you feel like you.

James Coleman is an American musician and has lived all over Spain; where he played at jam sessions and let the different styles of music influence him. “Andalusia is mostly flamenco, and it’s harder to find rock or jazz, whereas in Barcelona, it’s a more jazz, neo-soul, and international music scene, and Madrid has both international and local influences,” he told me. Traveling around Spain and playing music, he absorbed some of those acoustic jazz, soul, and flamenco influences.

Kai was already a dedicated cyclist and triathlete when he moved from Chicago to Cantabria, so he joined a local cycling club. “Northern Spain has some of the best routes in Europe. It would be very hard to leave this and go back to Chicago,” he told me.

If you’re not quite sure what your thing is, you can use apps like Meetup to find activities, expand your interests, and try new things. In the past few months, I’ve attended a nude drawing class, fallen off a paddle board (numerous times), and sparred with a German girl twice my size in a misbegotten attempt to learn kickboxing. Whatever you’re looking for, you can likely find it.


Making the most of your free time

Slow down, share moments, take it step by step, have fun.

The best advice I received when moving to Spain was to enjoy my new life. When I asked other Americans why they moved to Spain, their answers were remarkably similar; more balance, better quality of life, greater social support, the weather, and that European lifestyle so many of us grew up dreaming about.

In their free time, Americans are doing all sorts of things; but the key is, they have time to do them. George walks his two daughters to the beach every day after school. Anna plays volleyball after work, and Simon has culture Saturdays (30 minutes at a gallery and then hours drinking on a terrace). I mostly write in bars, meander around Barcelona’s nooks and corners, and share meals with friends.

Sentados a la mesa; sat around the table, is a very typical way to spend free time in Spain and enjoy the moment.

Jennifer Lutz is a writer and journalist. She’s written for the Guardian, The Independent, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, Thrive Global, and more. You can contact her on or @Jennifer_E_Lutz on Twitter.