Six interesting facts we’ve learned from Spain’s latest foreign population stats

Spain’s Ministry of Inclusion has just published its latest report on the country’s foreign resident population in 2020, showing a new record, rises in the country’s British and Italian population and insight into where foreigners like to move to in Spain. 

Six interesting facts we've learned from Spain's latest foreign population stats
A crowd gathers in Alicante in pre-Covid times. Photo: Lucas Davies/AFP

Spain has its highest number of foreigners on record

As of December 31st, 2020, 5,8 million foreigners resided in Spain, according to the Ministry of Inclusion’s Statistics of Foreigners Residing in Spain in 2020 report

That’s 137,120 more than in 2019 – the highest number in Spain’s history – and despite the difficulties the pandemic and travel restrictions on mobility have had. 

However, 2020’s figures do represent the lowest year-on-year increase since 2016.

Spain’s accumulated growth of foreign resident population in the last ten years is 19 percent, 16 percent in the last five, so most of the influx of foreigners has taken place in recent years.

Italians are falling increasingly in love with Spain 

61 percent of the 5.8 million foreign residents living in Spain are from the EU/EEA.

Romanians make up over one million of them but Spain’s Italian population grew by 5.6 percent in 2020, consolidating itself as the second biggest EU population group in Spain with 350,981 residents.

Italians are choosing to move to Spain due to the comparatively lower cost of living and their love of Spanish lifestyle among several other reasons, with one 2018 article in El Confidencial quoting an Italian resident saying that Spain was “the epicentre of a Mediterranean utopia”.

Bulgarians (200,468), Germans (179,437), Portuguese (176,772) and French nationals (176,488) are the other largest EU population groups in Spain.

Brexit has pushed thousands more Britons to register

The number of Britons who became residents in Spain went up by 6 percent last year, with 381,448 registered by December 31st 2020, the end of the transition period. 

This means UK nationals continue to be the third biggest foreign resident population group in Spain after Romanians and Moroccans. 

In 2019, there were 359,471 Britons with Spanish residency, which would mean 21,977 UK nationals obtained a green residency document or a new TIE card last year (now only the biometric TIE card is issued).

These are the latest figures from Spain’s Ministry of Inclusion which were last verified at the very end of the year, whereas according to the 2020 stats by Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) the total of UK nationals last year was 262,885, without specifying if this takes into account the full twelve months. 

There’s also the fact that INE uses primarily local census information from the town halls (padrón address registrations, birth, deaths etc) rather than migration documents which could account for the stark difference.


BREXIT: How many Brits have left Spain and how many are staying?

Most of Spain’s foreigners are in four regions

Two thirds of resident foreigners live in four autonomous communities: Catalonia, Madrid, Andalusia and the Valencia region. 

Out of these, seven provinces are particularly popular with extranjeros (Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Alicante, Malaga, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Murcia), which account for 57 percent of the total and all have more than 225,000 foreign residents.

However, if the percentage of foreigners out of the total provincial population is analysed, Almería, the Balearic Islands, Lleida, Girona and Alicante are the provincias with the highest proportion of foreigners among their inhabitants.

Ministry of Inclusion map showing foreign population numbers in all of Spain’s provinces

Valencia needs its foreigners for its population not to decline

In December 2020, the Mediterranean region had 773,010 foreign residents out of its total population of roughly 5 million. 

Romanians (156,400), Britons (104,650) and Moroccans (77,900) are the three biggest population groups

As the Valencian Community’s vegetative growth (the difference between births and deaths) in 2020 showed a decrease of 6,815 –  largely due to Covid-19 –  but the positive migration balance ensured the region didn’t lose population. 

The same has happened in other regions of Spain such as Castilla-La Mancha and Galicia where depopulation has been a problem for decades, as young people head off to big cities such as Madrid and Barcelona for career prospects, causing in the process an ageing of the population. 

Venezuelans appear to have arrived en masse in 2020

The number of Venezuelan nationals who obtained residency in Spain shot up by 53 percent in 2020, far ahead of the 6 percent rise in resident Britons and 5.6 percent increase in Italians who’ve made Spain their home. 

They now number 152,017 according to Spain’s Ministry of Inclusion, many of whom have arrived in the last few years fleeing the economic and political divides as well as the massive scarcities their home country is struggling through currently.

But there’s an explanation for the spike in new residents in a year governed by travel restrictions: in February 2019 Spain authorised temporary residency for this non-EU group for humanitarian reasons, which accounts for the sharp increase.

The exodus of Venezuelans to Spain mimics that of thousands of Spaniards to Venezuela over the first half of the 20th century, who left impoverished regions such as the Canary Islands and Galicia to find a better life in the then blossoming Latin American country.

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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.