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SPANISH BUREAUCRACY

How to get a ‘cita previa’ (appointment) in Spain when it seems impossible

Pretty much all in-person official processes in Spain require an appointment to be seen by a civil servant, but it's often impossible to get a ‘cita previa’ on the phone or online. Here are some potential solutions to this kafkaesque situation.

spain cita previa appointment
For some years now, internet cafés and gestores (jack-of-all-trades agents) have been offering the public a chance to book much-desired citas previas when all else has failed, at a cost of course. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Ah, Spain’s dreaded cita previa (prior appointment). Even its name is poorly thought-out and redundant (aren’t all appointments booked in advance?).

Nowadays if you want to visit Spain’s tax offices, the civil registry, the foreigners’ office, the traffic authority or any other public administration, whether it’s to ask a quick question or to complete an official process, you’re going to need proof of having a cita or you’ll be turned away at the door.

However, it truly becomes a catch-22 scenario when nobody answers the phone or the website crashes. You can’t be seen without an appointment, but you can’t get an appointment, and no amount of pleading your case is going to help. 

This bureaucratic nightmare is a sad reality millions of Spaniards and foreigners in Spain face, from desperate pensioners to undocumented migrants. 

Sure, a lot of paperwork can now theoretically be done online, but anyone who’s dealt with Spanish state websites will tell you that the user experience is poor and convoluted, and that the pages are prone to glitches.

READ MORE: ‘Four months for an appointment’ – Huge delays at Spain’s Social Security

Lingering Covid-19 restrictions were used as an excuse by civil servants to make the cita previa a mainstay, and although numerous law firms have pointed out that it is illegal for Spain’s public bodies to make appointments compulsory, little is being done to change a broken system. 

What this means for ordinary people is that they have to navigate a system of unwritten rules, sometimes getting opposing opinions from those in charge, and hope that some of these tried-and-tested ‘tricks’ work.

Go online very early

It’s often the case that the sheer volume of people on government websites during regular work hours results in the system not working or you getting a message along the lines of no hay citas disponibles (there are no appointments available). 

As surreal as it may sound, many people have found that by going online before the workday begins – and funcionarios (civil servants) start their digital gatekeeping – they have been able to find vacant appointment spaces. So if you can, try to book an appointment at 7am one morning.

As is always the case in Spain, there is no surefire solution that works across the board. It could be that a different regional department refreshes their appointment system at a different time or day. 

For example, there are several articles written by Spanish lawyers saying that to book a residency appointment to give your fingerprints at the extranjería office, the best time to go online is between 11am and 11.30am.

So ask around, look online and even consider asking the security guard at the door if there’s a particular time when appointments tend to become available online. 

READ ALSO: How to get a digital certificate in Spain to help with online processes

Consider booking at a less busy office

In some cases, you’ll need to carry out official processes at your closest public administration, for example if applying for your padrón registration at your local town hall. 

But that’s not always the case. If you live in a busy city, you may be able to find appointments more easily in a closeby town, where civil servants are more likely to pick up the phone or have spaces available.

It’s a move that could save you time, even if it involves more travel.

Play the emotional card

You may think that this is far-fetched but Spanish civil servants are Spanish after all, so although they’ve been indoctrinated to gatekeep to keep their workload low, you may be able to twist their arm with a sad and desperate story. 

Need to sort out a process for your elderly mother? Bring her along. Have to get a residency document for your newborn child? Carry him in your arms. Some funcionarios do have a heart so it’s worth a go. 

READ ALSO: How to save lots of time on official processes in Spain through the Cl@ve system

Hand them an official complaint

As mentioned earlier, numerous law firms have slammed the cita previa system as illegal. Diego Gómez, a lawyer who was awarded a prize for his blogpost on the subject, has created a document which the public can download and take to the government office where it’s impossible to be seen in order to scare them into action. 

You can download it here (keep in mind that you should read through it carefully and you’ll have to fill in some sections in brackets).

Paying someone to do it 

For some years now, internet cafés and gestores (jack-of-all-trades agents) have been offering people a chance to book much-desired citas previas when all else has failed, at a cost of course. 

This exemplifies just how broken Spanish bureaucracy is, when the public has to pay private entities, often dubious, for a service that should be completely free and available to all.

Some of these illicit middlemen use software that books out appointments the moment they become available, to then sell them for a profit, from €15 for an appointment at Spain’s social security to €50 to gain access to the foreigners’ office.

As infuriating as it may be, this is a last-ditch resort that some people with important official processes to complete are willing to pay for. In 2020, 65 percent of appointments booked at Barcelona’s extranjería (foreigners’ office) were completed by private ‘companies’ who were paid to do so.

Member comments

  1. Important to point out that some of the private companies using bots to reserve all the citas have been busted and the authorities are trying hard to crack down on them, fining them 200€ per instance of an inappropriately reserved cita previa. This only started last month after we revealed to the authorities in Madrid the existence of the cita previa racket.

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For members

MOVING TO SPAIN

Five essential red tape processes for new arrivals in Spain

The process of settling in Spain and getting all your paperwork in order can be tedious and frustrating but also necessary. This article will prepare you for all the bureaucracy when you first move to Spain.

Five essential red tape processes for new arrivals in Spain

Whatever the bureaucratic mission, we highly recommend that you have photocopies of all your documentation ready to hand over when the need arises.

Social Security Number:  

To get a social security number, you must take your identification (passport and any other relevant visa documents), as well as a copy of your employment contract to the nearest social security office.  You will need to fill out an application and show all documentation. 

READ MORE:

Bank Account:  

When you arrive in Spain one of the first things you will have to do is set up a bank account.  If you want to set up internet, phone, and utilities for your apartment, you will need a Spanish bank account to do so. 

READ MORE:

NIE and TIE

If you plan to spend more than three months in Spain, want to buy a property or start a company, you are legally required to get a NIE, “Número de Identificación Fiscal de Extranjeros“, or “Foreigners Registration Number”.  

It is important to understand that this is not the same as a Visa or Residency (for this you will have to get a TIE foreigner’s card). The NIE is the fiscal number that allows the Spanish government to identify you as well as declare you as a resident.

READ MORE:

Register on the Padrón

Registering on the padrón is a way of letting your local council know your new place of residence. You must do this if you are paying taxes and getting a medical card. Likewise, when you renew your residency they will ask you for the updated padrón. The process for this is fairly easy and can be done in the same day. Make an appointment at your nearest office or online. You will need a completed application form (available at local registration office), your passport (and a photocopy) and proof of address such as a rental contract or utility bill.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Spain’s padrón town hall registration

Medical Card

If you are planning on using the social medical care system instead of private insurance, you will need to sign up with your local medical centre and get a medical card (tarjeta sanitaria). The process is easy once you have completed all the other bureaucratic steps above.

You will need to take along your passport and NIE, your padrón, and your social security number to your local centro de salud (health centre) to register. 

READ MORE: How to apply for a public health card in Spain

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