Chances are if you’ve landed on this post, you’ve spent a lot of time researching moving to Spain, packing your suitcases diligently and hopefully, practicing or learning some Spanish but now it’s go time.
You’re on the ground, shaking off either the familiar or brand-new feeling of jet lag. You need to cross off some of the getting-settled steps that are currently preventing you from relaxing and enjoying your time in Spain fully. Or you want to read up on banking in Spain to get informed before your plane even lands on the tarmac of some Spanish airport (likely Madrid – Barajas, but maybe not!)
I know you’re probably thinking, “Ugh, the last thing I want to do is throw math (another foreign language) into the mix with the Spanish language and have to basically learn a whole new country’s banking methods and processes.”
I know. I’ve been there.
So, that’s why I’m here to help you through this process. Hopefully, I can make it a bit easier to understand and navigate when it comes time to visit a bank’s website or go to the branch in person. I won’t lie and say that my American self immediately adjusted to the Spanish (and essentially European) way of doing things but after a few years of living in Spain, it has gotten easier.
Ready to dive into the world of banking in Spain, how to open a bank account, learn essential vocabulary and start spending/saving those euros you will soon be earning?
These are just a few of the many rather dense topics we’ll go over in this post.
¡Pues, vamos al banco!
How the Spanish banking system works
The central banking authority in Spain is the Banco de España, which also serves as the national regulator of currency and exchange rates. It is centrally located in Madrid on the Calle de Alcalá. The Spanish banking system is integrated into the global financial markets and it offers a range of different types of banks: private, state-owned, international cooperatives and online banks. In the first part of the 21st century, the Spanish banking industry expanded greatly but then shrunk due to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Many regional banks closed or merged with others since that time to form larger brands.
There are approximately 141 banks in Spain (including 80 foreign entities), plus, 67 cooperative banks and 19 savings banks. There are over 25,000 branches across the country. Recent major mergers include Nova Caixa Galicia becoming ABANCA (whose logo could still be seen on Galicia regional transportation cards) and La Caixa and Bankia, becoming CaixaBank.
What are a typical bank’s opening hours?
A typical Spanish bank’s opening hours will range from 8:15/8:30-14/14:30 (2 or 2:30 pm). From personal experience, I have found that going earlier in the morning -as early as you can possibly manage- helps tremendously. On the days that I need to check off several administrative tasks on my free morning or day, going to the bank between 8 and 9 am is a good way to start things off on the right foot.
It is important to note what times of day when you can make different transactions at certain banks. If you need to pay a tasa (fee) or make a deposit at the ATM, aim to do that from 8:30-11 am. You can pay tasas almost at any time at your local branch but only if you’re a customer there.
If you’re looking to pay bills – which some people still do in 2023- you can do that either at the ATM or by speaking directly to a teller. Some banks now move the deposit time frames to all day during the first few days of the month and the last few days.
Check and see if the bank you want to set up an account with has afternoon hours. (Fridays might be shorter days.) My bank, for example, does offer afternoon hours once a week from September 16th to June 14th and is open from 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm (approximately) but only with an appointment.
Pro-tip: I’d advise not going between 11 am – 12 pm during the typical coffee break or 30-40 minutes before closing time unless you don’t mind waiting around a lot (either for someone from the bank to attend to you or for everyone else in line ahead of you to get helped respectively).
Currency in Spain (Eurozone)
Banking and spending money in Spain -er, rather all around the EU- is quite fun yet sometimes annoying because you have to learn a whole currency, coins and all.
The euro bills are equipped with several security features such as the watermark (which is visible when held up to the light), the feel of the paper (thick in some parts), security thread (a dark line that runs through the whole bill), hologram (the value of the bill with the amount should be visible within a door or window) and lastly, the color-changing number (only visible in 50€, 100€, 200€ and 500€ bills; the number goes from purple to olive green or brown on the back of these bills).
Each bill typically has a famous European monument depicted on the front and a famous bridge on the back. I personally just love all the different colors the bills come in, though this did take some getting used to.
Here’s the breakdown of euro bills by size and color:
- 5€ – gray/green
- 10€ – red
- 20€ – blue
- 50€ – orange
- 100€ – green
- 200€ – yellow/brown
- 500€ – purple
Now, the coins:
- 1 cent (centímo; the smallest coin, copper)
- 5 cents (about the size of a US nickel, copper)
- 10 cents (smaller than the 5-cent coin, gold-colored)
- 20 cents (medium-sized, rounded but with 7 notches carved into the sides, gold-colored
- 50 cents (the largest under 1€ coin; gold-colored)
- 1€ (smaller than the 50-cent coin, silver and gold mix, images vary by country)
- 2€ (largest coin of them all, silver and gold mix)
If the Eurozone currency is an interesting topic for you, take a look at the Security Features of the Euro Banknotes from the EU’s website to learn more fun facts.
Note: the majority of smaller Spanish shops will not accept bills higher than 100€ due to the shopkeeper only having so much change on hand for the day/week. Usually, a sign will be posted stating the shop’s rules for larger bills.
Types of Banks in Spain
Spain has quite a variety of banks around the country.
In March 2021, the biggest news in Spanish banking was the merger between La Caixa (headquartered in Cataluña) and Bankia (previously headquartered in Madrid).
In fact, the most notable event that I witnessed with my own two eyes was the Bankia building up near where I live in Plaza de Castilla changed its logo and became Caixabank overnight. My normal commute in and out of that Metro station as I knew it changed. I felt both sad and excited to be able to have witnessed that moment in the city’s history.
The most common banks around the entire country are as follows:
- CaixaBank (formerly La Caixa and Bankia separately)*
*Note: this bank has some of the highest fees compared to other national banks
The interesting thing about Spain is that the country has a specific focus on regional banks. However, the divide between regional banks is not as large as it was about a decade ago when I first opened my account. The individual locations are starting to cross over and expand into other regions around the county.
Regional ties are strong all around Spain and this can even be found in its banks. And I don’t know about you but I love finding differences between regions and learning about things like beer, wine and tapas. Regional banks can fall into this category.
Smaller regional banks are referred to as cajas in Spanish. They are owned by the government or cooperatives and operate primarily as savings banks. A savings bank doesn’t offer the same services as a regular national bank. They are also less likely to have English-speaking employees and customer service phone lines. Many of these banks have merged with others since the financial crisis in 2008.
Here are a few types of regional banks you can find around the county:
- Caja Rural
When I studied abroad in Sevilla at the beginning of 2010, my neighborhood had a couple of international banks. I remember Citibank in particular being located on one of the main streets (Avenida de República Argentina) because I had a Citi credit card at that time.
Depending on the part of Spain you live in, you will find international banks from a mix of different countries. Here are a few of the most common ones:
- Barclays (UK)
- Deutsche Bank (Germany)
- Citibank (US)
- ING (Netherlands)
- Attijariwafa Bank (Morocco)
In recent years, online banks have increased in popularity as more Spaniards and Spanish residents make purchases with cards and online payment methods.
The pandemic really opened the general public’s eyes to the convenience and efficiency of accepting card payments with a mere tap or the touch of a few buttons. Some more traditional places still prefer cash as the bank takes quite a large percentage of the sale (around 10% according to local merchants). At any rate, they could justify the fee for making a sale vs not making any sales for that time period or even the whole day.
It depends on your personal preference but some people really enjoy the ability to perform different errands from the comfort of their homes instead of having to deal with the restrictive branch hours of traditional banks.
Most popular online banks (or account types), linked individually:
ATMs and Cash Machines in Spain
One of these days you may voluntarily select “Spanish” as your preferred ATM language or say the numbers in Spanish mentally while punching buttons on the machine. It doesn’t have to be today but, you might find yourself doing that eventually like I did a few years into my life here.
As scary as a step it was at the very beginning of my Spain journey, poco a poco, you will adjust and the more you practice the language, the better off you’ll be living here.
Some helpful vocabulary to get you started on using an ATM in Spanish in Spain:
- Cajero (ATM/cash machine)
- Dinero (money)
- Retirar (o sacar) dinero (take money out/withdraw)
- (Úlitmos) movimiento(s) (movement(s)/latest transactions)
- Introducir tarjeta (insert card)
- Cantidad o importe (amount)
- Efectivo (cash)
- Saldo (balance)
Important note: Many Spanish ATMs have withdrawal limits of up to 300€/day. Check the back of your Spanish debit card to see which network you’re in (most commonly: EURO 6000 or Servired) so you don’t get charged for using an ATM outside of your bank’s network.
For foreign debit or credit cards, you may have to pay a transaction fee which can range from 50 cents to up to 6€ (depending on the amount and from personal experience). This may be added on in addition to your card’s foreign transaction or ATM withdrawal fees. Be sure to read the fine print!
Avoid these types of ATMs
In major Spanish cities today, companies have been installing more independent ATMs than bank-sponsored ones in city centers. I became very aware of that fact back in October 2022 when my brother visited me in Madrid for about a week and a half.
On my way to pick up a physical map and a guide to Madrid from the Tourist Information Office (in Plaza Mayor) for him, I also needed to stop and take out some cash. However, when I did a search for banks in my EURO 6000 network, not a single approved ATM popped up.
So I was forced to head back up to my area after I had gotten some materials for my homemade tourist packet and went to one of the ATMs I visit regularly. Had I been a tourist looking for an ATM that was connected to an actual bank, I would’ve been out of luck and forced to go to a nearby potentially unknown neighborhood.
A note on requesting or purchasing currency before you leave
The short answer here is to not purchase euros before you leave your home country and arrive in Spain.
Well, if you can believe it, this advice was still being recommended to me and other travelers during 2010 when I was getting ready to study in Southern Spain for a semester in college. Debit cards were widely used at that time but smartphones like the iPhone had only just been released to the general public and had not yet caught on in terms of popularity.
I went with a combination of a guidebook and my university’s study-abroad office coordinator’s advice to not request euros from my bank before I left on my flight from the US. Besides, I was banking with a network of banks located in and around Jacksonville, Florida, but Ohio (my home state) was my base for a few weeks before the semester started. I couldn’t actually physically go to a branch of the bank where I was a customer.
Even though I would be spending part of my layover in NYC (something I had pre-planned when I chose my itinerary and route), where dozens of banks have branches and headquarters, the idea still didn’t make logical sense. And what if I dropped my wallet or someone stole it?
I was not going to take that chance and I advise you not to either.
The only thing I really sort of neglected to do was call my US bank before I left Spain but I made sure to do that during my first week here. I was very concerned about not forgetting to suspend my plan with Verizon for 3 months and packing for 4 months abroad but that nearly slipped my mind. What I should’ve done was have called my bank via Skype and not paid over 1,20€/minute to call my bank from my trusty little Spanish flip phone.
You might be asking: what can you do instead of purchasing euros before your trip?
- Talk to a customer service representative at your bank via their chat feature, on the phone or in person
- Tell them you would like to put out a travel warning or note on your US account and cards
- Learn and write down your card’s daily ATM withdrawal limits and remember them
- Plan to make your very first transactions in Spain using your card or Apple or Google Pay
- Get yourself away from the airport, train station or city center when you arrive and look for a bank-owned ATM with reasonable fees (no more than a couple of euros) and take out the largest sum you need
- Don’t carry more than 80-100€ on you at a time
- Keep large amounts of euros somewhere safe inside your hostel, hotel or temporary accommodation
Types of banking services available in Spain
Your initial research when searching about moving abroad may not include going deep into what banking services your new home offers. To help you weed through all the copious amounts of information online, I’ve made a list complete with new(er) Spanish vocabulary terms for you below:
Checking/current account (cuenta corriente) – This is your primary account and what you will open in the beginning of your time in Spain.
Non-resident accounts (cuenta no residente) – An account you can open with your passport before you receive your residency or student TIE and then switch to a regular checking account.
Savings and investments accounts (cuentas de ahorros o inversiones) – You can open a savings account at the same time you open a checking account here. They’re not as common among young people in Spain but if you want an account to move savings into or automate weekly/monthly deposits. Private investment accounts are not very common but for more info, you can take a look at Expatica’s investing in Spain guide.
Insurance (life, home, car/auto, health insurance) (seguros de vida, hogar, coche, de médico) – Many banks in Spain offer a variety of different private insurance plans, which is not something you’d find in the United States. You can also sign up for one through a mutual or securities company.
Digital and online banking (banca eletrónica y digital) – To check your accounts and possibly send transfers online (something we did here before the apps), you need to be set up to access online banking with a username (now: your DNI/NIE) and PIN number. This differs from the US where you’d create a specialized username and password.
Mobile banking (banca móvil) – I want to say that all Spanish banks now have a banking app. I got my own bank’s custom application sometime in either 2018 or 2019 so they are still a fairly new concept here. Some banks even let you use a virtual copy of your debit card on your phone to scan and make purchases.
Business banking services (servicios bancarios) – These are special accounts and services for freelancers, entrepreneurs and large company owners.
Customer service in English (atención al cliente en inglés) – A lot of banks have a customer service line with English-speaking account executives. Do a search on the quality of your own bank’s customer service and be prepared to deal with non-native English-speaking workers (who may be outsourced employees and located in Asia or Latin America.)
This can help you until you get more comfortable with the Spanish language and your ability to interact with people on the phone and/or in person. I strongly recommend going to the bank directly and communicating with the employees in Spanish but I understand that not everyone comes here with a few years of studying and speaking it regularly like I did.
(If the above description sounds like you, take some time to read up on tips on how to improve your Spanish language skills.)
How to open a bank account in Spain for the first time
Show your passport and TIE application form
First things first, you will need to let the bank know (with proof) your nationality and visa status. A lot of banks offer a non-resident account type for people who have not yet gotten their TIE. This is a quite common bank account to open if you have just arrived in Spain and haven’t had time to finish all of the getting-settled tasks on your to-do list yet.
If you have already submitted the application for your first TIE, show the bank the sticker on your application or a print-out of the submission confirmation page and tell them that you will come back in x days/weeks with your card. In fact, I always visit one of my bank’s offices each or every other year with my new TIE so that someone there can make a photocopy of it for their records. For proof of address, bring your rental contract or a bill in your name such as your phone, Internet, water or electricity bill.
(You may also be able to upload a photo on the bank’s app later.)
If you are an American citizen, you may have to sign an FBAR form declaring your fiscal residence The FBAR stands for Foreign Bank & Financial Accounts. It will not be Spain if you are here on any type of study visa.
If the youth account doesn’t apply to you, be prepared to commit to a 600 or 700€ monthly deposit to prove regular income and transactions.
(Your carta de nombramiento from the auxiliar de conversación program should be acceptable)
Browse your options and choose your account type based on age and/or visa status
Almost all banks will offer a cuenta jóven account for customers who are between the ages of 18-35. The teller will more often than not explain the benefits of a youth account to you after you sit down to sign up for an account.
Note: When you turn 35 or 36, you will be switched over to a regular bank account (unless otherwise specified in your contract). If you don’t meet their zero fees requirements, you will have to pay quarterly (every 3 months) or semesterly (every 6 months) maintenance fees on both your account and debit card.
If you’re looking for more of a freelancer (autonómo) or business account, ask the specific branch what benefits and conditions the bank offers. They will likely require you to link your Social Security contributions (direct debit) or quarterly tax obligations (voluntary or accountant-approved payments) to the account in order to officially label it as such.
Surprising fact: Unlike the US, you can open a bank account here with 0€. The teachers at my very first school informed me of this and even though I went to the bank armed with that knowledge, I opened my own by making a 5€ deposit (thus accidentally ridding myself of the last of my change).
Sign the necessary paperwork and request a debit card
Take a minute or two to read over the contract that you will sign and review the terms. It never hurts to take a little extra time to do this regardless if you are reading it in English, Spanish, Catalán or Galego. Become aware of all of the conditions for account maintenance, fees, debit card fees (note: youth account holders will receive a free debit card), the conditions that will take effect when you turn 35, fee increases, etc.
If you have someone helping you with the translation of the terms and conditions, make sure to go over it thoroughly with them so that you understand exactly what you’re signing. Most accounts should be fully set up and ready to use within 5-7 days after you sign the paperwork.
Go back to the same branch to pick up your new debit card
About 7-10 days after you open your account, your debit card will be ready for pick up. At least this was my experience with ABANCA in Galicia many years ago. I was told that the reason they do this is so that the cards do not get lost or stolen in the mail from what I remember. You might almost be close to receiving your first bank transfer (paycheck) from your school or client so do something to celebrate and use your new card!
After you memorize your new PIN number for it, of course. 😉
What is an IBAN?
If you’re coming from the US to Spain, you are most likely familiar with the terms account and routing numbers. Canadian banks are slightly different in that they ask for an institution number and then the transit and account numbers.
In the UK, they have account numbers but instead of using a routing number, a sort code is used to identify each bank’s specific branch.
The IBAN (pronounced, ee-bahn in Spanish) is an acronym that stands for, “International Bank Account Number.” It’s part of an internationally agreed-upon system of identifying bank accounts across borders in order to facilitate the communication and processing of international transactions. This system was developed to help reduce the risk of transcription errors made between banks from different countries.
In Spain, a typical IBAN consists of 2 letters and 22 numbers.
It will look like this:
ESxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
If you’re going to make a simple bank transfer to either another Spanish account or another country, you will need to look up your bank’s SWIFT code and add that to the transaction details.
Acceptable payment methods in Spain
Compared to the United States, you can still use a variety of payment methods around Spain. Post-pandemic, the country has warmed up to the idea of accepting more payments with cards (whether virtual or physical) even more than before. I would still say that cash still has a stronger presence in Spain than it does in the US. However, cards, virtual wallets and Contactless payment methods have grown very popular, especially in the post-pandemic world we’re now living in.
Despite what other blogs and influencers might tell you, Spain is still the type of country that prefers cash over cards.
I know this based on my daily life here and the interactions I have with shopkeepers and merchants. While the pandemic has changed the way the country views cash and how shops and restaurants have become more welcoming in terms of card payments of all amounts, don’t count on everywhere you go to be like this.
Expect to use cash for purchases that range from 10-15€ or less. Things like fruits and vegetables, small pastries and loaves of bread, photocopies, a single coffee/tea -that’s not part of a breakfast deal- and the odd small purchase such as newspapers, magazines, books, souvenirs, candy or postcards every so often.
And if you can, try to pay in exact change. Something I’ve noticed lately is how supermarket cashiers and shopkeepers are starting to ask people, “Do you have (x amount of) cents to add?”
It’s nice to see that coming back.
Also, if you want to leave a small, totally voluntary tip (1-2€) at a restaurant, cash is the easiest way to do that!
Debit or credit cards
Contactless pay is now very common in Spain but there might be a payment limit. Also, every 10 or so transactions you will have to insert the card into the machine and enter your 4-digit PIN.
I sometimes do this myself periodically (at a self-checkout or when there’s hardly a line behind me) before the machine pings my card and forces me to do it.
For the most part, use your debit or credit card in Spain just as you would in your home country and cover the machine’s screen when entering your PIN.
Don’t share personal details or card info with anyone outside of your household (ie: fiancé or partner). Also, notify the bank of any suspicious activity or transactions as soon as you notice them.
International bank transfers
During my first few years living in Spain, I struggled to find a way to move money between my US bank account and my Spanish account.
If I was home for a longer period of time, I would be spending and earning dollars (pre-freelancer years) over the summer. But, sometimes I took out large sums of money from Spanish ATMs using my US debit card, which I now do not recommend.
In short, I always ran up against a time when I’d need to transfer a large amount of money (ie: hundreds of dollars to euros) at once to be able to make it easier to pay for purchases and pay rent using my Spanish debit card or account.
Thankfully, back in 2017, I finally signed up for Transferwise (now known as Wise) and I have not had to take large amounts of money out of my US account just to deposit the bills into my Spanish account (and pay a $5 transaction fee each time). Wise’s money transfer service offers competitive market rates, and no hidden fees – they show you exactly what you will pay on the app or on their website before you make the transaction.
If you use my Wise referral code*, not only will you be able to make a fee-free transfer for amounts over 250€, you will be supporting my website directly and helping me reduce the costs required to run it. The more support I receive, the more free content I can produce so it’s a win-win for both of us.
And if there’s anything I wished I would’ve done when I first moved to Spain, it would’ve been to have found an international money transfer company like Wise to help me make large deposits easier.
*Affiliate links can be found throughout my website where I earn a small commission for recommending a product or service at no additional cost to you. Thank you for helping me reduce the ever-increasing costs to run this site!
Online + mobile payment apps
If you’re familiar with Venmo or Cash App in the United States, the Spanish version, Bizum, will likely remind you of it. You will need to download the app (or sign up for it via your bank’s app if it supports this payment method) and then allow it to send payments directly from your smartphone (using your phone number).
Some people are hesitant to let an app use their number directly but I haven’t had any issues with Bizum.
You can also use Apple and Google Pay or PayPal in Spain by registering your information on the site with a new email address.
Personally, I don’t know anyone who uses a check anywhere in Spain today. I did hear from a couple of friends that their schools paid them their stipends in the form of a check but I did not deal with that directly.
The only time I requested a certified check from my bank was when I was renewing my US passport at the Embassy in Madrid. Even then, the staff at the main branch had me confirm a couple of times that I actually needed this form of payment. And I did back in 2019, but now you can pay online or in person through a card reader at the US Embassy in Madrid.
Understanding bank and overdraft fees in Spain
While not particularly applicable to youth and student accounts, bank fees can certainly add up when banking in Spain. I would encourage you to try your best to meet the requirements for the “cero comisiones” programs your bank might offer. Even if it means taking out an extra rental or life insurance plan with your bank (yes, these are things you can do in Spain).
The general things to keep in mind are:
- Debit cards: (3-10€ per month and charged on a quarterly or annual basis)
- Maintenance fees: (12-20€ per month and charged on a quarterly/semesterly basis)
- Service fees: (1-5€ for national and international transactions)
- Overdraft fees: (15€/transaction or purchase, possible daily fees but check your bank’s policies)
- Interest/commission fees: (varies; these have been random charges for a few cents that I’ve seen)
Banking fraud and scams to watch out for
If the bank you choose to go with is anything like mine, you will most likely receive periodic emails detailing how you can avoid scams. They will also send reminders to not open any links that aren’t from the entity itself.
Banks in Spain are constantly improving their security features on both their apps and websites with services such as facial recognition and card-blocking techniques. However, the amount of hacking and scams have increased sharply in the last 5 years since I started using my bank’s mobile app. I’ve also heard a number of stories from the wider expat in Spain community and had a couple of run-ins with spam messages myself.
You can protect your money and bank account from fraud by:
- Never click on a link to a bank’s website in an email or text message that you don’t recognize
- Never give out sensitive or confidential information by email or over the phone
- Make online payments only using your bank’s secure payment platform (and enter any codes they sent directly to your phone)
- Never enter your PIN number on sites you don’t trust (and don’t keep the PIN card or form near your wallet if it gets stolen -friends’ personal experience here-)
- Never store banking information on your phone
How to report a lost or stolen debit or credit card in Spain
Last, but not least, keeping your cards physically safe!
I do not have personal experience with this type of situation but I still can give you some practical tips if this happens to you. Like other cards and items that could get stolen, it’s important to file a report with the Spanish police.
If your bank or credit card is stolen, you should:
- Contact your bank or card provider immediately. Most banks have 24-hour hotlines that you can call under these circumstances.
- Call 091 or 112 (the local emergency line) and report the incident at your nearest police station.
And that covers banking in Spain! This post will be updated periodically to reflect new technology, methods and statistics when necessary.