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Updated 14 Apr 2021

Bureaucracy is a major problem in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, and it has long been a thorn in the side of expats trying to build a life here. Fortunately, there are a few tips and tricks to avoid head and heartache.

The red tape that expats have to navigate to obtain official documentation in Catalonia, even for what would usually be considered a simple administrative procedure in their home countries, is enough to drive any sane person round the bend, and is in fact dissuading many expats from relocating to this part of Spain. Another struggle many expats face is a lack of public administrative information in English. The language barrier just adds yet another layer to the already stacked process of obtaining official paperwork in Catalonia.

Why is bureaucracy such a problem in Catalonia?

Spain is split into 17 autonomous regions – Catalonia being one of them – and the regional governments are responsible for all the documentation of their population, including expats. Many of these regional governments have over the years added layers of bureaucracy to their administrative procedures, and in Catalonia it’s exceptionally egregious, and often illogical.

Catalonia’s stringent bureaucracy came about as a result of a reportedly corrupt administration that was filled with civil servants who effectively made themselves indispensable by creating administrative processes that could not be completed without them, therefore massively complicating the process but ensuring their jobs were safe. Over the years, not much has changed, and many of these processes remain in place and are as complicated as ever.

The ultimate solution

There’s no getting around the red tape, but there are a number of things expats moving to Catalonia can do to smooth over the worst of it, the most important of which is hiring a gestor or gestoría (administrative advisor).

While doing the paperwork themselves may save expats some money, it will result in a lot of time wasted in long queues, and something will inevitably get lost in translation somewhere along the line, which will result in even more time wasted. So while hiring a gestor means forking over some cash, it will save loads of time in the long run and spare expats plenty of headache.

Reasonably priced gestors often come in the form of online startups that charge a monthly fee. Expats would send the gestor the required paperwork, and then receive an online profile on which to manage their affairs. Expats may also be able to meet with the gestor in person to communicate their needs, as many of these professionals speak English.

Tips and tricks for going it alone

Those expats brave enough to tackle their own paperwork should keep a few things in mind. Firstly, speaking Spanish (or Catalan) is almost a prerequisite to avoid misunderstandings and disappointment. If expats don’t speak the language, it may be worth learning at least some common administrative phrases, such as cita previa (scheduled appointment) and en tramites (in process). Alternatively, we recommend expats rope in a local who’d be willing to help with the paperwork.

Other than the language issue, expats will need that rarest of virtues: patience. Unfortunately, and inescapably, these procedures will take long, and it’s best to manage expectations accordingly. Expats will also have to keep their cool and remain polite, as losing their temper will only rankle officials and lead to more delays. That said, it is also important for expats to recognise when they’re being taken for a ride. If you’re sent away to retrieve yet another obscure document that you weren’t aware you needed, it is probably an attempt by the official to get rid of you and you should stand your ground.

At times, however, it may be necessary for expats to leave and return on a different day if they are getting nowhere with a particular official. Much of how the process goes depends on the particular official you’re dealing with, and you may therefore have more luck with someone else on another day.

Lastly, it is more often than not a waste of time to send an email or a letter requesting something as it may just end up at the bottom of a large pile. Going in person is always more likely to yield results. Expats should also not expect to be informed when something is processed, and should instead proactively try and find out in person.

Is the over-the-top bureaucracy worth it?

The bureaucracy in Catalonia is bad. However, a little patience and acceptance that the process is going to be lengthy, convoluted and just downright illogical at times, will go a long way in helping expats avoid irritation and disappointment

Despite the red tape, Catalonia, and more specifically Barcelona, is one of the most picturesque, charming and ultimately worthwhile destinations in Europe. Expats who are willing to wade through the bureaucratic quagmire are rewarded with a lovely Mediterranean climate, sun soaked beaches, rich culture, friendly locals, delicious food, gorgeous architectural beauty and a seamless blending of tradition with innovation.