Expat Life Spain

How to Disappear Completely (Yet Let Everyone Know You’re Living Your Best Life in Spain)

Moving to Spain and leaving your normal life behind is a simple, 28-step process. I’ll explore that process, below, in waaaaaaay more depth than you could ever possibly care about.

Table of Contents

Step 1: Choose an Independent, Work-From-Anywhere Profession

(We failed here, initially. Luckily, somehow or another, we recovered). 

My wife and I are both practicing attorneys. We work crazy hours (50-70 hours a week). And, if you know anything about our profession, it’s all-consuming. It is your life. This means checking and responding to emails at night and on weekends. It also means long, unhealthy hours in an office chair staring at a computer screen, worried about deadlines, dealing with crazy clients, and thinking we never have enough time for it all. Throw in three young, needy kids (and take away a lot of childcare help) along with a general hatred of our profession, and you have our predicament. 

Over a decade ago, when we graduated law school, we immediately went on a yearlong “gap” trip around the world. We weren’t ready to work, work, work, up until we died. Have you heard about that study about people on their deathbeds? Basically, their biggest regrets are that they worked too much. We all know this without a study. But there we were slaving away. 

One thing we did do years ago, however, is to sorta chart our own course with respect to our profession. When we moved from Los Angeles to San Diego – for me to get my post-doctorate degree (because one cannot have ENOUGH debt), my wife was able to keep her legal job and work remotely.

Remote work is practically unheard of in our profession, but her years of putting in extra hours at the office gave her some clout and the firm didn’t want to lose her. And, after years of toiling for awful, egomaniacal bosses, I too became semi-independent by opening up my own law practice (and after five years, I gave up this practice because I had secured basically the only other possible legal job that allowed me to work remotely – #blessed).  

Now, Millennials are much smarter than us, in this respect. They don’t have baby boomer parents to model themselves after. So they don’t appear to seek the same fortunes – big mortgage, large car payment, huge credit card debt, enormous pressure to keep up with the Joneses. (Or maybe they do but realize it’s unattainable. But that’s a story for another day.) 

And, if you’re not tied down to such material possessions, you are able to move about the world. So, choose your profession accordingly. Digital nomads may be happier than the rest of us…. 

Step 2: Have an Absolute, Unapologetic, Midlife Crisis

This was easy for me. I had been mired in a midlife crisis for about a decade. Big, philosophical questions kept popping up in my head. I was constantly questioning my decision making. Why did I become a lawyer? Why wasn’t I an archeologist? I mean, money was the answer to both of those questions…but you get the idea. 

The big thing was, I felt like at the pace I was going, I would be 50+ years old and wouldn’t remember the past 10+ years. Stuck in a routine and I tend to mix all my days up. And then days turn into weeks, into months, into years, etc. I remember most of my college days (even though I was drinking heavily). Those were exciting and fun and novel and filled with interesting people and adventures.

And our post-law school trip around the world was impossible to forget. Almost every day held an amazing adventure. Ten years removed from that trip, and I barely remembered (or, at least, cared about) anything from the past ten years (except, as my wife loves to point out – our marriage, the birth of our three kids, yada yada, this is where I tune her out blah blah blah, etc. etc. etc.). 

Step 3: Figure Out that Spain is the Place to be

So, where do you go and how do you determine that? You could just pull out a map and chuck darts at it blindfolded. And when your dart hits Djibouti, if that doesn’t float your boat, really study the map to determine what you want. 

We wanted a lot of culture, a new language, good weather, and a place that was central to other cool spots around the world. Oh, and, it had to be cheap. 

We initially chose Greece, because it was incredibly cheap. But we read that the schools were bad, the country wasn’t overly efficient (read that as you wish), and the, uh, alphabet was all Greek to me. So Greece was out.

Looking around, we saw that Spain had a reasonable visa process. It was also close to not only Europe but Africa as well. It had a language that we already sorta understood (seven years of Spanish and I could almost order beers off of a menu). And Spain was cheap (about 40% cheaper than the cost of living in San Diego, California). So Spain it was. I think you’ll agree, so I just made your decision for you. You’re welcome. 

Step 4: Really, Really do your Research

We missed city life, as we lived for quite some time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But now we were living in suburb hell. And we wanted to get away from the slow, beachy surf town that we lived in (sounds awful, right?). But where to in Spain? We had only been to Madrid and Barcelona in our previous trips to Spain. But those two cities just seemed to big. We wanted a city, but not that big of a city.

So, our research led us to Seville (rhymes with “agree” OR rhymes with “agree-a” OR rhymes with “coup de ville”… it just depends on who you ask I suppose). Seville was a large city (but not too large). It was warm (one of the hottest places in all of Europe). It was close enough to the beach (about an hour by train or car…surprisingly, much longer by foot). 

Thus, without ever having been there, we agreed on Seville. But maybe not. Who knew? Booking a flight would be easy enough, so we just started researching apartments and schools. The only thing is, there was not much to read on apartments and schools. So, we just settled on figuring everything out once we got there. 

Step 5: Prepare your Family and Friends

There are plenty of studies that show if you really intend to do something, tell everyone you know that you’re going to do it. By doing that, you’ll be so afraid you’ll look like a flake that you’ll actually do it. In other words, our insecurities can actually make us great. 

Now, anyone who knows us knows that we’ll totally pull the trigger on stuff that would scare the shit out of other people. But still, being really concerned about what other people think, it didn’t hurt to start telling people 8-10 months before we thought we’d be able to go that we were going. 

And telling people early gave them ample time to celebrate us. Seriously, everyone should go away multiple times in their lives. 

Step 6: Find Your Nearest Spanish Consulate

If you live in Montana, or something like that, you’re screwed. Just give up now? Here is a list of the available consulates, which you have to visit in person for your visa (and have to be a part of that consulate’s jurisdiction). We were lucky to be so close to Los Angeles. And note, all of our advice is consulate-specific. Meaning, San Francisco will have different rules than Houston than Los Angeles than Miami than Chicago. 

Step 7: Read the Rules that the Consulate Lists Carefully

Duh. Obviously. But failing means having to go back and do it all again. For some people this may not be an option because the timetable is tight. So, be a little OCD here. 

The list of what you need for the consulate in Los Angeles is here. But, let’s look at these carefully. And, in the next steps, I’m going to list what you should do, in the order you should do it. 

But here is what the consulate tells you to do:

  1. Fill out the main visa application;
  2. Get passport photos;
  3. Valid passport;
  4. Provide you local ID (e.g. Driver’s License);
  5. Complete Ex-01;
  6. Complete 790-52;
  7. Get your medical certificate signed;
  8. Certify your clean police record;
  9. Get a bunch of stuff translated into Spanish;
  10. Certify you have money;
  11. Provide a copy of the most recent tax return (this is new, this didn’t apply to us, btw);
  12. Get Spanish medical insurance;
  13. Pay your visa fee; and 
  14. Complete the disclaimer(s).

Additionally, you may need to:

  1. Provide a marriage certificate; and
  2. Provide birth certificates for your kids. 

The consulate even has a printable, handy-dandy checklist here

Step 8: Pick a Date to Leave

Super tough to do this. But you have to decide, generally, when you want to leave since you have to do many things within 90 days of your entry to Spain. 

Hypothetically speaking, say you chose June 1st (make sure this is more than three months after the date you decide this date). I’ll base my dates below off of this date.

Step 9: Register for a Visa Appointment Four Weeks Before your Intended Departure Date

The four weeks is just what we did. It’s not hard and fast. But any earlier before your departure date and there is a chance that the dates of certain documents won’t be valid. I don’t know, for sure, but why risk it? And any closer to your departure date doesn’t give you time to fix things. 

Steps 10-14 (if you’re well outside of 90 days before your departure): Take Care of all of the Non-Time-Sensitive Items

Step 10: Get passport photos. Now, our passport photos in the US are not the same size as passport photos in Spain. They just aren’t. I got mine done at Kinkos and they weren’t exactly 2″ x 2″. But they were close enough for the consulate. This was just one of several things where we had to take a leap of faith. I don’t know how to get this exactly 2″ x 2″ without doing it yourself. I used to print my own passport photos until I failed once while trying to get the whole family visas for a different trip at a consulate in San Diego. It sucked. We waited for hours only to fail at the window on that one point (it was just one picture, my oldest son’s, that was just slightly too bright). Oh so close. 

Step 11: Renew your passport, if needed. Just make sure it has at least one year of validity left. 

Step 12: Complete all the basic forms required. 

Step 13: Gather all necessary certificates. 

Step 14: Arrange for medical coverage. We used DKV. They were supposedly the best. And, if you’re an American, you’ll notice just how ridiculously cheap medical insurance is. Sure, you’ll have to prepay for a year. But it’ll only cost you a fraction of what you pay back home. For us, a year’s worth of Spanish medical insurance cost approximately 1.5 month’s worth of US “healthy people” insurance. The only problem is, and I learned this 16 months after the fact…the public system in Spain is good, whereas the private system is, um, not so good. Makes you wonder why people pay more here for worse care. But, then again, a lot of things don’t make sense to me here in Spain. 

Step 15: Try to Sell Everything you Own, Get Super Depressed when Everyone Doesn’t Think Your Stuff is as Valuable as You do, Try to Sell Everything for Half of What you Think It’s Worth, Get Even More Depressed When People Still Won’t Buy it, Just Give Stuff Away on Your Driveway Just Before You Hand Over the Keys to Your House that you Just Sold and Hours Before you Drive Off to the Airport to Start Your New Adventure

Hold one sec. Just catching my breathe from the title. Getting out of the rat race meant wiping our slate clean in many aspects. 

We remodeled and sold our home. That was months of stress – long nights of me, myself, do full bathroom remodels and days of stress when our real estate agent dropped the ball on negotiating a counteroffer to what turned out to be the winning offer. Sigh. 

Fiscally, it didn’t make much sense to keep all of our possessions in storage. We did the math – figured we would be in Europe for years and it didn’t make sense to hold onto everything. We carted off only our most treasured items (which, unfortunately meant all of our nice, heavy furniture) to family members all over the state of California. 

The rest of our stuff we tried to sell on Craigslist and OfferUp. How do I eloquently describe this process? It fucking sucked. I constantly had to text and meet crazy people at my house (where I work) just to have them make crazy new offers when we finally did meet. Our nice stuff was not selling for what it should have been selling for. 

We did manage to convince the new owners to buy a lot of furniture, as this was mutually beneficial. And, staring down only a week and some change before we left, we had four garage sales and ended up just having a fire sale after we cried all our available tears. 

This is the hardest step. This is the worst step. Sure, you could decide to just rent out your home and put your stuff in storage. Sure. Maybe do that. 

Step 16: Do all the Time-Sensitive Shit

Meaning, get your police record clearance (“absence of police records” – here is where you can get it in California), which will be a letter you’ll get in the mail, which you’ll then have to send into your state’s capital to get an apostille of the Hague (which is just a fancy notary stamp).

Oh, and here’s an important point to make, before I forget. In Spain, the only way they think something is official is if there’s a stamp on it. Like, it’s not an official bank statement unless someone takes a stamp – a stamp that could easily be forged – and simply stamps the document with it. And Spain expects the world to be the same, which is crazy. I had to work like crazy to get our financial advisor to include brochures, letterhead, and embossed envelopes (“Just throw it all in please.”). Anything to make it look official, since his Merrill Lynch office didn’t have stamps. I also had to get really creative with our State Farm agent who acts as the custodian of our retirement accounts – “Can you just put a shiny sticker on the letter?”.

And just know, anything in English like the aforementioned, you’ll have to get translated by a certified translator as recognized by the Spanish government. The list of translators can be found here

Step 17: Wait and Worry

You’ll actually do a lot of this. And this step could have been inserted anywhere really. 

Step 18: Go to your Visa Appointment at the Consulate 

We lived in San Diego. The Consulate was in Los Angeles. No problem. Simple day trip. I’m not sure what you do if you live in New Mexico or something. There aren’t that many Consulates around. 

We drove up to downtown LA. The Consulate parking lot was confusing. Even with an appointment, we ended up waiting forever in a small waiting room with small children. And when our number was called, they wanted us all present on the one chair at the window underneath the bulletproof glass partition. Stupid. 

However, after a few minutes of the kids acting rowdy, I could just call them up when it was their turn. Now, the girl at the window had to review each person’s packet individually. I sorta get that. It was a bit silly though, in that they don’t have some process for families and all. 

Step 19: Pray you have Everything for your Visa Appointment

I’m a transactional lawyer by trade. I’m also obsessive compulsive and anal retentive. In other words, I’m a perfectionist. Having said that, even with reviewing the Consulate website, emailing the Consulate specific questions (and receiving vague answers), reviewing multiple blogs, and making way more copies of documents than I thought needed or practicable, I still did not get everything right. 

This is a good time to point out a minor character flaw of mine that drives my wife crazy. I am, by nature, an extreme rule follower. For example, if there is a bike line, I won’t walk in the bike lane. If I sweat on a piece of gym equipment, I’ll vigorously wipe it down after. Etcetera. I’m a good citizen, I think. But I won’t follow rules I find stupid. And I question everything. 

Well, the Consulate required full application packets for all my children. Which means they needed proof of income. My income. Which, well, to me, wasn’t proof of income for my kids at all. Kids don’t have income. I understand some kids might be applying solely – apart from their parents – for a visa. But I found it odd to copy all my retirement accounts, etc. for all of my children when the Consulate is relying on the one original Spanish certified translation in my packet. So, I refused to do it. But the Consulate needed it. So my wife had to scramble to copy all our financial documents at a local copy shop. She came back with a stack of copies five inches high. Lesson learned. Don’t be like me. 

Step 20: Wait

Waiting is something you’ll do a lot. You’ll get the preliminary approval from the Consulate. Meaning, you have enough to submit the packet to Madrid. But you won’t get the full approval for several weeks. 

Step 21: Get the Call to Pick up Your Visa

Again, I’m not sure what we’d do if we didn’t live so damn close to a consulate. 

Step 22: Immediately Put Your Home up for Sale

We debated for a long time whether or not to sell our home. Ultimately, it seemed like too much of a headache to monitor a rental, even with a property management company. 

As an aside, check on this. When we got our visa we could still maintain our primary residential property back home. I’m not sure you’re allowed to do this. But, without doing any research whatsoever here, I can see many easy workarounds to this, should you choose to keep your home back home. 

Now, remember how I talked about timing being the most difficult aspect? When you apply for the visa, you have to give them a launching date, if you will. A date when you’ll enter the country. You even have to show them proof that you purchased the airplane tickets. I arbitrarily chose July 2, which turned out to be a brilliant choice for reasons I won’t get into, but a poor choice for other reasons I’ll touch upon. 

Putting your home on the market not knowing whether you’ll be around for the completion of the sale is disconcerting, to say the least. I will say, however, we were lucky since the California market is active. We had a sellable house (our neighbor was the drummer for the rock band Weezer) that I spent months upgrading by hand. 

We had a shitty real estate agent and there was crazy drama. But our house sold quickly, and we even managed to get large pieces of furniture included in the sale. We handed over the keys and literally drove to the airport immediately after. Like, bang, bang. 

But, hold on, taking a step back for a minute. 

Step 23: Find a Place for all of Your Shit you Never Sold

Just rent a storage unit you say. But, wait. What if you’re not sure you’re ever going back? That was our case. 

Not only were we frantically trying to sell everything, but we were frantically trying to find family and friends who would adopt our stuff. Like our dream $5,000 couch that we couldn’t take with us. I think our family and friends made out quite well. 

Step 24: Pack only the Essentials (in 16 pieces of luggage). Move Those Essentials over Continents and Oceans via Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Narrowly Avoid Heart Attack. 

How do you figure out what you need to live? You definitely pack more than a vacation, but way less than a full move. For us, we ditched the kids books and everything else heavy (including by giant Mac computer…bwahhhhhhhh) and just packed like it was an extended summer vacation. 

On the way to the airport we stopped and said goodbye to some family. And here’s how strapped for time we were. We didn’t even weigh our bags until we got to the family house. And when we did weigh the bags, we found out we were over double the allowable weight on some of our bags. We were toting around 75lb. bags.

So, we frantically started emptying our bags. After spending weeks to expertly pack those 16 bags, we had about 45 minutes to unload about 40% of the stuff from them. To this day, I still don’t know what we left. But we got in our car, drove to airport with our family following us, and left our car to later sit in my mother’s driveway for a year while we still paid on the lease and maintained the mandatory insurance. It would have been more rewarding just to smoke hundred dollar bills like cigars each month. 

Step 25: Underestimate how Bad the Journey to your New Homeland Will Be

I have horror stories about flying with kids. Multiple, awful stories. But this time, to their credit, the kids weren’t awful. Well, I’m sure they were. I just don’t fully remember all their awfulness, so I’m giving them a pass. What was truly awful was handling the luggage. Oh, and, my itinerary wasn’t great. 

First, we landed in Madrid. No problem. But on our way to the luggage carousel, my son needed to pee. So that meant suddenly all my kids needed to pee, and my wife needed to take them. And I needed to stay with our carryon luggage. I could literally see the carousel in the short distance, and it was killing me not to be right there to welcome my luggage. I truly hate being the last person and collecting my sad luggage off the carousel last. And I had too much luggage, no cart, and was afraid to leave the luggage as I made my way to the carousel.  

My wife came to me several minutes later and said that the women’s line wasn’t moving, and that I’d have to take the kids in. So I rushed them into the men’s room. Out we came and I sprinted to the carousel. I collected all but one bag. Sure, there was one similar piece of luggage to the one I was missing (a large, grey Patagonia bag), but this one had some other guy’s name and phone number written in very large print with black Sharpie. 

Around and around the last few bags went. 15 minutes passed. I finally grabbed the bag that looked like mine and waiting another 20 minutes. I went to the lost luggage booth and couldn’t be helped. There was one person working there, but he worked for a different airline. Since my phone didn’t have an international calling plan, I asked the lost luggage attendant him if I could use his phone to call the number on the bag I picked up. He refused. I then asked him if he knew when the attendant from my airline would return, which happened to be the guy or girl who sat five feet away from him.

He told me, in Spanish, that it was not his job to know where the person was. I then asked him if he saw another person today. To which he replied, how would he know if someone sat there today. And, he would not notice someone else. I then kinda lost my cool, and questioned how oblivious he could be to not know if someone who worked five feet away from him was there or not that day. He then proceeded to scream at me and call the police. Spain was starting out great. 

I finally realized if we exit the luggage area, I could connect to airport WiFi and download an app to make the call to the guy that I was now convinced clearly had erroneously taken my bag. Holding his bag gave me at least some leverage. But it felt strange to exit the luggage retrieval area without all my luggage. 

I called several times and got nothing. I texted and waited. We decided to get local calling cards for our phones, and proceeded to stand in a line of about 20 people. Then my phone rang. IT WAS THE GUY! He said he’s sorry and that he had my bag. Only thing is he was already in downtown Madrid, about an hour away. But he said he’d drive it right back. 

Around this time I wanted to question him about how he failed to notice he picked up a bag that was devoid of his name and phone number in GIANT BLACK SHARPIE (like, 75% of one side of the bag). But I was just happy I’d be getting my bag back. 

Problem was, we had a short connection and our next leg of the trip was by train, not by plane. Look, I know you think this is crazy. But after all my research, based on time and money, the train was our best bet. I didn’t trust the short airplane connection…and, it turns out, for good reason. We would’ve missed our next flight. But I also underestimated just how far away the train was. 

Running short on time, I started to panic (as I often do). The train station was 30 minutes away and we were just under an hour from the time it would leave the station. The moments ticked by. Finally, the guy texted me he was out front. I ran out, he apologized, and we exchanged bags. Maybe he would’ve come back if I didn’t have his bag? Not entirely sure. 

At any rate, I had my last bag. Off to the train station. 

We wrangled the kids, headed out and were incredibly lucky to locate a van to take us all. We rushed to the station. 45 minutes until the train left. 

Sitting in traffic is probably the best time to practice serenity. I tried to let go of all the things out of my control. Which, at this point, was everything. I’m a high-stung kinda guy, I know. And I tend to catastrophise most things. Worst case scenario would be missing the last train out to Sevilla, staying an extra night in Madrid, then going out in the morning. But making that last train was EVERYTHING to me. 

We got to the station and when our driver slid open the door, out vomited an seemingly endless amount of baggage, children (also baggage), and high anxiety. I paid the driver who immediately apologized to me. I was confused. “For what,” I asked. He motioned to our 16 pieces of luggage and said, “Sorry, there is no trolly to move your bags.” “Wait, what,” I replied.

Fuck, I thought. This will be impossible. 

I grabbed five bags and walked with the two oldest kids. When I got to the end of the sightline of my wife, with the remaining bags and child, I dropped the bags and the kids. I then walked back to my wife, and collectively we somehow hauled the remaining bags forward to our little sentinels keeping watch over our cache of matching, obnoxious, brightly-colored Patagonia bags. 

One leg complete. 

We then managed to move at a steadier clip – my wife and I leapfrogging each other at times. I looked at the big board, locating our train’s platform number. 17 minutes to departure. Quickly assessing the situation, I saw no one I could ask for help or directions. But I did see we needed to move up a floor to get to our platform. It took us four elevator rides in differing groups of individuals to get our bags up one story. But when we got it all up, I immediately realized we needed to go back down a level.

Fuck. 14 minutes to departure.  

Panic was setting in. We moved the luggage back down and then found ourselves sprinting and sweating, sweating and spinning. Sliding bags. Dragging kids. 

We reached the bag security conveyor belts and I parked the kids by one side of the zigzagging line. When I got to my parked family, we slid the bags and kids under the rope and scurried to the bag screener. 

Being careful not to accidentally slide one of the kids through the x-ray screening device, we got through in record time. We were home free. 

Except we weren’t. 9 minutes to departure. 

Before us stood a line that stretched half the length of an American football field. All people waiting to get to their respective platforms. I sent my wife and kids to stand in line with a few pieces of our luggage.

Up until this point, anyone I looked at or spoke to refused to offer a helping hand or a scintilla of useful knowledge. I was alone now, with no plan and no way to move 11 pieces of luggage on my own.

But when a train station employee saw the look of fear in my eyes, she asked where I was going. I told her, and when I did, her concerned eyes nearly matched mine.

She told me to follow her. I ran and screamed for my wife to join me. The kindly train station employee then, with two of my children in hand, led us to the front of the line. For the first time in some time, I felt relaxed and hopeful. We just bypassed a 30 minute line and had three train station employees help us onto an elevator to descend to the platforms.

Five minutes to departure.

Exiting the elevator, we saw our train right in front of us. How lucky we were in that we didn’t need to scurry left or right to track down our platform. There is stood. Right there. Right…well, what number was our train car. 

We stood at train car #1. I pulled out our tickets once more to confirm. Train car #28. I look out as far as I could and couldn’t even see our car. I sent my wife and kids ahead. “Just go. Go!,” I yelped. 

Leaving me with more bags to carry than I had ever before attempted to carry, I set off. Was I carrying 500 lbs.?, I wondered. Is that even possible?, I questioned. Why is my shoulder hurting so bad?, I thought but clearly knew. 

At train car #15, I thought I was in the midst of the greatest feat of strength of my life. But, about as soon as I thought that, my strength was gone. My hope dashed. My heart rate reaching Formula 1 speeds. 

Swallowing my pride, I asked any healthy male for help. But the first three guys wouldn’t make eye contact. Two and a half minutes to departure. 

Finally, some incredibly nice man took pity on me. He tossed two bags on his shoulders and grabbed a rolling bag. Trains cars 16-27 breezed past. At car #28 stood my wife and kids and remaining luggage – just outside the door. One minute to departure. My new best friend helped us toss in the bags. When the last bag came on, the doors closed behind us. Just. In. Time. 

We thanked my new friend profusely, who immediately vanished into an adjoining car. With the entire car looking at us, and mumbling undecipherable comments about us, we located our seats – seats occupied by some of those staring and muttering. 

Managing to remove our seat holders, I sunk into my chair, sweaty body and all. The kids were occupied. And I dozed off from exhaustion. Next stop, Sevilla, Spain. Our new home. 

Step 26: Stay in Every Airbnb in Town. Realize that July was the Worst Month to be in Sevilla. Fail to Secure a Viable Apartment for Three Months. 

I think the title pretty much explains it all here. But let me just say this. No one should be in Sevilla in July (or August). No one. Including the devil. It’s just too damn hot. 

Step 27: Fail at Getting Bank Accounts, Visa Cards, Money from ATMs, and Copies of Important Documents I Need Copies of.

Just a long series of failures, really. 

Step 28: Realize that When You’re Drinking Your Cheap Beer and Staring at the Walls of a Palace Made (Re)Famous by Game of Thrones, You Did it. You are Now Living Your Best Life.

Smiling a lot. A lot.