Maybe you’re here after reading my post on the application and visa process for the Auxiliares de Conversación program (also called NALCAP). This is the program that let’s native-English speakers be language assistants in Spain. Most of the information you’ll see online about this program is pretty positive. Well, I’m about six months into the program, and I have some important things to report back!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying being in the program myself right now as I type this. I got placed at a really great school, I love the neighborhood I live in, and I’m liking living in Madrid even more than I thought I would. Things are honestly pretty great!
But I find that between blog posts, TikToks, YouTube videos, and Instagram posts, an overly-rosy picture of “drop everything and move to Spain!” gets painted.
But things aren’t all sunshine and roses. I’ve even seen a few people on TikTik sharing that they’re not having a great time. They resent the overly-positive image of doing the program that they were sold by watching others’ TikToks.
Though I’m having a perfectly nice time here myself, it made me realize that there are definitely some things I did not know about doing the program that, in retrospect, I think many people would find important to know before making their decisions to apply.
So, that is why I’m writing this post of nine relevant things I feel you don’t really find out until way after applying (or even arriving!).
Let me know at the end if you have any questions, or if you are a current or former auxiliar with more things you “wish you knew.” Enjoy!
1. You Don’t Get Normal Health Insurance
Watch any TikTok or other form of media advertising the Auxiliares de Conversación program, and you’ll hear the typical blurb of “16 hours a week, 1000 a month, plus health insurance.” Yeah well that last part really isn’t true in my opinion.
What you get is travel insurance. If something bad happens to you, you have coverage. But no yearly check up. No routine blood work. No dentist. No prescription coverage. In short, no preventative health care. And for many people, that is just fine.
But the NALCAP is geared towards people from the US and Canada. I can’t speak for Canada, but in the US, “health care” provided by an employer means preventative care, and not just travel insurance. So it comes off a wee bit like false advertising to me.
Especially if you are planning to do the program for five consecutive years, that’s a long time to go without preventative health care coverage. So I simply think applicants should be clear on this in advance.
2. You Only Get Three Sick Days & You Need a Doctor’s Note to Prove Each of Them
As auxiliar, we get three justified absent days. After that, our pay is docked for each missed day. What is a justified absence? You just need to get a doctor here to write you a justificante and provide it to your school coordinator. It’s not difficult to do. But beginning with the fourth day you are sick, even if you have a justificante, your pay will be docked for that day.
It’s not the craziest policy. But especially since we are living in pandemic times, it’s something I think you should know. Many language assistants in Spain have gotten covid and missed out on days or weeks of pay. Maybe it doesn’t sound too big of a deal to not be paid for a day you don’t show up, but the real kicker is the next item on this list!
3. If You Miss the Day Before or After a Weekend or Holiday, You Aren’t Paid for the Entire Weekend or Holiday
Let me explain. While in the Auxiliares de Conversación program, you are not paid for each day you show up to work. Rather, you are paid for each day of the month. Let’s look at an example.
Let’s use the month of February, since it’s twenty-eight days, or four even weeks. We have four weeks of work, four days each week, so we work sixteen days (assuming no holidays). We are paid €1000 that month, like every month.
So you might think of it as €1000 ÷ 16 = €62.6 per working day. (Remember, you only work four days a week!)
Nope. Instead, it’s €1000 ÷ 28 = €35.72 per actual day of the month.
So, if you miss the last working day before your weekend, or the first working day after your weekend, you don’t lose only one working day’s pay of €62.6 or €35.72. You lose that working day, plus the three days of the weekend. That works out to €35.72 x 4 = €142.86.
And now let’s pretend it was a holiday weekend with two extra days (so a five-day weekend). Now it works out to €35.72 x 6 = €214.28. Yikes!
I do understand why the program does this. Many people do the Auxiliares de Conversación just as an excuse to have a good time in Spain and don’t take their jobs seriously. So the program wants to discourage people from faking absences to extend their weekends or holidays.
But if you are genuinely sick for four or more justified days, and the fourth (or later) day lands on the day before or after a weekend or holiday, it’s a pretty sad situation to be in. Especially while you’re already feeling pretty bad being sick!
While it’s not the end of the world, and they do explain in in orientation and in the contract, it’s something a lot of language assistants forget or don’t fully realize until the day they see their docked pay.
4. You May Not See Your First Paycheck for Months
It sounds crazy, but it’s true. This depends very much on which region you are in. Some regions, like Madrid, are known for being very good about paying language assistants on time each month.
Other regions, like Valencia, are known for the exact opposite. Language assistants in past years have had to team up with local journalists and organize protests to finally get paid. Even so, it’s normal there to not be paid until January or February. Some auxiliares see their first payment even later than that. Check out this article in a Spanish news site for some more info and some protest images.
The worst part is that it’s something that’s not expected to improve anytime soon. So it’s definitely something that shouldn’t get swept under the rug, especially before you make your decision on which regions to select.
5. The Housing Search is Hell
This will depend slightly on the city or town you will be living in. But in general, be prepared for a less-than-ideal time finding housing. It tends to all work out in the end, but it’s a rough road getting there! I cried about four times.
This section could be an entire post on its own. In fact, I’m planning to make a video about housing here because that’s how passionately I believe people need to know in detail what to expect! But here are a few main things that make it very difficult.
There are a lot of random rules for many apartments, like needing to provide proof of pay stubs for the past three months….into a Spanish bank account. Which you obviously don’t have yet!
Competition is fierce in many cities, especially during the time of year that English language assistants arrive in Spain. There are all the other auxiliares arriving at the same time. There are also university students studying abroad also arriving at the same time (if your city has a university). And of course, there is the normal amount of people looking for housing each month.
The language barrier makes it all the more difficult as well. Unless, of course, you speak Spanish fluently!
6. Utilities are Expensive & Volatile
Growing up in the US, where my family blasted the heater all winter in a four-bedroom house and paid less than $40 per month, I had quite the sticker shock seeing my first electricity bill here. My apartment uses gas except for the stove and the lights, so that made it even more shocking.
Then when I got my gas bill, I was even more shocked! And everyone told me that water was very cheap here, so I was shocked when I got my water bill too. And that was all in summer! Imagine my horror in winter.
Granted, I’m living solo. So I’m not splitting these bills with anyone, and I expected to pay quite a bit on top of my rent for electricity, gas, water, home internet, and my mobile phone. But not upwards of €100! I’ve paid over €100 a month for gas alone the past three months.
Apparently, the prices have been rising over the past year or so in Spain, and they are continuing in that direction. Because Spain sources its energy from other countries, they don’t have too much control over the prices, and it’s a high expense that locals have to deal with, too.
So especially if you are not coming to Spain with a lot of savings, this is something important to keep in mind when deciding your budget for rent. Make sure to factor in the utilities (and home internet and a mobile phone plan) into your “maximum spend” on housing.
7. Doing the Program is Not “Free”
Yes, it’s free to apply to the program. But don’t forget all the other costs! It’s definitely not free to “do” the program.
The visa application process is a few hundred dollars at minimum. It might be more if you don’t live day-trip distance from your regional consulate, need to get background checks from multiple countries, get a new passport, or expedite any part of the process.
You also of course have to pay for your flight. Then you likely will pay for a week or two in an AirBnB or hotel while you search for your new home. If you do not find housing right away, you will have to book more AirBnB or hotel stays.
You have to pay for your deposit, which in Spain can often be two months’ rent. There is also a good chance you will not get this deposit back (apparently it’s a very common thing). So you do need to view the deposit as an actual cost and not just a hold on your money.
You also have to pay fees for the immigration process. But those sum to less than €50, thankfully.
8. There’s a Good Chance You’ll Leave Having Barely Improved Your Spanish
Okay, so this one’s not really that true. But you will probably have to be very proactive to improve your Spanish while here. Don’t expect that it will just naturally improve through full immersion.
Why? Because there’s a good chance you won’t actually experience full immersion.
Maybe if you live in a small town without other English speakers, or with Spanish speaking roommates who do not speak English (emphasis on the “who do not speak English” part!).
But for the rest of us, we use English all day at school, and it’s very easy to spend the rest of our time with people who speak English to us.
So, all that means is that you may have to put some effort into learning Spanish while here! Find a language exchange partner and meet once a week. Go to language exchange events hosted in your city. Take lessons. Strike up conversation with the non-English-speaking staff at your school.
Otherwise, you’ll be very nervous to do anything that involves using Spanish (like using the phone!).
You can start some of these things back home before you depart for Spain. In fact, I highly recommend that you do! I would have been much worse off in my housing search had I not started with Duolingo (Apple and Android) a year in advance of my move. But I wish I did more. I’ve been doing virtual language exchanges with native Spanish speakers (whom I found on this site), and I wish I had thought of it back home!
9. Spain Gets Cold
OK, so like the previous item on this list, this may not really be that true. Spain as a whole is a lot warmer than many other European countries, many parts of the US, and much of Canada.
But sometimes, I get the feeling that people sell Spain as a land of eternal summer. And while some parts of the country are pretty warm year-round, that’s definitely not true for the majority of the country.
You’re definitely not heading to Norway! But parts of the country are quite rainy year-round, and even Madrid received some snow last year (though that isn’t common). I was lucky that it didn’t snow in Madrid this year, and the temperature here in Madrid is often comfortable in winter during the warmest part of the day. But I walk around thirty minutes to get to work, and especially before the sun comes up, it’s quite chilly that early in the morning during winter! So bring some warm clothes and shoes, or plan to buy them while here.
So, those are the nine main things I think get let a little left out of the Auxiliares de Conversación narrative. For me, none of them are make-or-break (except for the bit about the regions that don’t pay on time!). But maybe for someone else, they are! Regardless, it’s always helpful to have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into, especially when moving to a foreign country.
What Do You Think of the Auxiliares de Conversación?
If you’ve found this helpful, have any questions about teaching English in Spain or moving to Spain, or have further advice for soon-to-be English language assistants moving to Spain, drop them in the comments section below. I reply!