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Spanish Immigration: Theater of the ultra absurd

Spanish Immigration

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself transported to the center of an impossible circle of stairways in a painting by M.C. Escher. So goes the nearly famous opening sentence to the Kafkaesque story of our Spanish Immigration.

When we arrived in Spain in late April, we were told to expect a fairly straightforward immigration process, chiefly because my wife and both of our kids already have European citizenship as German nationals. But as spring turned to summer and summer changed to autumn, our sunny optimism faded, and soon we were all but consumed by the dark clouds of frustration.

I will now attempt to clarify the excruciating process of Spanish immigration, with as little jargon and as few legalistic acronyms as possible. Although the steps required for Spanish residency are enumerated nowhere, and no two Spanish bureaucrats will recommend the same course of action, the happy-go-lucky world nomad must start somewhere. So somewhere we did.

Our first bold move was for my wife and kids to walk into the nearest police station, in La Seu d’Urgell, to apply for their NIEs. (I could tell you what NIE—pronounced nee-uh—stands for, but it’s really no use.) Basically, it’s the vital identity number you need to do anything in Spain, a little bit like a social security number. Naively, we thought that having a NIE would allow us to do all those things you cannot do without a NIE. But oh how incredibly wrong we were.

In turns out that what you really need, when people (at banks, phone stores, utility services, etc.) ask for your NIE, is actually a TIE (pronounced tee-uh). The TIE is the card, sort of like a Green Card, that has a number, in addition to your NIE, and also serves as a photo ID. But the wide chasm separating the NIE from the TIE, and distancing the innocent immigrant from his or her long-sought residency status, is far more expansive than any ordinary mind can comprehend.

Perhaps this is a good time to clarify what many people seem unaware of, the crucial distinction between residency and citizenship. I am a citizen of the U.S., and as such, my residency there is not really an issue. My wife, on the other hand, is German, and these things work a little differently in Europe. When she left Germany 13 years ago, and moved to the U.S., she terminated her residency, although she is still a German citizen with a German passport. After a long, grueling process, she was granted permanent residency status in the U.S., as my wife, and received a Green Card. But when we left the U.S. last year, she effectively forfeited her “permanent” residency. (It actually has to be renewed every ten years, and if you leave the country for more than 12 months, it is considered abandonned.) So, for the last 18 months, we have not had residency status anywhere. And this incidental fact can be somewhat problematic, especially in Europe, when we wish to buy a car or obtain insurance of any kind, and also when we apply for residency in a new place, like Spain.

So, here we are, with three NIEs and a great desire to gain some official capacity as a family of harmless people living in Spain. Now in order to get “residency” and a TIE, you need Spanish health insurance. And in order to purchase Spanish health insurance, you need a Spanish bank account, a NIE and some sort of employment status, as well as a Spanish phone number. But in order to get a Spanish phone number, you need a Spanish bank account and either a TIE or a NIE. But most importantly, if want to open a Spanish bank account you need a TIE, proof of employment, and a host of other documents, depending which clerk you ask and at which bank.

Welcome to the Matrix.

In case you lost track, let me try and explain it another way: In order to get residency, you need all kinds of things that you can’t get until you have residency. And it took us about five months to really understand that we were dealing with an infinite loop, an impossible cycle. But if you know us, then you know that we just hate to be told that we can’t do something.

So let’s fast forward now, past the part when we drove two hours to the government office in Lleida where an old man yelled at my wife and said “No trabajo, no nada!” and then our van broke down in the parking lot and we sat on the curb with our children waiting until midnight for a taxi that never came. Yes, we’ll definitely skip over that episode, in which we made absolutely no progress whatsoever towards our ultimate goal of obtaining residency cards.

With greater conviction, newfound confidence, and a fresh burst of enthusiasm, we returned to La Seu, determined to storm the castle and crack the vicious, closed circuit of bankers, insurance agents and civil servants. We also brought along a precious friend from Valencia who has some extensive experience wrestling with Spanish bureaucrats. (She helped her ex-husband get Spanish residency some years ago, and she’s also been speaking Spanish and Catalan much longer than we have.) We were ready for anything, including the Spanish Inquisition, and we were not about to take no for an answer.

So we walked into the bank, showed them our NIEs and told them what we wanted. And they said “no”. So we went to another bank, told them what we wanted, and they said, “no, but leave a phone number and maybe we’ll call you.” So we went into a third bank, and they said, “no, but come back next week with the following items of documentation, and maybe we’ll consider it.” Yes, in fact, this was the closest thing to progress we had seen in some time. With each bank we visited, they grew incrementally less objectionable. So we continued.

At the fourth bank, we proceeded past the tellers to the new accounts department, and found a promising sight. In the furthest back corner, behind a tidy desk near the window, there sat a gentlemen, gazing winsomely into the distance. His windswept hair was a pageantry of chestnut brown and silver grey, and he hadn’t shaved in over a week. The carnival colors of his striped dress shirt clashed with his Don Johnson neck tie in a way that sent my wife, the visual artist, into mild palpitations. The vast assortment of bracelets that decorated each of his wrists suggested that he was, among other things, a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, an avid fan of heavy metal, and the owner of a Harley Davidson, and also that he had very recently been discharged from the hospital. Clearly this man had no place working in any office, let alone a bank. This, my friends, was the man we desperately needed to speak to about opening an account.

Here was someone ready and willing to bend the rules. And he made that clear to us from the get-go, in no uncertain terms. And before we left the bank, more than two hours later, the rules had indeed been bent beyond all possible recognition. Art, science, or magic? No one can say for sure. Whatever secret subtle skills he may have possessed, he brought them all to bear on his desktop computer to override the bank’s main operating system, circumvent the ordinary restrictions and bypass the standard barrage of anti-money-laundering regulations. At one point he appeared to be channeling the art teacher from our daughter’s Montessori school, as he took his scissors and glue stick to a colorful array photo-copied documents and passport pictures. From computer hacking to scrapbook assemblage, what else could this man do? We dared not ask.

By the time our account was set up, every staff member in the bank had been summoned to contribute in one way or another to the unraveling of our Gordian knot. We laughed, we cried, we audibly gasped. And then suddenly there was a mad frenzy of hand shaking, and we left the bank with an armful of reading material for new account owners.

From this surreal encounter, we practically floated up the street, to our nearest provider of health insurance, where our enrollment process might almost be described as simple and straightforward. And now that the wife and kids have their health insurance, we can make a return trip to the government offices in Lleida, where the state-sponsored pencil-pushers should be tripping over themselves to issue shiny new TIE cards to my overqualified family members.

And once the three of them have their TIEs, then I (the American) can go back to the local police station and initiate the whole process for myself, as the husband and father of bonafide Spanish residents. And we have every reason to believe that my application will glide right through the system, faster than a cockroach on roller skates.

Fred Hornaday once considered writing poetry for a living, but then thought better of it. Contact him with your questions and comments at


  1. M says:

    So glad you found the buddhist metal head banker. The freak shall inherit the earth.

  2. Gayle Leaf says:

    Although you went thru an exhausting experience with much red tape, I want you to know that your story was read with a smile on my face. I admire you and your family’s tenacity.
    You Mom’s Friend, Gayle

  3. Definitely a 19 out of 10. The only thing missing is a mic drop at the end. One of your best written stories adventures. Good job on navigating that system, persistence and a banker with just the right amount of shadiness pays off in the end. You guys rock (like Tibetan Buddhist heavy metal).
    Peace, -J

  4. Ruth says:

    Amazing! Typical Spanish bureaucracy. Only India is worse.Very humorous and witty writing, Fred.

  5. Rick Stewart says:

    Well played …

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