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‘It seems impossible’: The problems Spain’s digital nomad visa applicants face

Despite all the hype, getting Spain’s digital nomad visa has been far from easy for some, with applicants telling The Local it's become "unappealing", expensive and that Spanish authorities are "completely confused" about what's required.

digital nomad visa problems spain
A number of foreign readers looking to move to Spain have told The Local about the bureaucratic problems they've faced when applying for the new digital nomad visa. Photo: Jonathan Kemper / Unsplash

There was a lot of excitement when Spain’s digital nomad visa or DNV finally became available in early 2023 and many freelancers and remote workers from non-EU countries could get the chance to live in and work from Spain.

Up until that point, the only real option for those who were unable to get a visa to work in Spain or didn’t have half a million for the Golden Visa was the Non-Lucrative visa, but as the name suggests people were prohibited from working on this visa, even if it was for a foreign employer or clients.

When the DNV finally launched there was much confusion from the outset with no clear instructions from Spanish authorities on how to apply and no clear announcement to say it was now available. Several law firms, as well as journalists, including those from The Local, managed to piece together the application process from several government sources.

Since February 2023 when clear guidelines and requirements were laid out in the media and by several Spanish law firms, many from all over the world have begun the application process in a bid in make their dreams of living in Spain a reality.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about applying for Spain’s digital nomad visa

Unfortunately, The Local Spain has learned that in practice the process hasn’t been easy. Many applicants have been coming up against lots of bureaucratic setbacks and obstacles, spending thousands on lawyer fees, taking weeks to gather documentation and getting it all translated.

We spoke to several digital nomads who are currently in the process of applying for Spain’s DNV about what their experiences have been like.

Jess Haddow is an American who works remotely for a company in the US. He was very happy when the visa was announced so that he could join his fiancée who lives in Valencia. As the process is very complex, he decided to use a lawyer to help with his application.

“I started booking consultations with various law firms and received quotes between €1,200 and €1,800, and I ultimately went with the lowest bidder,” he explained.

READ ALSO: ‘No lawyer can guarantee you get Spain’s digital nomad visa’

“My goal was to move to Spain in March, so I immediately went to work collecting the correct paperwork. I was very worried about receiving the apostille for my FBI background check in time because the US State Department was reporting a 10-12 week delay,” he added. 

He managed to get around this issue by contacting his Senator’s office to get help expediting the apostille, and after some back and forth, they ultimately relented and helped him get it in four weeks.

It was then that he discovered a small clause in the list of documents that was required that was to become his main issue. The clause stated that he would need to provide a certificate of social security coverage from his country or his company would need to register for and pay social security in Spain. 

When Jess contacted his lawyer about this she originally believed it must be a mistake and that getting private health insurance should negate the need to provide the certificate.

It soon became clear however that this wasn’t a mistake and that remote workers would indeed need to prove social security coverage from their home country to get their digital nomad visas.

So, Jess contacted the US Social Security Administration to see if he could get the required certificate. “Their response to me was that only employees who are transferred to an employer’s physical office or affiliate’s office in Spain for a period of less than five years are eligible for a certificate of coverage. They said that the Social Security Totalisation agreement between Spain and the US does not cover remote work”.

One way around this was for Jess’s company to register with and pay his social security in Spain, which ultimately they were unwilling to do.

The second way around this was for Jess to become a freelance contractor instead of a remote worker with a contract and become autónomo (self-employed) in Spain and pay his own social security. But, by doing this Jess learned that he wouldn’t qualify for Beckham’s Law, which would limit his personal income tax in Spain. “This was a bit of a dealbreaker for me,” he said.

READ ALSO – Self-employed in Spain: What you should know about being ‘autónomo’

“I have spent around €2,800 for lawyers, consultations, notaries, and documents in pursuit of the digital nomad visa, and I’m no closer to my dream of living in Spain,” Jess added. 

After liaising with two different tax professionals, Jess has ultimately decided to try a different route to gain Spanish residency. 

Sam is from the UK, but is also in a similar situation to Jess, being a remote worker employed by a company, rather than a freelancer.

“This visa route at the moment almost feels like an impossibility, he explained. “The main reason for this issue seems to be the sheer burden of documentation that needs to be provided. We’ve been working on gathering documentation for six weeks now and are still waiting on key documents”.

Despite being in the UK, he has also come up against the same social security issue. Unlike the US, however, the UK has in some cases been issuing social security certificates to remote workers.

READ ALSO: Your questions answered about Spain’s digital nomad visa

“The UK is taking 10 weeks for online applications and 29 weeks for postal applications. In some cases though, they are not issuing the certificates at all because they do not believe the DNV is appropriate for its issuance,” Sam explained.

So far, Sam has spent upwards of £10,000 on solicitors fees, translations and other administrative fees, despite not yet being able to live in Spain. “Having spent a lot of time looking at other digital nomad visas I am currently of the opinion that Spain’s is one of the most unappealing and difficult to obtain,” he said.

Despite all this he is determined to continue with his application and find a way around the issue and make his childhood dream of living in Andalusia a reality.

digital nomad visa spain problems
Remote contract workers looking to get Spain’s digital nomad visa appear to be experience the bulk of the bureaucratic problems. Photo: Shridhar Gupta/Unsplash

Some UK members of the Spanish Digital Nomad Visa (DNV) group on Facebook have reported that their certificates needed for social security coverage have finally come through from the HMRC. One member has also posted they may grant urgent requests to do it sooner if you provide a good enough reason.

Many members are also advising applicants from the UK to only request their certificate from the HMRC for a temporary period such as two years (even if you are planning on staying three years on the visa), as they will not issue it if they believe you are permanently moving to Spain or spending longer.

Ray Goldberg from Australia has taken a slightly different approach. He is currently in Spain on a 90-day Schengen visa and is trying to get his digital nomad visa approved from here before the three-month period runs out. He has gained permission from the trust he works for in Australia to work remotely.

One of his main issues has been having to get all his company documents notarised and apostilled in Australia as the embassy in Spain has been unwilling to help. “The UGE (authority in charge of issuing the visa in Spain) itself is completely confused as to what is and what isn’t required. I spent considerable time running around trying to get documents notarised in Spain,” he explained. “It took me two weeks to get documents notarised and even then it was under duress”.

He is using a lawyer to help him through the process. “There are a multitude of lawyers charging outrageous fees when they don’t really understand the visa. Quite a few tried to get me to pay for sessions remotely before the visa was even released,” he pointed out.

While it’s still been difficult, not everyone has found the process quite so impossible, this is particularly those who are freelancers and work for themselves rather than those who are employed by companies. This is due to the fact that they have to promise to register as autónomo when they arrive in Spain and will therefore be in charge of paying their own social security contributions. 

Nikki Martinez from the US who is applying jointly with her husband is one of these and works as a freelance health coach and chef. She submitted her application at the beginning of April and has almost completed the process in just four weeks.

“Just heard back and there’s only one document they’re asking for from me (and it’s an easy one) so it’s looking very good!” she said. “It’s a document to further prove my current contract with my client, which we actually already had, but found there was a discrepancy between my original contract date and the letter they wrote for me.” 

Despite the process being easier though, she has still opted to use a lawyer to help her complete everything and get it all in order so she doesn’t miss anything. “I truly believe hiring help will ultimately be what will get us approved. I personally do not have a Degree. My education is more tech/certification style and experience. So I had to take extra steps to prove my three years of experience,” she explained. 

She used Navarro & Asociados Abogados and paid an initial fee of US $753, then paid $931 at the time of submitting her visa application (this included the fees to submit the application as well). On top of that, her translation fees were $543. 

Sarah Chappell is another freelancer who has found the process slightly easier. “I came on holiday a month ago and decided to stay,” she explained using the DNV as a way to do so, and is planning on completing the application while in the country.

Sarah found that there was a lot of paperwork and upfront costs involved, but that this was to do with setting herself up in Spain than the DNV specifically.

While the process has been difficult and somewhat problematic, there are many freelancers on the Spanish DNV Facebook page who have already managed to secure their visa and are currently on their way to starting a new life in Spain.

As for remote contract workers, it seems that the conditions still need to be ironed out by Spanish authorities for those from several countries. 

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For members


How many travellers are turned away at European borders because of 90 day limit?

Many Non-EU nationals, including Britons since Brexit, need to make sure they don't go over the 90-day rule in the EU/Schengen area. But how many people are turned away at European borders because they overstayed?

How many travellers are turned away at European borders because of 90 day limit?

The 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Champion, UK’s Lucy Charles-Barclay, may not be able to participate in the next race of the season, on the 21st of May in Kraichgau, Germany.

The reason? She has already used 88 of the 90 days she could spend in the Schengen area over a 180-day period, the athlete said on Instagram.

Non-EU travellers, who since Brexit include Brits, have to be aware of the 90-day rule when it comes to visiting the EU and Schengen area.

People can travel without border checks within countries that have signed up to the Schengen Agreement. These include EU members except for Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania. Non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are also part of the Schengen zone.

Non-EU passport holders who are allowed to visit Schengen countries without a visa can stay for maximum 90 days in any 180-day period, regardless of the number of states they go to. This means frequent visitors to EU countries, such as those who own second homes there, need to keep a careful check on how many days they have built up.

READ ALSO: How does the 90-day rule work for the EU/Schengen area?

The 90-day limit is meant for visits only, so people who intend to become residents have to follow different procedures.

Anyone who wants to stay longer than 90 days in every 180 must apply for a national visa for the country they intend to visit.

Passengers wait under panels at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, in the northeastern outskirts of Paris, on March 4, 2023.(Photo by Geoffroy Van der Hasselt / AFP)

If overstayers are caught they will most likely be ordered to leave, fined or even banned from the Schengen zone for a period of time. Since Brexit, these rules also apply to UK citizens, to the frustration of many second home owners in France and Spain.

The European Union plans to introduce a new border system, the EU entry/exit system, that will require biometric data, including facial images and fingerprints of all passengers entering the EU, helping authorities to systematically identify overstayers.

Travellers refused entry over the 90-day rule

Overall, some 141,060 non-EU citizens were refused entry into the EU in 2022 for various reasons, which are explained below.

Overall the largest number of refusals were reported by Poland (23,330), Hungary (15,780), Croatia (11,800) and Ireland (9,240). Ukrainian citizens accounted for the largest number of refusals, as has been the case in recent years.

According to the latest data published by the EU statistical office Eurostat, in 2022 almost 20,000 people (19,290) were refused entry at the Schengen area’s external borders because they has already exceeded the 90-day limit on previous trips.

This figure was a slight rise on the 2019 figure of 17,695. In the 2020 and 2021 the number dropped to around 10,000 travellers refused entry for having passed the 90-day limit, but the drop can be explained by fewer people on the move due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of the 20,000 refused entry in 2022 over the 90-day rule, more than two thirds were stopped at the Polish (7,570) and Hungarian (5,475) borders. Again most of them were from Ukraine as was the case in 2019. It is not clear whether these were recorded before Poland and Hungary opened their borders to the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian’s fleeing the Russian invasion in late February.

Among the countries covered by The Local, Italy refused entry to 695 non-EU citizens because of the 90/180 Schengen rule; Germany denied entry to 465; Spain 345; Switzerland 175; France 170; Austria 125; Sweden 40; and Denmark 30, according to data published recently.

Despite the confusion for Britons after Brexit it appears most travellers are at least aware of the 90 day rule given the small number that were refused entry.

Only 195 British citizens were refused entry into European countries in 2022 because of the 90 day rule. Of these, Switzerland rejected 25; Sweden, Austria and Denmark 10 each; France 5. The figure for Spain read “zero”, suggesting Spanish authorities had not made the data available.

For US citizens the number of travellers turned away at the EU borders last year for having already passed the 90-day limit was 90. The numbers were even smaller for Canadians and Australians but this will be likely linked not only to a low number of frequent travellers to the EU from distant countries. In other words if they have passed the 90 day limit they are unlikely to return within the 180 day period.

As for travellers from India, the 90-day rule does not apply to them because they need a visa to enter the Schengen area.

Other reasons non-EU citizens are turned away

Apart from the 90 day rule there are other reasons why non-EU travellers will be turned away at Europe’s borders ranging from whether they are considered to be public threat or an alert has been issued about them to the fact their passport may be out of date or they have no valid visa or residency permit. Officially non-EU visitors could be turned away if they are not considered to have the means to pay for their trip, however the figures show only 10 people were refused entry (all to the Netherlands) for this reason.

READ ALSO: Are UK tourists in Spain really being asked to prove €100 a day?

Whilst most non-EU travellers have been aware of the rules around valid travel documents it appears many Britons have been caught out since Brexit.

Visitors entering Schengen countries must have a document issued in the ten years before the date of entry and valid until three months after the planned departure date. Since Brexit many British travellers, unaware their passports were invalid, have been turned away at airports and ports.

France for example denied access to its territory – and the Schengen area – to 105 UK citizens because they held no valid travel document.

The total for British citizens turned away from European countries because of invalid travel documents was 335, with 40 denied access to Italy and 30 to Switzerland.

In total 1,305 UK nationals were denied entry at the European external borders in 2022 because of reasons ranging from overstays to no valid visa or document, insufficient means of subsistence or being considered a public threat.

France – which has the largest number of arrivals from the UK due to its proximity – recorded the largest number (440), followed by Switzerland (150), Sweden (75), Italy (60), Germany (45), Denmark (40), Austria (15). Data for Norway was not available at the time of publishing.

Sweden, where authorities have come under pressure over their treatment of British residents after Brexit, refused entry to 40 Britons in 2022 who did not have a valid visa or residence permit.

When it comes to other nationalities, some 1,020 American citizens were turned away at Europe’s borders for various reasons in 2022 and the figure for Indian nationals was 2,045. Just 140 Canadians were turned away and 50 Australian nationals.