If you have ever been confused by ser vs estar, then this post will help you with a list all of the most common uses of these two important Spanish verbs.
If you have been studying Spanish for some time, you’ll already know how challenging these verbs can be.
If you are just starting out, there are two reasons why these verbs are so difficult:
- They are both a translation of the English verb ‘to be’.
- The rules for when and where to use each of these Spanish verbs aren’t routinely obvious.
To help you learn ser and estar, I’ve picked 14 of the most common uses of these Spanish verbs including some important exceptions to the usual rules.
In this post, you’ll learn the main uses of ser and estar, you’ll also see how to conjugate these verbs in the past, and you’ll get a simple decision making model you can use to make a quick guess if you can’t remember a specific rule.
Ser vs Estar: A quick reference
This is going to be a longer post so in this section I’ll provide shortcuts that will take you to the relevant sections of the post below.
The first thing you should read is the decision making model for ser and estar.
Next, I’ll cover how ser and estar are conjugated in the past.
In this table, you can see a summary of all the main uses of ser vs estar with links to examples and explanations below.
Ser vs Estar: A decision making model
Try asking a Spanish person if they can quickly explain the difference between ser and estar.
I have asked this question of a number of Spaniards. Each has replied with a variation of:
“Oh, that’s easy: ser is for permanent qualities and estar is for temporary qualities.”
This is partially true.
I often respond with something like:
“What about ‘hoy es lunes’ and ‘estamos a lunes’? Or ‘ella está en su casa’ and ‘la fiesta es en su casa’?”
They then quickly realise that it isn’t as obvious as they had first thought. There are a lot of subtleties between these two verbs, subtleties you may not notice if it was your first language.
That said, I still suggest you start with this basic rule of thumb.
If you are trying to decide whether to use ser or estar, and you can’t remember the rules below, ask yourself if you are talking about a permanent or temporary quality. If something seems temporary, use estar, if it is a more permanent quality, use ser.
Another approach is to consider the answers to the following questions:
When you are thinking about whether to use ser or estar, consider which question the verb ‘to be’ is answering.
If you want to talk about ‘where’ something is, use estar. For example,
English: My house is next to the river.
Español: Mi casa está al lado del río.
If you want to talk about ‘how’ someone is, use estar. For example,
English: How are you?
Español: ¿Cómo estás?
If you want to talk about ‘what’ someone is, use ser. For example,
English: I’m a musician.
Español: Soy musico.
If you want to talk about ‘who’ someone is, use ser. For example,
English: She is my cousin.
Español: Ella es mi prima.
You now have two basic decision making frameworks for guessing the uses of ser and estar. Of course, if you guess with these rules you won’t be right all of the time, but you will be close.
In this next section, you’ll see how to talk about ser and estar in the past, then after that we’ll start on the specific uses.
The past conjugations of ser and estar
To compound the challenge of ser and estar, there are the two main past tenses in Spanish: the past simple and the past imperfect.
These two past tenses combine to create a perfect storm of confusion for an English student learning Spanish. You’ll see here there are now four translations of the phrase ‘I was’. These are:
English: I was…
Español: Yo fui…
Español: Yo era…
Español: Yo estuve…
Español: Yo estaba…
If you want to excel with these four translations, you simply need to practice them over and over in the presence of a Spanish teacher or native.
To prepare for such training, consider combining the shortcuts from the above section with the following rules to guess the past tense you need to use:
- Past simple tense: for events that have a clearly defined start and end moment in time.
- Past imperfect tense: for events that have no clearly defined start and end.
If you want to learn more about these two past tenses, check out these posts: phrases that trigger the past simple tense and the past imperfect irregular verbs.
You can also check out a podcast episode I dedicated to the four translations of ‘I was’.
Here are the conjugations of ser in the two past tenses:
|Él / Ella||Fue||Era|
Here are the conjugations of estar in the two past tenses:
|Él / Ella||Estuvo||Estaba|
I will include examples of each of all four combinations of ser and estar and the past simple and past perfect in the uses section below.
Ser – Use 1 – Physical characteristics
The first use of ser is for describing characteristics such as height, shape, size, colour and material.
English: The tree is tall.
Español: El árbol es alto.
English: When he was adolescent, he was quite handsome.
Español: Cuando era adolescente, era muy guapo.
English: The table is made of wood.
Español: La mesa es de madera.
When you want to describe the materials an object is made out of, you should combine ser with the preposition de, such as this last example.
Ser – Use 2 – Nationality or origin
This use of ser is one of the easier uses to remember. Where you are from is a permanent characteristic, it is possible to move and live in a new location, but in Spanish you should always describe your origin with ser.
English: I’m Australian (I’m from Australia).
Español: Soy Australiano (Soy de Australia).
English: Last week I met a girl and she was Colombian.
Español: La semana pasada conocí a una chica y era colombiana.
English: The rice is from Spain.
Español: El arroz es de España.
Ser – Use 3 – Price
When you want to ask or describe the price of an item in Spanish, mostly you will need to use ser. You will see later that there is an exception for variables prices such as those in the markets.
English: How much is it (all)?
Español: ¿Cuánto es (todo)?
English: They are €40 (forty euros).
Español: Son €40 (cuarenta euros).
English: The prices here are expensive.
Español: Los precios aquí son caros.
Ser – Use 4 – Profession
When you are describing your chosen profession, the career you intend to devote yourself to in the mediate to long term, you should use ser.
English: He’s a carpenter.
Español: Él es carpintero.
English: She’s the boss of a small business.
Español: Ella es la jefa de un pequeño negocio.
English: We are teachers.
Español: Somos profesores.
Ser – Use 5 – Event location
This use of ser can be confusing. Normally you need to use estar with location but when you are talking about events such as a meeting, a party, a wedding, or a conference, you need to use ser.
English: The show is in the center of town.
Español: El espectáculo es en el centro.
English: The wedding was in the countryside.
Español: La boda fue en el campo.
English: The conference was in Valencia, but they changed it and now it’s in Barcelona.
Español: La conferencia era en Valencia, pero lo cambiaron y ahora es en Barcelona.
Ser – Use 6 – Date and time
In most cases, ser is used to talk about date and time.
English: It’s three o’clock.
Español: Son las tres.
English: Today is Thursday.
Español: Hoy es Jueves.
English: My birthday is in five days.
Español: Mi cumpleaños es dentro de cinco días.
If you want to learn about telling the time in Spanish check out this podcast episode.
Ser – Use 7 – Possession
Even though ownership can change hands quickly, you need to talk about it with ser.
English: This idea is hers.
Español: Esta idea es de ella.
English: That pen is mine.
Español: Ese bolígrafo es mío.
English: Is this yours?
Español: ¿Esto es tuyo?
If you want to learn about possession and possessive pronouns check out this podcast episode.
Ser – Use 8 – Identification
Ser is also used to identify an item or person.
English: This is Almodóvar’s new movie.
Español: Esta es la nueva película de Almodóvar.
English: What is that?!
Español: ¡¿Qué es esto?!
English: This is my best friend.
Español: Este es mi mejor amigo.
Estar – Use 1 – Physical states or emotions
The first use of estar is for describing temporary states such as being sick or emotional.
English: He isn’t at work today because he is sick.
Español: Él no está en el trabajo hoy porque está enfermo.
English: My girlfriend is sad because she is too busy.
Español: Mi novia está triste porque está demasiada ocupada.
English: My grandparents are dead.
Español: Mis abuelos están muertos.
This last example really tests the simple rule for ser and estar as permanent and temporary states respectively. If something or someone is dead, this doesn’t strike me as a state that is going to change anytime soon, but nonetheless you need to estar to describe their current physical state.
Estar – Use 2 – Physical location
If you are reading this post in order, you will have already seen that ser is used to talk about location with events. Apart from that exception, estar is used for all other situations to describe location.
English: Where are you?
Español: ¿Dónde estás?
English: Yesterday we were at the beach.
Español: Ayer estuvimos en la playa.
English: The table is next to the television.
Español: La tabla está al lado de la televisión.
If you want to learn about prepositions of position check out these two podcast episodes: prepositions of position part 1 and prepositions of position part 2.
Estar – Use 3 – Temporary or variable prices
In contrast to the third use of ser for price, estar is used in combination with the preposition a to talk about prices that change on a daily basis, such as those in a local market.
English: How much is the octopus today?
Español: ¿A cuánto está el pulpo hoy?
English: Today it’s €8 (eight euros) per kilo.
Español: Hoy está a €8 (ocho euros) el kilo.
English: Last week oranges were two dollars per kilo.
Español: La semana pasada naranjas estuvieron a dos dólares el kilo.
Estar – Use 4 – Temporary job
When you aren’t talking about your life’s calling or profession, and you only want to refer to temporary work, you can use estar in combination with the preposition de to describe what you are temporarily doing.
English: I’m a student.
Español: Estoy de estudiante.
English: I’m a waiter but I want to be a lawyer.
Español: Estoy de camarero pero quiero ser abogado.
English: I’m a receptionist to get by but I would like to be a teacher.
Español: Estoy de recepcionista para sobrevivir, pero me gustaría ser profesora.
Estar – Use 5 – Progressive tense
This use of estar forms a new Spanish tense, and is used to talk about what is happening continuously in any given moment. To form this tense you need to combine the verb estar with the Spanish gerundio, which is the Spanish equivalent of ‘walking’, ‘singing’, ‘running’, or ‘talking’.
English: I’m speaking with my mother on the phone.
Español: Estoy hablando con mi madre por teléfono.
English: I’m looking for information about this city.
Español: Estoy buscando información sobre esta ciudad.
English: I can’t speak with you right now, I’m working.
Español: No puedo hablar contigo ahora mismo, estoy trabajando.
Estar – Use 6 – Date (option 2)
The last use of estar is for talking about ‘being’ in a day, date or month. If you are going to talk about the date with this use of estar you can only use it as the first person plural and in combination with the preposition a for the day or en for the month or year.
English: It’s Tuesday (we are on Tuesday).
Español: Estamos a Martes.
English: We are in May.
Español: Estamos en Mayo.
English: Today we are at the 18th of February.
Español: Hoy estamos a 18 de febrero.
As I mentioned earlier, the rules in this post don’t cover every aspect of ser vs estar. But, if you do learn these rules and you learn them well, you will be ahead of most Spanish students. Moreover, any shortfall from a full knowledge of the topic will go completely unnoticed.
I suggest you set aside some time to practice the uses of ser and estar in combination with two main past conjugations.
Try telling a Spanish native friend or teacher a story about something that happened to you recently, and set the scene with where, when, and what you were doing using the rules above.
How else can you use ser vs estar in a Spanish conversation?