Ser vs estar: these two Spanish verbs drive most of us crazy.
It doesn't matter whether you're new to the language or you've been learning for a while.
Ser and estar are guaranteed to give you constant headaches throughout your Spanish learning journey.
You see, the English verb “to be” is actually two separate verbs in Spanish: ser and estar.
The difference between ser and estar is one of the most fundamental concepts in Spanish, and also one of the most confusing for Spanish language learners.
Yes, both verbs mean “to be,” but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Ser vs Estar: Why Are These Verbs So Confusing?
The main reason ser and estar trip up new Spanish speakers is that English only has one verb for “to be”.
The concept of more than one verb to say what we can with a single word is difficult to grasp.
Unlike most other verbs like comer (to eat), for example, you can't simply translate “to be” into Spanish and move on.
You will need to learn when to use ser and when to use estar.
The differences are important!
The entire meaning of your sentence will be different depending on whether you use ser or estar.
If you are feeling confused or overwhelmed, however, don’t worry!
Knowing which verb to use will become second nature to you once you understand the basic concept and get lots (and lots) of practice.
In this article, you'll learn to understand the fundamental differences between ser and estar, so you can start using them correctly in your conversations.
Mastering these two verbs will go along way to helping you sound more natural when you speak Spanish.
If you’re more of a visual learner, you can watch a video version of these examples and tips from my Fluent Spanish Academy youtube channel. Or, if you prefer to read the explanation or want to come back and review after watching the video, just scroll down past the video and keep reading!
First things first. As you know, Spanish conjugation can be a bit of a headache too. So below, you'll find a quick recap of how to conjugate ser and estar according to each pronoun.
Ser vs Estar: Ser Conjugation
Ser vs Estar: Estar Conjugation
Knowing when to use which verb is often confusing for new Spanish speakers because there is no hard and fast rule.
Instead, there are a few general rules of thumb that you will use to determine which word to use when.
Let’s start by reviewing the basics…
… the stuff you were probably told when you first learned Spanish at school or that you find at the beginning of your Spanish textbook.
The first question to ask yourself is ¿Cambia o no cambia?
(Does it change or not?)
Depending on whether the thing you’re talking about changes or not, you’ll use ser or estar.
Inherent characteristics (things that are always true) use ser.
For example, use ser when you are describing something about yourself or another person that does not change or is generally true, such as a personality trait or physical characteristic, a profession or a place of origin.
Here are some examples:
- Yo soy un hombre (I am a man)
- Soy de Inglaterra (I am from England)
- ¿De dónde eres? (Where are you from?)
- Ella es una maestra (She is a teacher)
- Soy bajo (I am short)
- Juan es un buen hombre (Juan is a good man)
You might be saying to yourself that your profession is not always permanent.
You might change careers, for example.
Although that is true, your profession is also something about you that does not vary from moment to moment or day to day.
It is appropriate to consider your hair colour, profession, and height as essential character traits even though any of them could eventually change in the future.
This is one reason that I prefer to think of ser as inherent or innate instead of simply permanent.
2. Use Ser To Tell The Time
We always use ser when telling time.
Although the time is always changing, it is also specific at any given moment.
Look at your watch or phone right now…
It is a specific time at this specific moment.
In that sense, there is no ambiguity when it comes to the time! Here are some examples in Spanish:
- ¿Qué hora es? (What time is it?)
- Son las tres y media (It’s 3:30)
I will share more examples in a minute of common mistakes new Spanish speakers make with ser, but first, let’s take a look at estar.
Estar is an untrustworthy verb!
Really, adding estar into the mix is what confuses the situation!
Use estar when you can’t be sure something is always going to be the same or is likely to be different.
Estar is also used for descriptions that are temporary or fleeting such as location, condition and emotion.
Here are some common uses of estar:
- Como estáis? (How are you?)
- Estamos feliz porque ya llegamos a casa (We are happy because we are back home.)
- Marta está comiendo (Marta is eating.)
- ¿Dónde están tus zapatos? (Where are your shoes?)
- Estoy enfermo (I am sick.)
Estar is also used when you are describing something that is the result of another action. The word porque can often be your clue that you may need to use estar instead of ser.
- Las ventanas estan abiertas porque hace calor (The windows are open because it is hot.)
In this example, the openness of the windows is both a temporary state of being and the result of another condition.
Both situations require the use of estar.
Another use of estar that often confuses Spanish learners is when talking about death.
Death is considered a state of being in Spanish (as opposed to a permanent, inherent trait), so it is always used with estar.
One possible reason for this is Spanish people preferred to believe that the spirit lives on and that a person is only dead in a temporary way.
Here’s an example:
- El pájaro está muerto (The bird is dead)
Before moving on to more complex examples and situations of ser vs estar where either verb is appropriate, make sure that you are really comfortable with the basics.
- Do you know how to introduce yourself?
- Which verb should you use to say you’re hungry or tired?
- Is ser or estar the best choice to ask someone where they live?
If you can confidently answer those questions, it’s time to dive a little deeper…
Ser is also used to express an opinion that you consider true and not particularly subjective:
- Es fácil aprender español con este artículo (It is easy to learn Spanish with this article)
- Lisa es una chica guapa e inteligente (Lisa is a good-looking and intelligent girl)
- Es un hotel bueno, bonito, y barato (It is a good, pretty, and cheap hotel)
Your opinion of what makes a good or cheap hotel might be different than mine, but as long as you consider the opinion to be true, go ahead and use ser.
Again, you want to consider whether or not the trait changes and whether or not it’s inherent to the thing you’re describing.
Another situation that seems counterintuitive to many new Spanish speakers is describing the location of events.
As we’ve already seen, when talking about where something is located, we used estar.
So, you might think we should use estar for the location of events too since you are talking about the location of a one-time activity.
However, when you talk about when and where something is going to happen, you need to use ser.
- ¿A qué hora es la fiesta? (What time is the party?)
- La cena es en la casa de Juan (The dinner is at Juan’s house)
Another interesting and potentially tricky situation occurs when using ser and estar with adjectives.
Sometimes, using ser or estar can change the meaning of the adjective that follows it. Some classic examples of this are with the words listo, bueno, and aburrido:
- Ella es lista (She is capable) vs Ella está lista (She is ready)
- Son buenos (They are good people) vs Están buenos (They are feeling well.)
- Soy aburrido (I am boring) vs Estoy aburrido (I am bored)
In some cases, you use either ser or estar.
But in these situations, the verb you choose can drastically change the meaning of your sentence.
For this reason, it’s important to understand the differences!
For example, take a look at the following sentences. Can you see the difference?
- Esta comida está riquísima (This food is very delicious.)
- ¡La pizza allí siempre es riquísima! (The pizza there is always very tasty!)
You might be thinking, “Wait! What’s going on?!”
That’s a great question and one of the things that makes the rules around ser and estar more flexible than new Spanish speakers might like!
In the first example, I used está because I was giving a reaction to something.
The food on my plate at that precise moment was delicious.
However, in the second sentence, I was making a general statement about the quality of the food at a particular restaurant, so I used ser.
I was stating an opinion that I believe to be generally true.
Take a look at these examples, which combine both a general description and a temporary one and you’ll see the difference:
- La comida de Maria simpre es buena, pero estas galletas están riquísimas (Maria’s food is always good, but these cookies are very delicious.)
- Que raro, normalmente la comida de María es rica, pero esta comida está fea, no me gusta (How unusual, normally Maria’s food is delicious, but this food is bad. I don’t like it.)
Get it now?
When speaking about a general fact or truth, we use ser.
But if you want to talk about the temporary state of something in the moment, you’ll always use estar.
The same is true of physical descriptions and locations. If the information is temporary, you can use estar:
- ¿Qué pasó con me perro? Está flaco. No le diste de comer? (What happened to my dog? He’s skinny! Didn’t you feed him?)
My dog is normally not skinny. But, in this case, I use estar because he’s temporarily skinnier than usual because he hasn’t been fed enough recently!
Here are a few more examples that will help you get to grips with these subtle differences:
- Ten cuidado, la sopa está caliente (Be careful. The soup is hot.)
- The soup is hot right now, although that will change! It’s going to cool down.
- Gaszpacho es servido frío (Gazpacho is served cold.)
- In this case, we use ser because gaszpacho is always served cold so it doesn’t change in state.
- Es fácil caminar a la iglesia, pero está un poco lejos de tu hotel (It’s easy to walk to the church, but it’s a little bit far from your hotel)
- We use ser to say it’s easy because the difficulty of the walk is unchanging. However, when talking about location we use estar, as I mentioned earlier.
As with most concepts, the best way to really learn the difference between ser vs estar is to practice… a lot!
You may make some mistakes, but don’t let that keep you from trying.
Expose yourself to as much real life Spanish as possible:
- Speak regularly with natives
- Read stories and books in Spanish
- Listen to fast, natural Spanish
Pay attention to how native speakers use the verbs ser and estar in everyday communication and do your best to follow suit.
As you read and listen to Spanish, make a special effort to note how ser and estar are used.
Before long, the difference will seem like second nature to you.
Ser vs Estar Quiz
If you’d like to test your understanding of the difference between ser and estar now that you’ve made it through this tutorial, I have a 10-question quiz for you.
Have a go and see how well you understand these crucial Spanish verbs!
And don’t forget to bookmark this page so you can come back and review it again in the future when you need a reminder of ser vs estar!
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What other aspects of Spanish grammar do you find tricky? Leave me a comment below and let me know!