¡Hola! Undoubtedly one of the most important words in English is the verb ‘to be.’ Well, to be in Spanish is also super important, but there’s a catch: there are two Spanish verbs that both mean ‘to be’: ser and estar.
Although they both mean ‘to be’, they aren’t the same in Spanish, and can’t just be used interchangeably. That’s where this article comes in!A super-simplified rule for the difference between ser and estar is that ser is for permanent things, and estar is for temporary things. However, the rules go so much deeper than that, and we want you to be able to use the right verb at the right time!
ConjugationFirst of all, let’s learn how to conjugate ser in the present tense. It’s very irregular.
ellos/ ellas/ ustedes
When to use ser
A common device for learning the uses of ser is to remember the acronym ‘DOCTOR.’ Each letter stands for a situation where you’d use ser.
This refers to the permanent or essential qualities of a person or object. Let’s look at some examples.
Eres un hombre guapo.
You are a handsome man.
Ana es una chica.
Ana is a girl.
We are tall.
Are you guys English?
Los coches son negros.
The cars are black.
O= OccupationsWhen you’re saying what someone does, use ser. It could be a job or just something that they do as a hobby.
I’m a doctor.
You’re a pianist.
Jaime es camarero en un restaurante grande.
Jaime is a waiter in a big restaurant.
Tenemos muchos exámenes porque somos estudiantes.
We have lots of exams because we are students.
Señores, ¿sois bomberos?
Gentlemen, are you firefighters?
Pablo y Paula son enfermeros.
Pablo and Paula are nurses.
*Note that in Spanish, you don’t have to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ before an occupation. You say ‘soy médico’ rather than ‘soy un médico.’
C=CharacteristicsAs we said earlier, ser is used for descriptions, and this includes the characteristics of someone’s personality.
Yo soy perezoso.
I am lazy.
Eres una persona feliz.
You are a happy person (in general).
Ignacio es aventurero.
Ignacio is adventurous.
We are nice.
Sois muy chistosos.
You (plural) are very funny.
Las chicas en mi clase son inteligentes.
The girls in my class are intelligent.
T=TimesWhen you’re talking about times, use ser. This doesn’t just mean times of the day—it also includes days, months, etc.
Ya son las tres.
It’s already three o’clock.
Hoy es viernes.
Today is Friday.
¡Es mi cumpleaños!
It’s my birthday!
O=OriginsWe use ser to talk about the origin of something or someone. This includes what something is made of.
Soy de Dinamarca.
I’m from Denmark.
Eres de Uruguay, ¿verdad?
You’re from Uruguay, right?
La puerta es de madera.
The door is made from wood.
La guitarra es de España.
The guitar is from Spain.
R=RelationsWhen you’re describing how people are related to each other, use ser.
Soy la tía de Pepe.
I’m Pepe’s aunt.
Eres mi novio.
You are my boyfriend.
Nuria es mi abuela.
Nuria is my grandmother.
Miki es el hermano de Ricky.
Miki is Ricky’s brother.
ConjugationHere’s how to conjugate estar in the present tense:
When to use estar
A useful way to remember when to use estar is the acronym ‘PLACE.’
P=PositionWe use estar to say where something is, or how it’s positioned.
Estoy a tu lado.
I’m by your side.
¿Estás delante del hotel?
Are you in front of the hotel?
La biblioteca está al lado del mercado.
The library is next to the market.
Estamos tumbados en el parque.
We are lying in the park.
Mis padres están cerca.
My parents are nearby.
L=LocationAs ‘PLACE’ can help you remember, estar is used to talk about the place that someone or something is in. In other words, that person or thing’s location, whether it’s temporary or permanent!
Estoy en el baño.
I’m in the bathroom.
Are you there?
La estación está a tu derecha.
The station is on your right.
Estamos en Nueva York.
We’re in New York.
Estáis en mi casa.
You (plural) are in my house.
Los perritos están en el jardín.
The puppies are in the yard.
There is an exception to this one. When you’re saying where an event is being held, you use ser.
So it would be ‘la fiesta es en mi casa’ rather than ‘la fiesta está en mi casa.’
A=ActionEstar is used in the gerund, which can be used in past, present, future, etc. This is when you want to say that someone is doing, e.g. he is swimming, she was singing, he’ll be laughing, etc. For more on the gerund, click here.
Estoy pensando en él.
I’m thinking about him.
You are dancing.
Dani está cambiando el mundo.
Dani is changing the world.
María y yo estamos buscando piso.
María and I are looking for an apartment.
Chicos, ¿estáis caminando o corriendo?
Boys, are you walking or running?
Señoras, ¿están esperando?
Ladies, are you waiting?
C=ConditionWhen talking about a physical or emotional condition that is changeable (as opposed to personality traits, which are pretty much set), use estar.
I’m feeling dizzy.
Mamá, ¿estás lista? ¡Vámonos!
Mom, are you ready? Let’s go!
Carla está enamorada de Lucía.
Carla is in love with Lucía.
Estamos muy cansados.
We are very tired.
Veo que estáis enfermos hoy. No tenéis que hacer los deberes.
I can see that you’re unwell today. You don’t have to do your homework.
Ayer mis abuelos estaban confundidos.
Yesterday my grandparents were confused.
E=EmotionOkay so this one is pretty self-explanatory. Use estar for emotional states.
Estoy aburrida en esta clase.
I am bored in this class.
Are you happy?
Victoria está feliz porque está con su hermana.
Victoria is happy because she’s with her sister.
Estamos muy emocionados los dos.
We are both very excited.
Se ve que estáis tristes sobre las notas.
It’s clear that you (plural) are feeling sad about the grades.
Tus amigos están preocupados por ti.
Your friends are worried about you.
Here's another useful rhyme to remember in choosing whether to use ser or estar.
Words that change meaning when used with ser and estar
Interestingly, some adjectives can be used with either ser or estar, and they have different meanings with each!
Sometimes the difference is subtle and linked to the permanence of the adjective, and sometimes it’s quite a big difference in meaning.
It’s tricky, but helpful to learn them. Some of the common ones are in the table below.
ser aburrido (to be boring)
estar aburrido (to be bored)
ser consciente (to be aware)
estar consciente (to be conscious)
ser un enfermo (to be an invalid)
estar enfermo (to be unwell)
ser feliz (to be happy - personality trait)
estar feliz (to be happy - a temporary state)
ser frío (to be cold - personality trait)
estar frío (to be cold - current temperature)
ser guapo (to be good-looking)
estar guapo (to be looking good now)
ser listo (to be smart/clever)
estar listo (to be ready)
ser malo (to be bad)
estar malo (to be ill)
ser orgulloso (to be proud - as a person; could have negative connotation)
estar orgulloso (to be proud of someone or something)
ser rico (to be rich)
estar rico (to be tasty)
ser seguro (to be safe)
estar seguro (to be sure)
ser verde (to be green)
estar verde (to be unripe)
estar viejo (to be looking old)
ser vivo (to be quick/sharp)
estar vivo (to be alive)
Be careful with these... the last thing you want is to try and say you’re rich but accidentally claim to be tasty!
If you’ve followed this article, then you’ve done well, as the differences between ser and estar can be subtle. It takes practice before they start to come naturally, so do a little bit of Spanish every day and watch the improvement!
Learn Spanish verb drills without memorizing anything. You can check it out below!