What it takes to be Spanish

A group of foreigners take the CCSE citizenship test at the Debla academy in Malaga city.
A group of foreigners take the CCSE citizenship test at the Debla academy in Malaga city. / M. Fernández
  • As well as proving length of residence, foreigners applying for nationality have to take a citizenship test and a Spanish language exam

  • Since 2015, when the tests were made obligatory for all candidates, nearly 7,000 people have taken them in Malaga province

A Spanish person with an average level of education would almost certainly be able to answer questions such as "What is the highest peak on the Iberian peninsula?", "Who was Francisco de Goya?" or "How long does a product guarantee last?" The answer would be automatic if the question asked where you would eat a "tarta de almendra" or Penélope Cruz's profession. However, it all becomes more complicated when the questions are "How many senators are elected by Ceuta and Melilla?" or "Which elections can someone from the EU vote in?"

All these questions form part of the exams which now have to be passed by foreigners who want to apply for Spanish nationality, and there is no escaping them.

It is obligatory for all those who want to take Spanish nationality to pass a citizenship test, to prove that they know enough about the country of which they wish to become a citizen. The two exams which foreigners have to take are created and administrated by the Instituto Cervantes .

The first is the DELE (Level A2) diploma in the Spanish language. Everyone has to take it, unless Spanish is their mother tongue or they already have at least a Level A2 diploma in Spanish.

The second, the citizenship test known as the CCSE (proof of constitutional and sociocultural knowledge of Spain) is obligatory for all candidates. It evaluates their understanding of the political, geographical, historical, cultural, social and economic reality of the country. There are 25 questions, and 15 of them have to be answered correctly to pass. They are arranged in five different blocks, or sections. This exam needs careful preparation, because vague ideas acquired during the time one has lived in Spain will not be enough to pass.

However, the Instituto Cervantes provides a manual which can be downloaded from its website, and if candidates make the effort to study in advance, the pass rate is high.

In the past four years, according to the Institute, 96.45 per cent of those who took CCSE citizenship exam in Malaga province in the past four years passed, and 80.1 per cent passed the DELE language test.

It is noticeable that more people have taken these exams in recent years. In 2015, the year in which they became obligatory, 224 candidates in Malaga took the CCSE and 15 took the DELE, but last year 1,980 took the citizenship test and 903 sat the language exam.

The year with the highest number of applications in Malaga province was 2016, when 2,773 foreigners took the CCSE and 1,547 took the DELE. Official figures show that since this exam became obligatory, 6,964 candidates have taken the citizenship test, and 3,412 the language exam.

Moroccans top the list

By nationality, Moroccan citizens were by far the most numerous among people who registered for the exams organised by the Instituto Cervantes in Malaga province between 2015 and 2018 (1,664 took the CCSE and 1,521 the DELE).

For the citizenship test, they were followed by Paraguayans (623), Argentinians (623) and Colombians (516), while for the language exam - which people from Spanish-speaking countries do not have to take - it was Brazilians (304), Ukrainians (299) and Nigerians (208).

The CCSE test is held ten times a year, on the last Thursday of a month, during a two-hour period in the evening. It lasts 45 minutes and can be taken at any of the 200 centres authorised by the Instituto Cervantes. There are 13 altogether, eight in Malaga city, two in Marbella, two in Benalmádena and one in Rincón de la Victoria.

Candidates can study the manual with information about the content of the tests in advance and there is even a mobile app with practice tests, but many still find it a challenge to prepare for the exams. A lack of time, the language barrier and even the cost are a drawback in many cases. Since it became obligatory to take these exams when applying for Spanish nationality, candidates have to pay around 300 euros.

It was free until 2015

"This used to be free, and you did it at the Civil Registry. It was a test on general culture and to make sure you spoke sufficient Spanish," says Arantxa Triguero, president of Málaga Acoge and a lawyer who specialises in foreigners' affairs. Her firm receives numerous applications for help with nationality, even though for the past four years there have been costs involved: 102 euros to apply, 100 euros for the Spanish language test and 85 euros for the citizenship exam; applicants are allowed two attempts at the citizenship exam.

However, the process of applying for Spanish nationality involves more than just passing these tests. As a general rule, the candidate has to be able to prove that they have lived in Spain for at least ten years, without interruption. For some countries which have "a special link with Spain", such as South American countries, Portugal, Equatorial Guinea and the Philippines, the residency period is reduced to two years.

Arantxa explains that there is another difference: "People from Ibero-American countries, including Brazil, don't have to renounce their original nationality to become Spanish; in other words, they are allowed dual nationality, but people from other countries are not. They are only allowed to be Spanish."

Rosa Ángela Oliveira, a 37-year-old Brazilian, moved to Antequera in 2013 and since September last year she has been going to classes once a week in order to pass the CCSE. She speaks fluent Spanish and is confident that she can pass the language test, but realises that she still has a lot to learn about customs and culture in Spain.

"Everything I am learning is interesting, and the teachers are very good because we start with general lessons in politics, geography and history, and that makes it easier to tackle the questions. We even watch TV news programmes with the volunteer, to keep up to date with what is happening in Spain, because I think it is essential to learn everything you can about a country if you live in it and want to part of it," says Rosa.

She studied Pharmacy in her own country but "because of the lack of opportunities for foreigners" currently earns her living as a cleaner. That's why she wants to "pass the test as soon as possible and start the ball rolling".