The use of ser and estar
At each level, you’ll be working with different use cases for ser and estar. As you get more familiar with the different use cases, we’ll gradually start adding more.
In levels 1-7, the different use cases for ser and estar are gradually introduced.
If you want to directly work with all the use cases, you can jump to level 8.
¿Preparad@? ¡Vamos a aprender a tope!
Why you need to know the difference between ser and estar
There are two Spanish verbs that both mean “to be”: ser and estar. You might be thinking that as long as the two verbs mean the same, using the wrong one wouldn’t create too much confusion.
Sorry amigo, but it actually will! As your Spanish-speaking friends could explain to you, there is a big difference between telling your friend Alejandro “tú eres bueno” (you are a good person) and “tú estás bueno” (you look hot).
We want to help you so you don’t make such silly mistakes ;-). Let’s start with a nice set of rules to help you know when to use ser and when to use estar.
Let’s get straight to the point! If you want further explanations and/or examples for each of these use cases… check out the detailed explanation.
- The hour, the day, and dates
- Where an event is taking place
- Place of origin and nationality
- Religious or political affiliation
- The material something is made of
- Essential qualities (what makes this person/thing, this person/thing)
- Relationships of one person to another
- Certain impersonal expressions
- Geographic or physical location
- State, physical conditions, or appearances
- Civil status (single, married, divorced, or dead)
- Emotions, feelings, and moods
- Permissions, restrictions, and consent
- Many idiomatic expressions (proverbs and sayings)
- Progressive verb tenses (-ing)
In a nutshell, ser is used to describe “the essence of things”. It’s used to say WHAT makes something what it is, and it identifies something that is unlikely to change (“permanent state”).
1. The hour, the day, and dates
Ser is used to talk about the time. You use ser to talk about the hour, the day, dates, and months. Ser is also used to talk about a day of particular significance.
- Son las tres
- It’s three o’clock
- Mañana será domingo
- Tomorrow is Sunday
- Mi cumpleaños es el 25 de julio
- My birthday is July 25
Days of particular significance:
- Hoy es nuestro primer aniversario de boda
- Today is our first wedding anniversary
2. Where an event is taking place
Ser is used to talk about the location of an event.
- Los mercadillos son en las calles
- The flea markets are on the streets
- El concierto es en el estadio de fútbol
- The concert is in the football stadium
Tip: Note that when we refer to the physical location of the football stadium, we actually use estar and not ser. Look at the following example:
- El estadio de fútbol está cerca de la playa
- The football stadium is close to the beach
3. Place of origin and nationality
Ser is used to describe where someone is from and their nationality. Both characteristics are the essence of a person.
- Mark es inglés
- Mark is English
- Anna es de Polonia
- Anna is from Poland
Ser is used to talk about a person’s job. Think about someone’s occupation as being part of their “essence”.
- Martina es ingeniera
- Martina is an engineer
- Lucas es abogado
- Lucas is a lawyer
Tip: Note that unlike in English, we don’t need to use indefinite articles (un / una) when talking about people’s jobs in Spanish.
5. Religious or political affiliation
Ser is used to talk about a person’s religious or political affiliation. Think of these characteristics as part of someone’s “essence”.
- David es judío
- David is Jewish
- Paula es comunista
- Paula is a Communist
6. The material something is made of
Ser is used to talk about the material something is made of. Undoubtedly, the material something is made of is an important part of its “essence”.
- La mesa es de madera
- The table is made of wood
- Es un cable de plástico
- It is a cable made of plastic
Tip: Note the following exception. There is a common sentence in Spanish that describes the material something is made of that uses estar. This sentence is made of estar + the participle of hacer (hecho), fabricar (fabricado) or construir (construido), among others. Bear in mind that both estar and the participle need to be conjugated:
Estar (conjugated) + participle conjugated* (hecho; fabricado; construido…etc.)
*Takes the participle of verbs such as hacer, fabricar, construir…etc. To get it right, you have to match the gender and number of the participle with the noun.
- La mesa está hecha de madera
- The table is made of wood
- Los nuevos edificios están fabricados de material reciclado
- The new buildings are made of recycled materials
Tip II: When the noun is feminine, the gender of the participle needs to match the gender of the noun accordingly, meaning that the ending needs to be changed to –a. For example, “el armario está hecho de madera” (armario is a masculine noun) while “la casa está hecha” (casa is a feminine noun).
When the noun is plural, you need to add an –s to the ending. For example, “los nuevos edificios están fabricados de material reciclado” (edificios is a masculine and plural noun). Likewise, when the noun is feminine and plural, you need to add –as to the ending of the participle. For example, “las casas están fabricadas con madera” (casas is a feminine and plural noun).
7. Essential qualities (what makes this person/thing, this person/thing)
Ser is used to describe both people and things.
When describing people, ser is used to describe physical and character descriptions or personality traits. You could think of this as part of the “essence of the person”.
- Ellos son jóvenes
- They are young
- Carla es generosa y amable
- Carla is generous and kind
Same rules apply when describing things:
- El puerto es grande
- The port is big
- Este armario es resistente al fuego
- This cupboard is fire resistant
Ser is used to talk about things that belong to people.
- El perro es de Federico
- The dog is Federico’s
- Este coche es mío
- This car is mine
Same rules apply when describing things that belong to animals or other things like buildings:
- Esta puerta es la puerta principal de la casa
- This door is the house’s main door
- Este es el collar del perro
- This is the dog’s collar
9. Relationship of one person to another
Ser is used to describe the relationship between people.
- María y Fernando son primos
- Maria and Fernando are cousins
- Camila es la mujer de Antonio
- Camila is Antonio’s wife
Tip: Note that when we refer to someone’s marital status, we actually use estar and not ser. Look at the following example:
- Camila y Antonio están casados
- Camila and Antonio are married
10. Certain impersonal expressions
Ser is used with certain impersonal expressions. By impersonal expressions, we refer to sentences that do not have a concrete/explicit subject and usually state general truths or widely spread beliefs.
- Es importante dormir bien
- It is important to sleep well
- Para aprender un idioma, es necesario hablarlo mucho
- To learn a language, it is important to speak it a lot
Estar is used to talk about HOW something is. Use it to talk about “temporary states”, conditions, emotions, or locations.
1. Geographic or physical location
Estar is used when describing where something or someone is.
- Brasil está en Sudamérica
- Brazil is in South America
- La academia está al lado de la comisaría de policía
- The academy is close to the police station
Tip: As soon as you hear the question “¿Dónde está …?”, it is likely that the answer will be “Está en …”.
2. State, physical conditions, or appearances
Estar is used when describing temporary states, physical conditions, or appearances.
- Sergio está muy cansado hoy
- Sergio is very tired today
- Claudio come sano y hace deporte. Él está joven para su edad.
- Claudio eats healthy and exercises. He looks young for his age.
Tip: To describe illnesses in Spanish, we use estar. Think of being sick as (hopefully) a “temporary status”.
- Juana está enferma
- Juana is sick
Tip II: However, if someone has a chronic illness, we would use ser instead of estar. You could think of chronic illness as (unfortunately) something that is part of “the person’s essence”.
- Los médicos diagnosticaron a Fermín una enfermedad rara al nacer. Él es un enfermo crónico.
- Doctors diagnosed Fermin with a rare disease at birth. He is chronically ill.
3. Civil status (single, married, divorced, or dead)
Estar is used to describe someone’s civil status (single, married, divorced, or dead).
- Juan está soltero
- Juan is single
- Diego Armando Maradona está muerto
- Diego Armando Maradona is dead
Tip: As described earlier, ser is typically used for “permanent situations” and estar is used for “temporary situations”. Well, rules usually have some exceptions, and this is one of them. Although being dead is a permanent state, when talking about dead people in Spanish, we use estar.
Tip II: After watching Narcos or any other gangster series in Spanish on Netflix (;-)), you might be thinking… wait a minute, I heard someone saying “Él es hombre muerto”.
Yes! You can use ser to talk about dead people in Spanish, but in a really specific situation. When somebody threatens another person’s life, this person is not actually dead (yet) but probably will be soon. In this situation, you should use ser.
- Jordán traiciono al jefe de la banda. Jordán es hombre muerto.
- Jordan betrayed the boss of the gang. Jordan is a dead man.
4. Emotions, feelings, and moods
Estar is used to describe emotions, feelings, and moods. We can think of those as “temporary states”.
- Susana está enamorada de Jorge
- Susana is in love with Jorge
- El equipo de fútbol de Paco ganó el partido de anoche. Paco estaba muy feliz.
- Paco’s football club won the game last night. Paco was very happy.
Tip: Note that when we refer to someone’s mood, we use estar because this implies something temporary. But we use ser when something is part of someone’s essence. Let’s look at the following example:
- Martin está muy feliz porque ganó la lotería
- Martin is really happy because he won the lottery
In this example, the fact that Martin has won the lottery made him really happy. But we all know that winning the lottery is (unfortunately) not something that happens every day. Hence, Martin is happy about it in this moment, but this has nothing to do with Martin’s character/personality (his “essence”).
On the other hand, if someone were always happy, that would definitely be part of their “essence”. Hence, we would use ser to describe that person:
- Ronaldinho sonríe siempre. Él es feliz.
- Ronaldinho always smiles. He is happy.
5. Permissions, restrictions, and consent
Estar is used to describe what is allowed or not in a certain place and/or situation.
This sentence is made of estar + the participle of verbs such prohibir (prohibido), autorizar (autorizado), or permitir (permitido), among others. Bear in mind that both estar and the participle need to be conjugated:
Estar (conjugated) + participle conjugated* (hecho; fabricado; construido…etc.)
*Takes the participle of verbs such as prohibir, autorizar, permitir…etc. To get it right, you have to match the gender and number of the participle with the noun.
- Está prohibido fumar en el avión
- It is forbidden to smoke in the plane
- Está restringido el acceso
- Access is restricted
Tip II: When the noun is feminine, the gender of the participle needs to match the gender of the noun accordingly, meaning that the ending needs to be changed to –a. For example, “el acceso está restringido” (acceso is a masculine noun) while “la entrada está permitida” (casa is a feminine noun).
- Está permitida la entrada a menores de edad
- Minors are allowed to enter
When the noun is plural, you need to add an –s to the ending. For example, “los vuelos están restringidos” (vuelos is a masculine and plural noun).
- Los vuelos están restringidos
- Flights are restricted
Likewise, when the noun is feminine and plural, you need to add –as to the ending of the participle. For example, “las manifestaciones están prohibidas” (manifestaciones is a feminine and plural noun).
- Las manifestaciones están prohibidas
- Demonstrations are prohibited
6. Many idiomatic expressions (proverbs and sayings)
Estar is used with many idiomatic expressions in Spanish, i.e., sentences or sayings used in Spanish that might have or not an equivalent in English. Most of these sentences are made of estar (infinitive or conjugated) + preposition:
Estar (infinitive or conjugated) + preposition
- Susana siempre está al pie del cañón
- Susana is always ready for whatever may come
- Estoy en camino
- I am on my way
- Estar en forma
- To be in good shape
7. Progressive verb tenses (-ing)
Estar is used to make present continuous tenses to describe actions happening in or around the moment of speaking. To make this sentence, we need the verb estar conjugated in the present tense and the gerund of the verb:
Estar (conjugated in present tense) + gerund*
*Gerund is made of the stem of the verb + the ending “-ando” (for verbs ending in –ar) or “-iendo” (for verbs ending in –er/–ir).
- El chef está cocinando
- The chef is cooking
- Nosotros estamos aprendiendo español
- We are learning Spanish