What’s the difference between ‘haber’ and ‘tener’ in Spanish?


Even though in some instances ‘haber’ and ‘tener’ are translated as ‘to have’, these verbs aren’t synonyms and, as a result, we use them with different purposes. Although some of their uses may look similar to you, their meaning and intention are going to be slightly different.   

So what’s the difference between ‘haber’ and ‘tener’ in Spanish? Tener means ‘to have’ and expresses possessions, age, and obligations. Haber is ‘to be’ and expresses existence. It’s translated as ‘to have’ when working as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses. It also used to talk about duties. 

In Spanish, most of the time trusting in a direct translation may lead you to make some common mistakes. This is the case of ‘haber’ and ‘tener’. Since these are two of the most basic and important verbs in Spanish you need to learn how to use them properly. In this article we’ll discuss their uses and the contexts where you need to apply them. In order to help you understand ‘haber and ‘tener’ better, we’ll provide you with some examples. Hopefully, by the end of it, you’ll see the difference between these verbs by yourself.  

What’s the difference between ‘haber’ and ‘tener’ in Spanish?

Haber – To be/To haveTener – To have
– It expresses existence.

– It’s an auxiliary verb.

– We also use it to talk about necessities and to suggest.
– It is used to talk about age and possessions.

– We use ‘tener’ in compound tenses to emphasize that the action is already completed.

– It expresses obligation.
Hay tres manzanas en la mesa
There are three apples on the table

He estudiado toda la semana
I have studied the whole week

Hay que encargar una pizza
Let’s order a pizza
Tengo que estudiar para mi examen
I have to study for my test

Ya tenemos todo preparado
We already everything prepared

As discussed earlier, ‘haber’ and ‘tener’ can be easily confused since they share the same translation and, sometimes, we use them in similar contexts or grammar structures. However, these verbs are not the same.

One of the main differences between these verbs is that haber is used in impersonal expressions. In other words, it doesn’t say who is going to perform an action (it doesn’t have a subject). Tener always has a subject, meaning, there’s someone performing the action. 

Due to this characteristic, haber is used to express an object’s existence and it would be translated as ‘there is’ or ‘there are’. 

We also use this verb to express obligation or the necessity to do a certain task. In this case, the closest translation would be ‘it’s necessary’ or ‘it must’. 

Para tener un buen español, hay que practicar mucho In order to have a good command of Spanish, it’s necessary to practice a lot

Another important use of haber is as an auxiliary verb in some compound tenses (sentences with more than one verb).

Esta semana he tenido mucho trabajo This week I’ve had a lot of work

In Spanish, tener is the same as ‘to have’ and we use it to talk about possessions, age, obligations and in some idiomatic expressions. Here are some examples:

Yo tengo veintiocho años I’m twenty years old

Mi hermana tiene dos gatos My sister has two cats

Carla y Mariana tienen que limpiar la casa Carla and Mariana have to clean the house

Learning how to use ‘haber’ and ‘tener’ will help you better understand the difference between these verbs. In the following sections, we’ll discuss more in-depth the different contexts where you can use them. 

How do you use the verb ‘haber’ in Spanish?

As mentioned before, ‘haber’ has many uses in Spanish and since it’s necessary for some grammar structures, learning how to use this verb correctly will help you improve your command of Spanish. Here are some of the most common ways to use ‘haber’ in Spanish. 

  • To express existence
  • As an auxiliary verb
  • To talk about necessities or duties
  • As a synonym of ‘to occur’ and to ‘take place’

Using ‘haber’ to express existence

In Spanish, we use haber to express an object’s existence or nonexistence. Since this can be a little bit complicated to understand, the best way to think about ‘haber’ in this context is as a translation of ‘there is’ and ‘there are’. 

And how can talking about existence be helpful for you? First, you can use it to talk about the things that you can find in a place. For instance:

En Australia hay canguros y koalas In Australia, there are kangaroos and koalas

En el centro hay un museo muy interesante There’s a very interesting museum in Downton

We can also use haber to describe the background of a place or to identify the presence of an object. For example:

Todas las mañanas hay mucho tráfico Every morning there’s a lot of traffic

Hay unas llaves en la mesa, ¿sabes de quién son? There’re some keys on the table, do you know who they are?

Although the previous examples are affirmative sentences, you can also use ‘haber’ in its negative form. 

En vacaciones no hay mucha gente en la ciudad In the holidays there isn’t a lot of people in the city

Aquí no hay nada, ¿estás seguro que es el lugar correcto? There’s nothing here, are you sure this is the right place?

Haber can also be very useful if you’re visiting a Spanish speaking country and you need to ask about the existence of a place or a tourist attraction. 

¿Hay algún museo de arte en la ciudad? Is there an art museum in the city?

¿Dónde hay una parada de autobús? Where is the bus stop?

Haber as an auxiliary verb

When talking about conjugations, ‘haber’ is necessary to create most of the compound tenses in Spanish (sentences with more than one verb). In this case, ‘haber’ would be translated as ‘to have’, which can be very confusing for new Spanish speakers. However, in this context, haber doesn’t have any special meaning, it’s only helping to create a tense. Here are some examples of the compound tenses:

Haber (conjugated) + past participle

Ya había visto esa película antes I had seen that movie before

Tania y yo hemos ido a México varias veces Tania and I have have gone to Mexico many times

Notice that when using the compound tenses you always need to conjugate haber. 

Talking about necessities or duties

As discussed before, most of the time ‘haber’ is used to create impersonal expressions (phases without a subject). One good example of how to use this type of phrase is when talking about necessities or duties. Depending on the context, you may translate these expressions as “it’s necessary” or “it must”. Here’s how you do it:

Hay que + verb (infinitive form)

Mañana hay que comprar nuestros boletos It’s necessary to buy our tickets tomorrow

Hay que crear un club de conversación para practicar español It’s necessary to create a conversation club to practice Spanish

Even though this is the most common way to use ‘hay que’, you may also hear it as a way to propose something in a very informal manner. In this case, ‘hay que’ will be translated as ‘let’s do something’.

¿Qué vas a hacer mañana? Hay que ver una película What are you going to do tomorrow? Let’s watch a movie

Haber as a synonym of ‘to occur’ and to ‘take place’

Another way to use ‘haber’ is to talk about events that happened or will happen in the future. As a result, in this context, haber is considered a synonym of ‘to occur’ and ‘to take place’. Here are some examples of this use of haber:

La semana pasada hubo un accidente muy grave Last week there was a very serious accident

La semana que viene habrá un examen de español Next week there will be a Spanish test

El próximo fin de semana va a haber un concierto de rock en la ciudad Next weekend there’s going to be a rock concert in the city

Notice that in the previous translations haber was still translated as ‘there is’ and ‘there are’. This is because just as in English, in Spanish, these expressions are more normal in informal conversations. However, you can also translate it as ‘to occur’ and ‘to take place’ too.

La semana pasada hubo un accidente muy grave Last week, a very serious accident occurred

La semana que viene habrá un examen de español Next week a Spanish test will take place

El próximo fin de semana va a haber un concierto de rock en la ciudad Next weekend a rock concert will take place in the city

How to use ‘tener’ in Spanish?

In previous sections, we established the different uses of ‘haber’ in Spanish. Now we’ll review how to use ‘tener’ as well as its differences with ‘haber’. It’s very likely that by now you’re familiar with ‘tener’ when talking about possessions and age, therefore, we won’t talk a lot about those uses. 

Here’s a little reminder about the most common ways to use ‘tener’ in Spanish. Remember that this verb is always translated as ‘to have’:

  • To express obligation
  • As an auxiliary verb in compound tenses 
  • In idiomatic expressions 
  • To talk about your age and possessions

Just as in English, ‘tener’ is used to talk about our possessions, here are a few examples of how to do this: 

Tengo dos boletos para ir a Colombia I have two tickets to go to Colombia

Mariana tiene dos perros y tres gatos Mariana has two dogs and three cats

In order to avoid common mistakes, you should keep in mind that in Spanish we don’t use either ‘ser’ or ‘estar’ (to be), to talk about our age. Instead, we use ‘tener’. 

As mentioned earlier, ‘tener’ is also used in a lot of idiomatic expressions such as ‘tener la sartén por el mango’, ‘no tener remedio’, ‘tener en ascuas’, etc. These types of phrases are very important if you want to speak natural and fluid Spanish. In this article, you’ll find 23 idiomatic expressions with tener that will help you improve your vocabulary and your command of Spanish. 

Using ‘tener’ to express obligation

Just as in English, when we want to express obligation in Spanish we use ‘tener’. Since this structure and context is very similar to ‘hay que’, many new Spanish speakers tend to confuse both structures. Before talking about the difference in meaning between those structures, let’s look at some examples with tener:

Tener que (conjugated) + verb (infinitive form)

Yo tengo que hablar más español con mis amigos I have to speak more Spanish with my friends

Claudia y yo tenemos que dejar de hablar tanto Claudia and I have to stop talking so much

Mauricio tiene que pagar su boleto o no podrá viajar Mauricio has to pay his ticket or else he won’t be able to travel

Now that you have seen some examples, let’s talk about the differences between ‘hay que’ and ‘tener que’. As mentioned before, unlike ‘haber’ tener always has a subject (someone performing the action. 

On top of this, the expressions build with ‘hay que’ express necessity and sometimes a suggestion. However, those phrases don’t imply an obligation or responsibility to do the action. But the sentences with ‘tener que’ are mandatory. 

Para mejorar nuestro español hay que estudiar To improve our Spanish it’s necessary to study

Tengo que estudiar para mi examen de español I have to study for my Spanish test

Tener as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses 

We mentioned before that a compound tense is formed with an auxiliary verb and the main verb. We also mentioned that in Spanish a lot of the compound tenses are built with ‘haber’ as an auxiliary verb. For instance:

Nevertheless, it’s very likely that you may also hear ‘tener’ as an auxiliary verb. This doesn’t mean that ‘tener’ and ‘haber’ are synonyms in this context. In fact, there’s a very subtle nuance in meaning between these phrases.

Tener (conjugated) + verb in past participle + complement

Ya tenemos preparada la cena We already have dinner prepared

Carolina ya tiene pagados sus boletos Carolina has paid her tickets already

When using ‘tener’ in this context, we’re emphasizing or reiterating that the action is already completed. You may also notice that with tener the past participle (the second verb) has to agree with gender and number with the complement. 

If in the previous examples you replaced ‘tener’ with haber, you’re not emphasizing, you’re just informing that an action was recently completed. Even though the English translation is the same, be aware that  in Spanish we only use ‘tener’ to emphasize the action.

Ya hemos preparado la cena We already have prepared dinner

Carolina ya tiene pagados sus boletos Carolina has paid her tickets already

Wrapping Up

‘Tener’ and ‘haber’ are two basic Spanish verbs that can be easily confused. That’s why in this article we discussed their different uses and the nuances in meaning between them. We learned that haber can be translated as ‘there is’ / ‘there are’, ‘to have’, or ‘it’s necessary’. We also discussed that it’s used to express existence and necessity, as an auxiliary verb and as a synonym of ‘to take place’ and ‘to occur’. 

Tener is the direct translation of ‘to have’ and is used to express possession, to talk about your age, in idiomatic expressions, as an auxiliary verb and as a way to express obligation. We also learned that even though ‘haber’ and ‘tener’ may be used to build compound tenses, ‘tener’ is only used to emphasize that an action is already completed. 

Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of these verbs and you feel more confident to use them in your Spanish conversations. 

Related Questions

What’s the difference between ‘haber’ and ‘estar’? Most of the time ‘haber’ will be translated as ‘to be’. However, this translation doesn’t mean that this verb is a synonym of ‘estar’. Haber expresses existence while estar talks about an object or person’s location and temporary conditions. 

Hay unas llaves en la mesa There are some keys on the table

Las llaves están en la mesa The keys are on the table

Both of these verbs are very important for your Spanish foundations, that’s why I wrote an article on how to use estar in Spanish. Here, you’ll find the most common uses of this verb and some examples on how to apply it. 

What’s the difference between ‘a ver’ and ‘haber’? Although they sound the same and their spelling is very similar, ‘a ver’ and ‘haber’ are not interchangeable. Haber is used to express existence and, as a result, it’s translated as ‘to be’. A ver is an expression formed with the verb ‘ver’ and it could mean ‘Let’s see’ ‘Okay’ or ‘Wait’. 

Hay una película muy buena en la televisión There’s a very good movie on the TV

A ver, ¿cuál es esa película? Wait, what movie is that?

Daniela Sanchez

¡Hola! Soy Daniela Sanchez, I’ve taught Spanish in Mexico to a wide array of foreigners. From students and tourists to doctors and soldiers who’ve moved and visited here over the years. During the day I’m a freelancer and marketer, while at night I’m here writing for students of the world wide web looking to learn Spanish. I hope you find what you’re looking here during your journey into Español 🙂 Read More About Me

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