When to Use Estar in Spanish: 10 Uses to Master this Verb


There’s no doubt that learning a new language can be daunting and difficult. After all, you are dealing with new words, rules, and structures that you can’t always find on your mother language. If you learning Spanish, it’s very likely that you have seen some examples of this situation. Although there are many complicated topics in Spanish, one of the most difficult ones for non-native speakers is to learn when to use Estar in Spanish instead of Ser.

Even though both ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar’ are the Spanish equivalents for the verb ‘to be’, we can’t use them interchangeably. And since in English and other languages don’t use ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar, many non-Spanish speakers have issues to understand the difference between those two verbs. While they might seem the same to you, you should know that using one or the other would change the meaning of your sentence dramatically. So in order to help you understand these verbs a little better, in this post, we are going to give you some keys to identify when to use ‘Estar’ in Spanish. By the end of it, hopefully, the uses of ‘Estar’ will be clearer for you.

When Do We Use Estar?

When studying the verb ‘Estat’, most teachers define it as a verb that allows you to talk about temporary things. However, in Spanish, we use this ‘Estar’ for many other situations. With the goal of helping you understand better this verb, we are going to see its uses in-depth.

1. Sayings, Idiomatic and Slang Expressions

Although this is not something you will learn in a Spanish Grammar class, native speakers use the verb in their sayings, slang, and idiomatic expressions. Some of these phrases talk about either location, a condition or temporary things. For instance:

  • Estar como un tren ←→ This Spanish expression means ‘to be hot’. And why do we use ‘Estar’ instead of ‘Ser’? Because, at some point, the physical attractiveness is going to disappear.
  • Estar de un humor de perros ←→ This is the Spanish expression of ‘foul mood’. And just as the previous example, your emotional state changes depending on the situation or circumstances.

Learning sayings, idiomatic and slang expressions in Spanish can help you sound more natural among native speakers. But if you learn this type of phrases with the verb ‘Estar’ you also get to use common examples so you can see temporary situations or states, and location. If you want to practice the verb ‘Estar’ while you learn some idioms, read this list that I compiled with some common idioms.

2. Describing where Something is: Talking about Location

When talking about the verb ‘Estar’, we necessarily need to talk about the location. In fact, in many courses and books, describing the location is used to introduce for the first time the verb ‘Estar’. So every time you want to say where something or somebody is, you must use this verb. For example:

¿Dónde está la librería? Where is the library?

Mis amigos están en la escuela My friends are in the movies

La catedral y el museo están en el centro The cathedral and the museum are Downtown

To use ‘Estar’ perfectly, you have to be aware that talking about the location of something or someone not only means to talk about a big place like Downton, the school or the movies. It can also be another object:

Tus llaves están en la mesa Your keys are on the table

Dame mi celular, está en tu mochila Give my phone, it’s on your backpack

Cuidado, el vaso está al lado de tus pies Watch out! The cup is next to your feet

A good key that you can keep in mind is that: if you are describing where something is (no matter if is a place, an object) you need the verb ‘Estar’. One thing that bothers many new-Spanish students is that ‘Estar’ describes temporary states and conditions. However, the location of a building seems more permanent. After all, a cathedral has been standing in the same place for a long while. Although this is true, you have to keep in mind that ‘Estar’ is always used to talk about location. So, in this case, don’t overthink too much.

3. Describing an Object or a Person: When to use ‘Estar’?

Probably this can be the most confusing use of ‘Estar’ since we also use the verb ‘Ser’ to describe people and objects. Although both verbs are used to describe a person or an object, it doesn’t mean that they describe the same characteristics. At this point, you know that ‘Estar’ is used to talk about temporary situations. So what characteristics can you describe with ‘Estar’?

Health

Unfortunately, having good health is something that can change pretty quickly. As a result, we use the verb ‘Estar’ to describe a person’s health. For instance:

Los resultados dicen que estás sano The results say that you are healthy

We also use ‘Estar’ to express that a person is sick. Why? Because no matter how bad the disease is you can’t be sick forever. Even though in English you don’t use the verb ‘to be’ to talk about diseases, in verbal Spanish is very common that people use ‘Estar’ to say what’s the disease they have.

Mi papá está enfermo de gripa My dad has the flu

So if being sick or healthy is something temporary, why have you heard that some people use ‘ser’ to say ‘I’m healthy’? Well if you haven’t heard this phrase yet, you should be aware that sometimes Spanish speakers are going to say ‘Ser sano’ instead of ‘Estar sano’.

Mis abuelos son muy sanos My grandparents are very healthy

Mis abuelos están muy sanos My grandparents are very healthy

Although these phrases may seem the same to you, in reality, their meaning is slightly different. As mentioned before, ‘estar sano’ means that your health is in good shape. However, ‘ser sano’ expresses that your way of life is healthy: you eat well, you exercise, you don’t drink, etc.

Mental and Emotional States

Since we can use the same adjective with both ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar’ this is another section that can be very confusing for new Spanish speakers. However, when describing your feelings/emotions or your state of mind we use ‘Estar’ since these states can be affected by your circumstances and, therefore, they’ll change. For instance:

Estoy enojada con mi hermano I’m upset with my brother

Estoy desesperado por encontrar trabajo I’m desperate to find a job

These two examples allow you to see that your feelings and state of mind are not going to be the same forever. Luckily for your brother, you are not always going to be upset whit him and your desperation for finding a job is going to be over when you find one.

As mentioned before, there will be sometimes where describing your feelings or state of mind in Spanish is going to be a little confusing because you could use the same adjective with ‘Estar’ or ‘Ser’. For example:

Physical States

Just as we use ‘Estar’ to describe emotional and mental states, we also use it to describe physical states. Keep in mind that when talking about physical states we are not talking about your characteristics, rather than things that can actually change or things that are the product of some particular circumstances.

Me voy a dormir, estoy agotado I’m going to be, I’m exhausted

María y Alejandra están muy delgadas María and Alejandra están muy delgadas

Being tired or exhausted is the product of working hard or having a long day; however, after a good night of sleep, you are going to feel better. In the second example, this situation implies that the girls are thinner than usual. Maybe they are on a diet or they are going to the gym. So every time you want to describe your physical state, use ‘Estar’.

4. Estar as an Auxiliary Verb: Building Other Tenses

When learning a new language, there’s no doubt that you are going to learn new tenses. Fortunately, the grammar structures that we build with the verb ‘Estar’ have their equivalent in English. And even though we use ‘Estar’ for many things, probably this one of the most important ones. So what are those verbal structures that you can build with the verb ‘Estar’?

Present Progressive

Just as in English, in Spanish, we use this tense to talk about things that are happening at this moment. One common mistake new Spanish speakers make is to build this tense with ‘Ser’. However, with present progressive, we always use ‘Estar’.

Estar (conjugated) + gerund

¿Qué están haciendo? What are you doing?

Estoy hablando por teléfono I’m talking on the phone

Estábamos viendo la televisón We were watching the TV

Estar + Past participle

As mentioned before, you also have this structure in English, so hopefully, it would be easier for you to get familiar with it. Since this post focuses on the uses of ‘Estar’ we are not going to talk in-depth about this grammar structure.

Estar (conjugated) + past participle

La tienda está cerrada The store is closed

El periódico está mojado The newspaper is wet

Las flores de los vecinos están destrozadas The neighbor’s flowers are ruined

Notice that when using this verbal structure, the past participle has to coincide both in number and gender with the noun. Is past participle used exclusively with ‘Estar’? No. You can also use it with ‘Ser’ but the structure, therefore, the meaning is different. We need ‘Ser’ and past participle when using the passive voice and even if this verbal structure is very common in English, in Spanish just use it in very formal contexts. See the difference for yourself:

La tienda está abierta The store is opened

La tienda fue abierta por el ladrón The store was opened by the thief

5. Talking about the Temperature

Even though we use ‘Ser’ to describe the weather when talking about the temperature we use ‘Estar. The reason is that the weather is something more permanent: every year rains or the summer is pleasant. However, the temperature is always changing. If you want to use the verb ‘Estar’ in this situation, follow the structure native Spanish speakers use when asking or talking about the temperature:

Estamos a + number + degrees

Hoy estamos a 29° The temperature today is 29°

Mañana vamos a estar a 35° Yesterday the temperature was 35°

Mañana vamos a estar a 35° Tomorrow the temperature will be 35°

As long as you keep using the verb ‘Estar’, you can feel free to change the tenses. If you wanted to ask about the temperature, this is the questions you want to use:

¿A cuántos grados estamos? What’s the temperature today?

This use of the verb ‘Estar’ is very popular among native Spanish speakers, so don’t hesitate to use it.

6. Talking About Your Job

As you may know, in Spanish, are many ways to talk and ask about a person’s job. The only difference between those expressions is that some of them are going to be more formal, therefore, you can use them in many situations, while other ones are meant to use in informal situations or verbal language. So, when they want to know a person’s current position, native Spanish speakers ask the following question.

¿En qué estás trabajando? What are you working on?

¿En qué está trabajando tu hermana? What is your sister working on?

Just as in English, this Spanish question implies at the moment. However, while in English this question is meant to ask about the project or the task you are doing right now, in Spanish, we use to ask about your job position at the moment. The only thing that you need to keep in mind is that this question with ‘Estar’ is used in more informal situations and, even if Spanish speakers don’t say it, it implies that their job is temporary.

Talking about your job position

Of course, just as you can ask a question with ‘Estar’ to know about someone else’s job, you can also talk about your job with an affirmative sentence. Notice that you need to use different prepositions depending on what you want to say.

Estar (conjugated) trabajando + en + place/company

Estoy trabajando en IBM I’m working in IBM

Mi hermana está trabajando en la tienda de la esquina My sister is working in the cornerstore

Or

Estar (conjugated) trabajando + de + position

Estoy trabajando de mesero I’m working as a waiter

Estoy trabajando de mesero I’m working as a waiter

Spanish native speakers also tend to shorten this phrase by removing ‘trabajando’. As a result, the phrase would be:

Estamos de meseras We are working as a waiter

Estoy de encargada de una tienda I’m working as a manager store

As you may imagine, shorting the phrase makes it more informal. Although this short phrase is very common in Spain, you should keep in mind that probably is not as common in other Spanish speaking countries. So if you want to play safe, use the complete expression. Don’t forget that all the phrases with ‘Estar’ that you use to ask about a job mean at this moment.

7. Talking about the Distance

If you have ever asked a native speaker for directions, you may notice that they use the verb ‘Estar’ not only to talk about the location but also about the distance. For instance:

La tienda está a 30 metros The store is 30 meters away

La catedral está a dos cuadras The cathedral is two blocks away

When paying attention to these examples is easy to see the structure of this phrase.

Place + estar (conjugated) + a + distance

Mi casa está a 10 cuadras My house is ten blocks away

Although in the previous examples we use a specific number like 2 blocks or 30 meters, you can also use this expression with an adverb. Furthermore, instead of measuring the distance with meters, blocks, and kilometers, you can also use time. Look at the following examples.

La tienda está lejos The store is far

Mi casa está a 5 minutos My house is five minutes away

La catedral está muy cerca The cathedral is very close

Even though people use this expression to give directions, this use of ‘Estar’ is pretty common and we use it in formal contexts too with the same purpose: describing the distance between tho things. As a result, you can find this phrase in books, news, and TV shows.

México está a 9020 kilómetros de España Mexico is 9020 kilometers away from Spain

To master this use with ‘Estar’, keep in mind the following takeaways:

  • You can express the distance with ‘Estar’ + an adverb such as far and close.
  • Use ‘Estar a’ every time you are measuring the distance with time or and length measures.

8. Talking about an Object’s Price or Value

Another common use of the verb ‘Estar’ among native Spanish speakers is to talk about prices or an object’s value. This way to use ‘Estar’ is especially common when talking about currencies or when you go to buy something. Why? Because no matter how stable things are, prices and currencies are susceptible to change. Let’s see some examples:

La manzana está a 30 pesos el kilo Apples cost 30 pesos

El dólar está a 19.24 pesos The American dollar is 19.24 Mexican pesos

If you look at these examples carefully, you are going to be able to see the structure you need to follow:

Object/Currency + está/están + a + price

Los zapatos están a 300 pesos The shoes cost 300 pesos

El kilo de manzanas está a 30 pesos One kilo of apple costs 30 pesos

Just as you can use affirmative expressions to talk about the value or the price of something, you can also adapt this structure to ask questions:

¿A cuánto + está/están + el/la/los/las + object?

¿A cuánto está el dólar? How much is the American dollar?

¿A cuánto están las flores? How much are the flowers?

If you ever go to a Spanish speaking country, it’s very likely that you’ll hear this expression among native speakers. However, you may also find it in the news when talking about currencies. So feel free and confident to start using it.

9. I’m single…Talking About Your Marital Status

One thing that confuses many new Spanish speakers is that when studying the verb ‘Ser’, they learn one its uses is to talk about someone’s else marital status. This seems easy to understand until they hear a native Spanish speaker saying ‘Estoy soltero’ instead of ‘Soy soltero’. So which one is correct and why native speakers use both verbs?

Even if native speakers don’t notice, using one verb or the other is a matter of perception. Remember that ‘Estar’ talks about temporary situations and imply that an action is taking place at this very moment. And ‘Ser’ is more permanent.

Mi papa es soltero My dad is single

¿Ya supiste que Laura está soltera? Did you hear that Laura is single?

In the second example, we emphasize that Laura is single at that moment, but she is not going to stay single forever. Nevertheless, the first sentence expresses that my dad has been single for a long while and there are no signs of him changing that. As mentioned before, in this case, it’s just a matter of perspective.

However, there will be times where you necessarily need to use ‘Estar’. For instance when saying that someone is married to somebody else.

Karina está casada con Alberto Karina is married to Alberto

Unfortunately, marriage is something that can end at some point in people’s life. So to express this we use the verb ‘Estar’. In general, we could use all the marital status (single, divorced, married, widow/widower) with ‘Estar’ for the simple reason that you can end a relationship or start a new one. Funny enough, when talking about being someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend we always use ‘Ser’.

10. Asking and Saying the Date

Just as we use ‘Estar’ to talk about the temperature, we also use to talk about the date. In fact, we follow exactly the same structure.

Estamos a + date

Estamos a 1 de agosto Today is August 1

The same thing happens if you want to ask about the date:

¿A qué estamos hoy? What’s the date today?

¿A cuánto estamos hoy? What’s the date today?

Notice that when talking about the temperature and the date, the verb ‘Estar’ is always in its plural form. Another thing that you should keep in mind is that the previous question is the full sentence. However, sometimes native Spanish speakers tend to shorten it by removing ‘Hoy’. As a result, you could use the same question ‘¿A cuánto estamos? for both the date and the temperature. People know what to answer based on the context.

Wrapping Up

Both ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar’ are difficult Spanish verbs that can be easily confused by new Spanish speakers. However, their uses are very different to the point of changing the meaning of the sentence completely or making a mistake if you are not careful. In this post, we just focused on the 10 most common uses of the verb ‘Estar’. Hopefully, by this point, you feel more confident about using this verb. Keep in mind that many of the uses shown in this post may be new for you, but they are going to help you to improve your Spanish and using ‘Estar’ as a native.

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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