How to Use ‘Tener’ in Spanish

In Spanish, tener means ‘to have’ and it’s one of the most basic verbs that you need to learn. However, it’s not always clear how to apply this verb into Spanish conversations, because it doesn’t possess the same uses as ‘to have’ in English. For that reason, many people wonder how to use ‘tener’ in Spanish. 

The most common uses and meanings of tener are:

  • Talk about possessions and belongings – to have
  • Express your age – to be
  • Talk about years and periods of time – to have 
  • Describe symptoms and physical states – to be / to have
  • Talk about obligations – to have to
  • Talk about cravings and wishes – I feel like

Even though ‘tener’ is considered the direct translation of ‘to have’, in reality, this Spanish verb has other applications and meanings that tend to confuse new Spanish learners. For that reason, we’ve compiled a list of the different ways you can use this verb. 

Additionally, we’ll include some phrase structures and examples that will show you how to use ‘tener’ in Spanish. By the end of this, you’ll know the different contexts where you need to use ‘tener’ and you’ll be able to start applying it in real-life conversations. 

1. Expressing possession – To have 

As the direct translation of ‘to have’, one of the most basic ways to use ‘tener’ is to talk about your possessions and belongings. With this meaning, ‘tener’ and ‘to have’ are exactly the same, so you shouldn’t have a lot of issues applying this verb. 

When expressing possession, you can refer to:

  • Objects
  • Pets
  • Relationships and family members 
  • Physical characteristics of yourself 

[Tener conjugated] + (number) + [noun]

Yo tengo dos gatos y un perro
I have two cats and one dog

Tobías tiene un coche rojo
Tobías has a red car

Melissa y Sally tienen novio
Melissa and Sally have a boyfriend 

Charlie tiene dos hermanas y un hermano
Charlie has two sisters and one brother

Mi prima tiene ojos azules y cabello rubio
My cousin has blue eyes and blond hair

Additionally, you can also build negative statements with tener to talk about the things that you don’t possess. 

No + [tener conjugated] + [noun]

Tere no tiene novio 
Tere doesn’t have a boyfriend

Yo no tengo paciencia para ayudarte
I don’t have the patience to help you

No tenemos gatos porque no nos gustan
We don’t have cats because we don’t like them

Tú no tienes ojos azules, tienes ojos verdes
You don’t have blue eyes, you have green eyes. 

2. Talking about your age – To be

Not using the verb ‘tener’ to talk about their age is one of the most common mistakes in Spanish. Even though for many new learners this meaning may not make much sense, in Spanish, it’s mandatory to use tener to talk about your or someone’s age. 

As a result, in this situation, ‘tener’ won’t be translated as ‘to have’, but rather as to be. Here are some examples and a phrase structure that you can use in this situation. 

[Tener conjugated] + [number] + años

Kim tiene tres años
Kim is three years old

Mi escuela tiene catorce años
My school is fourteen years old

Mi hermana tiene quince años
My sister is fifteen years old

Creo que Lucy y su hermano tienen veinticuatro años
I think that Lucy and her brother are twenty-four years old

No + [tener conjugated] + [number] + años

No tengo quince años, tengo dieciocho
I am not fifteen years old, I’m eighteen

Claro que no tienes veinte años, ya en serio, ¿cuántos años tienes?
Of course you’re not twenty years old, seriously, how old are you? 

Take Note: Tener is also used to ask someone about their age. In this case, the question would be ¿cuántos años tienes? (How old are you?)

3. Talking about obligations – To have to

In Spanish, ‘tener’ is also useful to talk about obligations or duties people have or need to do. As a result, in this situation, ‘tener’ and ‘to have’ work in the same way. These types of sentences are quite popular and useful in Spanish and they can be applied in both formal and informal contexts. 

Here are some phrase structures and examples you can follow. Remember that you can conjugate tener to match any tense that you may need. 

[Tener conjugated] + que + [infinitive verb]

Sandra y tú tienen que estudiar para el examen
Sandra and you have to study for the test

Tenía que hablarle a mi mamá, pero se me olvidó
I had to call my mom, but I forgot

Ustedes tienen que renovar su pasaporte
You guys have to renew your passport 

Espérame poquito, tengo que imprimir unos papeles
Give me a minute, I have to print some papers

¿Tienes que trabajar ahorita? ¿No puedes hacerlo más tarde?
Do you have to work right now? Can you do it later?

No + [tener conjugated] + que + [infinitive verb]

Hoy no tengo que ir a la oficina
I don’t have to go to the office today

Aquí dice que no tenemos que pagar nada
In here it says that we don’t have to pay anything

¿No tenías que llevarle esas cajas a mi abuela? 
Didn’t you have to take these boxes to grandma?

No tienen que hacer nada, sólo firmen estos papeles
You don’t have to do anything, just sign these papers

4. Describing symptoms and states – To be / To have

The verb ‘tener’ can also be used in Spanish to talk and describe symptoms, cravings and physical states. This can be especially useful during a medical appointment and you need to describe your pains and affections. 

Additionally, in this context, ‘tener’ will also be used to describe physical states that don’t necessarily need to be related to medical conditions. Depending on the word that you use, ‘tener’ will be either translated as ‘to have’ or ‘to have’. 

Here is some common vocabulary that you can combine with ‘tener’: 

Tienes fiebre, vamos al doctor
You have a fever, let’s go see a doctor

Mi hermana le tiene miedo a las alturas
My sister is afraid of heights  

No te preocupes, tendremos cuidado
Don’t worry, we’re going to be careful

¿A qué hora vamos a comer? Tengo mucha hambre
What time are we eating? I am very hungry

5. Talking about cravings and wishes – To feel like…

In casual Spanish, tener expresses cravings or activities that people want to do. In order to convey this meaning, you will need to use the expression tener ganas de which can be translated as ‘to feel like’ or ‘to want’. 

As a result, this meaning of ‘tener’ will allow you to talk about food cravings as well as other things you feel like doing. Here are some examples of how to apply this use of ‘tener’. 

[Tener conjugated] + ganas de + [noun/verb]

Manuel y yo tenemos ganas de tacos
Manuel and I want tacos

Ivan tiene ganas de ir a bailar
Ivan feels like going to dance

¿No tienes ganas de salir mañana en la noche?
Don’t you feel like going out tomorrow night?

Mi prima tiene ganas de pastel de chocolate
My cousin wants chocolate cake

Take Note: If you want to talk about food cravings, you will need to complete your sentence with a noun. But if instead you want to talk about the activities you want to do, you’ll need to use a verb. 

6. Talking about years and periods of time – To have

Just like ‘to have’, in Spanish, we use ‘tener’ to express the amount of time we’ve done something as well as the amount of time we have to finish an activity. For this situation, you’ll have different structures that you’ll use depending on what you want to express: 

If you want to talk about how long you have been performing something, you can use the following structure. 

[Tener conjugated] + [number] + años + [verb in gerund]

Nosotros tenemos diez años viviendo en México
We have been living in Mexico for ten years

Bill tiene dos años trabajando en la oficina
Bill has two years working in the office 

Sally y Leo tienen dos meses saliendo
Sally and Leo have been dating for two months

If instead of expressing the amount of time you’ve done something you want to talk about deadlines, you can simply use the following structure. Notice that adding extra information is optional: 

[Tener conjugated] + [amount of time] + (para) + (complement)

Creo que tenemos dos semanas para estudiar
I think we have two weeks to study

Luisa tiene una hora para llegar al aeropuerto
Luisa has one hour to get to the airport

Necesito el reporte inmediatamente, tienes dos horas
I need the report immediately, you have two hours

Wrapping Up

If you’re learning Spanish, sooner than later you’ll need to be able to know how to use ‘tener’ properly since this verb is applied in a wide range of situations. 

For that reason, in this article, we discussed the different contexts where you need to use ‘tener’. We learned that even though this verb is the direct translation of ‘to have’, it can also be used in other contexts as a synonym of ‘to be’. 

So for instance, as a synonym of ‘to be’, tener can be used to talk about age, symptoms and states. As a synonym of ‘to have’, ‘tener’ expresses possession, obligation and it’s also very useful to talk about amounts of time. 

Finally, we mentioned that in informal Spanish, it can be used as a way to express cravings and the wish to do something. 

Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of how to use ‘tener’ in Spanish and you’re ready to start applying this verb into your conversations.

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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