Both of these verbs are among the most important verbs you will need to understand in Spanish. As I mentioned in my Learn Dominican Spanish page, I will try to keep this page down to just the necessities. Because of the complexity of these two verbs as well as their usefulness this is likely to be one of the more confusing subjects I write on.

Both Ser and Estar both mean “To Be” however you use them for circumstances. Both of these verbs are “irregular” so you have to memorize the different tenses. You will use the present tense the most but in time you will need to memorize the future and preterit tenses also.

Use Estar when the condition is more temporary. For example use estar when describing:

  • Location
  • Health and Mood
  • Impressions
  • results of actions

Use Ser to describe the nature of persons of things, things that are not going to change.

Clear as mud right? Keep reading, I’ll be giving some examples that will help you get the idea. Expect to make some mistakes on this one but usually they will understand you even if you use the wrong verb.

Spanish Verb Estar – To Be – Present tense conjugation

  • I – Estoy
  • You – Estas
  • He/She/It – Esta
  • We – Estamos
  • They – Estan

Spanish Verb Ser – To Be – Present tense conjugation

  • I – Soy
  • You – Eres
  • He/She/It – Es
  • We – Somos
  • They – Son

When to Use Estar or Ser – Health

Let’s work with some examples to help you get the hang of this. Remember Estar is more temporary where Ser is more permanent. For example:

  • “I am Sick”. Hopefully this is a temporary condition, therefore use Estar. The “I” version in the present tense is “Estoy” so the phrase would be “Estoy Enfermo”.
  • “I am Well” Once again likely this is temporary, therefore I would use Estar. “Estoy Bien”. Now, if I made the mistake of saying “Soy Bueno” or I am good. I am actually saying I am a good person. “Soy” is the permanent version of “to be” so by using that, I am stating a quality not a temporary condition.
  • “He is bad” Which verb you would use would be determined by what the point is that you are trying to make. “El esta mal” uses the temporary verb “estar”, so it would mean that he is sick, however if I said “El es mal”, I’m using the permanent verb and stating a characteristic, therefore I am saying “he is a bad person”

When to Use Estar or Ser – Location

  • “I am from the United States”. That will never change, I will always have been born in the United States, and therefore I would say “Soy de Estados Unidos”, which uses the permanent version of “to be” or the “ser” verb.
  • “I am at home”. This one is temporary; someday I will likely leave the house and do something therefore I would use the “estar” or temporary version of “to be”. So I would likely say “Estoy en la casa” or “I am in the house”

When to Use Estar or Ser – Characteristics

  • “This coffee is hot!” as in it tastes or feels hot. It will not always be hot but it seems that way now, so this is temporary use Estar. Don’t forget the conjugations, for this example I used the he/she/it conjugation of estar.
  • “Ice is cold” This isn’t a temporary thing. I am stating a characteristic of ice therefore I would use the “ser” version of “to be”, once again I’m going to use the he/she/it conjugation or the present tense so I would say “El hielo es frio” or “The ice is cold”.

    Now you’re probably thinking you could also say that “the ice feels cold” stating a feeling instead of a characteristic, and yes, if you were trying to get that point across you would use the “estar” verb instead of the “ser” verb in this case. Obviously, which verb you choose to use will be determined by what point you are trying to get across to the listener.

Choosing when to use Estar or Ser just takes practice and listening to experienced speakers. In time things will just sound right when you say them. Until then be prepared to make some mistakes. Fortunately, most people will understand even if you use the wrong verb because of the context.