Unit 5 - To be or not to be: Ser and Estar
Lesson 5.1 - The Two Ways of Saying "I am"
Exercises 5.1 Quiz 5.1
The Spanish language has two ways to say to be. Learn about them here.

The Difference between Ser and Estar

The Spanish language has two verbs that both mean to be.

Spanish speakers use a different verb when talking about permanent characteristics (ser) than when talking about temporary conditions (estar).


  • Ser is used to say WHAT something is.
  • Estar is used to say HOW something is.

Both verbs are irregular, so you will just have to memorize the various forms:

Conjugation of ser

Verb Form
Verb Form
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Conjugation of estar

Verb Form
Verb Form
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Notice that some verb forms appear in red, while others are in green.

Any verb form that uses the regular conjugation rules appears in green, while the irregular forms of the verb appear in red.

Also note the accent marks that are required in most forms of estar.

Let's look at some examples of how and when to use each:

When to use Ser

From our general rule above, ser is used to talk about WHAT something is. Ser is used to describe permanent conditions, or unchanging characteristics of things or people.

  • Soy arquitecto. (I am an architect.)
  • Ella es alta. (She is tall.)
  • Somos de los Estados Unidos. (We are from the United States.)
  • ¿Quién es la profesora? (Who is the professor?)
  • El hielo es frío. (Ice is cold.)
  • Ellos son mis amigos. (They are my friends.)

Sure, some of these things could change. I could change professions, or we could permanently move to another country. But in general, these examples of the verb to be are describing a characteristic that is relatively permanent.

Talking about the time

We also use ser when talking about what time it is. Es la una (It is one o'clock.) Son las dos (It is two o'clock.) Also notice how the form changes from singular to plural when talking about two o'clock.

At first, using ser seems unusual, because time changes constantly. But in these examples we are really talking about the identity of the current moment in time.

When identity is involved, you'll use ser.

When to use Estar

When you want to describe the current condition of something, you will use estar.

  • Estoy cansado. (I am tired.)
  • Ella está feliz. (She is happy.)
  • Estamos en Guatemala. (We are in Guatemala.)
  • ¿Dónde está la profesora? (Where is the professor?)
  • El viento está frío. (The wind is cold.)

Each of these examples talks about something that is a temporary state or condition.

You will use estar when you want to talk about a location, a condition, or an emotion.

A notable exception

Occasionally there are uses of these verbs that confound the simple explanation of when to use each.

A notable example is for talking about death, where Spanish uses estar instead of ser. Despite death sounding quite permanent, the correct form is Él está muerto for He is dead.

Perhaps that is a nod to Roman Catholicism, where the idea of an afterlife means that death is a temporary condition! I'm not sure, but it's useful to remember.

More examples available in the resources

If you want to see more example of when to use each form of to be, I recommend using some of the resources linked below.

As always, below them you'll find links to the exercises and quiz for this lesson.

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Additional Study Resources

Dr Danny Evans covers the conjugations and an explanation of the differences between ser and estar. (15:18)
A good presentation of the topic with more specific questions answered. (10:04)
El Gringo Español gives you a rule of thumb of when to use each. (7:34)
Especially useful for its lengthy list of examples and explanations of each.
Presents acronyms to help remember the situations when you use each of the two.
Short but effective discussion of the differences between ser and estar.
Chapter 2: Ser and Estar, 4th edition, pg 19.
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