What’s the difference between ser and estar?

What’s the difference between ser and estar?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 17, 2022

Learning the difference between ser and estar can be a fun or frustrating experience for Spanish language students. Both ser and estar mean ‘to be’ in English. And, just like the verb ‘to be’ in English, ser and estar are essential to understanding Spanish. 

If you learn the main differences between ser and estar, you will be on your way to speaking Spanish like it’s your first language!

In this article, we’ll go over the differences between ser and estar, the different uses of ser and estar in Spanish and share some examples.

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What’s the difference between ser and estar

Ser tells you what something is and describes a permanent quality or state, while estar refers to what something does and describes a temporary condition. 

We use ser to describe the essence of someone or something. In other words, ser describes things that do not change about a person or thing. 

  • Soy Maureen. (I am Maureen.) This does not change. 
  • Soy de los EEUU. (I am from the United States.) I cannot change where I am from.
  • Es alto. (He is tall.) This might feel confusing because our height does change over time as we grow, but it is a slow change. We can think of this as permanent. 

We use estar when we want to describe what something does or is doing. We can think of estar as describing temporary states or actions. 

  • Estoy feliz. (I am happy.) This could change. 
  • No estoy lista. (I am not ready.) Soon I will be ready. 
  • Él está cansado. (He is tired.) After he rests he will not be tired.

Different uses of ser vs. estar

Ser vs estar is a constant battle for Spanish language learners. Once you learn the difference, it will be easier to pick the correct verb while speaking. We promise! Let’s look at some common uses of the be-verbs in Spanish to see the difference. 

The acronym DOCTOR can help you remember the common uses for ser:

SerExamples
Description (people, animals, objects)Soy baja. (I am short.)
OccupationMi papá es doctor. (My father is a doctor.) 
Characteristics (personality traits)Ellos son agradables. (They are nice.) 
TimeSon las seis. (It is six o’clock.)
Origin¿Eres de Canada? (Are you from Canada?)
RelationsSomos amigos. (We are friends.)

The acronym PLACE can help you remember the common uses for estar:

EstarExamples
Position (where something is)Estamos en la playa. (We are at the beach.)
Location (the place something or someone is in)El banco está al lado de la escuela. (The bank is next to the school.)
Action (for expressing -ing in Spanish)Estoy caminando en el parque. (I am walking in the park.)
Condition (temporary state)Están enfermos. (They are sick.)
Emotion¡Estás feliz! (You are happy!)

Remember ser DOCTOR and estar PLACE. If songs help you remember things, check out this video explaining the different uses of ser and estar

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Examples of ser vs. estar

Before we jump into some examples, let’s take a quick look at the conjugation of ser vs estar. Both ser and estar are irregular verbs in Spanish. This means they do not follow the regular verb conjugation rules. Memorization time! 

Present tense conjugation of estar vs ser:

SubjectEstarSer
Yo (I)EstoySoy 
(You, informal)EstásEres 
Él / Ella / Usted (He / She / You, formal)EstáEs
Nosotros (We)EstamosSomos
Vosotros (You, informal plural)EstáisSois
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes (They / You, formal plural)EstánSon

Changing only the verb ser and estar will change the meaning of a sentence. 

Ser vs estar examples:

  • Eres aburrido. (You are boring.)         Estás aburrido. (You are bored.)       

Ser is used to describe a quality of a person that does not change (You’re boring). Estar is used to describe a temporary situation. (You’re bored right now.)

  • Sara es lista. (Sara is clever.)     Sara está lista. (Sara is ready.)

We use ser to say that Sara is smart. This is part of her identity, part of who she is. We use estar to describe Sara’s state at the moment. She is ready now. 

  • Es rica. (She is rich.)             Está rica la comida. (The food is delicious.)
  • Soy mala. (I am bad.)            Estoy mal. (I am sick.)
  • Son atentos. (They are nice.)     Están atentos. (They are focused.)

In all these examples, we are using ser to describe a characteristic of a person and estar to describe something that is temporary. 

Ser and estar will not always translate directly to the verb ‘to be’ in English, just like other Spanish verbs have many meanings

Note: Try not to translate from English to Spanish. It might cause some embarrassing mistakes! In English we say: I am hot. In Spanish we say: Tengo calor. (I have heat.) We do not use the verb estar here. Estoy caliente means “I am hot under the collar” or “I am hot and bothered” (romantically excited). Yikes. Not something you want to announce to a room full of people.


Get used to the differences of ser vs. estar

Take some time to learn the differences between ser and estar. Soon you will feel more confident in speaking Spanish. It may feel confusing at first, but once you recognize the general differences and start memorizing some specific uses, the battle of estar vs ser will not feel so difficult. Always remember DOCTOR and PLACE to draw a line between the common uses. 

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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