How to use ‘haber’ vs. ‘tener’ in Spanish

How to use ‘haber’ vs. ‘tener’ in Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated October 5, 2023

Spanish language learners are often confused about when to use haber vs. tener. Why? Because both of these verbs express ”to have” in Spanish. That said, they are not interchangeable. Each verb is used in specific situations. 

Haber (to be/to have) is often used in phrases in which you would say “there is” or “there are” in English. These phrases describe the existence or presence of something. 

Tener (to have) is frequently used in Spanish to express possession or a state of being. Tener is used in a larger variety of ways than haber

If you’re scratching your head over haber vs. tener, don’t worry. Here’s everything you need to know about how and when to use these all-important Spanish verbs.

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The difference between ‘haber’ and ‘tener’

Here’s a quick overview of the main uses of haber vs. tener:

Haber Tener
To express the existence or presence of somethingTo express possession, property or relationships
As an auxiliary verb in perfect tensesTo express physical or emotional states of being
To express necessity or suggestionsTo express an obligation

How to use ‘haber’

Now that you understand the basic difference between haber and tener, let’s look into their individual uses.

To express the existence or presence of something

Haber is often used in a similar way to the English phrase “there is/are” or “there was/were.” In this usage, haber doesn’t require plural conjugation. It’s always conjugated to the third-person singular (he/she/it):

había (there was/were)hubo (there was/were)hay (there is/are)habrá (there will be)
  • Hay miles de personas en el concierto de Peso Pluma. (There are thousands of people at the Peso Pluma concert.)
  • Cuando se termine, habrá un edificio gigante allá. (When finished, there will be a giant building there.)

Perfect tenses

Haber is the verb used to form the perfect tense. In English, this tense is used for sentences such as, “I have eaten.” In Spanish, the perfect tense has the structure: haber + past participle

If you’re not familiar with the present perfect yet, you might want to brush up on our guide to the present perfect tense. Some examples of this tense include:

  • He comido. (I have eaten.)
  • ¿Has visto la película? (Have you seen the movie?)
  • Hemos visitado el País Vasco. (We have visited the Basque Country.)

To express necessity or a suggestion

The expression hay que (one must…) is used in Spanish to express impersonal suggestions. While it may sound a bit strange to an English speaker, this is not a peculiarity of the Spanish language. A few other European languages, including French and German, also use impersonal conjugations for similar cases.

  • Hay que reservar una mesa. (One must reserve a table.)
  • Hay que llamar porque el sitio web no funciona. (One must call because the website doesn’t work.)

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How to use ‘tener’

Here are some specific situations in which you should use tener instead of haber.

To express possession, property or relationships

Tener is used the same way we often use “to have” in English:

  • No tengo mucho dinero. (I don’t have much money.)
  • Mi hermana tiene un Mercedes Benz. (My sister has a Mercedes Benz.)
  • Tengo un hermano y dos hermanas. (I have one brother and two sisters.)

To express physical or emotional states

Tener can also be used to express certain physical or emotional states:

  • Tengo frío/calor (I’m cold/hot.)
  • Estos chicos tienen miedo (These guys are afraid to talk.)

To express obligation

One similarity between haber and tener is that both can be used to express necessity. The phrase tener que (to have to) is used in much the same way as hay que (one must). The only difference is that you must conjugate tener que to match the subject, like so:

  • Tienes que reservar una mesa. (You have to reserve a table.)
  • Tienen que descargar la app para pedir. (They have to download the app to order.)
  • Tenemos que unirnos a la reunión. (We have to join the meeting.)

Now you know when to use ‘haber’ vs. ‘tener’

The choice between haber and tener is easy based on the situation. The task of picking the correct verb is a lot like verb choices we have discussed before — like ser vs. estar or saber vs. conocer. The good news is that the more time you spend listening to spoken Spanish, the easier it will be to spot which verb you need. With a little practice, you’ll have haber vs. tener straight in no time!

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

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 Turkish. Her consulting 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.

Alison Maciejewski Cortez
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