Haber vs Tener vs Estar vs Ser: Verbs That Means ‘To Be’ in Spanish
Have you ever committed a beginner Spanish learner mistake and told somebody your age by saying Yo soy veinte años instead of Tengo veinte años (I am 20 years old)?
Don’t worry—most English-speaking learners do. Why? Beginner learners don’t know that the English verb “to be” translates into more than one Spanish verb depending on the context.
Today, you’ll take a huge step in your grammar knowledge and learn four Spanish verbs that translate into “to be”—haber vs tener and estar vs ser.
I promise that by the end of the article, you’ll know exactly how to use each of the verbs and understand the basic differences.
Don’t believe me? You’ll be able to check it yourself in a short quiz when you get to the end.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents:
- Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber – Similarities
- Ser, Estar, Tener, Haber – Differences
- Ser – Conjugation and Usage
- Estar – Conjugation and Usage
- Tener – Conjugation and Usage
- Haber – Conjugation and Usage
- Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber – Lesson Summary
- Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber – Multiple-choice Quiz
- Practice Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber
Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber – Similarities
How is it possible that all these verbs mean “to be”? Take a look:
Mira, hay un gatito debajo de nuestro coche. Creo que tiene tan solo unos meses. Es negro y blanco y está muy sucio.
Look, there is a kitten under our car. I think it is only a few months old. It is black and white and it is very dirty.
You see? All four Spanish verbs translate into “to be.” But don’t worry—there’s an easy explanation. In the end, you’ll be able to explain why different verbs were used in the Spanish sentence.
Ser, Estar, Tener, Haber – Differences
Yes, it’s true that all the four verbs can mean “to be” in certain contexts, but they also transmit other meanings.
Let’s have a quick look at the possible translations and then I’ll explain each verb individually and show you how to conjugate it in three main tenses—present, preterite, and future. I’ll also show you common phrases and example sentences.
These are the main meanings of the four verbs:
- ser – to be (permanent identity)
- estar – to be (temporary or location)
- tener – to be, to have, must
- haber – to be, to have, to have to
As you can see, only ser and estar always mean “to be.” Tener and haber also have other meanings.
Ser – Conjugation and Usage
Use ser to talk about attributes of a person or thing. Ser expresses characteristics that are permanent and are the essence of a person or thing.
Ser is irregular in the present and past simple but regular in the future tense.
Ser – Present Simple Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||es|
¿Quién es él?
Who is he?
Soy su amiga.
I’m your friend.
Ser – Preterite Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||fue|
Mi abuelo fue soldado.
My grandfather was a soldier.
Ser – Future Simple Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||será|
Mañana será otro día.
Tomorrow will be another day.
If you want to see the complete conjugation for ser, check out the entry in the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary.
When to Use Ser
Now, let me show you when to use ser as your translation for the verb “to be.”
Ser expresses permanent characteristics and qualities of a person or thing. For example, you’ll use it to talk about personality, color, size, material, or appearance.
La escuela es grande.
The school is big,
Mi casa es de madera.
My house is made of wood.
Mi primo es muy valiente.
My cousin is very brave.
You also use ser to talk about jobs. Remember, that in Spanish you don’t use articles with professions!
Yo soy profesora y mi hermana es ingeniera.
I am a teacher and my sister is an engineer.
Mi papá es doctor.
My dad is a doctor.
3. Nationality and Origin
Ser is also useful if you want to introduce yourself to another person and say where you’re from.
Mi papá es mexicano y mi mamá guatemalteca.
My dad is Mexican and my mother is Guatemalan.
Yo soy de España.
I am from Spain.
PRO TIP: Nationalities in Spanish are written with lowercase letters!
4. Dates and Venues
If you want to invite your Spanish-speaking friends to your birthday party, ser will be useful to indicate the date and place.
Mi fiesta de cumpleaños es mañana.
My birthday party is tomorrow.
You’ll use ser to talk about time, for example, hours and days of the week.
Hoy es domingo.
Today is Sunday.
Apenas son las once.
It’s barely eleven o’clock.
PRO TIP: Days of the week in Spanish are written with lowercase letters!
Ser is also one of the verbs that express possession.
Esto no es mío.
This is not mine.
Este cuaderno es de Ana.
This is Ana’s notebook.
Hand-picked for you:
- Ser Conjugation: Free Spanish Lesson, Quiz, Exercises, and PDF
- 100 Sentences With the Spanish Verb Ser
Estar – Conjugation and Usage
Use estar to talk about status or condition. Estar refers to characteristics that change and are not part of the essence of a person or thing.
Use it to talk about feelings, conditions, or locations. You also need it to express actions you’re performing at the moment of speaking.
Estar is irregular in the first person of the present tense and has an unexpected accent mark on all the forms except the first-person singular form. All the preterite forms are irregular. It’s regular in the future tense.
Estar – Present Simple Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||está|
Where are you?
Estar – Preterite Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||estuvo|
Ayer el día estuvo soleado.
It was sunny yesterday.
Estar – Future Simple Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||estará|
Mañana estaré en Lima.
Tomorrow, I’ll be in Lima.
To see the complete conjugation for estar, check out the entry in the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary.
When to Use Estar
Let’s see all the specific cases when you use estar to say “to be.”
You’ll use estar to talk about the location of somebody or something.
Estoy en Puerto Vallarta de vacaciones.
I’m in Puerto Vallarta on vacation.
¿Dónde está mi cartera?
Where is my wallet?
2. Variable Conditions and States
Estar expresses variable and temporal state beings.
Mi mamá está enojada con mi hermano.
My mom is angry at my brother.
3. In Expressions with bien, mal, cerca, and lejos
Look at these expressions that go with estar.
Eso está muy mal.
That’s too bad.
Está bien, no tienes que pagarme.
It’s okay, you don’t have to pay me.
Estamos cerca de la escuela de los niños pero la casa está lejos de mi trabajo.
We’re close to the kids’ school, but the house is far from my work.
4. Location in Time
Use estar to locate yourself in time.
Ahora ya estamos a mitad de abril, ¡cómo pasa el tiempo!
Now we are already in the middle of April; how time flies!
Ya estamos en primavera.
We’re already in spring.
5. Actions in Gerund form (-ing)
Estar also forms part of the present continuous tense in Spanish that expresses actions in progress.
Mi hermana está leyendo.
My sister is reading.
Estoy viendo mi serie favorita.
I’m watching my favorite show.
Ser vs Estar
Take a look at the summary of ser and estar use.
|Nationality and Origin||Location|
|Identity||Variable Conditions and States|
|Professions||In Expressions with bien, mal, cerca, and lejos|
|Dates and Venues||Location in Time|
|Time||Actions in Gerund Form|
When talking about ser vs estar, it’s important to know how to use it with adjectives. The meaning can completely change depending on which verb you use.
Change of Meaning – Ser vs Estar Chart
|aburrido/a – to be boring||aburrido/a – to be bored|
|bueno/a – to be good||bueno/a – to be tasty, attractive|
|cansado/a – to be a tiring person||cansado/a – to be tired|
|grave – to be serious||grave – to be seriously ill|
|listo/a – to be clever||listo/a – to be ready|
|malo/a – to be bad||malo/a – to be ill|
|orgulloso/a – to be conceited||orgulloso/a – to be proud|
|pálido/a- to be pale-skinned||pálido/a – to be pale|
|pesado/a – to be heavy, boring||pesado/a – to be annoying|
|rico/a – to be rich||rico/a – to be tasty|
|seguro/a – to be safe||seguro/a – to be certain|
|verde – to be green||verde – to be unripe|
|viejo/a – to be old||viejo/a – to look old|
|vivo/a – to be sharp||vivo/a – to be alive|
Example Sentences in Spanish
Mi profesor es bien aburrido. No me gustan sus clases.
My teacher is very boring. I don’t like his classes.
Mi profesor está aburrido. No tiene nada que hacer en verano.
My teacher is bored. He has nothing to do in summer.
Mi primo es rico, tiene cinco casas y un yate.
My cousin is rich, he has five houses and a yacht.
Mi comida está rica.
My food is good.
El lugar es seguro, podemos venir con los niños.
The place is safe, we can go with the kids.
No estoy segura si lo quiero, tengo que pensarlo.
I’m not sure if I want it, I have to think about it.
- Ser vs Estar Master Grammar Guide: Conjugations, Usage, and Transformative Adjective
- Ser vs Estar: Quizzes in Present and Past Tense
- Estar and Ser: Funny Mistakes and How to Use the Verbs the Right Way!
- Ser vs Estar: Using Adjectives with These Spanish Verbs
Tener – Conjugation and Usage
Tener translates into “to be” only in specific cases. Usually it means “to have” or “to possess.”
Tener has an irregular yo form in the present simple tense and the e-ie stem change in all other present tense forms. It’s also irregular in the preterite, and future tense.
Tener – Present Simple Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||tiene|
Tengo 30 años.
I’m 30 years old.
No me tienes paciencia.
You’re not patient with me.
Tener – Preterite Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||tuvo|
Ayer tuve mucho sueño.
Yesterday, I was very sleepy.
Tener – Future Simple Conjugation Chart
|él, ella, usted||tendrá|
Mañana tendrán 10 años.
Tomorrow, you’ll be 10.
To see the complete conjugation for tener, check out the entry in the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary.
When to Use Tener
Let’s see all the specific cases when you use tener to say “to be.”
1. Physical Needs and Emotional States
Use the construction tener + noun to talk about feelings or emotional states.
- tener hambre – to be hungry
- tener frío – to be cold
- tener calor – to be hot
- tener sed – to be thirsty
- tener miedo – to be afraid
¿Me pasas la botella? Tengo sed.
Can you pass me the bottle? I’m thirsty.
Cierra la puerta. Tengo frío.
Close the door. I’m cold.
Tengo miedo de las alturas.
I’m afraid of heights.
This is the first “surprising” use of tener you get to know while learning Spanish. Remember, to talk about someone’s age, use tener and not ser.
El bebé tiene cuatro meses.
The baby is four months old.
Tengo quince años.
I’m fifteen years old.
Haber – Conjugation and Usage
Haber translates into “to be” only when it’s impersonal. It also translates into “there is” and “there are.”
To say “to be” using haber, you don’t need to learn many conjugation forms of this verb. It’s enough to know the third-person singular. Yes, haber in Spanish is always singular when it means “to be,” even if it translates into “there are.”
Haber – Present Simple
hay – there is, there are
Hay cinco niños en mi salon.
There are five boys in my classroom.
Haber – Preterite
hubo – there was, there were
Hubo elecciones el año pasado.
There were elections last year.
Haber – Future Simple
habrá – there will be
Habrá tiempo para preguntas y respuestas en esta sesión.
In this session, there will be time for questions and answers.
To see the complete conjugation for haber, check out the entry in the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary.
Hand-picked for you: Haber Conjugation: Free Spanish Lesson, Exercises, and PDF
When to Use Haber
Let’s see in detail when you use haber and translate it into “to be.”
You already know that you use haber to talk about the existence of something in the present, past, or future.
Hay dos puertas en mi casa.
There are two doors in my house.
El año pasado hubo muchos casos de gripe.
Last year there were many cases of flu.
You also translate haber with “to be” in the hay que expression. This expression talks about the obligation to do something without indicating who shall execute the action.
The formula is:
Hay que + infinitive
Hay que comprar más comida.
It’s necessary to buy more food.
Hay que pensar antes de actuar.
It’s necessary to think before acting.
No hay que perder la cabeza.
It’s necessary not to lose your head.
Instead of the impersonal expression hay que to talk about obligation, you can use another expression with the verb tener. However, in this case, the person that has to execute the action is clearly stated and you won’t translate it with the verb “to be,” but rather “to have to.”
This is the formula:
conjugated tener + que + infinitive
Tengo que apurarme.
I have to hurry up.
Tienes que ayudarme.
You have to help me.
Haber vs Tener
Let’s look at the differences between haber and tener
|Physical Needs and Emotional State||Existence|
For a more detailed comparison of these two verbs, check out Haber vs Tener: Simple Steps to Understand the Differences
Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber – Lesson Summary
Now you know why all these four verbs can all translate into the English verb “to be.”
Let’s have one last review before you take the quiz:
|Nationality and Origin|
Dates and Venues
Variable Conditions and States
In Expressions with bien, mal, cerca, and lejos
Location in Time
Actions in Gerund Form
|Physical Needs and Emotional State|
Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber – Multiple-choice Quiz
Now that you know it all, check your knowledge by taking this multiple-choice quiz. Each question has one correct answer.
1. Él _____ de Perú.
2. El gatito _____ sucio.
3. _____ un lugar seguro. Puedes entrar.
4. _____ a 5 de abril.
5. _____ muchas naranjas en el refri.
6. Hoy _____ 5 de abril.
7. Mi mamá _____ enferma.
8. No _____ electricidad en todo el día.
9. Nuestros sueldos no _____ seguros con la inflación.
10. Tomás _____ 15 años.
Practice Ser, Estar, Tener, and Haber
Wow! Congratulate yourself. Four verbs in one lesson! Now you know when to use haber vs tener and ser vs estar.
What’s next? Practice makes perfect, so the only thing left for you now is to start using ser, estar, haber, and tener. Make your own worksheet with the lesson summary and review it often. Try to make sentences and imaginary conversations in your head or find a Spanish-speaking person to practice with.
It shouldn’t be difficult. According to CNN, 41 million native Spanish speakers in the U.S. speak Spanish in their homes.
To practice in real-time and with real people, sign up now for a free trial class at Homeschool Spanish Academy. Let our friendly and professional teachers from Guatemala help you reach your fluency goals and use ser vs estar and haber vs tener in a 1-to-1 conversation! Check out our affordable pricing and flexible programs!
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