Arrival in Spain

Last update : November 2023

Via Ceuta and Melilla

Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities on the north coast of Africa. They are Europe’s only two external borders on the African continent. They are part of Spain, but are not part of the Schengen area (⇒ ch. Glossary). Therefore, even if you arrive in Ceuta or Melilla, you have not yet reached the European area of free movement, and you will have to wait for the permission to enter mainland Spain (laissez passer; in Spanish: salvoconducto) to continue on your way. The length of stay in Ceuta and Melilla is totally arbitrary; it depends on the political will and the context at the time.

During your time in Ceuta and Melilla you will be hosted in a CETI (Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes, (⇒ch. Glossary). Sometimes, some nationalities or groups are denied access to the centre, especially people of Moroccan origin. Several people live there in one room and you can go out during the day, until 11 p.m. In the CETI you will have access to a social worker, legal assistance, language courses, workshops and other services.

You should be aware that Spanish authorities often return migrants to Morocco directly if they are found at the border perimeter or at sea. In the past, large groups of people have also been returned after crossing the fence in Ceuta and Melilla. Try to find out before entering Ceuta or Melilla whether “pushbacks” are taking place and who is being deported. If you manage to reach the city, normally, when you are found, you will be taken to the police station to be registered, where the Red Cross will provide you with initial humanitarian assistance. You will then be taken to the CETI.

Attention: It is possible that the Spanish police will try to push you back to Morocco once you have reached the city. This is not legal, and you should be aware that if you find yourself in this situation you have the right to a lawyer.

Remember: It is advisable to apply for asylum to try to avoid being returned to Morocco and to be able to access the legal advice offered by the NGO CEAR at the CETI. Additionally, there are other organisations outside of the CETI that can offer you legal advice (⇒ch. Contacts)

The situation of migrants in Ceuta and Melilla is notably different from the rest of Spain in many aspects.


There are no official exits to mainland Spain from Ceuta or Melilla for non-asylum seekers.

When you are registered by the police, it is important that you inform them that you want to apply for asylum. If you have entered the CETI, you will arrange with a lawyer an appointment to apply for asylum. In Ceuta, if you have NOT entered the CETI, you will have to request an appointment online to apply for asylum. In Melilla, appointments can only be made in person. The office where you apply for asylum is located at the border.

At this appointment with the police, you will have your asylum interview. You have the right to be assisted by a lawyer and interpreter (⇒ch. Asylum). Once you have applied for asylum, you will have to wait to be transferred to a reception centre in mainland Spain.

It is also possible to leave Ceuta and Melilla on your own. After a month and a day, Spanish law considers that your application has been accepted. From that moment on, if you so decide, you can continue your journey to the mainland. To do so, you will need to present a boat ticket to leave for the mainland.

While in Ceuta you will not be able to travel to the mainland if you do not communicate a change of address to the Spanish authorities, in Melilla this is not necessary. In any case, it is very important that you communicate your new address on mainland Spain so that in the future you will receive notifications of your asylum application (⇒ Asylum).

Attention: If you decide to leave on your own and do not wait for an official departure, you will not be granted the right to access the support system for asylum seekers (which includes, for example, accommodation) on the mainland. However, you can claim your right to be admitted to an appeal on the peninsula with the help of a lawyer. For this purpose, it is useful that you leave a letter at the CETI explaining the reasons for your departure (e.g. psychological or health reasons).


A person registered in Ceuta or Melilla as an “unaccompanied foreign minor” (MENA) has to stay in the city until the age of 18, since they must remain in the protection system of the autonomous city until they reach the legal age. Access to education and work and the chances of obtaining permanent documentation may be worse than elsewhere in Spain or other European countries.

Remember: If your rights as a minor are not respected, you have the right to file a complaint. Contact social organisations in Ceuta and Melilla (⇒ch. Contacts)

Documentation in Ceuta and Melilla

In Ceuta and Melilla it is difficult to get registered (⇒ch. Basics for life in Spain/Empadronamiento), but your registration with the police, together with the certificate of stay from the CETI, counts as proof of your stay in Spain. From that moment on, the countdown begins for you to be able to apply for residence on the basis of “arraigo” (⇒ Regularization). The police will assign you a N.I.E. (Número de Identidad para Extranjeros ⇒ch. Basics for life in Spain/ Documentation/N.I.E.), which will be your identification number from then on.

Attention: Keep the CETI exit paper, the paper the police give you when you register and any other official papers they give you. They will be very necessary for future procedures (⇒ch. Regularisation / Arraigo)


When you arrive in Ceuta or Melilla, you will be assigned a number. Departures to the mainland follow that order. If there are many people entering, departures work faster, but there may also be other political reasons that speed up or slow down this process. On a personal level, the factors that may make it difficult for you to leave Ceuta or Melilla are the following:

  • Sometimes, departures of a certain nationality are suspended for a period of time when Spain is negotiating a new agreement with this country or because Spain wants to block the migratory flow from that particular country. Organised groups of migrants have successfully protested against such blockades and managed to get them to leave for the mainland.
  • If you are involved in legal proceedings in Ceuta or Melilla, your official departure may be delayed.
  • If you have been sanctioned for behaviour deemed inappropriate inside or outside the CETI, your departure may be delayed.

Remember: Don’t waste the time you have to spend in Ceuta and Melilla. You can use it to learn Spanish and establish relationships with people in Spain and Europe. Ask for solidarity associations, such as Elín, in Ceuta, or Solidary Wheels, in Melilla (⇒ Contacts). Everything you learn will be very useful for your future in Europe

When you receive your laissez-passer and move to the mainland, you will be integrated into the reception system, like all persons arriving directly on the mainland (⇒ see below).

To the Canary Islands

When you arrive in the Canary Islands, whether you are rescued by Salvamento Marítimo or by your own means, you will be detained for a maximum of 72 hours by the National Police to take your fingerprints, personal data. You will also be given a document with your NIE (⇒ch. Basics for life in Spain/Documentation/ N.I.E.). Once this period of detention is over, you can be sent to a humanitarian reception centre in one of the Canary Islands.

Remember: If you report you are a minor, you are entitled to special protection, and you will be transferred to a centre for minors. If you do so, you won’t be able to leave the islands until you turn 18

It is also possible that they will send you directly to a CIE and try to deport you, although this is not common. In this case, it is highly recommended to apply for asylum to avoid possible deportation. You can find more information here (⇒Detetion and Deportation/ CIES).

Once they have gone through the police procedure, most of the people who arrive in the Canary Islands are referred to the “Emergency Reception and Referral Centres” (CAED, ⇒ch. Glossary). These centres are managed by organisations such as the Red Cross, Accem, or Cepaim. It is possible that some people may be transferred from one island to another depending on the number of available reception places. For example, in 2023 many people arriving in Lanzarote were automatically transferred to Fuerteventura or Tenerife, as Lanzarote had less space at reception centres and many more arrivals on its shores than the rest of the islands. Something similar happens with El Hierro and the arrival of boats from Senegal to this island, with hardly any reception capacity.

In theory, people spend a month in the Canary Islands before being transferred to another centre on the mainland, where they will continue to receive assistance. However, the length of stay is variable and can be extended, as it depends on the places available on the mainland and the government’s decisions.

Attention: There may be ongoing police investigations as facilitation of migration is criminalised in the EU. The police can summon people staying in the centres and bring them before the courts when there are suspicions that a person has driven the boat (⇒ch. Situation at the border)

Reception centres are the exit route to the mainland. You have several options to travel to the mainland.

  1. It is best to apply for asylum in order to avoid deportation and to be able to travel to the mainland in peace. It is important that you seek help to prepare your asylum application and, above all, the asylum interview you will have (⇒ch. Asylum). The big organisations often take a long time to process asylum applications, so you can also do it yourself with the help of other organisations and activists on the islands (you can find some contacts here: ⇒ch. Contacts: Canary Islands). With the paper of the first asylum interview you should be able to fly to the mainland without any problems.

  2. If you have a valid passport, you can also fly to the mainland without seeking asylum, but be aware that you run the risk of being detained or even deported to your country of origin or to a third country such as Mauritania. Many people manage to leave the Canary Islands for the mainland (domestic flight) by showing their passport and ticket, but it is not a 100% safe route, as the police can make random checks. Although it usually works, this route is especially risky if there are scheduled deportation flights to your country of origin.

  3. If you do not have a passport and do not want to apply for asylum, you will have to wait until the Spanish government decides to grant you a laissez passer.

Remember: We advise you to find out what is the best option for you by consulting your centre’s lawyer or solidarity organisations (⇒ch. Contacts: Canary Islands)

Attention: If you decide to continue your journey on your own (without applying for asylum or waiting for your laissez passer), it is important to note that sometimes there are checkpoints that prevent migrants from travelling. That is why it is important that you inform yourself beforehand and that you be very careful at the airport

To the coasts of the peninsula

In this diagram you can see a summary of the procedure for people arriving at the Spanish coasts. Below, we will explain the different phases:


Search and rescue operations by the Spanish state are normally conducted by Salvamento Marítimo. However, they may also involve the Maritime Service of the Guardia Civil (police forces) or Frontex (the European Union’s border control agency ⇒ch. Glossary). It is normal to be afraid in these cases, but it is important to know that it is a normal procedure if, when you are rescued, the Guardia Civil or the police are present. During the rescue it is very important to follow the instructions of the crew to ensure the safety of everyone. They usually rescue children first, then women, and finally men.

Remember: If you are in danger of shipwreck, you can also contact Alarm Phone to call the rescue authorities. See ⇒ch. Risks, Rights and Safety at Sea: Morocco-Spain

Reception and care

After the rescue, you will be transferred to a port on the Spanish coast. At the port, you will be given basic humanitarian and medical assistance and then the police will identify you.

The Red Cross operates in the port, with the permission of the Guardia Civil. They provide you with humanitarian care (a blanket, clean clothes, and some food) and health care (a check-up on your state of health is carried out, injuries from the journey are treated, serious cases are treated, and pregnant women are taken to hospital).

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is also usually present at the port, wearing a blue waistcoat with white letters on the back. If you want to apply for asylum they can give you information on how and where to do it.

Remember: If you are a minor, it is very important that you report it immediately, as you are entitled to special protection


You will be identified by the National Police, usually at a police station or at a CATE (Centro de Atención Temporal de Extranjeros ⇒ch. Glossary). Identification consists of taking fingerprints, a photograph, and personal data. If there are doubts about the minor’s age, an osteometric test (bone test on the wrist) is carried out.

During your stay in CATE, you will be held in detention. You will be held in isolation and will not be able to make phone calls or keep your belongings.

No more than 72 hours can pass from the time you are received at the port until you are identified. After this time, they will have to give you back your belongings and give you a document with your identification number, N.I.E. (⇒ch. Basics for life in Spain/ N.I.E.).

Attention: All this procedure must be accompanied by interpreters or translators and legal assistance. Do not sign any document without the necessary translation and legal advice


After identification and spending a maximum of 72h in a CATE, there are several options:

  1. You will be released:
  • If you are a minor, you will be sent to a centre for minors, where you can live. Social workers and educators will be there to guide you. You will be placed under the guardianship of the State (⇒ch. Minors).
  • For adults, there are temporary reception centres all over Spain. After the maximum stay (which can vary from a few days to several weeks), they can provide you with a bus ticket to take you to another city in Spain.
  • Unfortunately, it is also possible that, after identification, the National Police may release you without any further reception resources, i.e. from this moment on you will find yourself on the street. If this is the case, immediately contact friends or a local support organisation for migrants to find a place to stay (⇒ch. Contacts)
  1. You can remain in detention and be transferred to a CIE (⇒ch. Glossary), and they might try to deport you. Read here about your rights and options in that case: ⇒ch.Detention and Deportation/ CIES.

Remember: It is important to know that claiming asylum increases your chances of having reception resources. Once you make an asylum claim, you will have access to housing and basic necessities for a longer period of time. In addition, you cannot be deported until your asylum application is resolved

To the Balearic Islands

If you arrive in one of the Balearic Islands, the procedure will be very similar to arrivals to the coasts of mainland Spain.

Whether your boat is rescued by Salvamento Marítimo or the Guardia Civil, or by your own means, you will be met by the police (local police, national police or Guardia Civil, depending on the island). The areas where the boats arrive are heavily watched and it is very unlikely that you will arrive without being spotted by the police.

If you arrive in Menorca, Ibiza, Mallorca or Formentera, you will first be attended to by the Red Cross to give you initial humanitarian attention, after which you will be taken into police custody. You will spend a maximum of 72 hours in police custody. After that, you may:

  • Be released. You will be able to continue your journey to mainland Spain. The Red Cross will provide you with a ferry ticket. Once you reach mainland, you will be able to continue your journey.
  • Be transferred to a humanitarian reception centre. This will always be temporary, and it is possible that you may be transferred to another long-term centre on the mainland. There are no long-term resources in the Balearic Islands.
  • In some cases, you may be transferred to the mainland to a CIE in an attempt to deport you.

You will not be able to continue your journey to mainland Spain without a document issued by the Spanish police.

Next steps at mainland Spain

First reception

After your arrival on the mainland, either directly on its shores, or transferred from the Canary Islands, Balearic Islands, Ceuta or Melilla, you will be entitled to a first temporary reception, called “programa de atención humanitaria” (humanitarian care programme). You will have a place to sleep for a short period of time, approximately two weeks. It is very important that from the moment of your arrival you make contact with organisations and associations so that they can help you once this first reception period is over.

The host NGOs can provide you with access to Spanish language courses, guidance on your options in Spain and support for the processing of your “empadronamiento” (⇒ch. Basics for life in Spain/ Empadronamiento), health card (⇒ch. Basics for life in Spain/ Health Card) and even your passport (⇒ch. Basics for life in Spain/ Passport).

Attention: If you have arrived on the mainland and have had no contact with the Spanish authorities, it is important that you contact social organisations for guidance (⇒ ch. Contacts)

If you apply for asylum, you have the right to a longer reception by the state within the “support system for international protection” (“sistema de acogida en materia de protección internacional” ⇒ ch. Asylum). Making an asylum claim is not easy. Even if you apply for asylum, often the authorities do not fulfil their duty and you may be left without government support. Anyway, it is worth trying.

Remember: Close contact with the staff of the NGO where you are or with local associations can open many doors for you

Attention: If you leave the NGO voluntarily, you lose your access to the government support system for asylum seekers

Attention: If you have been in Spain before and you have had your fingerprints taken, it is possible that you will not have access to the government support system

Going to another city

Many NGOs can pay for your transport or give you some money to travel to another city (ONLY cities in Spain, not to leave the country).

From other European countries

If you have arrived in Spain from another EU country, you do not automatically have the right to be hosted by an NGO (⇒ch. Glossary), but you can contact solidarity organisations in your area to find out about your options (⇒ch. Contacts). If you find yourself in Spain without papers (see ⇒ ch. Living undocumented) you can always try to get residency (⇒ ch. Regularisation).

You can also apply for asylum. According to European law, the Dublin regulation, you have to apply for asylum in the country where you entered the EU, although it is not common for this regulation to be applied in Spain (⇒ch. Dublin).

Attention: Having a residence permit in another EU country protects you from being deported to your country of origin, but it does NOT automatically give you a residence permit in Spain. For that you need a European residence permit (⇒ch. Glossary)

With a visa

If you are planning to apply for a visa or need to renew your existing visa, you can find out more here:

If, once you are in Spain, it is not possible to renew your visa and you want to stay, you will become a “person without papers” (⇒ ch. Living undocumented) and you have the option to apply for asylum (⇒ ch. Asylum) or to stay without papers and try to obtain residency by “arraigo” (⇒ ch. Regularisation/ Arraigo).