A guide to Spanish grammar: don’t ever get haber vs tener wrong again in Spanish

DON’T ever get HABER & TENER wrong again in Spanish!

Ever got confused between the verbs haber (to have) vs tener (to have)?

As in:

  • He visto esa película muchas veces. (I have seen that movie many times.)
  • ¿Tienes alguna mascota? (Do you have any pets?)
  • Me tienen que avisar cuando llegue el paquete. (You have to let me know when the package arrives.)

As you can see, haber vs tener (to have) tend to be translated to English by the same word. So, when do we use each one? What’s the difference? Learn to always use it correctly today with me, Spring Spanish teacher Maura.

How could we do this, you ask? With chunks, of course! ¡Empecemos! (Let’s start!)

1. The difference between haber vs tener

So, let’s tackle the big one right on.

To be honest, in Spanish, these verbs are completely separated from each other so, what we’re going to go over is, specifically, the difference in regards to English. Meaning, when “to have” means haber and when it means tener.

When “to have” is a tense in Spanish:

¡No me digas que no has leído Cien Años de Soledad!
(Don’t tell me you haven’t read A Hundred Years of Solitude!)

No, realmente solo he leído un libro de García Márquez, pero sí he leído otros clásicos como Rayuela de Cortázar, por ejemplo.
(No, I’ve really only read one book by Garcia Marquez, but I have read other classics like Rayuela by Cortazar, for example.)

Uff, sí, Rayuela es increíble. Yo lo leí una vez en la versión recomendada, pero siempre he querido leerlo en otro orden.
(Pff, yes, Rayuela is amazing. I read it once in the recommended version, but I’ve always wanted to read it in another sequence.)

Every time you saw a “have” in the translation, it was an haber in Spanish. This creates what you call “perfect tenses” in English, which are all the tenses that use “have” and right after another verb, as in: “I have read it twice”. You’d use haber in Spanish in the same way, always following it by another verb:

  • Yo lo he leído dos veces. (I have read it twice.)
  • No hemos comido aún. (We haven’t eaten yet.)
  • Me han llamado mil veces. (They have called me a thousand times.)
haber vs tener explained by female teacher

Of course we do conjugate haber in Spanish in many ways, so it doesn’t always look exactly the same. To learn more about conjugating this important verb, you can check out Mariana’s video on the subject right here.

When “to have” is tener in Spanish:

¿Tienes que salir ya o me puedes esperar un moment?
(Do you have to go out now or can you wait for me for a moment?)

Te puedo esperar, pero ¿será que tienes algo para el dolor de cabeza? Así me lo voy tomando mientras.
(I can wait for you, but do you have something for my headache? So I can take it in the meantime.)

Ay, ¿tienes dolor de cabeza? Hay pastillas en la última gaveta.
(Oh, do you have a headache? There are pills in the bottom drawer.)

Every time you saw a “have” in English, it was a tener in Spanish. Here we are talking, en términos generales (in general terms), about possession. Whether you mean a thing, like a pill, or abstract things you can “own”, like a headache.

Possessing a thing, as in:

  • Tengo un carro negro. (I have a black car.)
  • Ellos tienen sombrilla de playa. (They have a beach umbrella.)
  • Necesitamos un cajero porque nadie tiene efectivo. (We need an ATM because nobody has cash.)
  • ¿Tienes un boli que me prestes? (Do you have a pen I can borrow?)

This is the most straightforward equivalence you can make between “to have” and tener.

By the way, if saying “boli” (pen) instead of “bolígrafo” (pen) confuses you a bit, don’t hesitate to check out my video about shortening words in Spanish right here.

At the same time both languages use “to have”, when it means tener in Spanish, to talk about obligations. You add a “to” right after in English, we add a que right after in Spanish.

So, ¿tienes que salir? would be “do you have to go out”?

Other examples could be:

  • ¿Crees que tenemos que alquilar carro para el viaje? (Do you think we have to rent a car for the trip?)
  • Recuerda que tienes que llamar a tu mamá para felicitarla por su cumpleaños. (Remember you have to call your mom to congratulate her for birthday.)
  • ¿Le dijiste a tu hermana que tiene que avisarnos si viene a cenar? (Did you tell your sister she has to let us know if she’s coming to dinner?)

Chunks to learn the right use of haber and tener

Now, keep in mind that this categorization is meant to help you out, but is not for you to memorize. If you learn these chunks as they come, you can use them with confidence without any need to understand why they work the way they work whatsoever, that way you can say things like:

  • Ellos tienen que confirmarnos si vienen. (They have to confirm if they’re coming.)
  • No he salido de casa en días por el calor. (I haven’t left my house in days because of the heat.)
  • Ya no tenemos detergente para la ropa. (We don’t have laundry detergent anymore.)
  • No he tomado suficiente agua hoy. (I haven’t drank enough water today.)

Without caring about the grammatical reasons to use haber or tener. Before I forget, stick with me until the end if you want to know why we are drilling you with these verbs in this lesson, meaning, how come they’re so important?

2. What makes the translation of Spanish verbs so confusing?

When tener is not “to have” in English

Tengo demasiada hambre pero no quiero cocinar, ¿salimos a comer?
(I’m super hungry but I don’t want to cook, shall we go out to eat?)

No tengo ganas de salir, pero podemos pedir comida.
(I don’t feel like going out, but we can order food.)

In this role-play I’m using tener in Spanish but the translation doesn’t show any “to have” in English. Definitive proof that translating word for word won’t get you very far. This happens because there are other instances in which we would use tener, but English wouldn’t use “to have”.

Other examples could be:

  • Tenemos demasiado calor en Madrid. (We are too hot in Madrid.)
  • Tengo ganas de comerme un helado. (I feel like having ice-cream.)
  • Mi gato tiene seis años. (My cat is 6 years old.)

As you can see, this tener in Spanish is actually a “to be” in English. This is a very typical mistake Spanish learners make when they come from English.

To understand better when this happens, you can check out my video about tener because, why wouldn’t we have a lesson on such a foundational verb?


No tengo ganas de (I don’t feel like) is basically an idiomatic expression. If you didn’t know this one yet, I promise it can change your life in Spanish. After de you can add anything you don’t feel like doing so, typically, a verb, any verb. The translation is far from being literal, so it is hard to get to this sentiment in Spanish unless you know the chunk no tengo ganas de (I don’t feel like). You could also use it in the affirmative to talk about things you do feel like doing, for that you’d use: tengo ganas de (I feel like).

For example, right now, yo tengo ganas de estar en la playa inmóvil.(I feel like being on the beach in a motionless state.)

And you? What do you feel like doing right now?

Also down in the description you can find the link to our free Essential Spanish Chunking kit. Go in there and get a list of chunks that can change your life in Spanish too!

✔️ Cheat Sheet with 54 essential Spanish Chunks you’ll hear and use yourself in ANY Spanish conversation (and example sentences). Taken from our YouTube Teacher’s most popular videos!

✔️ 2 Bonus Cheat Sheets with Travel Chunks and Dating/Relationship Chunks

✔️ A Spanish Chunking Tutorial showing you the 1 technique that’ll help you make 100% of the Spanish from our videos roll off the tongue in just 5 minutes a day (you’re probably only using 50% of our lessons’ potential right now…)

When “to have” means haber in Spanish and creates a perfect tense

On the other hand, if we are creating a perfect tense in English like we saw at the beginning, you can trust we would use haber in Spanish every time. So we have:

  • Hasta ahora, ¿qué es lo que más te ha gustado de tu viaje a Europa? (So far, what have you liked the most from your trip to Europe?)
  • Me he comido como diez helados en cuatro días. (I have eaten like 10 ice creams in 4 days.)

See? This “to have” in English will always be haber in Spanish. The best “trick” I can give you is to use haber everytime you’re using two verbs together, in English or Spanish, and you’re referring to the past, as in: te ha gustado or me he comido.

But also, anytime you are talking about possessing something or an obligation, go for a tener in Spanish with confidence. Things like:

  • Tengo un montón de invitaciones para este fin de semana. (I have a bunch of invitations for this weekend.)
  • No tengo que trabajar hoy. (I don’t have to work today.)

Therefore, the main difficulty is that, as mentioned before, there’s one word in English for what there are two words in Spanish.

La buena noticia es que (The good news is that) both languages divide this uses the same way.

In English, to have works as:

  • the perfect tense
  • the verb for possessing something
  • for obligations

In Spanish, we have:

  • haber: for the perfect tense
  • tener: for possessing something and obligations

3. Why are these verbs important?

Pay attention to any “to have” you read and any haber and tener conjugation you hear:

¿Has pensado seriamente sobre tu vida últimamente?
(Have you thought seriously about your life lately?)

Ahh, tipo, ¿hoy? No sé, no creo que tenga que pensar seriamente sobre mi vida todo el tiempo.
(Ohh, like, today? I don’t know, I don’t think I have to think seriously about my life all the time.)

Es cierto, es bueno tener paciencia y a veces dejar que las cosas sucedan sin necesidad de pensar tanto en ellas, pero eso no significa que tengas que dejar de lado una buena sentada contigo misma.
(True, it’s good to have patience and sometimes let things happen without having to think about them so much, but that doesn’t mean you have to put aside a good sit-down with yourself.)

Yo no he dejado de lado eso en mi vida, más bien todo lo contrario. Probablemente tengo más horas acumuladas de introspección de lo que debería.
(I have not put aside that in my life, in fact quite the contrary. I probably have more accumulated hours of introspection than I should.)

En realidad, haber hecho eso te ha traído muchos beneficios, así que no tienes nada de qué arrepentirte. ¡Pero sigue haciéndolo! Chau.
(Actually, having done that has brought you many benefits, so you have nothing to regret. But keep doing it! Bye.)

I think the easiest way for me to explain the gravity of the situation is to ask: ¿Podrías vivir en inglés sin “to have”? (Could you live in English without “to have”?) Hardly, right? Well, the same exact thing happens with haber and tener in Spanish.

Como puedes ver (As you can see), in the role-play I used both verbs repeatedly in a totally organic and natural way. Meaning, it is that easy for these two verbs to come up that often. Plus, the entirety of the perfect tenses, all of those which use “to have” in English, depend on this one tiny verb.

So, every time I used haber I was creating a perfect tense:

  • ¿Has pensado seriamente sobre tu vida últimamente? (Have you thought seriously about your life lately?)
  • Yo no he dejado de lado eso en mi vida. (I have not put aside that in my life.)
  • Haber hecho eso te ha traído muchos beneficios. (Having done that has brought you many benefits.)

I used tener for “possessions” of some kind:

  • Es bueno tener paciencia. (It’s good to have patience.)
  • Tengo más horas acumuladas de introspección de lo que debería. (I have more accumulated hours of introspection than I should.)
  • No tienes nada de qué arrepentirte. (You have nothing to regret.)

And I also used tener for obligations:

  • No creo que tenga que pensar seriamente sobre mi vida todo el tiempo. (I don’t think I have to think seriously about my life all the time.)
  • Eso no significa que tengas que dejar de lado una buena sentada contigo misma. (That doesn’t mean you have to give up a good sit-down with yourself.)

Since we did tell you about those many instances in which tener will not be “to have” in English, let’s now learn some more super useful chunks with tener, when it drifts away from “to have” and how to conjugate it correctly through chunks!

Continue this tener lesson with me right here.

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