How to use the past tenses in Spanish?

A young woman sitting down outside at a cafe having coffee with a friend.

If you want to take your Spanish to the next level, one necessary step is learning how to use all the tenses (those that are just one word: present, preterite, imperfect; compound (the ones with haber): present perfect and past perfect; and continuous (the ones with estar) that allow you to speak about the past.

TenseBasic use
Preterite (simple and continuous)
comí (I ate), estuve comiendo (I was eating)
Completed actions in the past.
Imperfect (simple and continuous)
comía (I used to eat), estaba comiendo (I was eating)
Background information and ongoing actions.
Past perfect (simple)
había comido (I had eaten)
Past actions older than other past actions in the preterite.
Present perfect (simple and continuous)
he comido (I have eaten)
he estado comiendo (I have been eating)
Past actions completed at a time that has not yet finished or at an unspecified time in the past.

Actions that started in the past and continue in the present.
Simple present
como (I eat)
Actions that started in the past and continue in the present with desde, hace, and desde hace (since).

We already have individual posts for most of these tenses that cover the basics, so do check those out if you need a refresher. Next, we’re going to recap the past tenses in the indicative based on pairs that either work together or contrast with each other. Are you ready? Let’s go!

Table of Contents

The preterite and the imperfect

The preterite is basically used to describe one completed action or a series of completed actions in the past, whereas the imperfect is used to indicate habitual actions, ongoing actions, mental states, and descriptions in the past. For a more complete overview of the contrast between the preterite and the imperfect in Spanish, check out this wonderful post.

What if you need to combine both tenses together? Let’s consider two different contexts. The first describes two actions in the past: one action interrupts a second ongoing action.

Estudiaba cuando empezó a llover.
I was studying when it started to rain.

We use the imperfect for the ongoing action, whereas preterite is used for the interrupting one.

Even though the imperfect can be used in this context, the imperfect continuous is a little more common (Estaba estudiando cuando empezó a llover. I was studying when it started to rain). See more information below.


The imperfect and the imperfect continuous are mostly interchangeable; except, when the imperfect refers to a habitual action in the past, it cannot be replaced with the imperfect continuous:

Todas las mañana desayunaba/estaba desayunando en el jardín. 
Every morning I would have breakfast in the garden.

The second context in which both tenses can be used together is when we narrate.

Ayer corrí diez millas. Hacía calor y las calles estaban desiertas. Regresé a mi apartamento. Estaba cansado. Me duché y desayuné con mi hermana.
Yesterday I ran ten miles. It was hot and the streets were empty. I came back home. I was tired. I showered and had breakfast with my sister.

The preterite is the tense of choice to indicate consecutive actions. We use the imperfect tense for background information: time, weather, physical and mental descriptions, etc.

The preterite and the past perfect

The Spanish past perfect (aka pluperfect, here’s how to conjugate it) is used for past events that happened before another past event in the preterite tense.

Cuando María llegó a la estación, el tren ya se había ido.
When María got to the station, the train had already left.

The present perfect and the preterite

The Spanish present perfect is used to talk about the past without any indication of a specific time.

He visitado España. I’ve visited Spain.

However, when we are specific about when something was in the past, then we use the preterite.

Visité España en 2018. I visited Spain in 2018.

The present perfect is also used to indicate a past action completed at an unfinished time of the past.

He hecho mucho ejercicio esta semana. I’ve worked out a lot this week.

The action was completed this week, a period of time that is not over yet (otherwise, you would have said “last week”). Other time markers that require the present perfect are este mes (this month), este año (this year), hoy (today)…

Having said that, in most of Spain and in parts of Latin America (Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador), the present perfect is used in very recent events that happened earlier today, even though the time period may be over. Consider someone saying the following example in the afternoon or evening:

Esta mañana me he levantado tarde.
I got up late this morning.

In the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, we would have used the preterite since the time period (“this morning”) is over: Esta mañana me levanté tarde. (I got up late this morning).

The present tense vs. the present perfect

Other than the present perfect, we can use the present tense to talk about past actions that started in the past and continue in the present in these three specific contexts:

Present + desde (since) + dateVivo en Miami desde 2012.I have lived in Miami since 2012.
Present + desde hace (for) + period of timeVivo en Miami desde hace diez años.I have lived in Miami for ten years.
Hace (since) + period of time + que + presentHace diez años que vivo en Miami.It’s been ten years since I have lived in Miami.

Have you noticed how English only uses the present perfect in these contexts? Here’s more information about the contrast between the Spanish simple present and the present perfect.

The imperfect continuous and the preterite continuous

Both tenses (here’s how you conjugate them) are used for continuous past actions. Whereas the preterite continuous refers to actions that were in progress for some time and are now completed, the imperfect continuous describes actions that were interrupted by another action, usually in the preterite tense.

Estuve estudiando dos semanas.
I was studying for two weeks.

Estaba estudiando cuando empezó a llover.
I was studying when it started to rain.

The present perfect continuous and the preterite continuous

The preterite continuous is used for continuous terminated actions in the past. In contrast, we use the present perfect continuous (here’s how to conjugate it) to refer to continuous actions that started in the past and continue in the present.

Estuve esperando durante un año. I was waiting for a year.

He estado esperando durante un año. I have been waiting for a year.


The present perfect continuous is not very commonly used, only when we want to emphasize the continuity of the action. Instead, we prefer to use the regular present perfect:

He esperado durante un año. I have been waiting/have waited for a year.


That was an intricate lesson!

I hope this summary helps:

  • The preterite, simple and continuous, are used to indicate a past action completed at a finished time in the past. If the finished time in the past happened today, some dialects of Spanish prefer the present perfect, simple or continuous.
  • The present perfect, simple or continuous, are used for past actions without any specific time reference.
  • To talk about actions that started in the past and continue in the present, we use the present perfect (simple or continuous) or the present tense in some specific contexts.
  • The imperfect and the imperfect continuous are used to describe ongoing actions in the past interrupted by an action in the preterite. The imperfect, simple and continuous, can also be used in narrations to indicate background information.
  • The past perfect is used to describe past actions older than other more recent past actions in the preterite.
Here’s a visual summary of this post: Ready to practice? Check out this activity we’ve created for you!
Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
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Extra Resources:

Past tenses table


Past tenses activity


Past tenses activity

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