How to use the verb ‘tener’ in Spanish?

A man wearing a poncho overlooking a valley.

The verb tener (to have) is a versatile one in Spanish. For example, did you know that in Spanish we say “I am hungry” using the verb tener: tengo hambre. This number of uses makes it very helpful to learn when speaking or writing in everyday Spanish; we use tener to talk about ownership, obligation, age, and many other expressions. Do you want to know what these uses are? You can have all this information if you keep reading! Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

For a review of grammar terms used in the post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.
Tener has uses that are equivalent to “to have” in English. Let’s start with the uses that are similar to English.

To express possession

When we possess something we express it with the verb tener. For example,

Estoy muy feliz desde que tengo una casa en la playa.
I am very happy since I own a house on the beach.

This use also includes the description of the different elements or components objects have.

Mi casa de la playa tiene cuatro habitaciones y una piscina.
My beach house has four rooms and a swimming pool.

El cuerpo humano tiene 206 huesos.
The human body has 206 bones.


No indefinite article (un, una, unos, unas) is necessary for things we are likely to only have one of (e.g., a pen, a partner, a car), plural nouns, and uncountable nouns.

¿Tienes vaso? 
Do you have a cup?
Ana no tiene llaves.
Ana doesn’t have her keys.
No tengo dinero.
I don’t have money. 

To describe relationships

To talk about family relationships and other relationships such as friends we use the verb tener.
Tengo una familia grande. 
I have a big family.

No personal a is needed between the verb tener and the direct object, even when they are animate objects.

Tenemos a un buen amigo en Barcelona.
We have a good friend in Barcelona.

With expressions of time

Tengo 24 horas para entregar el documento.
I have 24 hours to hand the document in.

En el trabajo tenemos una hora para comer.
At work we have one hour for lunch.

Tengo dos horas intentando abrir la puerta.
I have spent two hours trying to open the door.

Tenemos diez años viviendo en esta casa.
We have lived in this house for ten years.

For physical descriptions

Use tener to describe a person’s hair, eyes, nose, mouth, and other physical traits. Look at Laura’s picture and follow the descriptions below.

Laura tiene el cabello largo, rizado y castaño y tiene los ojos verdes.
Laura has long, wavy, brown hair and green eyes.

TIP Notice that definite articles (el/la/los/las) are used when describing body parts.

To express age

Unlike English, age is expressed in Spanish with the verb tener.

Laura tiene 25 años.
Laura is 25 years old.
This also applies to pets and non-living nouns such as buildings. For example:
Karma, mi gata, tiene dos años.
Karma, my cat, is two years old. 

La catedral de Guadalajara es una de las más antiguas de Latinoamérica. Tiene 403 años.
Guadalajara’s cathedral is one of the oldest in Latin America. It’s 403 years old.

Expressions with ‘tener’ + noun

Tener is also used to express physical needs, moods, or states and ailments. In English, the equivalent of these expressions use the verb “to be” + an adjective. Let’s check some examples:

Tener hambre/sed (to be hungry/ thirsty), tener sueño (to be sleepy), tener frío/calor (to feel hot/cold).

¡Este es un mal día para Gabriel! Tiene sueño, hambre, y frío. Tiene dolor de cabeza y por eso tiene mala cara.
This is a bad day for Gabriel! He is sleepy, hungry, and cold. He has a headache and that’s why he’s in a bad mood.

The expressions tener frío and tener calor are used when we are talking about humans or animals.
Nosotros tenemos frío.
We’re cold.
El gato tiene calor.
The cat is (feels) hot.
When we refer to the temperature of things, we use the verbs ser/estar (to be) + adjective instead.
La sopa está caliente.
The soup is hot.
Notice the difference between tener sueño (to be sleepy) and tener un sueño (to have a dream):
Luis no durmió bien, tiene sueño.
Luis didn’t sleep well, he’s sleepy.
Luis tiene un sueño. Quiere ser cantante.
Luis has a dream. He wants to be a singer.
These nouns can be modified with adjectives (mucho/a, poco/a (a lot/a little)). Remember that adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun they modify.
Tengo mucha hambre.
I am very hungry.
Tenemos mucho calor.
We’re very hot.
Although this is the equivalent to the adverb “very” in English, as in “I’m very hungry,” never use the adverb muy (very) to describe nouns.

Tener is also used to express other physical states like being in a good/bad mood.

Marco siempre está enojado, pero hoy tiene buena cara.
Marco is always angry, but today he’s in a good mood. Literal: he has a good face.

Similar to English, tener is used to express ailments or symptoms like tener fiebre (to have a fever) or tener dolor de + body part (to have body aches).

Me siento muy mal. Tengo gripa y tengo dolor de oído.
I don’t feel well. I have the flu and I have an earache.

‘Tener que’ + infinitive

Obligation, advice, and deduction in Spanish can be expressed using the phrase tener que + infinitive. For example,
  • Obligation
Tengo que estudiar antes de presentar el examen.
I have to study before taking the exam.
  • Advice:
Tienes que ver al doctor pronto.
You should go see the doctor soon.
  • Deductions:
Tiene que ser el mensajero.
It must be the delivery man.
TIP In some cases, tener que can also mean an invitation you often find in ads.
Tienes que venir a la nueva plaza comercial.
You have to come to the new mall.
Tienes que probar nuestros nuevos productos.
You have to try our new products.

There are other ways to express obligation in Spanish, to learn more click the link!

‘Tener ganas de’ to express desire

Tener is also used in the expression tener ganas de + infinitive to say that the speaker feels like doing something.

Tengo ganas de nadar.
I feel like swimming.

¿Tienes ganas de seguir aprendiendo español?
Do you feel like learning more Spanish?

Common expressions with ‘tener’

Tener is also used in certain collocations. In some cases, the English equivalent also requires the use of the verb “to have.”
tener la oportunidad de
to have the opportunity to
Hoy tienes la oportunidad de ser feliz.
Today, you have the opportunity to be happy.
But in some cases, it doesn’t:
tener lugar
to take place
La fiesta tendrá lugar a las 5.
The party will take place at 5.
For more common expressions with tener check out our list!

In summary

As you can see, tener is a very versatile verb. In many cases it’s similar to the English “to have,” but it’s used in many common Spanish expressions. Let’s recap the main uses:

  • To express possession, including expressions of time. 
  • To describe relationships. 
  • To express age.
  • To express physical needs, moods, and ailments.
  • To express obligation.
  • To express desire with tener ganas de…
  • With collocations where it combines with different nouns.

Ready to practice? Perfect! Here’s an activity to review the uses of tener. And if you want to review the conjugation of the verb tener, here are some tables for you! 

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Unpacking the grammar

An uncountable noun is a substance or concept that cannot be “counted” (e.g., water, music,…).

Personal a is used to mark direct object nouns that are specific and human (sometimes pets too). Veo a María. (I see María.)

An infinitive is a verb in its basic form, for example to run, to eat, to be. In Spanish, infinitives have one of three endings: -ar, -er, -ir (cantar, comer, vivir).

Collocation is the combination of words that frequently come together. These words form a phrase that many times acquires a specific meaning.

  • Examples of collocations in Spanish are: llevar a cabo (to carry out); tomar cartas en el asunto (to take action (on a matter)).
Meet The Author:
Maria Leticia Temoltzin-Espejel
Leticia Temoltzin (Lety) is a linguist and language professor.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Extra Resources:

Tener conjugations
Expressions with tener


'Tener' activity


'Tener' activity

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