What is the difference between ‘hay’ and ‘estar’ in Spanish?

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Spanish uses the verbs hay (a form of verb haber (to have)) and estar (to be) to express existence and location. In these contexts, these verbs can cause confusion because they are equivalent to the verb “to be” in English: There is a book, the book is on the table. However, in Spanish these two verbs are used very differently: Hay is used for unspecified objects (hay un libro) and estar for specified ones (el libro está sobre la mesa). Besides this distinction, in Spanish there are specific words (such as definite and indefinite articles, demonstrative and possessive adjectives, etc.) that will help you determine which verb to use. So, how can we distinguish between hay and estar? Find practical answers below!

Table of Contents

For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.

What is ‘hay’ in Spanish?

Hay” is a fixed form of the verb haber (to have), used as the third person form singular and plural. It is used to talk about existence in the present tense and it means “there is/there are.” Furthermore, it is an impersonal verb, which means that there is no specific subject, and it is followed by a direct object. This direct object can be a singular or plural noun.

Singular  Plural

Hay una maleta.                       Hay maletas.

There is a suitcase.                  There are suitcases.

❗Whether the noun is singular or plural, the form hay stays the same.

The form hay is only used in the present tense; however, the verb haber, used to express existence, can also be used in other tenses. Find the complete list of tenses for haber here.

Now, think back to your first week in Spanish class. Your teacher probably asked:
¿Qué hay en la clase de español?
What is there in the Spanish classroom?

And the response was probably something along the lines of:

En la clase hay 20 sillas, hay un escritorio, hay una televisión, y hay muchos estudiantes.
In the classroom there are 20 chairs, there is one desk, there is one tv and there are many students.

Remember? So, let’s get into the details of hay.
  • It can be used to express the mere existence of something or someone:
Hay flores aquí.
There are flowers here.
Hay muchas personas.
There are many people.
  • It can also be used with abstract concepts:
Hay felicidad por todos lados.
There are many people.
  • It can also express availability:
¿Hay lugar para alguien más?
Is there room for someone else?
¿Hay boletos para la obra de teatro?
Are there tickets for the play?
  • Besides talking about whether a concept, person, or object exists or is available, it can also be used to express location:

    ¿Hay galletas en la alacena? -Sí, compré una caja nueva ayer.
    Are there cookies in the pantry? – Yes, I bought a new box yesterday.

    ¿Dónde hay una farmacia? -Hay una en la esquina.
    Where is a pharmacy? There’s one in the corner.

Wait…hold on!

…but don’t we use ‘estar’ for location in Spanish?

Yes! Your Spanish teacher also taught you that estar is used for location, location, location! And they were not wrong!
–¿Dónde está la biblioteca?
Where is the library?
–La biblioteca está junto a los laboratorios.
The library is next to the labs.

👉For more on the uses of the verb estar, check out this post! And, for a refresher on the conjugations of estar, here’s a chart!

Ok, so now you are probably wondering what the difference is…can you figure it out?

When to use ‘hay’ and when to use ‘estar’?

Let’s begin with the meaning:
  • If you already know about the person/concept/place/thing and you just want to know where it is, use estar.
–¿Dónde está el teatro en esta ciudad?
Where is the theater in this city?
–El teatro está en la avenida principal.
The theater is on the main avenue.

Here, you know there’s a theater but you just don’t know where.

  • But, if you don’t know if such person/concept/place/thing exists, then use hay:
    ¿Hay un teatro en esta ciudad?
    Sí, hay uno en la avenida principal. Está cerca del banco.
    Is there a theater in this city?
    Yes, there’s one on the main avenue. It is close to the bank.

Notice that we asked if the city had a theater using hay, and once we knew about the existence of the theater then we specified its location by using estar. Pretty cool, huh?

The same idea applies if we want to express availability. For example:

¿Hay alguien que me pueda ayudar?
Is there someone who can help me?
In this case we are asking if there is someone available to help, the person may or may not exist, so we use hay.
In some cases we can use estar for availability as well, but only if we talk about a specific person/object:
-¿Está Sara?
Is Sara (available)?  
No está, salió a comer.
She isn’t, she went out to lunch.


What is the difference between ¿Dónde hay un café? and ¿Dónde está el café? (Where is the coffee shop?).

You got this! In the question ¿Dónde hay un café? (Literal: Where is there a coffee shop?), we don’t know if there is a coffee shop; we may take for granted that there is one, and we want to know where it is.

But, in the question ¿Dónde está el café? (Where is the coffee shop?), we already know the coffee shop exists and we just want to know its location.

Besides the subtle meaning these two verbs can convey, there are some structural tips that will take your mastery of these verbs to the next level!

Structure matters!

We already know that the main difference between choosing between hay and estar relies on whether the noun is specific or nonspecific. Therefore, an important clue is to look at the type of word that goes with the noun the verb is referring to, for example:
Hay una mochila sobre el escritorio.
There is a backpack on the desk.
La mochila está sobre el escritorio.
The backpack is on the desk.

In these examples, we are talking about the existence/location of the backpack, and notice that with hay, the word mochila goes with the indefinite article una (a) whereas with estar, mochila goes with the definite article la (the). So let’s take a look at these cues!

  • Structural cues for hay
HAY + ↴Example
indefinite articles (un, una, unos,
) + noun
Hay unas sillas. There are chairs.
noun with no article
  • singular
  • abstract noun
  • plural nouns
Hay lugar. There is room.
Hay amor. There is love.
Hay tareas que hacer. There are chores to do.
partitive nounsHay un kilo de azúcar. There is a kilo of sugar.
numbers or amountsHay 12 estudiantes. There are twelve students.
quantifiersHay un poco de café. There is a bit of coffee.
Hay mucho ruido. There is a lot of noise.
Indefinite pronouns¿Hay alguien aquí? Is there someone here?
No hay nadie. There is nobody.
When used with a negative indefinite pronoun: nada (nothing), nadie (no one), ninguno, ninguna (any), hay is used in a double negative construction. No precedes hay and the indefinite pronoun follows it.
¿Qué hay en el refrigerador?
What is in the fridge? 
No hay nada.
There is nothing.
For more on the Spanish double negatives, click the link!
Definite articles are not used with hay when a noun is mentioned for the first time or is unknown from context:

✅ Hay una computadora.      There is a computer.
❌ Hay la computadora.

However, in some cases, it is possible to use definite articles with hay, such as:
  • when listing a series of specific objects that are known previously or from context:
    —¿Hay teléfonos en esa tienda?
    —Are there phones in that store?
    —Sí, solo hay los inalámbricos y los móviles.
    —Yes, there are only the wireless ones and the mobiles.
  • when the noun following hay serves to quantify something:
    Esta vez hay el doble de personas en asistencia.
    This time there are double the people in attendance.
  • when describing customs or habits:
    Ya no hay la costumbre de mandar cartas.
    There is no longer the habit of sending letters.
  • Structural cues for estar:
definite article (el, la, los,
+ noun
Las sillas están junto a la mesa. The chairs are next to the table.
possessive adjective (mi,
tu, su…
+ noun
Mis libretas están en la sala. My notebooks are in the living room.
demonstrative adjective
(este, ese, aquel…)
+ noun
Esa ropa vieja está en el clóset. That old clothes are in the closet.
proper nouns Juan está en la entrada. Juan is at the entrance.
If you like grammar, another important difference is that the noun the verb is referring to has a different function with these two verbs. With estar, the noun is the subject of the sentence, hence why you can conjugate estar in different persons, whereas with hay, the noun is the direct object of the sentence.
Las libretas están sobre el escritorio. The notebooks are on the desk.
Hay libretas sobre el escritorio.           There are notebooks on the desk.
⤷direct object

To learn about other expressions with “hay” like “hay que…” (let’s…) check out this post on Spanish modal verbs!


  • “Hay” can be used to express the existence and location of unspecified objects or people.
    • The structural cues with hay are: indefinite articles and pronouns, numbers and quantifiers + noun, and nouns with no article.
  • “Estar” is used to describe the location of objects, places, and people we already know exist.
    • The structural cues with estar are: definite articles, possessive and demonstrative adjectives + nouns, and proper nouns.
Now that you know the difference between these two, how about you apply your knowledge with these activities? ¡Buena suerte!
Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Unpacking the grammar

Impersonal verbs do not have a specific subject like the English “it,” but this “it” does not refer to any specific thing: It rains, It is cold.

Partitive noun is a word or phrase used to indicate a part or quantity of something. For example: a glass of water, a piece of cheese.

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Extra Resources:

Tenses for 'haber'
'Estar' conjugations


Hay vs. estar activity


Hay vs. estar activity

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