What’s the difference between Tener que and hay que in Spanish?

“Does the difference between ‘Hay que’ and ‘Tener que’ seem difficult to you? As you probably already know, Spaniards tend to complicate things. They also aim to be very specific about many aspects, which is why they have around 100 different words and expressions to convey the same idea. ‘Hay que’ and ‘Tener que’ could serve as a good example of different ways to express the same thing… well, not exactly the same thing, but we will delve into that shortly.

The problem that I am going to discuss with you today is about expressing obligation or necessity. In English we have modal verbs that help us with this matter. However, in Spanish, we have two expressions with very similar meaning: tener que and hay que.

Tener que in Spanish

Tener que + infinitive is as mentioned before, an expression used for either an obligation or a necessity. It could be translated into “have to”. To be more precise, it means that a person has to do something. In this case, the verb tener is conjugated according to the subject of your sentence. Below are some examples that will hopefully clarify the situation a bit.

  • Tengo que hacer mis deberes. (= I have to/need to do my homework.)
  • Mañana tenenemos que despertarnos temprano. (= We have to/ need to wake up early tomorrow.)
  • Juan tiene que lavar el coche. (= John has to/ needs to do wash the car.)

Hay que in Spanish

Hay que + infinitive is also used to express either an obligation or a necessity. So, why then do we really need to have two expressions to say the same thing? Well, remember how I said that we will get to this topic later. That “later” is finally here.

What does ‘hay que’ mean?

The expression hay que + infinitive means “it should be done”.  You will usually translate it as “something is necessary”, “something should be done”.


  • Hay que tener cuidado con el fuego. (= It is necessary to be careful with the fire.)
  • Hay que aprender a hablar alemán para entenderlos. (= It is necessary to learn German in order to understand them.)
  • Hay que limpiar la casa. (= The house should be cleaned.)

The nuances of ‘hay que’

Notice that there is no subject and the expression stays always the same. This means that ‘hay que’ is a little more subtle. You are not saying that someone specific has to do this thing, but if you and your listener are alone in the room, they will understand, right? So when you use ‘hay que,’ you are kind of mixing it to make the obligation of doing something clear and asking the other person to actually do it.

  • Hay que salir a sacar la basura. (=Someone/You have to go out to take out the garbage).
  • Hay que sacar a pasear al perro. (=Someone/You have to take the dog for a walk.)

House chores and other ‘obligations’ are a very common topic where someone might use ‘hay que’ to try to have their partner do it instead of themselves.

Below is an example to help show the difference between the two expressions:

  • Juan ha manchado la camiseta. Él tiene que lavarla. ( = John has stained the t-shirt. He has to wash it.)
  • La camiseta tiene una mancha. Hay que lavarla. (= The t-shirt has a stain on it. It should be washed.)

As you can see, Spanish language is not so hard after all. Even though the two expressions mean the same thing, there are different and help you understand the situation better. If you want another explanation for this grammar problem, do check this out. You also want to check out the blog post about the main differences between the indicative and the subjunctive. Why? Because this is one of the main errors that people make when learning Spanish.

One thought on “What’s the difference between Tener que and hay que in Spanish?”

  1. Thank you for explaining hay que vs tener que by contrasting 2 nearly IDENTICAL sentences. It made the difference quickly and clearly. Please continue to use this method. So many other sites seem to avoid it.

    Thank you
    Will Tabacchi

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