Spanish Imperfect Tense: Easy Guide For Beginners

learn spanish

Get our free email course, Shortcut to Conversational.

Have conversations faster, understand people when they speak fast, and other tested tips to learn faster.

More info

It’s normal for the Spanish Imperfect tense to cause confusion for anyone learning Spanish.

After all, there are several different ways to speak about the past in Spanish – and knowing how to use each one takes some getting used to.

In this post, we are going to simplify Imperfect past tense Spanish, and how to finally stop confusing it with the preterite (simple past) tense.

But first, you should know that the Spanish imperfect tense is used to speak about:

  1. A past action that was done in a continuous, or habitual state.
  2. A past action that was being done before it was interrupted by a different action.
  3. A description in the past – age, feelings, time, dates and more

Don’t worry if you’re still a little confused.

We’re going to go deep and explore how exactly you can start using imperfect tense Spanish.

When To Use Imperfect Spanish Tense

As we already mentioned above, the imperfect Spanish tense is used to talk about past actions, conditions or events that occurred habitually.

It can also be used to describe a continuous past action, which may or may not have been completed.

Habitual actions

When we say habitual, we’re referring to an action that happened several times in the past to the point that it became routine-like. The closest English equivalent to this would be when you describe a past action that used to be done.

  • I used to study on Saturdays – Yo estudiaba los sábados

Actions that were in progress in the past

The Imperfect tense is also used to talk about a past action that was in progress, but was then interrupted by another action, or simply a past action that continued in the past for an unspecified period of time and we don’t know if it finished or not.

  • I was washing the dishes when you arrived – Lavaba los platos cuando llegaste

Descriptions of characteristics, conditions, and feelings

If you like to tell stories, then mastering the Spanish imperfect tense is a must, as this tense is required for giving descriptions about things that happened in the past, specifically in the area of sensory perception i.e. how something looked or sounded.

  • She was tall, had long hair and deep blue eyes – Ella era alta, tenía cabello largo y ojos azul profundo

Times and dates

In addition to what we already covered, the imperfect tense is also used to talk about past times and dates.

In other words, the imperfect is required anytime you need to “set the scene” in a story.

  • It was July 19th when that happened, I remember well – Era 19 de Julio cuando eso pasó, lo recuerdo bien

However, when we talk about a completed action that occurred on a specific day or date, time, or time period (ie. the date is the principle idea), we use the simple past tense.

  • He was born on May 2nd – Él nació el 2 de mayo

To talk about age

The imperfect is also used to mention someone’s age in the past.

  • Back then you were barely 8 years old – Para ese entonces sólo tenías 8 años.

Now is a good time to mention an important point.

The imperfect tense in Spanish does not necessarily have a direct translation to English and so depending on the context, the direct translation is closer to a Simple Past or Past Progressive in English.

For example:

  • When I was young, I used to run faster than now – Cuando era joven, corría más rápido que ahora
  • An hour ago, I was sleeping when you screamed – Hace una hora, dormía cuando gritaste

In English, the above examples would be categorized as simple past and past progressive. While in Spanish, we use the imperfect tense to say the same thing.

Spanish Imperfect Tense Conjugations: Regular Verbs

Conjugating regular verbs in the Spanish imperfect tense requires you to learn separate endings for -AR verbs and also -ER/-IR verbs.

Below are three regular verbs conjugated with imperfect past tense endings.

Personal Pronoun Trabajar (To work) Entender (To understand) Vivir (To live)
Yo Trabajaba Entendía Vivía
Trabajabas Entendías Vivías
Él / Ella Trabajaba Entendía Vivía
Usted Trabajaba Entendía Vivía
Nosotros Trabajabamos Entendíamos Vivíamos
Ustedes Trabajaban Entendían Vivían
Ellos / Ellas Trabajaban Entendían Vivían

Let’s look at some example sentences.

  • María could not travel by plane as a child – María no podía viajar en avión cuando era niña
  • We had to drive carefully -Nosotros teníamos que manejar con cuidado
  • I knew a lot about that story -Yo sabía bastante sobre esa historia
  • Diego didn’t use to go out when he was younger – Diego no salía cuando era joven
  • They were really worried about the exam – Ellas estaban muy preocupadas por el examen

Most Common Irregular Imperfect Verbs

The good news is that there are ONLY three verbs with irregular conjugations in the Spanish imperfect past tense: – IR, – SER and – VER.

These verbs are conjugated as follows:

Subject Ir Ser Ver
Yo Iba Era Veía
Ibas Eras Veías
Él, ella Iba Era Veía
Usted Iba Era Veía
Ustedes Iban Eran Veían
Vosotros Ibais Érais Veíais
Nosotros Íbamos Éramos Veíamos
Ellos Iban Eran Veían

And now, let’s look at some more examples:

  • We were going at your place when I left my keys in the house – Íbamos a tu casa cuando dejé mis llaves adentro
  • You were kind, I don’t know what happened to you – Tú eras amable, no se que te pasó
  • She did not see the difference between them – Ella no veía la diferencia entre ellos
  • We used to go to the park every night – Nosotros íbamos al parque todas las noches
  • Patricia and Alfredo were really close to each other – Patricia y Alfredo eran muy cercanos el uno al otro.

Preterite Spanish vs Imperfect Spanish

If confusing Preterite vs Imperfect sounds familiar to you, don’t worry!

You’re not alone.

Luckily, we are going to compare them side-by-side so that you know exactly when to use each past tense.

Imperfect Preterite

Habitual past actions

 Past completed actions

We traveled to Costa Rica every year during our vacations

Viajábamos a Costa Rica en todos los años durante las vacaciones.

Last year we traveled to Costa Rica for vacations

El año pasado viajamos a costa rica por las vacaciones.

Telling time or age in the past

Precise changes for isolated causes

It was on Monday, around 5 a.m.

Era Lunes, más o menos las 5 de la mañana.

I knew what was happening when I saw him step in.

Supe lo que estaba pasando cuando lo vi llegar.

Ongoing actions with no completion

Series of completed events

I was going to the park with a friend

Iba al parque con un amigo

We went to the park, bought some ice cream, talked for a while and came back home.

Fuimos al parque, compramos unos helados, hablamos por un rato y volvimos a casa.

Descriptions or background information, setting a scene for a second action.

An event that interrupts another action.

I was washing the dishes when…

Estaba lavando los platos cuando…

…when I got a call from work

…cuando me llamaron del trabajo.

Trigger Words For Identifying Preterite Spanish vs Imperfect Spanish

A simple hack for knowing when to use Preterite vs Imperfect is by learning some trigger words will (more often than not) indicate which tense to use.


  • Once – Una Vez
  • Twice – dos veces
  • Three, seven… Times – Tres, siete… veces.
  • Several, many times –  Varias, muchas veces
  • Yesterday – Ayer
  • Last week, month, year – La semana, el mes, año pasado

For example:

  • I once went out with them and had a pretty good time – Una vez salí con ellos y lo pasé bastante bien
  • I reminded you many times but you never listened. – Te lo recordé muchas veces pero nunca escuchabas
  • That exam was last week, I still don’t know how well I did. – Ese examen fue la semana pasada, aún no sé cómo me fue
  • I ate ice cream four times yesterday – Yo comí helado cuatro veces ayer

(remember, you use preterite if the action happened several times, but isn’t considered habitual – as per two of the examples above)


  • From time to time – De vez en cuando
  • Formerly – Antes
  • On Mondays (Or any day) – Los lunes
  • Every day – Todos los días

For example:

  • I usually woke up at this time, or a Little later. – Normalmente me despertaba a esta hora, o un poco más tarde
  • From time to time I liked to cook a really big meal and invite my neighbors. – De vez en cuando me gustaba cocinar una gran comida e invitar a mis vecinos
  • Formerly we went out every weekend but now we don’t have the time anymore. – Antes salíamos todos los fines de semana, pero ya casi no tenemos tiempo

Spanish Imperfect Tense Practice

And now it’s time to put what you know to the test – simply complete the correct sentences with the correct conjugations.

(scroll down for answers)


1.- Nosotros _________ (tener) que manejar con cuidado.

We had to drive carefully.

2.- Ellas _________ (estar) muy preocupadas por el examen.

They were very worried for the test.

3.- Ustedes siempre las _________ (ayudar) con su tarea.

You always used to help them with their homework.

4.- Él ________ (responder) un mensaje mientras ellos le trataban de hablar.

He was answering a text while they tried to speak to him.

5.- Nosotras no (prestar) mucha atención en clase.

We didn’t pay too much attention in class.

6.- No ________ (poder) alcanzar porque eras muy bajo.

You couldn’t reach because you were too short.

7.- No ________ (recordar) que tienes trabajo lo sábados.

I didn’t remember you have to work on saturdays.

8.- Ella ________ (enseñar) español en mi escuela.

She used to teach spanish at my school.

9.- Él ________ (responder) muy rápido todo el tiempo.

He used to respond really quickly all the time.

10.- ________ (tener) que conducir 15 minutos a mi trabajo todos los días.

I had to drive 15 minutes to my work every day.

11.- Siempre ________ (lavar) los platos justo después de comer.

I always washed the dishes right after eating.

12.- Mi mamá siempre ________ (decir) algo similar.

My mom always used to say something similar.

13.- No ________ (tener) muchos juguetes, pero tenía amigos para jugar.

I didn’t use to have a lot of toys, but I had friends to play with.

14.- Ellos ________ (comer) arroz todos los almuerzos.

They had rice to eat every lunch.

15.- Answer the question using imperfect

¿Qué querías ser cuando eras niño?

What did you want to be when you were a kid?


1.- Nosotros teníamos que manejar con cuidado.

2.- Ellas estaban muy preocupadas por el examen.

3.- Ustedes siempre las ayudaban con su tarea.

4.- Él respondía un mensaje mientras ellos le trataban de hablar.

5.- Nosotras no prestábamos mucha atención en clase.

6.- No podías alcanzar porque eras muy bajo.

7.- No recordaba que tienes trabajo lo sábados.

8.- Ella enseñaba español en mi escuela.

9.- Él respondía muy rápido todo el tiempo.

10.- Tenía que conducir 15 minutos a mi trabajo todos los días.

11.- Siempre lavaba los platos justo después de comer.

12.- Mi mamá siempre decía algo similar.

13.- No tenía muchos juguetes, pero tenía amigos para jugar.

14.- Ellos comían arroz todos los almuerzos.

15.- ¿Qué querías ser cuando eras niño?

Preterite vs Imperfect Practice

The same time, only this time you must complete the below sentences by conjugating the verb in the correct tense.

1.- Espera un momento, ________ (olvidar) mis llaves en el auto.

Wait a second, I forgot my keys in the car.

2.- Claro, todos los veranos ________ (ir) allí.

Sure, we went there every summer.

3.- No  ________ (tener) mucho tiempo antes de salir, esto es todo lo que  ________ (poder) traer.

I didn’t have much time before leaving, this is all I could bring.

4.- Te  ________ (pedir) ayuda varias veces, pero creo que no  escuchaste.

I asked for help several time, but I think you didn’t hear me.

5.- Te prometo que no les  ________ (decir) nada.

I promise I didn’t tell them anything.

6.-  Tu siempre  ________ (pagar) la cena, déjame a mi esta vez.

You always paid for dinner, let me do it this time.

7.-  ________ (hablar) con ella, pero no entendí mucho de lo que dijo.

I talked to her, but I didn’t get much of what she said.

8.- Para ese entonces  ________ (tener) ocho años, ya no recuerdo mucho.

Bach then I was eight years old, I don’t remember much anymore.

9.- Te  ________ (hacer) algo de cena, por si llegaste con hambre.

I made you some dinner, in case you arrived hungry.

10.- Si no estoy recordando mal, ________ (ser) lunes cuando pasó eso.

If I remember correctly, it was monday when that happened.


1.- Espera un momento, olvidé mis llaves en el auto.

2.- Claro, todos los veranos íbamos allí.

3.- No tuve mucho tiempo antes de salir, esto es todo lo que  pude traer.

4.- Te  pedí ayuda varias veces, pero creo que no  escuchaste.

5.- Te prometo que no les dije nada.

6.-  Tu siempre pagabas la cena, déjame a mí esta vez.

7.- Hablé con ella, pero no entendí mucho de lo que dijo.

8.- Para ese entonces  tenía ocho años, ya no recuerdo mucho.

9.- Te hice algo de cena, por si llegaste con hambre.

10.- Si no estoy recordando mal, era lunes cuando pasó eso.


Get our FREE 7-day email course, Shortcut to Conversational

The exact strategies you need to become conversational in Spanish this year. Join the course now, before we come to our senses and charge for it!

This blog is presented by BaseLang: Unlimited Spanish Tutoring for $179 a Month. Learn more here.