Quick answer – both ‘estuve’ (preterite tense) and ‘estaba’ (imperfect tense) can be translated to ‘I was’ in English, but in Spanish they are used in different contexts.
We basically use ‘estuve’ when our being somewhere is the central idea that we want to communicate, and ‘estaba’ when we are setting the scene or talking about something that we did repeatedly in the past.
These two conjugations can be pretty difficult to get grips with as some of their uses are quite nuanced (uh-uh!), but hopefully by the end of this article you´ll have a far better idea of when to use the two!
I´ve even made a little quiz so that you can practice what you´ve learnt and exercise those Spanish-speaking muscles of yours!
Let’s get into it!
‘Estuve‘ vs ‘Estaba‘
‘Estuve’ and ‘estaba’ are the first-person forms of the verb ‘estar’ in the preterite and the past imperfect. Both tenses refer to the past, which is why they often work in combination.
We use the preterite (‘estuve’) to talk about:
Actions or situations that happened at a specific moment in the past or for a specific length of time.
For example –
Estuve en Guadalajara la semana pasada.
I was in Guadalajara last week.
Estuve cansado toda la mañana.
I was tired all morning.
Estuve trabajando en la playa durante el verano.
I worked at the beach over the summer.
Actions or situations which FINISHED in the past.
The emphasis here is on the fact that the action is finished, concluded, all wrapped up, etc.
For example –
Estuve en un internado.
I went to a boarding school.
Estuve enfermo hasta el lunes.
I was sick until Monday.
Estuve intentando arreglar la computadora hasta las dos de la mañana.
I was trying to fix the computer until two in the morning.
Central ideas in a sequence of events.
The point here is that you are placing emphasis on a particular event in a sequence / story.
For example –
Estuve en una isla desierta durante dos años. Vivía en una choza de palmas y comía pescado y cocos.
I was on a desert island for two years. I lived in a hut made of palm leaves and ate fish and coconuts.
Yo nunca estuve en el equipo de polo. Ese era mi hermano, de hecho era jugador profesional.
I never was in the polo team. That was my brother, in fact he played professionally.
When using the past progressive tense and placing emphasis on the finality of an action (i.e., on the fact that it’s over).
For example –
¡Estuve esperando durante dos horas! ¿Dónde estabas?
I waited for two hours! Where were you?
We use the imperfect (‘estaba’) to talk about:
Habits and repeated actions in the past.
For example –
Estaba en la oficina todos los días.
I was at the office every day.
Antes estaba cansada todo el tiempo porque dormía muy mal.
I used to be tired all the time because I slept badly.
En 2017 estaba ganando mucho dinero y tenía muchos planes.
In 2017 I was making a lot of money and I had a lot of plans.
Actions which were in progress in the past (i.e., the past progressive tense).
This is generally used when one action interrupts another in the past: ‘estaba + -ing’ is the equivalent of ‘I was + ing’ in English.
For example –
Estaba bañándome cuando llamaste.
I was having a shower when you called
Estaba aprendiendo a tocar el piano cuando empecé a escuchar jazz.
I was learning how to play the piano when I started listening to jazz.
Estaba esperando a mis amigos cuando empezó a temblar.
I was waiting for my friends when the earthquake started.
Providing background to a sequence of events or to the main event of a story.
For example –
Estaba en la universidad cuando conocí a Rosa.
I was at university when I met Rosa.
Estaba muy enfermo y no podía caminar, por eso tuve que quedarme en el hospital.
I was very sick and I couldn´t walk, that’s why I had to stay at the hospital.
Estaba escuchando música con los audífonos y por eso no oí el teléfono.
I was listening to music with my headphones on, that’s why I didn´t hear the phone.
Rupert’s note – notice that in the above examples the main action is in the preterite and that the action or situation in the imperfect (‘estaba’) is telling us more about the circumstances in which the “main event” took place.
When to use ‘estuve’ and ‘estaba’ (example sentences)
To make the distinction between ‘estuve’ and ‘estaba’ even clearer, let´s apply some of the above rules to some example sentences!
Hopefully this´ll also shine some light on the way in which we use these tenses to signal which piece of information is the main idea (preterite) and which are more minor details / background info (imperfect).
Let’s dive into some examples –
Estuve en el hospital durante dos días, estaba muy enfermo.
I was in hospital for two days; I was really ill.
‘I was in hospital for two days’ is a finished event in the past; it’s also the main message of the sentence, so ‘estuve’ is used!
Cuando estaba en el hospital, mi amigo Javier me visitó.
When I was in hospital, my friend Javier came to visit.
This is a situation which was in progress in the past when something else happened.
The part of the sentence with ‘estaba’ is subordinate (not as important) to the main part of the sentence about the friend.
It’s giving us additional / background information, so the imperfect ‘estaba’ is used.
Estaba en el centro de la ciudad, cuando recibí la llamada.
I was in the city centre, when I got the phone call.
Here the imperfect is signaling the time at which the main action, getting the phone call, happened.
Estuve en el centro de la ciudad y me divertí mucho.
I was in the city center, and I had a lot of fun.
Here we have two equally important actions, hence the preterite ‘estuve’ is used.
Estuve trabajando en Francia durante seis años.
I worked in France for six years.
Here we have a situation which lasted for a specific length of time and which finished in the past, so the preterite ‘estuve’ is again used.
Yo estaba en el estadio cuando México le ganó a Alemania. // Yo estuve en el estadio cuando México le ganó a Alemania.
I was at the stadium when Mexico beat Germany.
Here we have two sentences almost identical in meaning.
The difference is that when we use the imperfect, the fact that Mexico beat Germany is more important than us actually being there.
But really the difference is minimal, and would surely go unnoticed unless we were to emphasize it with our voice.
‘Estar’ conjugation in the preterite + imperfect
|él / ella / usted||estuvo||estaba|
|nosotros / nosotras||estuvimos||estábamos|
|ellos / ellas / ustedes||estuvieron||estaban|
‘Era’ vs ‘estaba’ and ‘fui’ vs ‘estuve’
Spanish is difficult!
When using the verb ‘to be’ in the past, not only do you have to be careful when choosing the tense, but you also have to avoid muddling up ‘ser’ and ‘estar’.
Just remember that we use ‘estar’ (so ‘estuve’ and ‘estaba’) to talk about temporary conditions, location, position, emotions AND when using progressive tenses (‘estuve / estaba + -ing’).
‘Ser’ (‘fui‘ and ‘era’) should be your go-to when referring to more permanent qualities (height, name, nationality, etc.).
Let´s look at some examples –
¡En esa época mi pelo era muy rubio!
My hair was very blonde at that time!
In this sentence ‘era’ is used because we use the imperfect of ‘ser’ to talk about physical descriptions in the past (considered to be permanent attributes).
Corrí 10 kilómetros y estaba muy cansado.
I ran 10km and I was really tired.
We use the imperfect (‘estaba’) to talk about “background” events (running 10km being the main idea).
‘Estar’ is our verb of choice when talking about temporary conditions (being tired, angry, etc.).
Fui miembro de una sociedad secreta durante 10 años.
I was a member of a secret society for 10 years.
This sentence calls for the preterite of ‘ser’ as it’s a finished action and a specific length of time is mentioned.
We use ‘ser’ to talk about memberships + relationships (even if they’re not 100% permanent)!
Estuve en Italia durante 2 meses.
I was in Italy for 2 months.
Again, the preterite is required as the speaker refers to a specific length of time (2 months).
‘Estuve’ is used (NOT ‘fui’) because we use ‘estar’ to talk about our physical (temporary) location.
If you still have any niggling doubts about ‘ser’ vs ‘estar’, give our article on ‘soy vs estoy’ a quick once over, it’s sure to clear things up for you in no time at all (I promise!).
If you’re ever in doubt as to whether to use ‘estaba’ or ‘estuve’, remember to ask yourself which piece of information is the most important and which is merely setting the scene.
This rule should work most of the time.
Also, when you’re reading in Spanish or listening to Spanish speakers, consider why they are using a particular tense, after a while it´s sure to become second nature!
Oh, and if you feel like digging your teeth into some more grammar, I strongly recommend giving our article on ‘es‘ vs ‘esta‘ a quick once over!
‘Estuve’ vs ‘estaba’ quiz
1. __________ en la tienda durante una hora.
2. __________ en la escuela cuando me llamaste.
3. Creo que cuando vi a Nadia por primera vez __________ en Mérida.
4. __________ en muchas ciudades durante mi viaje.
5. ¡No sé qué pasó pero cuando me desperté __________ tirado en el suelo!
6. __________ cocinando cuando llegaron los invitados.
7. ¡Te __________ llame y llame! ¿En dónde estabas?
8. Mi hermano siempre era más inteligente pero yo __________ en una mejor universidad!
9. __________ cansado y por eso no fui a la fiesta.
10. __________ en la escuela cuando empecé a tocar el piano.