Quick answer – both these words can be translated to ‘I am‘ in English, but they CANNOT be used interchangeably! ‘Soy’ is the first person present of the verb ‘ser‘ (used to talk about permanent qualities) and ‘estoy‘ is the first person present of ‘estar‘ (used to talk about a temporary condition).
This difference between ‘ser‘ and ‘estar‘ can be quite confusing for learners of Spanish; the concept itself is fairly straightforward, but in practice the use of each one can be quite nuanced!
I remember clearly that when I first embarked in my Spanish speaking journey, these two tricky little verbs would constantly trip me up!
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get into the differences between ‘soy‘ and ‘estoy‘.
When to use ‘estoy’
“So, estoy just means I am, that´s so easy!”, I hear you cry while closing your Spanish dictionary with a triumphant smirk!
But hold your horses and don’t close that dictionary just yet!
As mentioned above, ‘estoy’ is the first-person singular of the verb ‘estar’. It therefore needs to be used exclusively in contexts in which ‘estar’ is called for (as opposed to ‘ser‘)
So, how do you know when to use ‘estar‘?
Well, ‘estar‘ is used when referring to a temporary condition (feeling cold, being in a certain city, being in love, etc.)
Basically, we use ‘estar’ (and therefore also ‘estoy’) in the following contexts –
locations / positions –
We use ‘estar‘ to talk about the location / position of places, people, and objects.
Estoy en* la playa.
I’m on the beach.
Gabriel – ¿En dónde estás?
Beatriz – ¡Estoy en frente de ti!
Gabriel – Where are you?
Beatriz – I’m in front of you!
*Erika’s note – in this example ‘en‘ translates to ‘on‘ in English, but this isn´t always the case!
If you want to delve a little deeper into all the different ways to say ‘on‘ in Spanish then head on over to our magnum opus on the topic!
when referring to an action –
‘Estar‘ (and therefore ‘estoy‘) is used when referring to ongoing actions, normally as part of the present progressive tense.
Estoy cocinando las papas.
I’m cooking the potatoes.
Estoy viendo una película.
I’m watching a film.
conditions / emotions –
‘Estar‘ is used to talk about temporary physical and mental states (feeling tired / happy / sick / etc.).
¡Estoy muy cansado!
I’m really tired!
Creo que estoy un poco enfermo, me duele la garganta.
I think I’m a bit sick, my throat hurts.
No puedo creer que ganamos el mundial, ¡estoy tan feliz!
I can’t believe we won the World Cup, I’m so happy!
When to use ‘soy’
You can think of ‘soy’ as the yin to ‘estoy’s’ yang. Whereas ‘estar‘ is typically used for temporary conditions, ‘ser’ is used for more permanent characteristics (someone’s name, nationality, etc.).
We use ‘ser’ in the following contexts –
permanent characteristics –
Ok, so nothing is really permanent (after all, you might elope to Timbuktu one day and change your name completely), but by “permanent characteristics” I’m referring to as close as permanent as you can get (think name, nationality, sex, and religion).
Soy muy chistoso*.
I’m really funny.
*Erika’s note – ‘chistoso‘ is actually just one of many different ways to say ‘funny‘ in Spanish!
Whenever we talk about our profession or jobs, ‘ser‘ (or ‘soy’) is used.
A job is also considered to be something “permanent”, although I have to admit that before becoming a teacher I flip flopped through jobs like nobody’s business (but hopefully you get the gist)!
Soy maestro de español.
I’m a Spanish teacher.
I’m an astronaut.
‘Ser’ is used to speak about days, dates, and clock times.
Es la una.
It’s 1 o´clock.
Hoy es Domingo.
Today is Sunday.
Erika’s note – for obvious reasons, you’re not going to use the 1st person conjugation (‘soy‘) in this context!
We always use ‘ser’ or ‘soy’ to talk about the place where someone / something is from.
Soy de Inglaterra.
I’m from England.
El cacao es de México.
The cocoa is from Mexico.
In the eyes of the Spanish grammar gods, relationships are also considered permanent and, yes, even the most fleeting of relationships count!
Let’s have a look at some examples –
Soy la mama de Erika.
I’m Erika’s mum.
Soy su novia.
I’m his girlfriend.
Soy su exnovia.
I’m his ex-girlfriend.
‘Soy’ vs ‘estoy’ examples
Let’s look at some more example sentences and I’ll explain why either ‘estoy’ or ‘soy’ has been used, hopefully further demystifying these useful little words –
¡Estoy al lado del restaurant!
I’m next to the restaurant!
Use ‘estoy’ when talking about your location
Estoy pelando las papas.
I´m peeling the potatoes.
Use ‘estoy’ to talk about what you are doing right now (present progressive)
¡No estoy muy feliz!
I’m not very happy!
Use ‘estoy’ to talk about (fleeting) emotions
Soy una persona muy fiel.
I’m a very loyal person.
Use ‘soy’ to talk about your inherent characteristics
Soy ingeniero químico.
I’m a chemical engineer.
Use ‘soy’ to talk about your profession
No soy de aquí.
I’m not from here.
Use ‘soy’ to talk about where you’re from
Soy el esposo de Erika.
I’m Erika’s husband.
Use ‘soy’ to talk about your personal relationships
‘Ser’ vs ‘estar’ conjugations
Both these verbs are extremely irregular (uh-uh!), so you’re going to have to learn them by heart!
I actually normally suggest that learners commit the present simple conjugation of these verbs to memory before pretty much anything else, as you’ll be using them all the time!
Enough jibber-jabber from me, let’s get into the grammar –
‘Soy’ vs ‘estoy’ vs ‘tengo’
The main difference between these 3 ever-so-useful Spanish words is that ‘soy’ and ‘estoy’ both mean ‘I am’, while ‘tengo’ means ‘I have’.
Aside from that, they’re all the first-person present conjugation of their respective infinitives (‘ser’, ‘estar’ and ‘tener’), and you’ll be using them like nothing else once you really get to teeth into Spanish!
Here are some examples –
¡Soy una persona muy generosa!
I’m a very generous person!
¡Estoy muy harto con esta situación!
I’m really fed up with this situation!
Tengo dos perros y un gato.
I have two dogs and a cat.
‘Yo estoy’ vs ‘yo soy’
“So, what´s with that yo?”, I hear you ask!
Well, ‘yo’ is a subject pronoun and the equivalent of ‘I’ in English. Easy, right?
Unfortunately, Spanish throws us a slight curveball when it comes to subject pronouns (if only life were that easy, huh!).
In English we use subject pronouns before pretty much every verb (imperatives and situational ellipsis* being the obvious exceptions) if the noun itself is not mentioned.
For example –
I am 31 years old.
I am really tired.
In Spanish, however, subject pronouns are only necessary for emphasis or if it’s not clear who exactly is doing the action. This is because the different verb endings in Spanish (unlike their English equivalents) normally suffice when determining who is being spoken about.
As such, you’re much more likely to use ‘soy’ and ‘estoy’ WITHOUT the subject pronoun –
¡Estoy muy feliz el día de hoy!
I’m really happy today!
Soy una persona bastante orgullosa.
I’m a really proud person.
Rupert’s note – situational ellipsis is basically when it’s not necessary to mention someone / something because it’s already obvious from the context or situation.
‘Estoy aquí‘, ‘estoy bien‘ (and other common phrases with ‘estoy‘)
This one literally translates to ‘I’m here’; you’d never say ‘soy aquí’ as it refers to a person’s (temporary) location!
You can also use it more abstractly, as in ‘Don´t worry, I’m here for you’ (which translates as ‘No te preocupes, estoy aquí para ti’).
Alfredo – ¿En dónde estás?
Bella – Estoy aquí, justo en frente de tu casa.
Alfredo – Where are you?
Bella – I’m here, right in front of you house.
‘Estoy bien’ means ‘I’m well’ and it’s a phrase that you’re sure to hear daily if in a Spanish speaking country!
‘Soy’ can’t be used in this expression as it refers to a temporary condition (how the speaker is feeling at that moment)
Vecino 1 – ¿Cómo estás, vecino?
Vecino 2 – Estoy muy bien, gracias.
Neighbor 1 – How are you, neighbor?
Neighbor 2 – I’m very well, thanks.
Said on its own, this one means ‘I´m ready’. It can also be used with an adjective to mean ‘I’m already …’ (‘I´m already tired’, etc.).
Let’s take a look at a few examples –
Evelia – ¡Vámonos, que se nos va a hacer tarde!
Victor – Ok, ya estoy.
Evelia – Let’s go, we’re going to be late!
Victor – Ok, I’m ready.
¡Ya estoy harto de este lugar!
I’m already fed up of this place!
‘Soy’ and ‘estoy’ have dumbfounded many a Spanish learner in the past, and I really hope that after reading this article the same fate won’t be in store for you!
Oh, and if you’re starting to delve into the past tense, definitely check out our article on ‘estuve‘ vs ‘estaba‘, as they’re another couple of words that are often confused!
Now go forth and share your newfound Spanish knowledge with the world!