The Beginner’s Guide: How to Tell the Time in Spanish

“What time is it?”

That has got to be one of the most commonly asked questions in the world.

Other everyday questions include “what time’s lunch?” and “when shall we meet?”, so it’s no wonder children learn to tell the time from a young age.

But even though it’s a very useful skill and excellent practice of Spanish numbers, telling the time is sometimes skipped by self-learners and classes.


How Learning to Tell Time in Spanish Will Improve Your Life

Learning to tell the time should, in theory, mean you’re never late again. However, if you’re perpetually late in your own language, we can’t promise you’ll turn over a new leaf once you’ve finished this post, though we can teach you how to talk about your lateness.

Latecomers might find phrases such as estoy llegando tarde (I’m running late), perdón por la demora (sorry I’m late) and estoy llegando/estoy de camino (I’m on my way) useful. And if your poor timekeeping really gets the better of you, no llego (I can’t make it).

As well as being able to explain your lateness, you’ll be able to comfortably and confidently make arrangements. So next time someone invites you to an interview or a hot date in Spanish, you’ll have no problem arranging a time to meet them.

Knowing how to tell the time is also one of those skills that you’ll probably use every time you speak Spanish, so much so that eventually you won’t even notice you’re doing it. So let’s get started!

The Basics of Telling Time in Spanish

There are a few simple rules that all Spanish time tellers need to know.

Use Ser, Not Estar

First of all, always use ser to tell the time, not estarThe time is a permanent entity, apparently, and therefore doesn’t want to be described using estar, which suggests temporariness. Even if the clock is constantly ticking.

To ask what the time is, say ¿Qué hora es?” 

If the time just happens to be on the hour, you might answer that question with:

Es la una (It’s one o’clock)

Son las dos (It’s two o’clock)

Son las tres (It’s three o’clock)

Son las cuatro (It’s four o’clock)

And so on. If you need to review your numbers, you can do that here.

Singular versus plural

Note that we only use es for one o’clock and all times between 1:00 and 1:59 (es la una y cincuenta y nueve). This is because one hour is singular.

Use son for all other times after and including two o’clock: Son las dos (It’s two o’clock), Son las cinco y cuarto (It’s quarter past five). This is because they are plural, in that they consist of more than one hour.

The time is feminine, so you should always use las and la to describe it. So that’s why we say “Son las seis” (It’s six o’clock), for example.

12-hour clock versus 24-hour clock

In some Spanish-speaking countries, the 24-hour clock is preferred, so you might hear “Son las dieciséis” (It’s 16:00), instead of “Son las cuatro” (It’s 4 o’clock p.m.).

Half past, quarter past and quarter to in Spanish time

Now that you’ve got the basics of telling the time when the clock strikes five (son las cinco), seven (son las siete) and eleven (son las once), you can move on to what happens when it’s half past, quarter past and quarter to the hour.

To say that it is half past the hour, use es/son + [the hour] + y media (not y medio, because the time is feminine) or y treinta.

So, 2:30 would be “Son las dos y media” or “Son las dos y treinta.” Or if you’re using the 24-hour clock and it’s the afternoon, you would say, “Son las catorce y media/treinta.

And of course 1:30 would be “Es la una y media/treinta,” as we saw previously. Or “Son las trece” if it’s the afternoon. Be careful here, because you have to use son for 13:30, but es for 1:30.

To say that it’s quarter past the hour, use es/son + [the hour] + y cuarto/quince. Note that cuarto does end in “o,” because cuarto means a quarter and the word is masculine.

So if it’s 8:15, the time would be:

Son las ocho y cuarto/quince. (12-hr clock)

Son las veinte y cuarto/quince.” (24-hr clock, evening)

The same principle applies when saying it’s quarter to the hour. But once you get past :30, you need to use menos and refer to the hour that is approaching, just like when you use “quarter to” in English.

So you should use: es/son + [the hour that is approaching] + menos cuarto.

So if it’s 4:45, or quarter to five, you can say “Son las cinco menos cuarto”–because there’s a quarter of an hour before it’s five o’clock.

If you are using digital time, you stick with the current hour and say es/son + [the hour] + y cuarenta y cinco.

So using our example above (4:45), you could also say “Son las cuatro y cuarenta y cinco.” Whatever floats your time telling boat.

Adding minutes in Spanish time

Once you’ve got these key times covered, the rest is easy.

To say any time between the hour and half past, add “y” plus the number of minutes past the hour. So 2:10 is “Son las dos y diez.

Other numbers you might need are:

  • cinco (five)
  • diez (ten)
  • quince (fifteen)
  • veinte (twenty)
  • veinticinco (twenty-five)
  • treinta (thirty)

Of course, you may also need once (eleven) and all the other numbers from 1-60, but time telling isn’t usually so precise.

After half past the hour, you’ll also need:

  • treinta y cinco (thirty-five)
  • cuarenta (forty)
  • cuarenta y cinco (forty-five)
  • cincuenta (fifty)
  • cincuenta y cinco (fifty-five)

If you usually tell the time with a digital watch, or like to say the time in a “digital way,” you can keep adding y + [number of minutes past the hour] the whole way ’round the clock. So 2:55 would be “Son las dos y cincuenta y cinco.”

You don’t need to use menos when you use the digital clock, but you should read the next section anyway, because you can’t predict if the person you ask the time is going to respond using digital or analog time telling. Unless you are some sort of time traveler, that is, in which case we’re guessing you’ve got time figured out.

Using menos in Spanish time

Just like in English (as we saw with “quarter to”), in analog time telling when you get to the second half of the hour, you start telling the time by how long is left until the next hour.

It’s quite forward thinking, if you think about it.

So in English, when it’s 4:40, analog people say “It’s twenty (minutes) to five.” In Spanish, you can say “Son las cinco menos veinte.” It’s almost the same in English, just remember to say the hour that’s approaching before the number of minutes to go before you get there.

So if it’s 7:50, say it’s “Son las ocho menos diez” (It’s ten to eight).

Spanish Vocabulary for Telling Time

  • en punto (exactly, or sharp)
    • For example, son las ocho en punto (it’s exactly eight o’clock).
    • You can also use this to remind your late friends to be on time, for example, by saying, “Nos encontramos a las ocho en punto.” (We’re meeting at eight o’clock sharp).
  • el mediodía (midday)
  • la medianoche (midnight)
  • la madrugada (the middle of the night)
  • el amanecer (dawn)
  • de la tarde (in the afternoon)
    • as in, son las seis de la tarde (it’s six o’clock in the afternoon)
  • de la mañana (in the morning)
  • de la noche (at night)
  • la semana pasada (last week)
  • el mes pasado (last month)
  • el año pasado (last year)
  • ayer (yesterday)
  • anteayer (the day before yesterday)
  • mañana (tomorrow)
  • pasado mañana (the day after tomorrow)
  • fin de semana (weekend)
  • finde (a shortened way to say fin de semana)
  • semana por medio (every other week)
  • día por medio (every other day)
  • mes por medio (every other month)
  • año por medio (every other year)

Time Telling Quiz

Try writing or saying these times in Spanish:

  • 1:05
  • 3:55
  • 11:15
  • 9:30
  • 9:00
  • 5:45
  • 6:50

And now check:

  • Es la una y cinco
  • Son las tres y cincuenta y cinco. / Son las cuatro menos cinco.
  • Son las once y cuarto/quince.
  • Son las nueve y media/treinta.
  • Son las nueve.
  • Son las cinco y cuarenta y cinco. / Son las seis menos cuarto.
  • Son las seis y cincuenta. / Son las siete menos diez.

For an extra challenge, now say all those times using the 24-hour clock and assume it’s the afternoon/evening.

How to Practice Telling Time in Spanish

You can also test yourself using this online game. Two other time telling games are this one and this one, which has various levels with reviews and games to test your newly-learned skills.

You might also want to try and integrate your time telling skills into your regular English-speaking life. So every time you look at your watch, phone or tablet, you could say the time aloud in Spanish.

You could even set up an alert on your phone to remind you to do this, perhaps asking “¿Qué hora es?” until you get into the habit of doing this regularly. A more low-tech version of this would be to put a sticky note next to your alarm clock.

Alternatively, if someone asks you the time, you could say it in both languages. (This one maybe is best done with close friends, as strangers on the bus might not appreciate your bilingual time telling skills).

You could also ask your Spanish-speaking friends to test you, or try out your new vocabulary by making some arrangements with them. To practice these conversations beforehand, the language learning program FluentU has media clips like telenovelas with interactive subtitles that can show you how native speakers naturally communicate time.

So there you have it, you can tell the time in Spanish! Give it a whirl right away: What time is it now?

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