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How to Use the Different Spanish Past Tenses

Spanish is widely known as one of the easiest languages to learn for native English speakers, so the Spanish past tense is definitely a grammar lesson you can conquer.

There are five past tenses in Spanish—the preterite (prtérito indefinido), past imperfect (pretérito imperfecto), past progressive (imperfecto progresivo), present perfect (perfecto compuesto) and past perfect (pluscuamperfecto).

And they each express different things.

Let’s check out the rules so that your confusion with Spanish past tenses can be a thing of the past!


What Are the 5 Spanish Past Tenses?

There are five Spanish past tenses that are used in different situations. These tenses are the preterite, imperfect, past progressive, present perfect and past perfect.

Past TenseUsage
PreteriteActions that happened at a specific point in the past
Past ImperfectActions that were ongoing in the past
Past ProgressiveProgressive actions that ended
Present PerfectActions that started in the past but are still happening in the present
Past PerfectActions that took place before another action

You will most often use the preterite and imperfect past tenses while the other three are less common, but still good to know. 

Now, let’s have a look at them in more detail!

1. Preterite (Préterito indefinido)

Pronoun-AR Ending-ER/IR Ending

The preterite past tense defines actions that have already been accomplished or tasks that have been completed.

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It refers to something that happened one time only—a single experience rather than an ongoing event.

The conjugation for preterite is rather simple as you simply take the stem and add the correct ending.

Here are some examples:

Compré zapatos rojos. (I bought red shoes.)

Comiste frijoles rojos y arroz. (You ate red beans and rice.)

Asistió al juego de pelota. (He/she attended the ball game.)

Read more on this tense here:

2. Past Imperfect (Pretérito imperfecto)

Pronoun-AR Ending-ER/-IR Ending

The imperfect past tense can refer to a few situations including references to an action without a specified ending, something that was true in the past but not anymore or habits and repeated events.

Because it talks about repeated habits or events, it’s often translated as “used to.” 

This conjugation is also pretty simple, just adding the proper endings depending on which kind of verb it is.

Amábamos a mi gato. (We loved my cat.)

Comían plátanos. (They ate plantains.)

Abría a las ocho. (It used to open at eight.)

Read more on this tense here:

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3. Past Progressive (Imperfecto progresivo)

PronounEstar + Gerund
YoEstaba + gerund
Estabas + gerund
Él/Ella/UstedEstaba + gerund
NosotrosEstábamos + gerund
VosotrosEstabais + gerund
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesEstaban + gerund

The past progressive tense is used to convey information about a progressive action that has already ended.

In other words, this tense talks about someone who was doing something but isn’t anymore. Or an action that was happening, but isn’t anymore.

It’s a compound tense, which means that you need two verbs to form it. The main verb is combined with an auxiliary verb, which in this particular case is estar (to be).

The estar will be in its imperfect form, and the main verb will be put into gerund form.

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Estabas bailando con mi abuelo. (You were dancing with my grandpa.)

Estaba estudiando en España. (She was studying in Spain.)

Estábamos trabajando en el restaurante. (We were working at the restaurant.)

Read more on this tense here:

4. Present Perfect (Pretérito perfecto compuesto)

PronounHaber + Participle
YoHe + participle
Has + participle
Él/Ella/UstedHa + participle
NosotrosHemos + participle
VosotrosHabéis + participle
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesHan + participle

The present perfect tense is also referred to as el pretérito perfecto and el perfecto compuesto.

Like the past progressive tense, the present perfect is also a compound tense.

The present perfect tense is often used for actions that still take place, have happened recently, or an action or activity that has happened a set number of times. 

To form the present perfect tense, you will take the present conjugation of haber and add the past participle of the main verb.

He jugado fútbol. (I have played soccer.)

Ha bebido cerveza. (He has drunk beer.)

Han vivido sin sus padres. (They have lived without their parents.)

Read more on this tense here:

5. Past Perfect (Pluscuamperfecto)

PronounHaber + participle
YoHabía + participle
Habías + participle
Él/Ella/UstedHabía + participle
NosotrosHabíamos + participle
VosotrosHabíais + participle
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesHabían + participle

The past perfect tense describes what someone had done prior to another event that happened in the past. 

For example, something happened prior to someone’s arrival at an event or someone had a cup of coffee before going for a walk. 

This conjugation requires haber in its imperfect form and the past participle of the main verb.

Ya había bailado antes de la cena. (I had already danced before dinner.)

Ella había comido antes de subir al tren. (She had eaten before getting on the train.)

Ellos habían dormido antes de la fiesta. (They had slept before the party.)

Read more on this tense here:

Spanish Past Tense Practice Quiz

Conjugate the verbs in parentheses according to the correct past tense, then check your answers below.

1. Ayer yo (comer) pizza a las 3 de la tarde. (Yesterday I ate pizza at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.)

2. Ella (caminar) a la escuela todos los días cuando era pequeña. (She walked to school every day when she was little.)

3. Mi abuela me (contar) cuentos sobre nuestra familia cuando (vivir) con ella. (My grandmother told me stories about our family when I lived with her.)

4. Mi hermana (cumplir) 20 años ayer. (My sister turned 20 years old yesterday.)

5. Yo (estar, comer) cuando tú me (llamar). (I was eating when you called me.)

6. Tú ya (haber, llegar) cuando (salir) de mi casa. (You had already arrived when I left my house.)

7. ¿Ustedes ya (haber, cenar)? (Have you already eaten?)

8. Vosotros (estar, trabajar) por muchas horas. (You were working for hours.)

9. Yo (haber, beber) cuatro copas de vino. (I had drunk four glasses of wine.)

10. Nosotros (hablar) toda la noche. (We talked all night.)


Answer key:

1. comí

2. caminaba

3. contaba, vivía

4. cumplió

5. estaba comiendo, llamaste

6. habías llegado, salí

7. han cenado

8. estuvisteis trabajando

9. había bebido

10. hablamos

How to Practice the Spanish Past Tense

While this guide has covered the different Spanish tenses pretty extensively, it’s important that you spend some time using all of them in your review sessions.

Here are a few activities to help you with the Spanish past tenses:

  • Write a story incorporating each past tense at least once
  • Recount past events in a language journal
  • Identify the different tenses in a Spanish news article
  • Identify the different tenses in Spanish movies, music, etc.

Remember that listening and reading practice, whether you’re reviewing past tenses or another grammar element, is best done with native Spanish content.

There are tons of resources online where you can watch and listen to Spanish-language media. Streaming platforms like Netflix are excellent tools for learners because of the subtitle language options.

For authentic Spanish content beyond movies and TV shows, you can also check out the FluentU video library.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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Before you know it, any fear you had about the Spanish past tenses will be where it belongs—in the past!

Have fun and good luck!

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