The Spanish Progressive Tense Guide for All Your Time-traveling Needs

I can travel in time.

Here is a little secret: so can you.

It is actually pretty easy. All you need to do is use the progressive tense.

Okay, so maybe I did not mean it literally. But you can use language to travel to the time when something was, is or will be happening. 

Let’s learn how to use the Spanish progressive tense and (metaphorically) time travel.

Hop on!

The Uses and Importance of the Spanish Progressive Tense

Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain.

The progressive tense, both in English and Spanish, is the tense we use to describe actions that were, are or will be happening at some point in the past, present or future, respectively.

As you will see in the following sections, the present progressive is used to describe actions that are going on at the moment of speaking.

In other words, you are inside the action and you are describing it live:

Estoy leyendo un libro. (I am reading a book.)

Tu hermano me está mirando. (Your brother is looking at me.)

Está lloviendo. (It is raining.)

Now imagine you want to tell your friends a story about something that happened to you in the past. You want them to feel and see what you were feeling and seeing when it was happening. What do you do?

You take them back in time with you and describe the events as they happened.

You cannot use the present progressive to do that because you are not talking about the present. Yet, since your friends are watching the events as they were happening, you need a progressive tense.

Enter the imperfect progressive tense:

Estaba leyendo un libro. (I was reading a book.)

Tu hermano me estaba mirando. (Your brother was looking at me.)

Estaba lloviendo. (It was raining.)

See? Time travel is possible!

And as you will see in the following paragraphs, you can travel not only to the past but also to the future.

But before we start our journey, I think you should know what you need to take with you. Let’s have a look at the simple rules for building the different progressive tenses.

Building the Progressive Tense

When traveling in time, there are a lot of non-compulsory things you could throw into your backpack. But there are two things without which your journey would be impossible: the verb estar (to be, conjugated below) and a present participle, called gerundio in Spanish.

Learning the present participle of verbs is fairly easy. The gerundio is invariable, so whether you are talking about the past, the present or the future, its form will always be exactly the same.

Forming the gerundio in Spanish is one of those instances of Spanish gone mild, because, honestly, it could not get any easier.

In order to form the gerundio you just need to have a look at the ending of the infinitive. If the infinitive ends in -ar, replace that ending with -ando:

cantar — cantando

llorar — llorando

caminar — caminando

If the infinite ends in -er or -ir, replace the ending with -iendo:

comer — comiendo

correr — corriendo

vivir — viviendo

conducir — conduciendo

The verb estar, on the other hand, is not one of those creepy, super irregular Spanish verbs, so it should not be a problem either.

Just remember that depending on the progressive tense you are using, you need to use the corresponding tense of estar.

For example, if you want to use the present progressive tense, estar should be conjugated in the present tense:

Yo estoy (I am)

Tú estás (You are)

Él / Ella está (He/She is)

Nosotros estamos (We are)

Vosotros estáis / Ustedes están (You [plural] are)

Ellos / Ellas están (They are)

Just remember to change the conjugation of estar depending on your tense:

If you are going to use the imperfect progressive tense, estar should be conjugated in its imperfect form. Likewise, if you plan to use the preterite progressive tense, estar should be conjugated in the preterite, and if you are going to need the future progressive tense, estar should appear in its future form.

If you need the verb estar fully conjugated, just use the handy guide from 123TeachMe.

And now that we know what the progressive tense is and how it is formed, it is time to start our journey.

Enjoy the ride!

Time Travel with the Spanish Progressive Tense

Just as in English, almost any Spanish tense can have a progressive counterpart. However, even native speakers do not always use them.

There are four Spanish progressive tenses that cover around 90% of what I call the progressive demand, and these are the tenses I am going to show you.

For each of them I will be answering the following three questions:

  • What is it?
  • What are the differences and similarities between English and Spanish?
  • When and how do we use it?

Top that off with a whole lot of examples, and I am sure this will be your favorite bedtime reading. Or break reading. Or holiday reading.

Well, you get the point. Just have fun!

Spanish Present Progressive Tense

What it is:

As I mentioned earlier, the present progressive tense (or present continuous) is used when talking about actions that are happening as you speak.

Similarities to English:

The greatest feature of the present progressive is that it is used both in English and Spanish in the exact same way and for the exact same purpose.

So the only thing you need in order to master it is the present tense of the verb estar and a gerund.

Have a look at some examples and see for yourself how simple it is:

Estás regando las plantas. (You are watering the plants.)

Alguien está llamando a la puerta. (Someone is knocking on the door.)

Está nevando en Polonia. (It is snowing in Poland.)

When and how to use it:

Apart from describing things that are happening at the very moment that you are speaking, the present progressive is also used to talk about broader actions that are taking place in the present, but not necessarily at this moment.

Once again, both English and Spanish share this feature. Here you have some examples:

Este año estoy estudiando francés. (I am studying French this year.)

Nos estamos quedando en un hotel. (We are staying in a hotel.)

Estoy durmiendo solo esta semana. (I am sleeping alone this week.)

Spanish Imperfect Progressive Tense

What it is:

The imperfect progressive tense is mainly used to describe actions that were ongoing at some point in the past.

Similarities to English:

As with the present progressive tense, both English and Spanish use the imperfect progressive tense in the same fashion.

In both cases, we have an auxiliary verb conjugated either in the imperfect (Spanish) or the past simple (English).

To this auxiliary verb we add a present participle, which, as I have already mentioned, does not change.

When and how to use it:

The imperfect progressive is used in two specific contexts.

First, we use it when talking about actions that were ongoing in the past.

Bear in mind that it is not important if these actions were completed or not and when. You are referring to them as they were happening. They lasted for some time, and that is what matters here.

Also note that you use the past simple of “to be” in the English imperfect progressive tense (also known as past continuous):

Estaba cantando su canción favorita. (He was singing his favorite song.)

Me estaba bañando cuando llegó. (I was having a bath when he arrived.)

El bebé me estaba mirando a mí, no a su madre. (The baby was looking at me, not at his mother.)

Secondly, we use it when describing broader actions that were ongoing in the past, normally during a period of time longer than just a few minutes or even hours. You would not use it to describe taking a bath or singing a song, but to something bigger.

Have a look:

Ese año yo estaba estudiando polaco (I was learning Polish that year).

You were not studying Polish for 365 days without a break. The situation was ongoing because it happened throughout the year, but there was not a single, specific moment when you studied (there were many).

Here you have some more examples:

En 2005 María estaba viviendo en Barcelona. (In 2005 María was living in Barcelona.)

Estaba nevando mucho para ser primavera. (It was snowing a lot considering it was spring.)

Mis vecinos se estaban poniendo muy nerviosos. (My neighbors were getting very nervous.)

Preterite Progressive Tense

Here we have an interesting one (and you know that when I say “interesting,” I really mean “buckle up just in case”).

What it is:

The preterite progressive tense is used to mean an ongoing past action that has finished, stopped or come to an end.

Similarities to English:

Unfortunately, we have to talk about differences rather than similarities this time, because English has only one past progressive tense, the past continuous.

Spanish, on the other hand… has two of them (#sorrynotsorry).

When and how to use it:

If you are learning the preterite progressive tense, I assume you already know what the preterite is and the difference between the imperfect and the preterite. If not, hold your horses and visit Study Spanish for a guide.

If you just need a quick review, keep reading.

The preterite is used when talking about actions that took place in the past, just like the imperfect.

However, there is a big difference between them: while the imperfect, as we have seen above, is used when the action of the verb was ongoing, the preterite is used when we want to express clearly that the action ended.

The following examples will help you out:

Mi hermana cocinaba mientras yo quitaba el polvo. (My sister was cooking while I was dusting [ongoing actions].)

La película terminó a las 7. (The movie ended at 7 pm [completed action].)

When using the preterite progressive tense, the activity we are describing came to an end at the moment we are referring to in the sentence or before it, but never after.

If I could add a picture of my face right now, I would do it. I have my “questions are coming” face on. I know, I know. I get questions from my students at this point, which is natural. I will try to answer them in the following lines.

Yes, you are right. We are dealing with the progressive tense. This means the action of the verb has to be ongoing necessarily.

Yes, we translate both imperfect and preterite progressive tenses as a past continuous in English.

No, they are not the same, and you can certainly not use them interchangeably.

Just as you would not use the imperfect and the preterite interchangeably, you should not do so when using the progressive either. They are different.

Differences between the imperfect and the preterite progressive tenses:

The imperfect progressive refers to actions that were happening during a period of time.

That is what is important to us. We are emphasizing the ongoing nature of the action.

We are not trying to communicate that the action ended at some point, but we are also not trying to say that the action did not have an end. That is not our purpose, we basically do not care. We just highlight the action lasted in time.

On the other hand, the preterite progressive refers to actions that took place during a period of time, with an emphasis on the fact that the actions ended. This is what is important for us. The action came to an end.

Imagine tense is a movie.

If the whole movie can be called “imperfect,” we would call the ending credits “preterite.” It is the same movie, but we are referring to a whole ongoing movie in one case, and a finished movie in the other. See the difference?

Maybe some examples will come in handy:

Estuve cantando toda la mañana. (I was singing the whole morning.)

We have a clear end to the action (the morning ended and there came the afternoon). It is not important for how many hours I was singing. It does not matter what I did exactly during those hours. I sang, I finished singing. Preterite.

You could not use the imperfect with this sentence because toda la mañana marks a limit, an end. If you have an end, you cannot use the imperfect.

Now imagine I say:

Estaba cantando cuando llegué. (He was singing when I arrived.)

I happened to arrive in the middle of the song. What I saw was a person singing. The action was ongoing and I do not mention if or when it ended. Progression, not end, is what I am referring to.

I really hope you see the difference now. Nevertheless, let me give you another couple of examples just in case:

Estuvimos limpiando de las 9 a las 11. (We were cleaning from 9 am to 11 am.)

Estábamos limpiando cuando sonó el teléfono. (We were cleaning when the telephone rang.)

In the first example we were cleaning for two hours (progressive), but I am telling you we finished at 11 am. The action was completed and I am referring to it as a whole, as a unit.

In the second example, I am not telling you when we started, when we finished or if we could finish. What I am trying to tell you is that we were in the middle of an ongoing action (imperfect) when something else happened.

Can you see it now?

Future Progressive Tense

What it is:

Now that we know how to travel to the past, let’s leap into the future.

Simply put, the future progressive tense is our way to say something will be happening at some point in the future.

Similarities to English:

The future progressive tense, also known as future continuous, is once again very similar in Spanish and English.

While in English you use the construction “will be” plus the present participle of the main verb, in Spanish you have to use the future simple of estar plus the gerundio. Easy peasy!

When and how to use it:

So, when do we use it?

There are two situations where you have to use the future progressive tense in Spanish.

The first one is the same in both languages: you use the future progressive to say that something will be happening or ongoing at some point in the future.

Have a look at some examples:

Mañana a las 6 ya estaré desayunando. (I will be already having breakfast tomorrow at 6 am.)

Estaremos viviendo en África en un año. (We will be living in Africa in a year.)

A esta hora mañana estarán llegando a casa. (This time tomorrow they will be arriving home.)

The second use of the future progressive only appears in Spanish. Use this tense when you need to hypothesize about what must be happening in the present. Weird, isn’t it?

Pay attention to the English translations of the following sentences and you will realize that these hypotheses can always be translated as “must be” plus a present participle in English:

Estará llegando ahora. (He must be arriving now.)

Estarán estudiando. (They must be studying.)

Me estaré volviendo loco. (I must be going crazy.)

Bonus Track: Present Simple and Imperfect Gone Wild!


Yes, there is even more!

You may already know that Spanish speakers love using the present simple.

It should not be a surprise for you, then, if I tell you that you can use this tense with a present progressive meaning (i.e. for actions that are taking place at the moment of speaking).

There is no difference in meaning between a sentence built in the present continuous and one built in the present simple for a Spanish native speaker. We just love simplifying our lives!

Have a look:

¿Qué está pasando? (What is happening?).
¿Qué pasa? (What is happening?).

Estoy yendo a la escuela (I am going to school).
Voy a la escuela (I am going to school).

¿Qué estás haciendo? (What are you doing?)
¿Qué haces? (What are you doing?)

To makes things better, the same happens when using the imperfect progressive and the imperfect.

If you want to refer to actions that were going on at some point in the past, feel free to choose whichever you like the most:

Iba caminando cuando ocurrió el accidente. (He was walking when the accident happened.)

Caminaba cuando ocurrió el accidente. (He was walking when the accident happened.)


¿Qué estabas haciendo cuando te llamé? (What were you doing when I called you?)

¿Qué hacías cuando te llamé? (What were you doing when I called you?)


El niño estaba jugando en el parque. (The boy was playing in the park.)

El niño jugaba en el parque. (The boy was playing in the park.)


And this is it! Now you have all the necessary tools to travel in time while speaking Spanish like a pro!

I hope this post has been as enjoyable for you to read as it has been for me to write.

See you next time, time travelers!

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