A lot of foreigners have problems with the verbs ser and estar because in English, both words mean “to be”. There is a difference, however, between the verbs.

Before we start learning the differences between the verbs, we should learn first how to conjugate them.

Conjugating ser













*Note: vós is usually only used by people from the north of Portugal.

Some example sentences:

  • Eu sou feliz. (I'm happy.)
  • Ela é americana. (She is American.)
  • Nós somos primos. (We are cousins.)

Conjugating estar













  • Eu estou doente. (I'm sick.)
  • Nós estamos com fome. (We are hungry.)
  • Vocês estão cansados? (Are you tired?)

The difference between ser and estar

Okay, so we know how to conjugate the verbs. Now how do we use them?

In general, the distinction between the two verbs is similar to that distinction in Spanish. The instances in which we use ser and in which we use estar in Portuguese and Spanish are almost, but not always, the same. Because of that

The verb ser is used for conditions or characteristics that are permanent, and the verb estar is used for transitory or not permanent conditions or characteristics.

Remember when I said that the verb ser comes from esse and the verb estar comes from stare? Well, there are two words in English which also come from these two Latin verbs. From esse, we have the English essence, and from stare, we have the English status. So, we use ser when we want to describe the essence of something, or how a thing is always; and we use estar when we want to describe something's status, or how a thing is at the moment.

Now some examples to make it clear:

Uses of ser

  • Identification
    • Eu sou estudante. (I'm a student.)
  • Place of Origin/Nationality
    • Tu és de França. (You are from France.)
    • Ela é canadiana. (She is canadian).
  • Physical Traits
    • Ele é alto. (He is tall.)
  • Profession/Occupation
    • Ela é médica. (She is a doctor.)
    • Ela é estudante. (She is a student.)
  • Personal Relationships
    • Nós somos irmãs. (We are sisters.)
    • Nós somos sócios. (We are business partners.)
  • General Statements
    • O amor é cego. (Love is blind.)
  • Numbers and Time
    • Dois mais dois são quarto. (Two plus two is four.)
    • São doze horas. (It is twelve o'clock.)

Uses of estar:

  • Physical States
    • Eu estou doente. (I am/feel sick.)
  • Mental States
    • Tu estás contente. (You are/feel happy.)
  • Point of Location
    • Ele está em casa. (He is at home.)
  • Present Progressive
    • Ela está a trabalhar. (She is working.)

Using both ser and estar



Ele é louco.

He's crazy. (He should be committed.)

Ele está louco.

He's crazy. (He did something crazy, at that moment.)

A professora é chata.

The teacher is boring. (She is always boring.)

O filme está chato.

The film is boring. (The statement is the speaker's impression; it is not necessarily true.)

Eles são magros.

They are skinny. (That's their intrinsic quality.)

Eles estão magros.

They are skinny. (They lost a lot of weight.)

Eu sou feliz.

I am happy. (That's how I am in general, a happy person.)

Eu estou feliz.

I am happy. (Something happened that made me happy; I am happy at the moment.)

Isso é difícil.

This is difficult. (It's an intrinsically difficult subject.)

Isso está difícil.

This is difficult. (It's more difficult than expected.)

More examples of ser and estar

  • O sol é amarelo. (The sun is yellow.)
  • O meu nome é Andrew. (My name is Andrew.)
  • Nós somos Chineses. (We are Chinese.)

In each of these cases, the speaker attributes to the subjects of the sentence characteristics that are intrinsic to them. People don't change names that often, or nationality. Those characteristics are part of their identity. Also, things are generally only one color, with a few notable exceptions like chameleons or traffic lights. All these cases use the verb ser.

  • A cerveja está gelada. (The beer is cold.)
  • Eu estou doente. (I am sick.)
  • O livro está em cima da mesa. (The book is on the table.)

In these cases, the phrases describe temporary situations: beer can get warm, sick people get well, and books can be picked up and carried around. Therefore, these are cases where we use estar.

Notice, as seen in the table above, that there are some cases where one could use ser or estar equally well; but in these cases, as expected, the meaning changes when we use one or the other case. Watch:

  • A rapariga é bonita.
  • A rapariga está bonita.

Both sentences above translate to “The girl is pretty”; however, in the first case, we mean that the girl is naturally pretty, like Anna Kournikova. In the second case, we mean that she is prettier than usual--typically because she put on some nice clothes, got a haircut, or otherwise accessorized herself. She may or may not be pretty normally, but we want to call attention to the fact that she is prettier due to some temporary condition.

  • Manuelina está doente.
  • Manuelina é doente.

Again, both cases translate to “Manuelina is sick.” However, the first one explicitly says that Manuelina isn't usually sick, but is right now. The second one means that Manuelina is sick now, was in the past and will be in the future -- generally, this has connotations that Manuelina is mentally sick.

The location of things

When we want to describe the location of things, we use the copula, naturally. In this case, we use ser when something generally can't move around, and estar otherwise. Spanish speakers should be aware that this is different from Spanish, where estar is used everywhere. Some examples:

  • O carro está na garagem. (The car is in the garage.)
  • Os bilhetes estão em cima da cama. (The tickets are on the bed.)
  • Eu estou na estação. (I am in the station.)
  • O Hotel é na praia. (The hotel is on the beach.)
  • A casa é mais adiante. (The house is further ahead.)
  • O castelo é em Portugal. (The castle is in Portugal.)

In the first three examples, we have items which are expected to be able to be in a wide variety of places over time, so their location is not intrinsic to them; therefore, estar is used. In the last three examples, we have subjects which are generally immobile, and therefore have an intrinsic location; ser is the correct option then.

I hope with this article, no one will have any more doubts about the use of ser and estar.

Photo by Francisco Antunes (CC-BY-2.0)