How To Use 'Cuando'

Common Word Usually Translated as 'When'

bicycle for Spanish lesson on cuando
Ana cometió dos errores cuando compró la bicicleta. (Ana made two mistakes when she bought the bicycle.). Txapulín/Creative Commons.

Cuando or its question form, cuándo, is the Spanish word used most often for "when." It can be used as an interrogative pronoun, subordinating conjunction, or preposition. Fortunately, its use is usually straightforward for Spanish students because as a pronoun or conjunction it is used in much the same way as the English word.

Cuándo in Questions

In questions, cuándo is always used with a verb in the indicative mood, the most common type. As in the final example, cuándo can also be used in indirect questions.

  • ¿Cuándo pasó el cometa Halley por última vez? (When did Halley's comet last pass by?)
  • ¿Cuándo es Semana Santa en España este año? (When is Holy Week in Spain this year?)
  • ¿Hasta cuándo dura la ola de frío? (How long will the cold wave last? Literally: Until when will the cold wave last?)
  • ¿Cuándo ganaré la lotería? (When will I win the lottery?)
  • Quieren saber cuándo voy a dar a luz. (They want to know when I'm going to give birth.)
  • No entiendo cuándo se usan las palabras "por" y "para." (I don't understand when the words por and para are used.)

Note how cuándo is spelled with an orthographic accent. The accent doesn't affect its pronunciation.

Cuando as a Subordinator

When cuando is used used to introduce a clause (a series of words that could be a sentence but form a longer phrase starting with cuando), either the indicative or subjunctive mood can be used in that clause, the choice almost always depending on whether the action of the verb has been completed.

As a subordinating conjunction, cuando — usually translated as "when" or "whenever" — typically is followed by a verb in the indicative mood when that verb refers to something that has already occurred or is occurring in the present. The present includes referring to an event that has occurred and could continue to occur. Boldface verbs in these samples indicate the subordinate verb in the indicative mood:

  • Recuerdo cuando llegaron mis padres. (I remember when my parents came.)
  • La última vez fue cuando dos miembros del equipo fueron detenidos. (The last time was when two members of the team were arrested.)
  • Ana cometió dos errores cuando compró la bicicleta. (Ana made two mistakes when she bought the bicycle.)
  • No hay nada que hacer cuando la víctima ya está muerta. (There is nothing to do when the victim is already dead.)
  • Nadie me paga cuando estoy enfermo. (Nobody pays me when I'm sick.)
  • Come cuando tengas hambre, no sólo cuando el reloj dice que es hora de comer. (Eat when you are hungry, not just when the clock says it's time to eat.)
  • Cuando vamos a la ciudad siempre es porque hay mil cosas que hacer allí. (When we go to the city it is always because there are a thousand things to do there.)

In contrast, the present-tense subjunctive mood typically follows cuando when verb referring to an action or state of being that has yet to occur. Note how use of the subjunctive isn't accompanied by a corresponding verb change in the English translation. Boldfaced verbs here are in the subjunctive:

  • Llegaremos cuando debamos y no antes. (We will arrive when we should and not before.)
  • Mírame a los ojos cuando hables. (Look in my eyes when you speak.)
  • Despiértame cuando lleguen tus amigos. (Wake me up when your friends arrive.)
  • Vamos a hacerlo cuando seamos capaces. (We are going to do it when we are capable.)
  • ¿Qué voy a hacer cuando esté viejo? (What am I going to do when I am old?)
  • Cuando vayamos a la ciudad sea porque habrán mil cosas que hacer allí. (When we go to the city, it will be because there will be a thousand things to do there.)

Cuando as a Preposition

Although not particularly common, cuando also can be a preposition. In these instances, cuando means "at the time of," although you may have to improvise with the translation.

  • Voy a estar triste cuando insolvencia. (I'll be sad when an insolvency occurs.)
  • No he pensado cómo seré cuando adulto. (I have not thought of how I'll be as an adult.)
  • Apaga la llama cuando hervir. (Turn off the flame when boiling occurs.)