What’s the difference between tener que vs deber vs hay que?

Thanks for this question from one of our Facebook students:


Spanish Question tener que vs deber vs hay que

Follow along with the video above, then confirm your understanding with the summary below and a few additional points to consider.

Tener que vs Deber vs Hay que


These three periphrases are used to express an obligation, as in “I have to do something “, or “one must do something”.

In essence, they all mean the same thing.  However, the major difference between the expressions is simply whether or not it is directed personally or impersonally.

Both Tener que and Deber are considered personal, because they imply someone in particular has to or should do something, and they are conjugated using one of the 6 personal pronouns (Yo, tú, el, nosotros etc.). For example:

Tengo que ir =  I have to go / I need to go

Debo estudiar = I must study

Meanwhile, hay que is used impersonally, implying that ‘one must’ or ‘one should’, as in:

Hay que comer desayuno cada mañana = One should eat breakfast every morning.

For more practice, check out the following examples:

Tener Que + Infinitivo:

Tengo que sacar la basuraI need to take out the trash

Tienes que estudiar para el examenYou have to study for the test

Tienen que comprar el vinoThey need to buy the wine

Deber + Infinitivo:

Deberían hablar con sus padresThey should talk with his parents

Mario debe ser puntualMaria has to be punctual

Nosotros debemos terminar los ejerciciosWe must finish the exercises

Hay Que + Infinitivo:

Hay que estar atentoOne must be attentive

Hay que ordenar la casaOne must organize the house

Hay que pedir permiso para entrarOne must ask permission to enter

A note about the English translation of deber and hay que


Deber can mean either should or must, which can significantly effect the meaning of the sentence. After all, consider telling someone they ‘should exercise’ and they ‘must exercise’.

The difference depends on the tense used.  To express certainty as in ‘must‘ we use the verb deber conjugated in the present tense.  If we want to represent ‘should‘, we use the verb deber conjugated in the conditional tense.  For example:

Debes lavar tus ropas antes de lunes = You must wash your close before Monday

Ella debería acostarse temprano para recuperar de su resfriada = She should go to bed early to recover from her cold.


As we made clear prior, hay que is an impersonal use of an obligational periphrase, and is most often translated as ‘one must‘.

However, in English using the impersonal form has a more formal sentiment.  In English we may often use ‘we’ or ‘you’ to express the general idea, because saying ‘one’ has a ‘stuffier’ feeling.

Hay que lavar sus maños antes de entrar = One must wash ones hands before entering = You must wash your hands before entering.


For more on these concepts, our subscribers can check out these related video lessons:
Lesson 10: Periphrases of obligation
Lesson 36: The conditional

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