Gratis and libre both translate to “free,” but they have specific meanings. Non-native speakers often mix them up and end up conveying the wrong message.
1. Free means gratis or no charge
For example, when I was in university, the Dean of Students wanted to provide a free lunch on Cinco de Mayo for students. Without checking with one of the many native Spanish speakers on staff, he printed up flyers that said:
What the Dean of Students should have said was ALMUERZO GRATIS where gratis means free as in, no charge. The flyers went into details about how certain food items would be available for free in the cafeteria. However, what the flyer actually meant was that lunch would be all-you-can-eat. “Almuerzo libre” does not have a very good direct translation, but it basically means a limitless lunch. The phrase tenedor libre is often used in Spanish speaking countries to mean “all-you-can-eat buffet”.
2. Free means libre or freedom
While in the example of the poster libre means something closer to “limitless” it usually refers to freedom. However, you have to pay attention when conjugating libre with the verbs ser and estar.
Estar libre is a less permanent/serious thing like when your time is not committed.
¿María, estás libre esta tarde?
María, are you free this afternoon?
While ser libre refers to the state of freedom.
Lamentablemente, no todas las personas del mundo están libres.
Sadly, not all the people in the world are free.
You can also use libre as a formal way to say free of charge.
El concierto es libre de costo.
The concert is free of charge.
Check out these other articles about Spanish Lessons.