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How to use the present perfect in IELTS

In this lesson I look at some of the ways you can use the present perfect in IELTS. It is not meant to be a complete explanation of the tense (you’ll find a couple of excellent links below for that), rather the idea is to concentrate on using it.

I start off with a very quick explanation of when we use it generally and then show you how you can use it for yourself in the test.

A quick introduction to the present perfect – it’s a present tense

This can be a tricky tense as it works differently to many other languages. One of the best ways to think about it is to see it as a present tense – the clue is in the name!

We use it to connect the present to the past (that’s the perfect bit).

I have lived in Newcastle for 6 months = I live there now and I started living there 6 months ago.

We use it to talk about experiences

One way to get it right is to think about when we use it. One of the most common ways of using it is to talk about experiences. These are things that matter now but happened in the past.

I have worked in Egypt, Romania, China and the UK.

We use it with certain words

Another way to get it right is to see that we often us it with certain words:

since/for: I have lived here since March. I have lived here for 6 months

never/ever: I have never been to the USA.

already: I have already finished my first book.

just: I have just finished writing my first book.

today/this week etc: I have had at least three cups of tea so far today.

When we don’t use it

It can also help to think about when we don’t use it. Typical mistakes are people trying to use it for events in the past when we should have a simple past. One way to think of this is that we can’t use it with fixed time expressions from the past:

ago: I have gone there 3 years ago X  = I went there 3 years ago

last week: I have been to a restaurant last week X = I went to a restaurant last week

2010: I have started this course in 2010 X = I started this course in 2010.

The continuous tense

This one can be harder. Very often there is no real difference with the normal present perfect – it is just a little more emphatic. So

I have lived here for 6 months 

I have been living here for 6 months

mean much the same thing. But there are times when there is a difference. The normal tense shows something is finished, while the continuous tense shows it’s still incomplete:

I have read the book = I have finished it

I have been reading the book = I have not finished it

Using the present perfect in IELTS writing

Here are some examples how you can use this tense for yourself – accurate and varied grammar is important so you shouldn’t avoid it.

Essay introductions

Very often you are given a topic about a current issue/problem. A natural way to start the essay is to state what that is – talking about a present situation. Here are three quick examples:

Tourism has been increasing for a number of years now because air travel has become much more affordable.

People now use their credit cards much more often and it is possible that this has become a problem.

CCTV is now ubiquitous and this has led to concerns about how our privacy is being invaded.

Giving examples

You do of course want to illustrate your arguments/ideas with examples. The present perfect can work well here too by talking about the current situation. Three more examples:

In many countries tourism has had a beneficial effect on the economy and led to greater prosperity. For example, Menorca has an extremely vibrant tourist industry and it has become one of the wealthiest regions of Spain despite the fact that in the past it was among the poorest and least well-developed areas.

It is definitely the case that some people have fallen into debt because credit cards are too easily available. An illustration of this is how many students who are unable to live off their student loan have also taken out a credit in order to survive financially.

There is also an argument that surveillance fulfils a real function and makes our lives more secure. For example, most people would accept that the police have the right to monitor someone who has committed violent crimes and is likely to re-offend.

Using the present perfect in IELTS speaking

In the speaking test you are always being asked about your personal opinions and experiences. Here too the present perfect can help. Note that we use the “I’ve” form most when we speak. We only use the “have” when we are being emphatic.

part 1

You can use it to say more when you are asked questions in the present tense.

Do you live in the town or the countryside?

I live here in Wuhan. But I haven’t lived here all my life as I moved here when I was quite young – around 2 or 3. My parents came here because there were more job opportunities.

Note that it is quite common to move from the present perfect to the past simple in this way.

part 2

Here you are very often asked to speak about personal experiences and so the present perfect is a natural tense to use – but please note that you will be using the past to describe events that happened in a fixed time in the past

I’m going to tell you about the Giant Panda. I haven’t actually seen one in the flesh but it is still one of my favourite animals.

When did I start playing golf? Well, I’ve played it since I was about 10 – my mother gave me some golf lessons for my birthday and I’ve been playing it ever since.

part 3

Here, just like essays, it can come in useful in giving examples.

I suppose I’d say that cars are still the most popular form of transport. That said, there are more and more people in my area who’ve bought bicycles and you certainly see loads of cyclists on the roads – and the pavements!

Where to find out more about the present perfect

Get more help with grammar Read more about tenses in speaking



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9 Responses to How to use the present perfect in IELTS

  1. annabelle November 15, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Indefinite time?
    I always refer to the present perfect as the bridge between/ connecting the past and the present. Also to describe change- these are easy concepts to grasp.

    • Dominic Cole November 15, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

      I’m going to cancel the reference to indefinite time – it was an afterthought and not a particularly good one. It’s not really intended as any complete guide and on reflection it’s better without. That’s why there’s links at the bottom.

      Very much with you on the past/present thing except that I prefer to emphasise the “presentness”. I think a lot of confusion arises because of the comparison with past simple.

  2. Alex November 16, 2014 at 8:40 am #

    Thanks a lot for such a clear explanation about “I’ve lived” and “I’ve been living”. But are there some cases, when native speakers of English prefer to use one of them instead of another or they just fly by the seat of their pants?

    • Dominic Cole November 16, 2014 at 11:04 am #

      Nice idiom. It’s actually a very difficult point to teach and learn – so learning to fly by the seat of your pants could come in useful! Here are some of points you need to consider:

      the continuous is often used to emphasise the duration of something as opposed to the result (I’ve been writing a book for 6 months but I have already written a book)
      the continuous can emphasise that something is more temporary (I’ve been living in Newcastle for 6 months but I’ve taught English for over 20 years)
      state words (know/believe etc) aren’t generally used with continuous forms

    • Anonymous January 9, 2016 at 1:26 pm #


  3. Eva Ding July 10, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

    Thanks for the usuful information

  4. mani December 6, 2015 at 6:28 am #

    Thanks for such a wonderful explanations.

  5. Gasim September 15, 2016 at 11:58 pm #

    This present perfect contious ,is it could be used to answer Q about work in speaking part 1? for eg do you work or study ? Yeah , i’ve been working for x company as acountant since 2011

    • Dominic Cole September 16, 2016 at 8:45 am #

      Exactly right.

      You may try this.” I work as a am accountant and I’ve been working at xyz for 2 years.” The idea is that you start off by doing the simple thing and then add detail – you get a longer answer and it’s generally easier to do an easy thing first.

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