Using "cómo es que/cómo que" for "how come/what do you mean?"

To ask "How come/why something is happening/has happened]?" we often use:

¿Cómo es que [+ sentence]?

For example:

¿Cómo es que tu marido no viene contigo?How come your husband is not coming with you?

¿Cómo es que te queda tan poco dinero? Ayer tenías en el banco 500 euros.How come you have so little money? Yesterday you had 500 euros in the bank.

¿Cómo es que os vinisteis a vivir aquí tan lejos?Why have you come to live here, so far away?

¿Cómo es que le han ofrecido el trabajo al flojo de Arturo?How come they offered the job to lazy Arturo?

¿Cómo es que llevas hoy tanto maquillaje, si tú nunca te maquillas?How come you are wearing so much make-up today, when you never wear make-up?

Like in English, this is generally used in situations where the speaker finds something surprising, unusual or difficult to understand. 

Bear in mind that in Spanish it doesn't work as a stand-alone sentence like in English.

For example:

-Mi coche lleva en el garaje una semana...
My car has been in the garage for  a week...

In English you could respond by asking:

How come?

in Spanish this would be incorrect:

¿Cómo es que?

What we can say for example is:

¿Si? ¿Y eso?
I see, why's that?

You will also often hear with the same meaning as before:

¿Cómo es eso que...?

For example:

¿Cómo es eso que no os dejaron entrar en el pub?How come they didn't let you in the pub?

¿Cómo es eso que ya no vienes a la fiesta?How come you're not coming to the party any more?

Remember:

Cómo always has a written accent. 

It's always used with the indicative.

Note that there are other less idiomatic but similar structures that can be used with the same purpose, although these do use the subjunctive, for example:

¿Cómo es posible que tu coche lleve en el garaje una semana?How come/how is it possible that your car has been at the garage for a week?

¿Cómo puede ser que te quede tan poco dinero?How come/how is it possible that you have so little money left?

 In a very similar way than "cómo es que" we also use:

¿Cómo que [+ sentence]?

This is used when a person reacts in a negative way to a statement said by another person. For example, imagine a daughter says to her father:

Papá, mañana me voy a vivir con mi novio.
Dad, tomorrow I am going to go to live with my boyfriend.

Her dad, negatively surprised, reacts by saying:

¿Cómo que te vas a vivir con tu novio? ¡Tienes solo 15 años!What do you mean you're going to live with your boyfriend? You're only 15!

Here are other examples using "cómo que":

¿Cómo que te has gastado ya los 30 euros que te di?What do you mean you already spent the 30 euros I gave you?

¿Cómo que no vas a venir a mi fiesta de cumpleaños? Tú me dijiste que contara contigo.What do you mean you're not coming to my birthday party? You told me I could count on you.

¿Cómo que yo tengo la culpa de todo esto? What do you mean I am to blame here?

Remember, when using cómo que:

Cómo always has a written accent. 

It is always used with the indicative.

There is a very similar way to express surprise/disbelief  Using que at the beginning of a question to express disbelief (without a written accent)

See also Using "anda, anda que, anda que no" for surprise, encouragement, emphasis (interjections)

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Examples and resources

¿Cómo que no vas a venir a mi fiesta de cumpleaños? Tú me dijiste que contara contigo.What do you mean you're not coming to my birthday party? You told me I could count on you.
¿Cómo puede ser que te quede tan poco dinero?How come/how is it possible that you have so little money left?
¿Cómo es eso que ya no vienes a la fiesta?How come you're not coming to the party any more?
¿Cómo es que le han ofrecido el trabajo al flojo de Arturo?How come they offered the job to lazy Arturo?
¿Cómo es posible que tu coche lleve en el garaje una semana?How come/how is it possible that your car has been at the garage for a week?
¿Cómo es eso que no os dejaron entrar en el pub?How come they didn't let you in the pub?
¿Cómo que te vas a vivir con tu novio? ¡Tienes solo 15 años!What do you mean you're going to live with your boyfriend? You're only 15!
¿Cómo es que te queda tan poco dinero? Ayer tenías en el banco 500 euros.How come you have so little money? Yesterday you had 500 euros in the bank.
¿Cómo es que os vinisteis a vivir aquí tan lejos?Why have you come to live here, so far away?
¿Cómo que yo tengo la culpa de todo esto? What do you mean I am to blame here?
¿Cómo es que tu marido no viene contigo?How come your husband is not coming with you?
¿Cómo es que llevas hoy tanto maquillaje, si tú nunca te maquillas?How come you are wearing so much make-up today, when you never wear make-up?
¿Cómo que te has gastado ya los 30 euros que te di?What do you mean you already spent the 30 euros I gave you?
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