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I've always used мне нужно было to mean I had to / it was necessary to but today I came across мне пришлось which seems to mean the same thing. I can't find it in a dictionary but it looks like a past tense form. Google translates it as I had, but is it a common expression?

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Мне пришлось means exactly the same as 'I had to', that is, you did something because of the circumstances, you had no other way out but to do that, like in

Я не успел на автобус, поэтому мне пришлось идти пешком.

It means "I was late for my bus, that's why I had to walk on foot."

On the other hand, мне нужно было means only 'it was necessary to', but not 'I had to', мне нужно было implies the existence of an alternative, like in

Врачи говорили, что мне нужно было побольше ходить пешком, но я всё равно ездил на машине.

It means "The doctors said it was necessary for me to walk on foot more, but I still drove my car."

Пришлось is the past tense, singular, neuter gender form of the perfective aspect verb прийтись, here it is in a dictionary, the meaning we are talking about is #3: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/прийтись.

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  • Excellent explanation. Thanks. Is пришлось ever used in the present/perfect tense?
    – Echilon
    May 1 '16 at 17:17
  • @Echilon - Yes, the present tense is мне приходится 'I have to', the future tense is мне прийдётся 'I'll have to'. And I edited my answer a bit adding more info.
    – Yellow Sky
    May 1 '16 at 17:21
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    @Echilon - Hmmm, it seems like now the tendency is to write мне прийдётся as мне придётся, without the й, but the variant with й is definitely acceptable, have a look.
    – Yellow Sky
    May 1 '16 at 20:18
  • Nowadays "прийдётся" is uncommon and is considered wrong by many people, even if it is formally acceptable. At school we were taught that "прийду" is a mistake, but I don't remember about "прийдётся".
    – Lara
    May 2 '16 at 18:20
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You could translate мне пришлось as "I was forced to...". In other words, it is not simply "I had to", but with added implication that I didn't want to do this, but there was no other choice, as Yellow Sky pointed out.

"Ну дела, - подумал Лось, -

Не хотелось.

А пришлось".

   -Рената Муха

On the other hand, мне нужно было would be better translated as "I needed to...", as opposed to я должен был, which is a better equivalent of "I had to".

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