As the base of numerous prestigious institutions, including the European Union (EU), Belgium is considered the de facto capital of Europe. Though very small in size, the country is densely populated and is an excellent base for travel to many of Europe’s dazzling capitals.
That said, there’s plenty to explore within Belgium itself, particularly Brussels. Beautiful architecture, a rich history and an exciting culinary and beer culture are just a few of the highlights of the Belgian expat experience. The country’s diverse population is primarily made up of three language groups – French, Dutch and German – making Belgium a true melting pot of cultures, much like Europe as a whole.
This guide provides a crash course on moving to Belgium, from information about visas, accommodation and healthcare, to tips on cultural and business etiquette.
EU, EEA and Swiss nationals don’t need a visa to enter Belgium, and are also free to take up employment. However, if planning on staying for longer than 90 days, they’ll need to register their intent to do so with their local commune shortly after arriving.
Nationals of other countries must apply for a tourist visa for visits of 90 days or less. This doesn’t grant the right to work, though, and those taking up a job and staying in Belgium for the long term will need a work permit, along with a residence permit. Applicants will need to have a job in hand before applying for a work permit.
It’s easy to find accommodation in Belgium – though those moving to Brussels may find the process a bit more challenging due to high demand.
Expats can hire an estate agent to help them find their ideal home or otherwise use internet property portals or newspaper listings. Most accommodation is in the form of houses or apartments, which are usually rented unfurnished.
There are several types of leases with different lengths: three years, nine years, long-term (more than nine years) and lifetime. Many expats opt for a three-year lease for its comparatively shorter period of commitment, though in some cases a nine-year lease may actually be more flexible. A deposit is required to secure the rental, and is usually equivalent to two to three months of rent. Utility bills are paid by the tenant as an additional expense and are well known to be particularly pricey in Belgium.
Belgium offers a good standard of public education. From the ages of six to 18, schooling is compulsory and free for expats and locals alike. However, the language barrier can be a challenge in some cases, as public schools teach in French, Dutch or German, depending on their location. A handful of public schools teach in a second language for a few hours each week or have special classes for new arrivals – though it’s worth mentioning that any bilingual element in public schools is often geared towards fostering competency in a second local language, rather than English.
International schools are a popular alternative option for expat parents. These schools offer foreign curricula, giving children a globally recognized education and a sense of continuity. However, these schools tend to have high fees and many are oversubscribed, making it difficult to secure a spot. For this reason, it’s best to start applications as early as possible.
The weather in Belgium is largely characterized as being cool and wet. It rains frequently, but not heavily, year-round.
Winter brings cool weather that rarely drops to freezing temperatures, though this is more likely to occur at higher altitudes. During winter, the sun isn’t often seen due to cloud cover – there’s an average of only two hours of sun a day.
In summer, it’s warmer but still mild with the mercury tending not to stray far from 50˚F (20˚C). Though this is a sunnier time of year, it’s also the rainiest period, with afternoon thunderstorms being commonplace.
Though Belgium is a relatively small country, it contains a multitude of complex cultures. The population is largely comprised of two main groups: the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north, and the French-speaking Walloons in the south. Both groups take a great deal of pride in their community, and it’s said that locals identify as Flemings or Walloons first and Belgians second.
There is also a small but prominent German-speaking community in the east of Belgium.
Belgium has three official languages: French, German and a local variant of Dutch, known as Flemish. These tend to be geographically bound, and it’s important to be aware of which language to speak where. If expats get their languages mixed up and speak the wrong one in the wrong region, this can cause great offence. So if at all unsure, it’s best to speak English, at least initially. English proficiency is generally good throughout Belgium, so there shouldn’t be any communication barriers.
Though many things are on the pricy side in Belgium, food and eating out isn’t one of them. This is just as well, as there’s plenty to explore in the country’s diverse, flavorful cuisine. Deep-fried delights are a favorite among expats and locals alike, and many can be found at any of the nation’s ubiquitous “fry shacks”, known as friteries or frietkot.
Frites (fries) are considered by many to be the national food and are traditionally twice fried before being served with mayonnaise. They can be eaten on their own (often in a takeaway cardboard cone) or as part of a main dish, such as the iconic moules frites (mussels and fries). Other types of seafood, such as fish, shrimp and eel, also feature prominently in the Belgian diet, along with beef and game meat.
The country also has a definite sweet tooth, as evidenced by its world-renowned chocolate and waffles. The latter comes in many varieties – the two most popular being Brussels and Liège waffles, which can be differentiated by their shape and texture. Brussels waffles are rectangular with a light, crisp texture, while Liège waffles are denser and have uneven edges.
Belgium is home to a wide range of restaurants, with just about every cuisine imaginable represented. So expats craving some sushi or just a good old hamburger shouldn’t have trouble finding their favorite food.
Beer lovers will be right at home in Belgium, one of the beer capitals of the world. In fact, the country’s beers are recognized as so essential to its culture that UNESCO includes Belgian beer in its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Expats should note that Belgian beer can pack quite a punch so it’s best to go slow. Also, beer isn’t drunk from the bottle, but rather from a glass specific to the brand of beer being consumed.
Belgium’s public holidays reflect the country’s predominantly Christian cultural makeup. There are ten official public holidays, though employers may grant leave for certain other important days of celebration, such as the regional days specific to French-, German- and Dutch-speaking areas.
New Year's Day – 1 January
Easter Monday – March/April
Labor Day – 1 May
Ascension Day – May/June
Whit Monday – May/June
National Day – 21 July
Assumption Day – 15 August
All Saints' Day – 1 November
Armistice Day – 11 November
Christmas Day – 25 December
The telecommunications industry in Belgium is advanced, so it should be easy for new arrivals to keep in touch with loved ones back home. Bundled packages, consisting of internet, mobile, landline and television services, are becoming increasingly popular and are generally good value for money.
In line with recent global trends, Belgium’s use of landlines has seen a steady decline while mobile usage has risen sharply. There are three mobile providers: Proximus, Orange Belgium and BASE. Prepaid and contract options are available, with most expats preferring to take out a contract. Certain documents, such as a passport and proof of address, are needed to do this.
More than 85% of Belgium’s population has internet access, with services being fast and reliable. From home broadband and ADSL, to public WiFi hotspots and internet cafes, getting connected is easy. There are more than 20 providers to choose from, including Proximus, Orange Belgium, Scarlet and Telenet.
The national mail service is operated by bpost. Postal services are generally fast, efficient and reliable, with the majority of local mail being delivered within 24 hours. Several international courier services also have a presence in Belgium, such as FedEx and DHL.
The service industry is Belgium’s strongest, with 80% of the country’s labor force working in this sector. Manufacturing comes in as the second most lucrative industry, with machinery, metals, and chemicals being top exports. Though jobs are generally scarce, expats should keep an eye on industries with skill shortages – currently, the IT and engineering industries are in need of workers.
EU citizens automatically have the right to work in Belgium, while non-EU citizens require a work permit to do so. This makes it harder for non-EU citizens to find work in Belgium as employers are unlikely to go through the bureaucracy of work permit applications. Possessing specialized skills and the ability to speak a local language will boost one’s chances of being hired.
Income tax is charged at a progressive rate from 25 to 50%. Expats living in Belgium for less than six months per year are not considered residents for tax purposes and will only pay tax on locally earned income, while those in the country for more than six months a year will need to pay tax on their worldwide income.
Due to the cold climate and high cost of living, Belgium isn’t typically thought of as a retirement destination. That said, the country’s high quality of life makes it an attractive option for those who can afford it. There aren’t any specific visas available for retirement, so expats will need to obtain residency through another route, such as investment.
Business etiquette in Belgium varies depending on the region, with differences being most noticeable in business structures. In Wallonia, companies have a clear hierarchy, while workplaces in Flanders have a more egalitarian feel with a flat structure.
Likewise, communication styles differ between the two groups. Flemings favor a direct, logic-based approach, in contrast with the less direct communication style of the French. However, both groups are serious when it comes to doing business and humor doesn’t tend to feature, so breaking the ice with a joke might not have the desired effect.
Throughout Belgium, business is conducted in a formal manner, with punctuality and sincerity being valued. To make a good impression, arrive in time for the meeting. Presentation is important to Belgians, so expats should be sure to make an effort with their appearance.
Dress should be stylish but conservative – a dark suit is standard. Belgians are well-known for being skilled negotiators, though they will often insist on some form of compromise, whether it’s significantly beneficial or not. Though this can slow down proceedings, it is imperative not to rush the process as doing so could cause the whole deal to fall through. There may be the occasional business lunch – Belgians value meals as a time for enjoyment, though, so expats should avoid initiating business-related topics.
These kinds of discussions are typically only begun when coffee is served.
Thanks to Belgium’s compact size and well-developed public transport system, it’s relatively easy to get around. The most common form of long-distance travel is by train, though trains are also used for shorter distances, along with buses. Some cities also have a tram system, while Brussels is home to the country’s only metro system. Overall, Belgian public transport is clean, efficient and reliable.
Roads throughout Belgium are generally well-maintained and in good condition. Citizens of EU countries can drive on their home license while those from outside the EU will need an international driving permit. It’s a good idea for expats planning to drive to familiarize themselves with a document known as “the Highway Code” as any violations can lead to fines or even jail time.
Belgium’s official currency is the euro (EUR), subdivided into 100 cents. Money is available in the following denominations:
Belgium’s financial services are advanced and it’s easy to open a bank account – some banks don’t require much more than a passport, and in some cases, there is even the option of opening an account online before moving to Belgium.
Most large international banks have a presence in Belgium, and there are also a number of good local options, such as Belfius, BNP Paribas Fortis, ING Bank and KBC Bank. Banking services are usually available in English as well as local languages.
Belgium, in general, and Brussels especially, can be an expensive place to live, though it’s still a great deal cheaper than other European capitals such as Zurich, London and Copenhagen. However, Belgium’s high taxes mean that salaries don’t go as far. Expenses such as rent, utilities and international school fees are likely to take up a significant portion of monthly earnings, leaving little for extras.
That said, public transport is well-priced and food is affordable, even eating out at restaurants. Most feel that the high quality of life in Belgium is worth the effort of making one’s salary stretch and budgeting carefully.
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