If you are an EU citizen then you can work in Belgium without a visa or work permit. Citizens of Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein or Iceland do not need work permits but they will need to register if they stay for more than 90 days. Citizens from any other country will need a long-term visa and a work permit. All self-employed foreign nationals must have a professional card allowing them to practice for up to five years.
Belgium is a federation of three different regions with three official languages: Flanders in the north (speaking Dutch), Brussels (official languages Dutch and French, but most people just speak French), and Wallonia in the south (speaking French). German is spoken in the south-east. There is one law covering the entire country, but requirements and procedures can be different from region to region.
All permanent residents must pay income tax. You will also be required to register with the social security system.
Belgium has low unemployment but also a large demand for skilled workers in a diverse range of sectors. The government has a website for ‘bottleneck professions’ – areas where skilled workers are in demand.
Ninety percent of job listings will require either French or Dutch. English is widely spoken, but if you don’t have a conversational grasp of at least one of the official languages then your best bets are a job in an international company, the IT sector, or an employer with a lot of international engagement. Brussels has a lot of opportunities for English speakers with NATO or EU institutions.
The legal working week is 38 hours with a maximum of 8 hours per day, but the system is flexible to allow for overtime and other eventualities, with appropriate remuneration. Generally speaking, night work and work on Sundays is prohibited. Holiday entitlement is proportionate to the number of months (for white collar workers) or days (for blue collar workers) worked in the previous year. Either way, a complete year of service will earn four working weeks of paid leave.
There are 10 national public holidays, and all federal public services are closed on 2 November (All Souls’ Day), 15 November (King’s Feast) and 26 December.
The average monthly net salary is 2,002€. Against this: basic utilities (electricity, heating, water, waste) for an 85m2 average 136€ per month. A monthly internet connection averages 46€. Average rent on a 1-bedroom city apartment is 727€. Outside the city centre it is 603€. Average rent on a 3-bedroom city centre apartment is 1,178€. Outside the city centre it is 941€.
Each region has its own website where you can find details of job vacancies.
Popular job sites serving the whole country include:
Recruitment agencies account for about 80% of jobs found. They also have networks of contacts that extend across the regional borders. They can be searched for using Golden Pages.
Direct applications are less likely to be successful than an application through an agency.
Apply for jobs with a covering letter and a two-page CV, both written in the appropriate language. If unsure, take your cue from the language of the job description.
The covering letter should be typed on A4 paper and contain your contact details followed by three sections:
• Introduction: describe briefly the position you are applying for and where you found the job announcement.
• Body: give your reasons for applying with a brief review of the qualities that make you the perfect candidate. Sell the qualities that differentiate you from Belgian locals: skills and experiences from abroad; an international outlook; adaptability; languages. Confirm that you are legally entitled to work in Belgium.
• Conclusion: make your formal request for an interview.
Your CV should contain the usual sections, with lists in reverse chronological order, but Belgian employers like to know more about you than you might be familiar with in other countries.
Personal information: name; address; date of birth; telephone number including the international country code; marital or civil status (include the names of your spouse and children, if any); military experience, if any.
Work experience: names of employers; employment periods, with exact dates; positions, highlighting the relevant ones; key responsibilities and tasks listed as bullet points. Include every possible position you have had, including summer jobs.
Education: names of institutions; dates of enrolment; course titles. Only mention your grades if they are relevant to the job.
Language skills: your proficiency level for each of the official languages. If you have certificates, or are skilled in any other languages, mention them too.
Extracurricular activities: include every activity you have participated in, no matter at what level, with a short summary of your responsibilities. If you have been in charge of anything, say how many people reported to you.
At interviews, be punctual but not too early. Arriving more than 10 minutes early can make you look uncertain. The Belgian work environment is quite traditional and conservative, so dress formally, even for a creative or manual job. Only sit down when you are invited to do so, and address everyone by their proper name (Monsieur / Meneer / Madame / Mevrouw + surname).
You may be asked more personal questions than you are familiar with, but this is part of the practice of finding out as much as possible about you. You do not have to answer questions about religion, sexual orientation, family plans, and so on; in fact, politely declining to answer sensitive questions can show that you are assertive.
As well as the interview itself, you may be given a writing or logic test.
Follow up the interview with a personalised thank-you email. It is also acceptable to send a polite reminder if you don’t hear back after the agreed deadline.
A lot of jobs require a certificate/diploma, and if you qualified abroad then you may well need to have your qualifications recognised with the Belgian equivalents. The official body for gaining equivalent recognition of your foreign diploma is NARIC-Vlaanderen for Flanders or NARIC for Wallonia.
If you wish to travel to Belgium, you will need a passport that is valid for at least three months after your intended departure date from the country and the Schengen Zone. Your passport will also need to have been issued within the last 10 years. British passport holders are currently exempt from this, however things may change post Brexit agreements. If you are subject to the Belgian visa regime, which will depend on your nationality and country of residence, then you will need a visa. Make sure you check whether this applies to you prior to making travel arrangements.
On some occasions, you may be asked for additional documentation, such as an invitation letter from a permanent resident or citizen of Belgium, proof of lodging or a return ticket to exit the country. If you are unsure whether this applies to you, it is best to contact your local embassy to seek clarification prior to booking your travel.
You may also be asked some questions by the immigration officials, most likely regarding the purpose of your visit – for example, whether you are travelling for business, tourism, family or friends – how long you intend to stay in the country, and where you will be staying – for example, in a hotel, hostel or friend’s house.
Double-check that the immigration officer has given you a Schengen Zone entry stamp in your passport, before you exit.
If you need to transit through an airport in Belgium then, depending on various factors, you may require an airport transit visa. You can find more details about this under the visa section.
Schengen and transit visas
Even if you are planning a short trip to Belgium, you may still require a Schengen visa or a Belgium airport transit visa. The airport transit visa is for those that need to transit through Belgium to an area outside the Schengen Zone.
A Schengen Zone visa allows you to visit anywhere else in the Schengen Zone on a temporary basis for up to 90 days.
When applying for a Schengen visa, you will be required to provide supporting documentation. This should either be taken with you to your embassy or consulate appointment, or be sent along with your application if you are submitting it via post. The supporting documentation is as follows:
• A signed and completed Belgium visa application form
• Two identical passport-size photos
• Your passport – this should have at least two blank pages and three months’ validity, and must have been issued within the last 10 years
• Copies of any previous visas
• A Language Preference Form
• Proof of Schengen Travel Insurance, with a minimum €30,000 coverage for medical emergencies and repatriation
• A cover letter – this should state why you wish to visit Belgium and the details of your trip
• A round-trip flight itinerary – this should contain the dates and flight numbers of your entry and exit from Belgium, or the Schengen Zone, if you are visiting multiple destinations
• Proof of accommodation
• Proof of civil status – this could be your marriage certificate, children’s birth certificates, spouse’s death certificate etc.
• Proof of sufficient financial means for the period of your stay in Belgium – the Belgian Immigration Office estimates this at around €95 per day if staying in a hotel, and €45 for less expensive accommodation
Business visas are available for business people who wish to participate in activities that are related to business in Belgium. For this visa, you will typically need supporting documents, such as:
• Invitation letter from the Belgian company
• A certificate from your employer
• Business bank statement, preferably for the last six months
• Memorandum & Article of Association in original certified copy (registered with joint stock companies)
• Trade License (first issued and present renewal)
• Proof of trip financing
There are two different kinds of work visa, and which one you need will depend on whether or not you are self-employed. Read on for more information about each type, and to find out about the supporting documents required.
1) Employee visa
You can only be granted an employee visa alongside a work permit, which your employer should obtain on your behalf before you arrive in the country. You will require a medical certificate and passport photos, as well as completed and signed application forms. You will also need to provide a criminal records disclosure covering the previous year.
2) Self-employed visa
Before you can even apply for a self-employed visa, you will need authorisation from the Federal Public Service for Economy, SMEs, Self-Employed and Energy. This comes in the form of a “professional card” (a.k.a. carte professionnelle or beroepskaart), which you can request from the Belgian embassy. The embassy will require completed and signed application forms, 4 passport-size photos, a project plan, and a criminal records disclosure, in order to consider your request. You should also submit your CV, copies of your education and qualification certificates, and any professional references or letters of recommendation that you might have.
Other types of visa
Other types of visa include:
Tourist visa: For short-term visitors who are visiting Belgium solely for the purpose of tourism.
Visitor visa: For foreigners visiting family or friends who reside in Belgium. You may require a letter of invitation from your hosts and proof that they legally reside in Belgium.
Official visit visa: For those that are visiting Belgium to attend intergovernmental meetings, consultations, political negotiations, and official events.
Medical visa: For patients that require medical care in one of the hospitals or clinics in Belgium. You may require a medical report from your doctor as well as attestation from the clinic or hospital you are attending in Belgium.
Study visa: For those wishing to study at an educational institution in Belgium for up to three months. You will require proof of enrolment to submit your application.
Cultural, sports and film crews visa: For those wishing to attend an activity in the cultural or sports field.
Retirement visa: For those wishing to retire either permanently or semi-permanently in Belgium. You will require proof of regular income generated by property, for the last six months, and/or a recent pension statement.
Visa requirements for minors
Minors visiting Belgium for a short stay will require parental or guardian consent and additional supporting documentation, as shown below:
• Birth certificate
• Belgium application form, signed by both parents, or a family court order, in cases where only one parent has full custody over the child
• Certified copies of ID/passport of both parents
• Parental authorisation in writing to travel to Belgium, signed by both parents/guardians if the minor will be travelling alone
When applying at the Belgian embassy or consulate, the guardian or parent should accompany their under-age children.
You can apply for a visa to Belgium in one of several places:
• The Belgian embassy in your country of residence
• One of the Belgian consulates
• Your local Visa Application Centre certified to outsourced visa submissions
• The embassy/consulate of another Schengen country that has an outsource agreement with Belgium
Extension of Schengen visa
A Schengen visa can be extended, but only in special circumstances. You can find out more information on eligibility for extension on the official website.
Depending on whether you are a citizen of another European country, you may or may not require a work permit. Citizens of the European Union and European Economic Area do not need a work permit. For others intending to work in Belgium, the categories for work permit are as follows:
The A Permit is only available to foreigners who have already been working in Belgium on a B Permit. It is granted to people who have been working in Belgium for a minimum of four out of 10 years. The A Permit does not tie you into a specific job, and allows you to change employers if you wish to.
Your employer should obtain this on your behalf before you start working in Belgium. It is valid for one year and you are contractually committed to your employer and the job for this period of time.
The C Permit is suitable to those with a limited residency status, such as students or refugees, who want to take up temporary work. C Permits are not tied to a specific job or employer.
Ideally, you should register for residency straight away or as soon as possible. EU (European Union) citizens can stay in Belgium for up to 90 days, as tourists, without having to get a visa or register for anything. If you want to stay for longer and work, then you can go to your local town hall (often referred to as either a Maison Communale in French, Gemeentehuis in Dutch or Stadthalle in German) to register.
If you are an EU or EEA (European Economic Area) citizen, you and your family do not need to apply for a visa or work permit, as you are entitled to live and work through the European Union. If you are not, then you will need to apply for a residency permit at the town hall, and obtain a work permit, before you can seek employment. In saying this, in the majority of cases, you should have an employment offer first, and your employer would have already applied for your work permit on your behalf.
When you go to the town hall to register, you will need to take supporting documents with you, such as:
• Passport and/or ID card
• A rental/housing contract
• Four passport-size photos
• Proof of health insurance (EU citizens can present their EHIC card instead)
• Proof you can support yourself in Belgium (e.g work contract, pension, sufficient savings, etc)
Within two weeks of your registration, the police will conduct a residency check. Once your residence is confirmed, you will receive your residence permit and your national number, and you will be logged into the foreigners register.
Many expats take out private medical insurance, even if this is not a requirement of residence, because healthcare is expensive in their destination country or because certain treatments and procedures are not available.
When taking out health insurance, be sure to check factors such as the annual and lifetime policy limits, whether there are any exclusions which are likely to affect you, whether you are limited to treatment from specific types of healthcare providers, and whether the policy covers emergency evacuation for medical treatment.
Too frequently, potential buyers of health insurance look only for the lowest cost of premiums before really considering the specific benefits and areas of cover they may actually need. Some plans are cheaper for a reason. Often they include large voluntary deductibles on any claim you might make in the future and may severely cap the benefits received under the plan. Clients should define their needs first, establish the particular area of cover they need, then determine their annual healthcare insurance budget. Only then should they look to premium comparisons, last of all.
Do not buy a plan without studying the policy wording carefully. If in doubt, ask, and only when completely satisfied complete all application forms fully, to the best of your ability.
Important questions to ask the insurance provider:
1. Does the plan allow for cooling off periods, cancellation and then repayment of premium in full?
2. Does the plan offer “Moratorium” or is it “Full underwriting” and do you need to have a medical examination before joining?
3. Does the insurer offer a 24 hour help line, 7 days a week, available from anywhere in the world (freephone)? Most insurers now offer this facility.
4. Are pre-existing conditions excluded when joining and if so, for how long are such conditions excluded?
5. Are all and any nationalities accepted or are there restrictions which apply to local nationals? Some insurers will only take expatriates abroad and not local nationals into an overseas plan.
6. Does the plan allow you to continue cover unbroken through your lifetime? In most cases insurers will continue to offer existing clients cover year on year, irrespective of age or claims history, although premium rates charged can increase dramatically with age.
7. Does the insurer allow for any doctor or consultant or hospital within the plan? Are there any restrictions in this respect? Most international plans do not place restrictions on either hospitals or doctors, but almost all demand that their help lines are called first, prior to approval of any inpatient care.
8. Does the insurer provide for the direct settlement of bills presented by hospitals worldwide, regardless of location (or do you have to pay first)?
9. What are the insurers procedures for outpatient claims? Do these require any pre-authorization or if stated in the plan can you just pay and claim? How long before you get money back from the insurer? 14 days? 28 days?.
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There are a variety of federal and regional laws which apply to rental property, allowing you to be sure of a safe home with a contractually protected rent. Tenants’ rights are quite strong compared to some other countries, allowing longer term leases and the ability to reasonably redecorate a property.
EU law does not allow any discrimination of a prospective tenant other than for their ability to pay the rent and keep the property in the existing state of repair. Race, gender, sexual orientation and social origin must not be relevant to a landlord’s decision of whether to accept an applicant as a tenant.
In addition to rental properties being advertised in local newspapers and estate agency branches, properties are typically listed on rental websites.
A range of large family houses for rent can be found here.
A range of apartments and rooms to let in shared apartments can be found here.
If you decide to look at privately advertised properties without the services of an estate agent, take care not to accept a property belonging to a bad landlord or fall for a scam. Private landlords who own one or two rental properties dominate the rental market; more than two thirds of them will not use an estate agent to find tenants. If you have problems entering a property for a viewing for whatever reason or meet a ‘friend’ of the landlord, take further steps to ensure the arrangement is genuine and legal. If you are asked to pay a reservation fee or the first month’s rent in cash, do not pay it and walk away.
Since a Royal Decree in 1993, estate agents in Belgium have been regulated as individuals, providing a good degree of protection for consumers and an official route for complaints should any serious problems occur. Many estate agents will have a basic knowledge of English, especially in Brussels where there is a significant English speaking community living and working in the area. For newcomers to Belgium, using an estate agent to find the first property in a new country will provide a good degree of protection, financially and contractually.
The length of tenancy agreements varies significantly, so this must be clarified when visiting the property. Be sure you are happy to agree to the length of lease suggested. If you are thinking of staying six months, do not accept a three year lease, but discuss your plans to see if an agreement can be reached before the contract is drawn up.
When you have visited a property, found out all the terms and conditions of the rental, and have decided you want to go ahead, your estate agent will ask for a fee to be paid. It is usually about one month’s rent, and covers administrative, advertising and miscellaneous costs.
You will also have to pay a security deposit, which protects the landlord should you damage their property during your occupation. It will normally be the equivalent to two or three months’ rent, and this amount should be clearly communicated before you agree to take the property.
Never pay the security deposit to the landlord, either in cash or to their bank account. The estate agent may hold a client account which legally protects your money from being withdrawn without your permission. Alternatively, set up a blocked bank account in your own name with yourself and the landlord as signatories, with clear instructions to the bank that no withdrawals may be made without both signatures on the paperwork.
All tenancies must be agreed in writing before occupation commences. Three copies must exist; to be held by the tenant, the landlord, and to complete the compulsory registration of contract. The registration will occur in the local authority offices in the same area as the property is located, and will protect the tenant against the threat of eviction should the property be sold to a new landlord.
The only exception to this is where the tenant moved into the property prior to 1st June 2007 on the basis of a verbal agreement and where no subsequent request for a written contract was made; but this is a rare situation.
The tenancy agreement, or lease, must legally contain all terms and conditions.
• The identity of the landlord
• The identity of the tenant
• The period of tenancy
• The rent
• Statement that the premises will serve as the tenant’s main residence
• Starting date of the contract
• Detailed description of all parts of the rental property including gardens, cellars etc
• Contents to be included
There are two annexes to be added to the lease contract.
• The first lists the minimum conditions which any property to be leased as a main residence must meet in order to comply with the “elementary requirements for safety, health and habitability”
• The second is an explanation of the important aspects of the law on domestic leases, which will vary according to the region in which the property is based.
Neither the landlord nor the tenant should sign the contract unless they are happy that it servces a full and true picture of the agreement being made, as all terms and conditions will be legally enforceable.
At the time the contract is signed by all parties, the property to be leased must meet the “elementary requirements for safety, health and habitability” in all areas, but particularly:
• functions of the building
• structure and stability
• natural light and ventilation
• adequate locks on entrance doors
• well-lit entrance hall and stairwell
• water-heaters fitted with fume-extraction flue consistent with applicable safety standards
• no dangerous products used in decoration or construction
• safe and well-lit access to cellars and meters, electrical wiring consistent with applicable standards
• no vermin
• no abnormal damp
• no seepage
• rooms that can be aired
• windows that open
• kitchen equipped with a sink
• drinking water
• space for a fridge and a washing machine and room to use an ironing board
• bathroom or shower installed
Furnished accommodation in the Brussels Regions also legally requires the landlord to produce authorisation from the Housing Department (Service de Logement) of the Brussels-Capital authorities. The landlord must also provide proof, in the form of an attestation de contrôle, of regular inspections of the individual heating systems (every 2 years), the electrical wiring (every 5 years), gas fittings and fixtures (every 2 years) and extraction flues for fumes and smoke (every year).
Should the property fall short of these requirements in any respect, the tenant may ask for the contract to be dissolved, with a request for any appropriate damages. Alternatively, the tenant could ask for works to be carried out to rectify the problems, and in this situation a court could reduce the tenant’s rent until the repairs are completed.
The rent cannot be increased during the term of the rental agreement, except in exceptional circumstances and for which full written explanation is given. The rent can be indexed to inflation once a year, but no more frequently.
It is the tenant’s responsibility to keep the property in good condition whilst living there. Any repairs needed after damage or neglect has occurred may be charged against the security deposit and possibly through further legal action if the sums are significant. Normal routine repairs which have not been caused by the tenant – such as a leaking pipe – are the responsibility of the landlord to fix.
The landlord is required to hold building insurance on the property, so that in the event of flood or fire damage the property will be fixed. It is the tenant’s responsibility to obtain insurance for contents though; if you have not taken any out then the same flood or fire could destroy all your possessions and you would be left without recompense.
If the owner wants to terminate the rental lease early, a full six months’ notice must be given. If the tenant wants to leave, a full three months’ notice must be given. This would be done by sending a registered letter which must be signed for by the recipient, and must have been received before the three month deadline is reached. There may still be a financial penalty to pay. In the event that you decide to leave and do not give statutory notice or pay the penalty, you will be legally obliged to pay the rent for the rest of the lease term.
If you are an EU citizen who has lived in Belgium for three months or longer, under EU law you are treated equally to Belgian citizens when making an application for social housing via a housing association. However, with a small rental market and years of underinvestment in social housing, waiting lists in Belgium for permanent homes in the social housing sector are long.
There are no restrictions on the purchase of Belgian property by foreign owners, even if they are non-residents, so if you are in the right financial position it would be possible to buy your new home before relocating to Belgium. Properties can be purchased directly from an owner, but many people prefer to engage the services of an estate agent to show them round a range of appropriate homes offered for sale and to act as an intermediary party through the purchasing process.
More than 7 in 10 Belgians own their own home, which is quite high by European standards, so if you are hoping to rent your Belgian property out at some point in the future you will have to carefully consider popular locations for rent before you buy.
Property in Brussels is cheaper than many other capitals in the north of Europe, but expats tend to prefer to live in the more expensive areas of the city; the European district is especially popular despite the cost. Partly this is because expat average incomes are higher than the average wages of native Belgian residents so they can afford to live in a more expensive district, but also expats in Brussels are reputed to live and socialise together to the general exclusion of friendships with local people which means they cluster in the same neighbourhoods.
Consisting of over 100,000 people, the EU expat community makes up 10% of the entire population of Brussels; in 2013 the president of the European liaison office presented the findings of a survey which suggested expats find Brussels dirty and unsafe (especially for women), and that the community lived as a bubble with little friendship with other residents. But the expats also reported that they felt Brussels was a pleasant place in which to live. A property purchase in an area of Brussels popular with expats is probably a sound investment, at least for the medium term.
Fixed and variable rate mortgages are available, and loans typically last for 10 years. Homeowners with a mortgage are eligible for a tax break of up to €2,000, although a number of circumstances determine an individual owner’s allowance. There are a wide variety of financial institutions that offer mortgages in Belgium, so it is best to shop around to find the product which is right for you.
The estate agency (or real estate) profession in Belgium became regulated by Royal Decree in 1993, and the regulatory framework was updated following a review in 2013. It is the individual (self-employed) estate agents who are regulated and officially registered – and are therefore members of the IPI or BIV – and not the agencies through which they may attract business.
Belgium introduced regulation of the profession to enhance consumer protection and facilitate improvement across different domains of regulatory control, such as prevention of fraud, energy efficiency certification, rental legislation, anti-discrimination policy, anti-money laundering policy, etc. Estate agents are involved in a broad range of complex activities and often collect the mandatory information (soil certificate, energy performance certificate etc) required for the sales file. They must hold professional liability insurance, including a security deposit, and insurance to protect money and other valuables held for third parties.
Anyone who wishes to become a registered estate agent must show they have received a good standard of education, with a minimum of a bachelor’s or master’s diploma (level 6) usually required. They take a competence test, and must complete a one year training period. Ongoing training is mandatory. Despite the level of regulation, Belgium has over 9,000 registered estate agents working across the country, with many more working in a support capacity for the industry.
If you are unhappy with the service you receive from an estate agent in Belgium, especially if you believe they have broken the regulatory codes of practice, then a complaint can be made to IPI/BIV. This can lead to a caution, reprimand, temporary suspension or deregistration from the profession.
Whilst there are no fixed rates determined by the regulatory body or industry because it is illegal to do so under European legislation, in practice the normal fee charged for selling a property is 3%; this may be higher for properties of low value. The seller will only sign a contract with one estate agent to act on their behalf, so no others will be able to advertise the property unless the contract with the first agent is terminated.
Once you have found a property you wish to purchase, you may be asked to put an offer to buy in writing. This ties the buyer to the purchase, though the seller can still leave at this point. Like all contractual documents, it must be written in French or Dutch and be understood by all the parties even if a translator’s services are required.
If the sale proceeds both parties sign a contract known as a “compromis de vente” or “verkoopcompromis”. This legally requires you to purchase the property as long as the seller acts in good faith, and you will normally be asked to deposit 10% of the purchase price into a client (or escrow) account.
If you are buying the property with a mortgage, the lender will usually ask for a valuation survey to be carried out; this will be mandatory and at your own expense. It is not the same as a structural survey, although a valuation survey does check the main points of the property are sound so that the value will be maintained in the foreseeable future.
Once the solicitors have completed all processes on behalf of the parties, the deeds will be signed and you can move into the property. Within four months of the deeds being signed, they must be lodged with the local registry, along with payment of the registration tax.
The buyer will be required to pay a range of significant costs through this process. 0.2%-0.6% will be paid to the estate agent, with a further 0.2%-4% due to the solicitor handling the purchase. The registration tax is 10% in Flanders and 12% in the rest of the country, although properties less than two years old will attract VAT of 21% instead of the registration tax.
Solicitors in Belgium will be registered with a regulatory body according to their location of practice and language. Solicitors in Antwerp will be registered with the Orde van Advocaten Antwerpen. A Flemish solicitor, or ‘advocaat’, in Brussels, will be registered with the Nederlandse Orde van Advocaten bij de Balie te Brussel. A Walloon ‘avocat’ in Brussels will be registered with the Ordre Francais des Avocats au Barreau de Bruxelles.
Solicitors charge for their services in respect of property purchases according to the value of the purchase, under fixed rates set by the local region. In common with many other European countries, rates are determined by the proximity of the solicitor’s firm to the law courts and by the professional level of the person undertaking the work; for house sales a percentage rate is normal. You should have received all information relating to charges in a clear written format before you sign the contract with the solicitor allowing them to work on your behalf.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office have compiled a list of lawyers based in Belgium, as prepared by the British Consulate in Brussels. Whilst the list is short, it provides a starting point as the firms listed have experience of working on behalf of expat clients.
Chambers and Partners also provide a list of law firms based in Belgium.
Once you own your new property, you will be responsible for paying the annual property tax due on the property; even if the property is let out to tenants you remain legally responsible for paying the property tax. It is charged on a calendar year basis (1st January to 31st December) each year.
The amount charged for property tax is complicated to calculate, as it involves the regional tax rate with provincial and district additions, and each district defines its own percentages.
Under some circumstances the property tax charges can be reduced, should you meet the qualifying circumstances. These include a 10% reduction for a disabled person, a reduction for a ‘small’ dwelling subject to a number of conditions, and a regionally specific reduction for those with children in the household. Deductions also exist for energy saving new build homes which meet strict criteria.
Once you have registered to vote with your local municipality, it becomes compulsory to vote in each election. Whilst this may act as a deterrent for some to register, it can also be seen as an opportunity to have some input into your new community.
Consider if you want (or are able) to transport your belongings yourself or whether you will need the services of a removals company that deals with international moves. Unless you are travelling very light, or making a fairly short move by road, you will probably need professional help to ship your possessions. Ask for quotes from several companies first, ensuring that they visit your home to carry out a survey of your requirements. It may be worth paying extra for the removals firm to pack your possessions for you, particularly if they are going to be transported to a distant country and need special protection for the long journey. Make sure you bring to their attention anything fragile or precious that needs particularly careful wrapping and packing.
Before agreeing to a quotation, ensure that you are fully aware of exactly what is covered in the price, and that the service to be provided meets all of your requirements. For example, does the service include both packing and unpacking of your household effects? What about disassembling and reassembling of furniture? If you are planning to put anything into storage in your destination country while you find accommodation, does the price include final delivery and unpacking at your home, or will you need to arrange collection of the items? Obtain a firm estimate of the likely arrival date of your items and obtain contact details for any agents that will be dealing with the removal in your destination country. Ensure that the removals company is aware in advance of any practical considerations such as the lack of an elevator to your apartment, or likely parking problems.
If using a removals company, you may be required to take out their insurance cover for your possessions. Whether or not this is the case, ensure that you have adequate insurance for anything of actual or sentimental value that could get lost or damaged during the move. Take the time to accurately complete or check an inventory of your possessions to be moved, as this will form the basis for any insurance claim for losses or damages. Find out if insurance is included in the price quoted by the removals company, or whether you are required to pay extra for this.
The removals company should arrange any customs and importation documents on your behalf, but if you are arranging the move independently you will need to find out what documents are required and what import duties and taxes are payable (and whether you are eligible for exemption from these).
Make sure that you set aside the important documents you will need for the journey, such as passports and air tickets, and keep these easily accessible in your hand luggage.
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QUICK LINK: Belgium health insurance
Belgium runs a two-tier system, with both state-funded and private providers. The state system is run by the federal government, but there are ministers for health in both the federal and the regional governments.
You have to pay contributions to the health system, or make sure that your employer pays them for you. A close watch is kept on this and companies are taken to court in Belgium for failing to make contributions for their employees: it is taken very seriously by the government.
The Belgian health insurance system works on a reimbursement scheme, rather than being free at the point of delivery.
Doctors work both privately and in the public sector: most work in the public sector, with some dividing their working time between the two systems. Hospitals, however, are almost all private and are governed by universities, religious institutions or the state insurance sector itself.
The Belgian healthcare system is currently undergoing an overhaul, in order to reduce the tax burden on employees. VAT has been added to cosmetic surgery that is undertaken from patient choice rather than as a result of accidents and emergencies.
Whether you are employed in Belgium by a company, or are self-employed, you will be eligible for state health insurance. It is mandatory to be registered with the health system, and your employer is also legally obliged to make contributions.
Belgium has healthcare agreements with over 20 non-EU nations, including the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan. If you are from these countries and making contributions, you will have the same healthcare rights as Belgian citizens.
If you are employed by a company, then they must arrange healthcare for you. You must arrange it yourself if you are self-employed. In either case, you will have to sign up with the social security office first, either in person or through your workplace. This will cover both you and your dependents, and you can choose your own provider. Most providers are open to everyone, although a few are restricted to members of particular professional, political and religious groups.
You can also choose which medical practice to go to. Check if your doctor works in the state or the private sector, or both; there is usually a notice in the waiting room. If your doctor is a state medic – a ‘fund’ doctor – then their fees will be set by the state and they are not legally allowed to charge more.
Once you have signed up, you will be sent a health insurance card, which used to be known as the Carte SIS but is now the eID, and you will need to take this to a clinic or hospital to claim your costs back.
It is possible to see a specialist without a doctor’s referral, but most people choose to go through their GP. You will also be entitled to visit an emergency room, but you might have to pay a small fee which is non-refundable. You must take your EHIC card, if you have one, or your eID with you, otherwise you won’t be eligible for reimbursements.
In 2002 Belgium adopted the Euro as its national currency, becoming one of 19 countries to do so. The Euro replaced the Belgian franc, which had been the national currency since Belgium’s independence in 1832. There are one hundred cents in one Euro; notes are denominated in €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500 whilst the legal tender in coins is 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2.
Belgium reportedly has the largest number of banking branches per head of any country in the world; for example, KBC Brussels alone has 60 branches in the capital. This is possible because personal banking in Belgium is expensive compared to other European and the US personal banking industries. Charges are levied on all bank account transactions, some ATM transactions, for access to internet banking services and for the provision of debit and credit cards. Most banks will put all the charges into one package for an annual fee, for which they will often add an additional insurance product as an extra benefit.
However, most banks in Belgium are following a branch reduction programme. Between 2010 and 2013, the average Belgian bank closed 2-3% of its branches; since then the average has been close to 5% each year. If you are considering a move to the countryside, you cannot be certain that several bank branches will remain within an easy travelling distance in the medium and long term.
Belgium has a culture based around a work life balance, so shops and banks have opening hours that are shorter than many other European countries. On Mondays to Fridays the majority of the banks are open from 9am to 12pm; they have a lunch break and then are open again from 2pm to 4pm. Some banks are also open on Saturdays for a few hours in the morning. In Brussels some branches will be open after 4pm one day a week.
Internet banking is widespread, and some banks operate entirely online. It is usually possible to cover a whole range of processes online, from opening accounts to making payments and accessing investment services.
The main banks providing personal banking accounts in Belgium are:
• BNP Paribas Fortis
• KBC Groep
• Citibank Belgium
• AXA Bank Belgium
Corruption in Belgium is at a low level and causes public disapproval where it is unearthed; an example was the high profile 2005 arrest of three public officials in Binche for bribery, misuse of personnel and inappropriate expenses, which was widely reported in the country. The financial and administration systems are generally sound, although the fairly large financial services industry in the country did get caught by the global financial collapse of 2008, with the Belgian government having to take significant action including the bail out, nationalisation and selling off of some of the country’s banks; this has brought Belgium’s national debt back up to the levels it had spent almost twenty five years reducing through budgetary discipline. The capital and liquidity position of Belgian banks is now significantly improved thanks to this package of financial support, the government guarantee of bank deposits of individuals to an increased value of €100,000, and a significant reform of the supervisory and regulatory framework. The financial systems have been largely retrenched to less risky core business activities and markets, although the banking industry is unhappy with this strategy as it leads to lower rewards.
When you are applying to open a bank account, the bank is required to check your identity and to follow regulatory procedures to ensure you are not laundering money. Therefore you will need to show your passport to the relevant banking staff, with official identification showing your place of residence. Some of the larger banks offering expat services will allow you to open an account before you move to Belgium; once you have moved to your new home, you will need to promptly advise them of your new address.
Three banks which offer an expat desk in Brussels are:
A current or checking account is called a “compte à vue” in French speaking areas and a “zichtrekening” in Flemish speaking areas.
Once the account is opened you will be issued with an pin number protected ATM card, which is usually a Bancontact/Mister Cash debit card. This means a four digit code – a pin – will be sent to you by post; you must memorise it and destroy the paper code, so that you are the only person who can input the code into an ATM or shop terminal. The card can be used to access cash from ATM machines, which are located outside each bank branch. Bancontact/Mister Cash cards also contain a Proton chip; a balance is loaded onto the chip at a cash dispenser, and then used at retail outlets up to the value of €15 as a contactless payment; amounts over this will require the pin. Cashless technology has been used in Belgium since 1995, but the Proton is falling out of favour because balances on lost cards cannot be restored and pin technology now protects all debit and credit cards across the country.
In Belgium most types of credit card are widely accepted, including Visa and American Express, but credit cards are usually only available from larger banks. Most banks offer a Visa or Mastercard to their customers; these cards require the full balance to be paid in full each month. Household debt at 60% of GDP is close to, but below, the European average; this is significantly due to the buoyancy of the housing market over the past 20 years (despite a mortgage lending regime which was prudent even before 2008) and the tax benefits of holding a mortgage, rather than debt accrued through personal consumption.
Cheques are now rarely used, and attract high bank charges.
Whilst the majority of the population will have access to online banking, a bank transfer for those without it can be done via an orange and white payment slip called a “virement” in French speaking banks and a “overschrijving” in Flemish banks. Most regular payments will be done by direct debit or standing order.
Banks offer savings accounts and these are the preferred investment vehicles for Belgian households, who tend to avoid riskier investments especially as the regulated savings accounts are favoured by the tax framework.
Most banks will be happy to give you an overdraft, as long as you can prove your ability to repay it and to pay the costs the overdraft will incur. They may ask you to provide your contract of employment or three consecutive payslips before they make a decision.
If you need to take out a personal loan, many banks will be able to offer them. As an example, this KBC Brussels website in English offers a personal loan page which explains the minimum and maximum loan limits they will consider, clear and accessible terms and conditions, and even an online calculator to show what the repayments will cost according to the amount borrowed and the term of repayment.
There are many ways of sending money from one country to another. As always, expats can save themselves a lot of trouble and expense if they do a little research and shop around for the best deal.
International Bank Transfers
For most expats, currency transfer involves transferring small to medium sized amounts regularly from an existing bank account back home into a new overseas bank account in the local currency. These may be pension payments, benefits, or any other form of income.
Your home bank will usually be glad to oblige. You can set up facilities with them “on demand” whereby you fax or call them on the phone, provide a secret code or two, tell them the amount in question, and they will transfer it to your new bank, automatically converting it into the relevant local currency. Some banks also allow you to make international payments online. Whatever method you choose, transfers normally take between 3-7 days although 1-2 day transfers are often available but be prepared to pay more for these.
You can also set up regular transactions that are processed automatically on a fixed day of each month. Many state pensions and benefits can be paid directly into your new bank abroad without going through your home bank at all. Some private pension organisations may also offer the same facility.
When you first set up a transfer of funds abroad, the sending bank or institution will ask you for various codes that identify the destination bank. Often they will ask for IBAN (International Bank Account Number), BIC (Bank Identifier Code) or SWIFT codes but don?t panic – your new bank will give these to you and they may even already be listed in your new chequebook or bank statements.
As far as charges are concerned, you will probably be required to pay a flat fee per transaction. Additionally a percentage fee is often charged for the currency conversion itself. You may also find that your receiving bank charges you for receiving the transfer. Charges vary by bank but can quickly add up – ask your bank(s) for an indication of the fees involved.
As a general rule, transferring larger sums less frequently usually works out cheaper than transferring smaller amounts more often. However, if you need to transfer regular amounts of at least a few hundred pounds/dollars or need to make a larger one-off payment (e.g. for a house purchase) you should consider the services of a currency broker.
Cash Machine/ATM Withdrawals
Thanks to modern technology, most people abroad can go to a cash machine/ATM and withdraw local currency funds directly from their home bank account. This is a useful option to have for expats but exercise caution – many banks make hefty charges for using this type of facility. You may also find that withdrawal limits are in place (as a security measure) even if you significant funds in your account back home.
You can also use VISA or Mastercard credit cards to obtain cash in this fashion and if you pay the amount off quickly and avoid interest charges then fine – but once again credit card charges for cash withdrawals can be high. Check the rates carefully.
Currency brokers (also called foreign exchange brokers) offer significant advantages over traditional banks. Firstly, brokers will often be able to offer you a better rate than your bank. Secondly, the entire process is more transparent – many banks require you to accept the exchange rate available on the day they process your transaction, whatever and whenever that may be, but a specialist broker will offer greater flexibility, even allowing you to specify the rate you want in advance.
Currency brokers are smaller companies than major banks so always check their background carefully. Ask existing expats for their own experiences and recommendations before choosing a firm to handle your own foreign exchange requirements.
A good broker will discuss all the options with you and enable you to make the best decision for your circumstances. Using a broker will typically off the following advantages:
1) Currency brokers generally provide superior exchange rates to the high street banks. The currency brokers have access to the interbank rate and do not have the high costs that the banks have. This means that they can usually offer better exchange rates.
2) Use of a free Market Watch/Order Service: This allows you to tell your currency broker your target or budget exchange rate and they will ring you if that exchange rate level is reached. As the rate moves every few seconds, currency brokers can act as your eyes and ears on the market.
3) Ability to fix the exchange rate in advance using a Forward Contract. If you know you need to convert/move funds in the future but don?t yet have the money you can reserve a rate in advance using a Forward Contract. During this period, you are exposed to exchange rate movements and therefore, a forward contract is ideal if, for example, you have agreed to buy a house and want to fix the rate now but will not be making payment for a couple of months.
Savings from currency brokers can vary from between 1 and 4 per cent on the exchange rate alone, and specialists do not typically charge any fees for transmitting the funds abroad, unlike banks which often levy expensive fees or charges. If you are emigrating and transferring a large sum of money – such as the proceeds of a property – a foreign exchange company could potentially save you thousands.
Compare quotes from leading foreign exchange currency brokers
Belgium is situated in northern Europe, bordering France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. It is an active member of the European Union (EU), whose headquarters are in the capital, Brussels. As a result of the establishment and growth of the EU and its influence and institutions, Belgium is a cultural and linguistic melting pot, and a great destination for expats.
If you are moving to Belgium, you will need to consider the ease with which you are able to communicate. Learning at least some of the local language is one of the best ways for an expat to integrate and begin to feel more at home in any country. Even a few words will make your hosts feel that you are making an effort, which can often bring a smile.
There are three official languages in Belgium: Vlaams (or Flemish – essentially a dialect of Dutch), spoken by the majority; French, spoken mainly in the west, and also predominately in the Brussels region; and German, spoken by a significant minority. Belgian French has some minor linguistic differences from Standard French, and Flemish is more substantially different from Standard Dutch.
Belgium has a population of roughly 11.5 million, two thirds identifying as Flemish. The French/Vlaams linguistic divide is roughly north-south down the middle of the country. Virtually all the inhabitants of Flanders do learn French to bilingual standard, but the uptake of Flemish by the French-speaking Walloon population is considerably lower. That said, most Belgians also learn English and at least one other language in school.
Belgium has a relatively high standard of living, and it is not surprising that there are also almost 250,000 expats living there. There are significant groups from several European nations, and also from former Belgian colonies in Africa.
Belgium is also a major tourist destination for its history and scenery, and the cuisine. The expat lifestyle is rich and diverse, and many people never want to leave.
Linguistic experts generally recommend an immersive learning experience as the quickest way to attain fluency in any language. If you are planning to go out as a couple, it is a good plan to make a pact to speak in French, Flemish or German together as often as possible. Immersing yourself in native language television and newspapers is also highly productive. You are also likely to find locals who will help with conversation in the workplace, or over a coffee or a beer, if you ask and persist.
For self-teaching in either main language, there are a large number of courses available on the internet – many free. It is better that you try to gain at least some knowledge before you go, but these courses can still be very useful for your continued linguistic development on arrival. There are also many international language schools throughout Belgium, which offer a wide range of courses in Flemish, French and German. These can be found on the internet, or on the ground when you arrive.
In Belgium it is wise to rely on your own knowledge and a good phrasebook, rather than digital translation, which tends to be Dutch rather than Flemish.
You will find English being used, or at least spoken to Anglophones, in the workplace in some international companies, but this cannot be counted upon especially after Brexit.
One very popular sector of employment throughout Belgium would be teaching English. Many international schools offer language teaching posts on variable contracts. These are available to anyone with a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certificate. Please note that it is always easier to get work in international education if you have at least a certificate in either TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages).
Rates of pay vary considerably, and if you are intending to stay long-term you need to factor in the cost of living, and your own desired lifestyle.
If you intend to teach English in Belgium, it is preferable if you have experience in teaching schemes such as the Cambridge English exams or IELTS (International English Language Testing System): the English test for study, migration or work. Some teaching experience in the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) will also be helpful. This assesses analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal, and reading skills in written English for use in admission to graduate management programs, such as the MBA.
You may also find work more easily if you are experienced in teaching English for particular sectors, such as tourism and hospitality or medical English. You are most likely, however, to find work in either public schools or private international institutions. You should be paid more in the private educational sector.
There may also be some demand for translation or interpretation services between French or Flemish and English, for instance in translating newspaper articles into English, if you have a high level of proficiency in both.
Belgium is the base for many European Union (EU) institutions, and has a rich history and a varied culture of its own. The population of Belgium is around 11,500,000, with many significant minorities. Almost all of the population live in urban conditions. Brussels, the capital, is host to the European Parliament, and to most of the EU/EC departments, making it extraordinarily culturally and linguistically diverse.
As might be expected with a country hosting so many international institutions, there is a huge expat community, many of whom are based in and around Brussels.
Belgium is officially tri-lingual: French, Vlaams (Flemish) and German, which affects state education provision, as the individual communities organize most of their own funding and manage their own systems within the national framework.
Belgian literacy rates are amongst the highest in the world, at around 99%. Furthermore, Belgium ranks high amongst OECD reporting countries on the percentage of GDP spent on education – at over 6%.
Education in Belgium is well developed and well administered, but can seem quite complex if you are coming to the country for the first time.
Schooling is free and compulsory for all children in Belgium from age 6 to 18. Children are enrolled in primary schools till age 11, and secondary schools for the remainder of their basic education. Day care for infants, and pre-school (kindergarten) ages 2-5, may also be provided free, and needs to be arranged within your local community. Whilst the tuition in state schools is provided free, parents may be asked to contribute to special projects, supplies and school trips.
University undergraduate level education in Belgium is also provided free or nearly free for all EU and EAA citizens. Other foreign nationals may have to pay fees, but these are still generally subsidised by the Belgian Education Ministry.
Primary and secondary school curricula will vary slightly, depending on the regional authority and on the philosophy of the individual school.
One significant factor in state education is the different types of school:
• Community schools – basic state schools with no specific religious bias
• Subsidized schools – both public and private, many of which will be Catholic or other denominations
• Fee-paying private schools – institutions like Montessori up to full international schools, and EU schools specifically for the children of diplomats
• Special needs schools
At secondary level there are four general types of education provided: general, technical, vocational/professional and artistic. Children with disabilities can be enrolled in special secondary education facilities.
Higher education is then provided either at a wide choice of universities, or at the various polytechnic/vocational institutions.
As a potential alternative to the state or private systems, homeschooling is recognised under article 24 of the Belgian Constitution. It is regulated by the regional education authorities, whose requirements may vary. This needs to be checked with your commune, and you need to advise them of your intentions. Your education plan must then be agreed upon, and although the system of checking progress will vary regionally, regular reporting and home visits from the authorities will help to ensure the best possible result for the individual child.
There is a high demand for private and international schooling in Belgium, due to the large expat population. A high percentage of private schools will be faith-based – Catholic, Lutheran, etc. If you are considering such an education for your children, further information can be found via the local government offices.
International schools can be found in all major cities, and these schools will specifically cater for expats and their children. Most will be bilingual English and French, and many offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP). Graduates of that system will receive an IB certificate, which is a recognized standard for those seeking further education in many other countries. The curriculum and extra-curricular activities of each school will vary – see the individual prospectus of the school for the choice which best fits your child.
A few private or international schools to consider (most based near Brussels):
• The British School of Brussels
• BEPS International (pre-school to primary)
• The European school of Brussels Argenteuil (IB)
• Montgomery International (IB)
• Lycee Francais Jean Monet
There are many more to choose from dependent on your requirements. In general, tuition fees at denominational schools can be relatively low, whilst private non-aligned schools and particularly international schools will charge much more. Fees must be established with the school itself, and you are advised to examine the small print carefully – many international schools have a registration fee, and additional capital fees for new buildings or special projects.
Further education opportunities are held to be of excellent quality in Belgium, with a number of vocational/technical colleges and universities.
Several of the world’s top 300 universities in the world are located in Belgium. Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Universite Libre de Bruxelles recently split to provide for the separate linguistic groups in the capital.
The University of Ghent is amongst the best Flemish speaking universities, and the Universite Catholique de Louvain is the highest ranked French-speaking institution. There are also several private specialist universities.
Belgium hosts a very high number of foreign students, and given the quality and depth of education in this relatively small country, anyone choosing to educate their children here can be assured that the system is well set to give them the best opportunity to excel, and enable them to fit in wherever they go in the world. Many French-speaking former colonies send their highest academic attainers to Belgium as undergraduates and beyond, to broaden their education before they return home to senior positions.