How to move to
Find A Job
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.
Applying For A Job
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.
Qualifications And Training
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.
Apply For A Visa/Permit
There are many websites offering advice and services related to applying for a visa to Belgium. As some of these appear to be official but levy their own administration charges for using the site, we suggest you only select the Kingdom of Belgium’s official site and the Immigration Office’s official site even though the latter in particular is very basic by modern website standards. These can be found below.
Belgium is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). Anyone who is a citizen of any of the Schengen Agreement countries (European Economic Area countries, plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City) may visit, live in and work in Belgium; although the host country does have a right to refuse entry should they have concern about illegal activity, it is rarely enforced. A passport, valid for a minimum of 30 days, will be required to enter the country, and identity documentation must be carried at all times regardless of the purpose of your presence in Belgium.
If you are a citizen of a country which is not a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, then the length and reasons for your stay will determine which visa you need to apply for.
Visa C is for those from outside the Schengen area wanting to visit for under 3 months to:
• visit family and friends
• stay as a tourist for less than three months
• travel for professional reasons
• attend short term training
• attend a cultural, sporting or other event
As part of the Visa C application process you need to:
• Apply at least three months before travel
• Fully complete and sign an Application Form in respect of each individual to travel, which can be downloaded for free. It should ideally be completed in French, Dutch or German, or in English
• Append a photograph meeting Belgian passport rules
• Your travel document, ideally a passport, which must be valid for a further three months after you are due to leave the Schengen countries (including Belgium) and must contain at least 2 blank pages
• Documents supporting the purpose of your journey, such as proof of family ties to the host or letter of invitation showing the dates and purpose of your visit
• If you are to be a paid intern, a document must have been obtained and given to you by the business you are to work for, showing they have consulted the regional authorities
• Documents confirming your arranged accommodation for the stay
• Documents confirming you have sufficient personal means of subsistence for your stay and for transit to a third country
• Information confirming that the centre of your interests will be retained in your country of origin or country of habitual residence, to confirm your intention to leave the Schengen states before expiry of your visa.
• Evidence that you have obtained suitable health insurance (the consulate can advise on the insurance companies whose contracts are acceptable) of not less than €30,000, valid across the whole territory and stay.
• Applicants intending to make multiple visits must provide evidence of the need for this
• Pay a non refundable handling fee of €180
• Pay any additional charges required for additional services
• Make an appointment with the Belgian consulate for the country you are legally residing in
• Attend the appointment, bringing all requested documents
• Agree to biometric data being taken at the appointment
• Attend additional interviews if required
• If your application is admissible, a stamp will normally be added to your travel document
• If the visa is approved, it will be issued in the form of a sticker which is applied directly to your travel document by the consulate
• You will only be allowed to access Belgium if you have received a visa from the Belgian consulate, and only for the allowed timescale before the visa expires
• If you are not staying in accommodation subject to the legislation on the control of travellers (such as a hotel), then within 3 days of your arrival you must register at the municipal administration in the locality you are staying in. You will be issued with Annex 3, the arrival declaration, which will include the date by which you must have left the country.
If you want to stay in Belgium for more than 3 months, you must apply for the correct D visa permit according to the reasons for your move. This must be obtained in advance of entering the country, and it is recommended to start the application visit at least three months before the date of intended travel.
Work Permit A - for salaried professionals. Unlimited duration. Intended for foreign workers who have lived in Belgium legally and uninterrupted for ten years, with at least four years working under Work Permit B.
Work Permit B - for employment with a single employer only; the employer must have received authorisation to employ the foreign worker. Limited to 12 months.
Work Permit C - for foreign nationals who are authorised to remain in Belgium for a limited time or on an insecure basis, such as being a student or an asylum seeker, who have permission to work for a limited time.
The Professional Card is for those from outside the Schengen area wanting to work as a self employed person in Belgium for more than 3 months.
Students wanting to attend a public or private higher education establishment.
An au pair aged between 18 and 25 who has received education at least until the age of 17, who has not previously worked in Belgium, and who will be attending a course at an approved institution. The au pair must receive at least €450 per month from the host family, whose eldest child must be no older than 13 years of age, and must receive one full day of rest each week.
Applicants for these permits will make applications to their local municipal administration if they are legally living in Belgium, whilst those who have yet to enter the country should make applications for a D visa through the local Belgian consulate.
The documents required will include
• Existing work permits or documentation confirming lawful residency
• A medical certificate
• A certificate confirming a clean criminal record
• All documents which are not in French, Dutch or German must be translated by a sworn translator
• In addition to the non refundable handling fee of €180 charged for all visa applications, there is an additional charge called the contribution for Long Stay Category D Visas
Once someone given leave to stay has resided in Belgium for more than 12 months, they may be joined by their spouse as long as both parties are more than 21 years of age and are linked together by a registered partnership equivalent to a marriage. The 12 month wait does not apply if the marriage predates the move to Belgium, or if the couple have a child together.
Citizens of the EEA who have the right to stay in Belgium for more than 3 months, with the exception of students, may bring non-EEA parents and grandparents to Belgium. The identity of all the individuals must be established, the relatives must present no danger to the public order, and the EEA citizen will be responsible for the financial maintenance of their immigrant relatives.
In common with other countries, criminals provide false work offers to individuals who wish to gain a visa for entry into Belgium, in exchange for large sums of money. Never accept an approach from anyone offering this service in any form, even if they present themselves as an official company or organisation. It may be a scam to cheat you of your money, or in the event the criminals do assist your visa application then you will have committed a serious criminal offense.
If you are found to be living in Belgium illegally, you will be subject to a ‘return decision’. This normally requires you to leave the country voluntarily between one to four weeks after the date of the decision. If you are perceived to be a threat to public order and safety, your application to stay was based on false information, or you are perceived as a flight risk, then you may be removed immediately and these circumstances may be used to justify a period of imprisonment while arrangements for removal are made.
Get Health Insurance
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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Rent Or Buy Property
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.
Move Your Belongings
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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Register For Healthcare
QUICK LINK: Belgium health insurance
In all European countries, including Belgium, you can call 112 for free (from any fixed or mobile phone) in the event of any emergency. The word for "emergency" is "urgence" in French and "spoedgeval" in Dutch. The term for “medical service” is "service médical durgence" in French and "medische spoeddienst" in Dutch.
In Belgium the emergency number 100 is available for emergencies requiring the fire brigade or an ambulance, and 101 is the number to call for urgent police assistance.
Both 112 and 100 numbers will result in the call being answered by the same operators. There is a 112/100 centre in every province of Belgium which will answer the calls from that particular area. Calls to 112, 100 or 101 are appropriate if the police, fire service or medical staff are required for a situation which is currently in progress or has just happened, especially where threat to people and property is involved. The operators deal with over 6 million calls each year to these emergency numbers, but one in four of the calls are not about emergency situations.
If you are taken to hospital by ambulance, even if it is for a genuine emergency, you will be invoiced by post. The charge will consist of a call out fee plus a cost per kilometre from where you are picked up to the hospital you were taken to.
Ambulances are run by the hospital, the fire service or private companies as determined by local arrangements, with the Red Cross providing further ambulances to supplement existing services during large scale events. An ambulance will normally be staffed by a driver and a paramedic. For particularly serious situations a Medical Emergency Response vehicle (MERV) will be sent, staffed by a doctor and nurse from the accident department at the local hospital and by a driver.
Life expectancy in Belgium is 81.1 years, and lies in 21st place on the global ranking just below the UK and just above Finland.
Coronary heart disease, lung cancer and stroke are the leading causes of death in Belgium, reflecting issues of lifestyle within the country:
• The typical Belgian resident will spend about 80% of their time indoors and heavy car use is normal, which affects the activity levels of the general population.
• 1 in 4 residents regularly smokes cigarettes; the use of e-cigarettes by persons aged over 16 years only became legal with a royal decree in 2016.
• 1 in 12 residents in Belgium suffers from diabetes; this is higher than the 1 in 16 diagnosed in the UK and close to the 1 in 10 of the US. Mostly this is due to Type 2 diabetes affecting most developed nations around the world, but there are increasing numbers being diagnosed with Type 1, especially amongst the young.
Publicly funded healthcare and social security is run by the federal government, delegated to the independent private, public and university practitioners and institutions as appropriate via the three regional community authorities. Like many other countries, Belgian organises its medical healthcare system into primary care for non urgent first line care, secondary care for immediate and emergency treatment, and chronic or long-term care for individuals requiring daily help and care on an ongoing basis.
The 2015 Euro health consumer index compiled by industry analysts Health Consumer Powerhouse concluded that Belgium has probably one of the most generous healthcare systems in Europe, although it only holds fifth place in the index because medical treatment outcome rates could be improved.
The social security card (SIS Card) was introduced in the 1980s, issued to everyone who was entitled to social security protection. It was a plastic card the size of a credit card, and displayed an individual’s unique social security number. In 2014 the SIS Card was updated to become a plastic ID Card, known as the Belgium EID Card, which now contains the individual’s social security information on a card chip.
Every adult in Belgium who works as an employee has a social security deduction made to each wage payment in addition to the tax deductions; the employer pays these amounts, which are based on percentages according to wage levels, over to the Social Security Services and Inland Revenue Service respectively. The employer also makes a contribution to the social security services, again based on a percentage according to the employee’s wage levels. Failure to make social security payments is a criminal offence. Self employed workers must officially declare their earnings; they will be advised of the Social Security contributions to make should they choose to opt in to the system. People registered as unemployed will receive social security credits.
The healthcare system in Belgium is mostly publicly funded. The social security fund is used to pay for treatment of individuals via a mutuality. Every citizen who has not chosen to opt-out of the Social Security health system will choose a mutuality, pay for treatment as required and then claim a percentage refund from the mutuality, with the social security system then reimbursing the mutuality for the cost of the refund in addition to a contracted management payment to cover the organisation’s running costs.
In practice this means a patient will pay roughly €25 to visit the GP, then on submission of their receipt will receive 75% as a refund. It will be the same when visiting the dentist. Those patients who are registered with a specific social security code just pay €1 and do not receive a refund.
Each General Practitioner (GP) or physician will be self employed and running a practice they own, sometimes on a group basis. They form local arrangements with other GPs to ensure their clients can access primary care 24 hours a day 7 days a week even during holiday periods.
Patients attending a hospital consultation will pay as they leave and be given a receipt for their percentage refund. Follow up consultations will be billed directly to the social security scheme with the patient’s part being charged for their portion.
If patients are hospitalised, they pay weekly advances for their medical expenses, which may be up to €100 a week. They pay their individual portion, which may be later refunded to some extent, whilst the rest is billed directly to the scheme.
Unlike the UK, doctors working in hospitals will often be self employed and running their own practice. Exceptions include neurosurgeons, radiologists and researchers.
Hospitals generally specialise between those providing general non surgical care, including maternity wards and emergency departments, acute hospitals which are often linked to universities, and hospitals providing geriatric care for elderly people requiring medical treatment.
Belgium takes mental health seriously and provides 68 hospitals throughout the country to provide a range of services from secure detention for treatment to group therapy sessions for day patients.
The government financially supports the production and distribution of healthcare products to be used by universities and hospitals in their research programmes.
In 2016 two hospitals in the Belgian cities of Ostend and Liege introduced robots to their reception desks in the paediatric and geriatric departments. Known as Pepper, the 140cm humanoid assistant attached to a wheeled unit can recognise the human voice in 20 languages and identify whether it is speaking to a man, woman or child.
Medication from pharmacists will be paid for by the patient to a set limit, with the social security system paying the rest. Drugs and medications can only be sold by a pharmacist, including painkillers and acid stomach remedies which many countries allow to be sold by shops and supermarkets without prescription. The pharmacy based in a hospital only serves the medical staff on behalf of patients. All companies which produce and distribute medicinal products are licensed and required to maintain strict stock control procedures.
Only a few private hospitals operate in Belgium, catering to the luxury end of the healthcare market; the majority of hospitals are funded by the state. However, a number of premium based insurance systems are available. An independent ombudsman service oversees the health insurance system, to ensure termination of the insurance and other issues are all dealt with fairly; they may refer cases on to the government’s arbitration service.
If you are a British citizen you are entitled to use a European Health Care card whilst on holiday in Belgium. This will allow you to access health care services in Belgium, pay the fees required, and receive an 80% refund from the National Health Service on your return. However, the National Health Service is a residency based system, so even if you are a British citizen you are no longer entitled to receive NHS services if you move abroad. Your EHIC becomes invalid as does your right to treatment in the UK. Access to healthcare via the social security system (through your new employer) or a private health policy are essential and should be arranged in advance of moving to Belgium.
In 2006 smoking was banned from workplaces and restaurants across Belgium, and since 2011 it has been illegal to smoke in bars and nightclubs. Tobacco advertising and sponsorship are prohibited. But one in four adults regularly smoke and smoking is not banned from outdoor public areas, so bars, restaurants and cafes will often have an outside area dominated by customers smoking cigarettes.
Belgians tend to have liberal attitudes to personal freedoms, as long as the behaviour of an individual does not adversely affect others. On 1st June 2003 it became the second country in the world to legalise same sex marriage. In the same year, anyone over the age of 18 was permitted to possess up to 3 grams of cannabis, which is deemed sufficient for personal use.
In 2002, Belgium legalised euthanasia by lethal injection for competent adults and emancipated minors. In 2014 the law was extended to allow death by lethal injection for a child of any age who was close to death. In 2015 almost 2,000 people chose to die this way in Belgium, which caused some hysteria in the foreign press but less in the country itself. More than twice as many people choose euthanasia in the Netherlands, one of Belgium’s neighbouring countries. The majority of residents in Belgium declare themselves to have Christian affiliation, especially Catholicism, and most schools are run by religious institutions, but attendance at church on a Sunday morning is low across the country, and their views on important moral issues is much more relaxed than might be expected. There are strict rules governing each request for euthanasia, although some cases do generate discussion as people’s individual circumstances sometimes raise further questions.
Euthanasia has not ended suicide in Belgium; in fact it occurs at a higher rate than in many neighbouring parts of Europe, with 14.2 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants each year. Belgium’s development of a suicide prevention public policy and strategy is recent, and is aimed to coordinate services and personnel so that successful prevention can become the norm.
The Samaritans is a not for profit organisation which distributes food on a weekly basis to the homeless in Brussels. It is not to be confused with the suicide support line operated in the UK and US.
The Community Health Service offers mental health services to expats living in Belgium. They run a confidential and anonymous phone line open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Phone 02 648 40 14 or visit www.chsbelgium.org if you are in crisis or need to access English speaking mental health services for yourself or your family.
Open A Bank Account
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.
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Learn The Language
Belgium is a relatively young independent country, having existed in its current form since 4 October 1830. Its strategic location between France, Germany and The Netherlands with access to the North Sea made the area vulnerable to a succession of invading armies. Prior to independence, the areas now within Belgium were variously small city states, part of larger empires, or ruled by other nations. Its independence has continued to be threatened on occasion; in 1914 the UK joined the First World War after German armies marched into Belgium as a shortcut to their invasion of France, and in 1940 Belgium suffered a horrifying occupation by the Nazis. Internal division is now the biggest threat to the country, with the 1994 constitutional change making Belgium a federal state reflecting the extent to which its native communities do not integrate well with each other.
Reflecting the history and location of the country, Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. The languages taught at school are French and Dutch. Brussels, the capital of Belgium, also recognises French and Dutch as the two official languages. The extent to which each of these languages are spoken will depend heavily on which region you are located in, and if you are travelling in a new area the signposts and building names should give you a clue about the dominant language used in that location.
A variant of French, Walloon, is spoken by 33% of the population of Belgium, predominantly in the southern area of the country in a region called Wallonia. This is an area which is more economically depressed than the north, with almost twice the rate of unemployment.
A Dutch variant known as Flemish is spoken by 60% of Belgium’s population, mostly in the region of Flanders, the larger and more prosperous northern area of the country.
The third region of Belgium, the Brussels-Capital region, is completely surrounded by Flanders, but only about 22% of the native population speak Flemish, with the rest speaking Walloon. The Brussels-Capital region has experienced a high level of immigration so many other languages are spoken there.
Only 1% of Belgium’s population speaks German as their first language, clustered in the east of Wallonia.
With around 1 in 10 of the residents of Belgium having moved there from other countries, many other languages are spoken which are not officially recognised. Luxembourgish is used by roughly 0.5% of the population, and other languages spoken include Italian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic and Turkish.
Belgium has increasingly struggled with its identity as a unified country where different languages and culture in the three regions are so distinct and segregated, and powers once held by central government have been largely devolved to local governments. The country does not have national political parties, which is leading to problems securing and maintaining long term coalition parliaments while politicians represent only the interests of their own region. The absence of a national newspaper or a national TV channel, with media laws determined and implemented by each separate region for their own area, means the population thinks of news and events in terms of their own region and not with wider perspective on the country as a whole.
There is no national school curriculum. The language spoken in each school will depend on the area in which it is located and the community it serves. This is also true of signage, the public libraries, the local government services, and even the language to be used in election campaign materials which are determined by law. Occasionally materials or signs will be available in both French and Dutch.
There are small areas of the country where these language issues become a problem for residents. The Belgians commonly aspire to live in a leafy suburban environment and it means some of the communities living close to each other have started to intermingle as space is at a premium in this heavily populated country. Rather than bring integration, these situations have caused some communities to feel under threat by groups of incomers who continue to speak their own, separate language and have their children educated in separate classes. It causes particular alarm when the incoming communities wish to take part in local politics using their own language. As this is one unified country, the language of the incomers is an official and native language yet the local political laws may restrict its use in various locations such as council meetings. It is a difficult issue for the people of Belgium to resolve, though the tendency has been for individuals within communities to complain quietly about it and there is little suggestion that this will result in political or social unrest.
Three quarters of Belgium’s trade is with other European Union countries, so many people will have a good grasp of English as a business language. Whilst English lessons in school are not as widely available as might be expected, and the travel and tourist industry represents just 6% of the country’s GDP, many people do speak English to a decent level. The youth culture is centred around music and films from the UK and US, and subtitled films and TV programmes are available at home, so many people pick up English this way. Anecdotal evidence suggests Flemish speakers are likely to speak English to some degree, and Walloon speakers are less likely to; in the city of Brussels a basic knowledge of English could be expected fro, the majority of residents.
It is acceptable to ask if someone speaks English. Trying to speak French in Flanders would be understood but would be socially unwelcome; it is unlikely anyone would be rude to your face but you will either receive a curt reply or the staff would make a few comments between themselves.
Belgium has excellent connections to the internet, and 95% of households have access to cable television, so access to radio and television programmes in English should not be a problem. Films in English can be screened using subscription or on demand services.
Radio X is an English speaking radio station based in Brussels. It also has a website.
English language bookshops are available in most big cities, and Waterstones has a branch in Brussels.
If you wish to work in Belgium teaching English as a foreign language, some private companies will accept competent candidates for the work even if you do not have relevant qualifications and experience. The more qualified and experienced you are, the better the opportunities available.
Teaching English in a state school will usually require a BA in English or an MA for higher level teaching.
The cost of living and taxation in Belgium is high, especially in Brussels. Teaching incomes for unqualified staff are not generous. You are unlikely to be offered a full time salaried job as most English language tutors are paid by the hour. Rates vary enormously, but are usually in the range of €18-38 an hour. Students may be native to Belgium, but many adult immigrants also take English language lessons.
Websites which may get you started on your search for an English teaching job in Belgian include:
Choose A School
It is compulsory in Belgium for children between the ages of 6 and 18 to receive education. This is one of the few areas of the education system which is laid down by the federal government and applies across each of the three regions; most regulations in respect of the education system were devolved to local communities following reforms in 1988. As an example, there is no national school curriculum.
Education is normally provided at a co-educational school near to the child’s home, with all costs paid by the state, and the constitution allows parents to nominate their choice of school for their child. However, some families choose to pay for private education, and more rarely a family decides to educate their child at home.
The majority of schools in Belgium, with the majority of Belgian pupils, are subsidised free schools. These are schools which receive public funding but are owned, managed and operated by organisations; the Roman Catholic church is a major player in this market, reflecting the 58% of the population who identify themselves as Catholic.
Pre-school is not compulsory, but approximately 90% of children will attend one. It is free to attend, and although they are usually located in the grounds of a local school the education is informal and based on learning through play. Children start pre-school when they reach the age of two years and six months; the intake is continuous throughout the year although the Flemish region restricts the start dates to six specific days a year.
Children are eligible to start primary school on the 1st September in the year they reach the age of six, and to attend that school for six years. The school day normally begins at 8.30am, breaks for lunch around midday (when pupils will eat their packed lunch or go home to eat) and ends at 3.30pm; on Wednesdays most schools end at 1.30pm. Schools will be open Monday to Friday and closed at the weekend.
Morning lessons usually concentrate on reading, writing and maths; the afternoon lessons are used to cover a broad range of creative and scientific topics.
School uniform is usually not worn except in PE lessons. Some schools (especially in the private sector) do have a school uniform policy which is strictly maintained, but these are the exception.
School terms are similar to those in the UK; with a one week break in late October for half term, a two week break in December for Christmas, a one week break in February for half term and a two week break in March and/or April for Easter. The big difference is that there is no May half term because the summer holidays run for almost the whole of July and August.
Flemish schools are required to include French lessons in their curriculum. Usually this starts at secondary school but primary schools in Brussels and near other regional borders start early in the first or second year.
Primary schools in Wallonia are required to teach a second language, which is often Dutch or English according to the school’s choice.
Primary schools in the German area are required to teach French lessons.
At the age of 12, children start secondary school, which they will attend for six years. There are four types of school programmes:
• General Secondary - broad academic curriculum preparing for higher education
• Technical Secondary - general education in core subjects plus more practical courses
• Art Secondary - broad curriculum enhanced by creative skills courses
• Vocational Secondary - Practical and job specific education preparing for work in trades
Special Secondary education courses are available for children with disabilities.
At the age of 15, pupils may choose to undertake part time specialised vocational training or an entrepreneurial course.
Upon successful completion of six years of study, pupils will receive the diploma of secondary education, although those attending the Vocational Secondary programme would require further studies to achieve this.
All schools, with the exception of pre-schools, have subject-related and cross curricular attainment targets set by the three regional administrations. A number of inspection teams visit and assess each educational establishment according to an inspection regime, and a team of educational advisors provide ongoing support and advice.
Higher education is provided by the authorities in Flanders and Wallonia; German speakers frequently attend higher education institutions in Germany. Higher education enrollment for an accredited course is offered to those who hold a qualifying diploma of secondary education, although some courses have more stringent entrance conditions, including:
• Medicine and Dentistry - must pass an entrance exam which is only held in Flanders
• Arts - organised by individual colleges
• Engineering - must pass an entrance exam for study leading to a Master’s Degree in Wallonia
• Management Sciences - must pass admission tests for study leading to Master’s Degree
The tuition costs for universities and colleges across Belgium are fixed by the regional governments, and are reviewed annually. Financial aid is available, under a tiered system, to students from families with lower levels of monthly income.
Most institutions will teach in the language usually used by the community in which they are physically based, although a small but increasing number of courses are being offered in English.
The Belgian higher education qualifications were streamlined in the new millennium to meet European norms, allowing the qualifications awarded there to be used as appropriate certification elsewhere in Europe. Bachelor’s degrees following three years of study and Master’s degrees following a further one or two years of study are now awarded by both Universities and colleges, whilst only Universities can award a PhD following the required completion of high level research.
The Education system in Belgium performs well in terms of OECD output, although the United Nations Education Index undertaken in 2013 ranked Belgium as 21st on a global list in which Norway took the top spot. There are significant regional differences which cause concern; Flemish students outperform German speaking students, and children from the Walloon area have the lowest average educational achievement for the country. Youth unemployment in the country remains worryingly high, and there are criticisms that the education system especially does not meet the additional needs of immigrant children or those from poorer backgrounds.
A number of adult education centres operate across the country to develop the basic literacy and maths skills of adults who either left school without having gained them or who have entered Belgium as adult migrants. Courses at these centres are free of charge to the participants.
Like many countries around the world, over the past few decades Belgium has noted an increase of violence in schools, especially in those serving areas of economic disadvantage or inner city communities. Incidents do regularly occur whereby teachers are physically hurt, though the offenders are usually other adults connected to a pupil rather than the pupil themselves. It should be noted that the French speaking communities use the term “violence” to describe verbal aggression normally described in English as “bullying”. Awareness of bullying, knowledge of its effect on individual development and learning, and action to reduce it in schools has been an important part of research and educational administration work across Belgium. There is little evidence that schools in Belgium are any less safe than in other European countries, and strict gun control laws throughout the country minimise the risk of serious harm to pupils both in and outside of school.
Families moving to Belgium can struggle to find appropriate schooling for their children if English is the only spoken language, since all publicly maintained schools will teach in French or Dutch. Because of this, private international schools are a popular choice with English speaking families and there are more than twenty of them with over 22,000 pupils, despite the high cost of school fees and additional charges. Expat Dawn Gillespie found the choice of international schools for her children difficult in the absence of publicly available external evaluation data or reports; she ultimately set up the International Schools In Brussels website, inviting parents to rate and write a review of schools their children had attended, for the benefit of prospective parents.
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