An introduction to living in Belgium
If you're considering moving to Belgium, find out why multicultural Belgium is the perfect backdrop for moving abroad, including 10 top Belgian facts.
It may be a small country in size but Belgium plays large in international scenes and consistently ranks among the top places to live in the world. Belgium’s multicultural makeup gives its capital Brussels an edgy vibe with an array of global services and facilities on offer to ease in even the newest expat.
On the surface, Belgium offers many top attractions in spades. It’s the home of the European Union (EU), a short trip to a number of international capitals, and has three official languages (French, Dutch and German) and a sizeable international community. Beyond that, it’s also famous for fries, Tintin, chocolate, and beer. For expats who are ready to embrace Belgian culture, moving to Belgium offers many new experiences.
Belgium is one of the best places to live for expats
Belgium consistently scores well in all the main indicators of good living and is good location for expats to live.
Belgium has a high life standard and ranks among the top 10 in several indicators of the OECD’s Better Life Index, with the average household wealth above the OECD average. Besides that, the international presence in Brussels is second only to New York, with some 1,500 institutions employing around 3,000 diplomats, and a base of more than 2,000 European headquarters of multi-national organisations.
For those coming to Belgium for a limited period, there is no shortage of furnished apartments, or so-called ‘aparthotels’. For longer stays in Brussels, there is a wide choice of rented and owner-occupied housing, both within the city’s 19 communes and in the suburbs, ranging from studio apartments to villas. Farther afield, there’s an equally wide choice of property in more rural residential areas, and growing expat communities in Belgium’s other main centres. Find a range of useful topics on our housing channel, such as where to live in Belgium or where to stay in Brussels, or find a house in Belgium using Expatica's housing tool.
There is also an excellent standard of healthcare in Belgium. High quality medical care is widely available, enhanced by large university hospitals. It’s also considered cheaper than the US, and shorter waiting times means Belgium is becoming a hotspot for medical tourism from surrounding countries.
It’s also relatively affordable to live. Brussels, where many expats choose to base themselves, is cheaper than other western European capitals, such as London, Copenhagen, Vienna and Zurich, according to Mercer’s Cost of Living rankings. On top of that, the country boasts a good public transport system with a smooth-running integrated network of buses, metros and trams, making it easy to go on weekend getaways around Belgium (with some weekend destinations even 50 percent discounted) or even pop into a neighbouring country. See the top 10 places Belgium has to offer.
Belgium is a country to eat, drink and be merry
When it comes to eating establishments, the country is proud of the choice and quality of its restaurants. In fact, Brussels ranks among the top European cities with the most Michelin stars. In total, the Michelin Guide for Belgium 2016 featured three restaurants with a three-star rating, 20 restaurants with a two-star rating and 117 restaurants with an one-star rating. But it’s not just highbrow dining that Belgians excel in. According to a 2012 survey by VirtualTourist.com, Brussels was the only western European city in the top 10 destinations in the world for street food. You can see the top Belgian foods to try.
Belgium is unlikely to disappoint on the cultural and entertainment front neither. Besides impressive museums, a lively theatre scene, and some of the most picturesque historical towns in Europe, Belgium has more castles per kilometre than any other country in the world. There are also a number of colourful festivals, not least the folkloric, UNESCO-recognised Carnaval in Belgium.
If you’re a beer drinker, you’ll find yourself in the capital of great an unique beers. All major cities and towns have bars of all types, from trendy lounges to old Flemish hostelries serving an array of the best-tasting and most interesting beers in the world. In fact, in Belgium, beer is even a ‘religious’ affair, with Trappist monks having brewed and sold their own beer for centuries.
Belgium is a terrific place to raise children
Expats with young families will be happy to know that Belgian daycare is one of Europe’s most extensive childcare networks, with almost all young children attending organised daycare, rated as high quality and decently priced.
Another useful group is the not-for-profit Brussels Childbirth Trust (02 215 3377), an organisation for expats that offers advice and arranges meeting groups and support for both parents and their babies and/or children.
Belgian weather and bureaucracy
By all key indicators, Belgium is a great place to live but it is not all sugar-coated waffles.
The first is the weather. An old Belgium joke says that the country has great weather – about 20 times a day. There is a significant amount of rain all year round and that can be frustrating. But it can also be overstated – if you are from the UK you’ll be happy to hear that Belgium actually has less average annual rainfall, according to the World Bank.
Second, the country’s bureaucracy can be very challenging due to a complex system of government, relationships between the different language groups and a talent for overcomplicating things.
But if you find the challenge of understanding the differences between region, language and ethnicity complicated, you’re not alone. Some years ago the soon-to-be prime minister of Belgium sung the first line of the French national anthem – after being asked to sing the first line of the national anthem in French. Oops.
The Belgian lifestyle
Still, a combination of high living standards and great international communities, schools and other organisations, plus an excellent array of choices for dining, entertainment and travel, means that Belgium more than holds its own against other major expat destinations. With Expatica.com, you can be equipped to take full advantage of the many opportunities Belgium has to offer.
Top 10 facts about Belgium
Get an quick overview on life in Belgium with these top 10 Belgian facts and read about 30 Belgian facts you didn't know.
- Belgium has three separate language-speaking regions: comprising the Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, the French-speaking Wallonia in the south and the Brussels-Capital region, a French-speaking enclave within Flanders. There's a small German-speaking area in eastern Wallonia. Flanders and Wallonia are subdivided into a total of 10 provinces.
- Belgium is bordered by four countries: to the north by the Netherlands, to the south and west by France and to the east by Germany and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. In some places the borders are extremely complicated, for example, the Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog is so intertwined with the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau that some buildings and homes are divided between the two countries.
- Belgium is the fifth smallest country in the European Union (EU): with Belgium covering a total area of 30,528 square kilometres, only Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Slovenia are smaller. It has three main geographical regions: the coastal plain in the north west which consists mainly of sand dunes and polders (low-lying land enclosed by dikes); a central plateau with fertile valleys, moors and heathland; and the forested hills, caves and small gorges of the Ardennes uplands.
- Despite its small size, Belgium is a big world export player: Belgium's exports amount to more than 80 percent of its GDP, and in 2014, according to the World Trade Organisation, it was the 13th most important exporting nation in the world, with exports worth more than EUR 400 billion. That's about 2.5 percent of the world's total merchandise exports – not bad for a country with less than 0.2 percent of the world's population.
- Belgians are civic-minded: in the last election, 89 percent of registered voters turned out to vote — one of the highest out of all the 34 OECD countries and considerably higher than the 68 percent average. The country has one of the oldest compulsory voting systems in the world.
- Belgium is largely secular: Even though Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, Anglicanism, Greek Orthodox are all recognised religions, according to the European Social Survey, more than 50 percent of the population are non-believers.
- Belgium citizens are wealthier than most: according to the OCED 2015 report, average household net financial wealth was estimated at EUR 89,057, slightly higher than the average of EUR 84,546. Work-life balance is important, though; in the OECD 2105 report, just 8 percent of workers in Belgium worked very long hours, compared to the average of 13 percent.
- Belgium's population is educated: with some 74 percent of adults aged 25–64 possessing the equivalent of a high school diploma. Belgium ranks eighth in the world for expenditure on education. Childcare plays an important role in Belgium; children can go to nursery school from two and a half years, and virtually all three and four year olds are enrolled in early childhood education. Belgians spend almost 19 years in education, higher than the OECD average.
- Belgium is a coffee hub: you'll notice Belgium's coffee culture on those grey days when people slink into the warmth of one of Belgium's many cafes. Antwerp is one of world's largest coffee ports, and Belgium is among the world's top importers of green coffee beans.
- Pay equality in Belgium is also around 50 percent better than the EU average: in 2012, the average female employee earned 8.6 percent less than the average male employee, which is a smaller gap than the EU average (16.4 percent). Although, the number of women in management positions was lower than the EU average – only 11 per cent of supervisory board members were women (compared to an EU average of 14 percent).
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