Living in Belgium: An expat's checklist of things you need to do
Before diving into the world of Belgian chocolates, comics and beer, there are a few necessities expats need to take care of from their first week in Belgium.
You have successfully braved the immigration gauntlet and been rewarded your Belgian visa. Now you’re in the heart of Europe, ready to indulge in the home of frites, waffles and more than 500 types of speciality beer.
But before you immerse yourself in Belgium’s rich history and sample its fine goods, there are a few official processes that need to be completed. Even if you've been living in Belgium for a while, there might be a few points you haven't mastered yet (just how Belgian are you?) Here is a checklist for the first 10 things you need to do after you arrive in Belgium, from the very first week after you land.
1. Report to immigration and register your address
You must first register with your local municipal administration office/town hall (maison communale/gemeentehuis) upon eight days of arriving in Belgium. This procedure only applies if you plan on staying in Belgium for more than three months. If approved, you will be issued a Belgian eID-card (electronic ID) after several weeks; your electronic foreigners’ identity card acts as your residence permit and should be carried on you at all times.
To avoid headaches, have all the right documents at hand: passport, the contract for your apartment/house, at least four passport-sized photos, and proof of health insurance and sufficient financial means (ie. work permit, scholarship, pension papers or other financial guarantees).
The registration procedure is the same throughout the country but individual communes have different ways of implementing it, so check before you go.
2. Open a Belgian bank account
Having your own Belgian bank account will make living simpler and in some cases may be requested, for example, to receive your salary or pay rent. There are many large and small banks in which foreigners can open an account (compte à vue/zichtrekening). The main Belgian banks include ING, BNP Paribas Fortis and KBC, plus there are several financial providers that offer expat-specialised services (foreign languages, for example).
To register for a current or checking account, you will need a passport or your Belgian eID-card as proof of identity, along with proof of residence. If you’re interested in having a savings account or credit card, banks will advise you on specific requirements and yearly fees.
3. Find a home
As a small country there are many viable options for those willing to commute; many rural areas around Belgium offer spacious living and close proximity to city amenities. Otherwise Brussels offers everything from cosmopolitan neighbourhoods in the city’s heart to family-friendly and green suburbs well-connected to the centre.
Whether you plan to rent or buy a house will depend on how long you plan to live in Belgium. For renters, the standard ‘nine-year’ lease is actually more flexible than short-term contracts, which can be fixed up to three years but if terminated early, a renter may be forced to pay out the full rental period. Nine-year leases, on the other hand, can be broken with three months’ notice; a penalty of up to three months’ rent applies within the first three years, after which no penalty applies.
Buying a house in Belgium involves much paperwork and follows a strict procedure outlined here. Property transactions costs are high plus a capital gains tax of 16.5 percent applies to properties sold within five years of purchase, making short-term investments significantly less profitable. However, property prices in Brussels and around Belgium are typically lower than in neighbouring countries, making the market ripe for long-term expats or investors.
4. Home basics: Connecting to utilities, telephone, mobile and internet and television
If you decided to follow the homebuyers’ route, you will need to set up your utilities in your new home or have them transferred from the previous owner into your name. There are several online websites that allow you to compare prices of electricity, gas, water and phone suppliers in your region.
To get a landline or internet in Belgium, you must first register a line with Belgium’s national telecom provider, Belgacom. A subscription activates the landline connection, after which you are free to sign up for telephone and internet services from any company.
For mobile phones, there are three main providers to choose from – Base, Mobistar and Belgacom/Proximus – although many competitors are increasingly offering mobile services in combination packages, for example, Telenet.
Television licences no longer apply in both the Flemish-speaking and Brussels regions, but you will need to pay a fee (around EUR 100 per household) if you live in the Wallonia. A tax also needs to be paid for car radios, one per car. You should file a ‘declaration’ at your local commune within 30 days (also downloadable from www.wallonie.be).
Read full details in our guide to switching on internet, mobile, telephone and television services in Belgium.
5. Signing up for healthcare
Belgium is known to have one of the best health care systems in Europe. Employees and self-employed residents are required to sign up for state-sponsored insurance schemes (or mutuelle) to claim partial reimbursements of their medical costs.
Belgian health insurance could be obtained only after you’ve received your eID-card and registered for social security. Once you are signed up, you are free to join any mutuelle; you may find some are tailored to expats, such as providing information in English.
How can you fit it like a Belgian local?
6. Job hunting
Before starting your job hunt, make sure your CV and motivation letter follows the proper Belgian format and that you’re aware of Belgian interview etiquette. You can start your job search online or sign up with agencies that specialise in finding work for expats.
7. Expat benefits
Find out if you are eligible for the Belgian special expatriate tax status. Generally, Belgian residents are taxed on their worldwide income but certain groups — foreign executives, specialised foreign staff or foreign research staff — can qualify to be taxed only on their Belgian-sourced income, in a similar way to non-residents.
There are several conditions that need to be met but those granted the special tax status can also claim partially tax-free expatriate allowances and expense reimbursements.
8. Getting around: public transport
Getting around Belgium is simplified by the country’s accessible and efficient public transport network. Its integrated train, tram, metro, and bus systems allows for quick transfers between different transport types. In Brussels, the city public transport is run by STIB/MIVB while bus transport outside the city is handled by De Lijn in Flanders and TEC in Wallonia.
Increasingly across Belgium the MOBIB-card is replacing old magnetic and paper tickets, which will be completely phased out in some areas in the coming years. The card costs EUR 5 and lasts five years, and you can load on any kind of ticket or season pass onto it.
Transport links around the country provide great weekend getaways destinations, and there are various ways to save money, such as half price return travel on weekends or a B-excursion pass, which includes transport and admission to attractions. Along the Belgian coast runs the world’s longest tram route, which provides access to the entire coastline from the French and Dutch borders. Read about the top 10 places to visit in Belgium, or Belgium's top festivals.
9. Exchanging your foreign driver’s licence
If you plan on driving in Belgium, certain foreigners are required to exchange their foreign licence for a Belgian one. If no agreement is in place with your citizen country, you may be required to pass a driving and theory test first. You can read more about licences and Belgian road rules in this guide to driving in Belgium.
10. Become culturally Belgian
Once you have successfully cut through all the red tape, it is time to let those itching feet explore the local and expat scenes in Belgium, meet the community and learn the quirks of Belgian culture. Get to know your new neighbours and meet locals or fellow expats by joining various clubs and community associations, try the top Belgian foods, and see the little ways that Belgian culture changes you.
There are many stunning historic buildings to visit and quaint, cobbled market squares to sip coffee, such as Brussels’ Grand-Place, the city’s medieval main square which hosts a daily flower market from March to October. There are masterpieces in galleries and museums like the Royal Museums of Fine Arts or the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée, which houses creations from Belgium’s most lauded comic strip and cartoon artists. The quirky side of Belgian culture can be best seen at Manneken-Pis (although don't believe all the myths of Manneken-Pis).
The best time to explore Belgium, however, is during the colourful burst of top Belgian festivals, such as the famous three-day Carnaval de Binche – watch out for flying oranages! – the biennial Zinneke Parade or the Parade of the Giants. You can also enjoy many green spaces around the city or take a bike tour around your new home.
Living in Brussels wouldn’t be complete without delving into the city’s gastronomic scene and gorging on delicious chocolates, waffles and moules frites, for which Belgium is famous. Pair that with a few of the hundreds of different types of speciality Belgian beers and you’re on your way to being a full-fledged Belgian adoptee.
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