What you need to prepare before moving to Belgium
An expat needs to organise certain registrations and insurances upon moving to Belgium. Brussels-based expat Salvatore explains what to prepare in advance to ease the stress of your Belgian move.
When moving abroad, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the numerous priorities that demand attention and time. In Belgium, there are certain registrations and insurances that are mandatory for foreigners planning to live in Belgium long-term, including certain aspects that need to be arranged from your first week of arrival.
As an experienced expat with more than 12 years abroad, Salvatore Orlando, the head of expatriates at BNP Paribas Fortis, understands the strain associated with settling into a foreign environment. “I have had to set up in several countries, and it’s never easy,” he says.
Below he shares the top four processes an expat needs to arrange when arriving to Belgium – plus insight on what can be prepared in advance to make your first steps in Belgium less chaotic.
Step 1. Register at your local commune
Within eight days of arriving, any third-national foreigner who plans to live in Belgium longer than three months must register with their local town hall (maison communale/gemeentehuis) – this starts the process for receiving your residency permit.
Citizen from the European Union (EU), European Economic Area (EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) and Switzerland – and their family members – don’t require a Belgian visa or permit but still need to register with their local town hall after arriving in Belgium.
The registration procedure is relatively similar across Belgium, although communes may have slight differences in the implementation of this procedure. Some town halls are also more used to dealing with foreigners and may offer foreign languages and quicker processing times, while others deal mostly with locals and can take longer.
You will need to show a number of documents when you register:
- Passport or ID card
- A rental/housing contract
- Passport-sized photos, between two and four depending on the paperwork
- Proof of health insurance
- Proof you can support yourself in Belgium (for example, a work/traineeship contract, pension allowance or sufficient savings).
Once the town hall has all your documents, there will be a residence check by the police, usually two weeks after your visit to the commune. “Don’t forget your name on the bell,” advises Salvatore.
Once this residence inquiry is positively confirmed, you will get a Belgian national number and be registered in the population and foreigners register. You will also receive your residence permit; the best option is to get an electronic format, which has a chip. The e-card costs about EUR 25 and is valid for five years, after which you can renew it.
A tricky aspect of the registration is that you typically need to show proof of health insurance – but to apply for Belgian health insurance, you need to show proof of residency. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out both of these processes parallel, and report to one or the other that your request is being processed. If you are an EU citizen, however, you can show proof of your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Step 2. Sign up with a national Belgian healthcare insurer
Once in Belgium you must register with a state insurance scheme (known as mutuelle/mutualiteits), which enables you to access state Belgian healthcare. The registration is critical if you want to claim reimbursements on medical expenses while living in Belgium.
The whole process can take between three and six months. Once you are registered, you will receive your social identification number, which is now carried in your e–resident card.
If you are an EU citizen, it is useful to request your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) before you leave your country. Non-EU citizens who are legally resident in an EU state and covered by social security can also request an EHIC in some countries. This card covers you for a certain period and can act as a useful bridge until you can register for Belgian healthcare.
Before joining a mutuelle, you will need to present your proof of registration at the town hall where you are resident in Belgium, so this needs to be arranged first. The catch-22 situation, of course, is that you must present proof of health insurance to be registered at the Belgian town hall, but you must present proof of registration at the town hall before you can get health insurance.
However, your health insurer won’t request that you show your e-resident card immediately, so you can at least start the procedure. You will need to have your proof of your registration ready, however, when they request it later on. Thus it is important to do both processes at the same time; EU citizens can show their EHIC to avoid this issue.
You are free to register with any mutuelle, so check if any have specialised services, for example, English-language information. While there are many insurance companies to choose from, regardless of which system you choose the reimbursement is the same, typically around 30 percent refund.
Your mutuelle will also typically provide supplementary insurances but it’s important to know that there is a six-month period before you qualify for a reimbursement, so if you have an emergency – health or dental – it can cost a lot of money.
Both you and your employer must make contributions to the Belgian social security to be eligible for Belgian healthcare.
Step 3: Accommodation – rental guarantee, home insurance, inventory and standing-order payments
One of the most important steps is arranging a roof over your head. Usually it’s easier for newcomers to rent in Belgium; although foreigners have no restrictions buying Belgian property it is typically easier to learn the market before making a big investment.
Before you can finalise a rental contract, however, you will need to arrange several important aspects: a rental guarantee, an inventory of fixtures, home insurance, and some people prefer to set up a standing-order for paying rent.
It’s common to pay up to two months as a rental guarantee, however, the process is slightly different in Belgium. Rather than paying cash to the landlord, the deposit is placed in a savings account, opened under the landlord’s and your name. You consequently need both signatures in order to withdraw any money, so nobody can unblock the amount alone. This gives tenants more security that their deposit will be returned at the end of the tenancy agreement, provided everything is in order at home.
Another advantage of the deposit guarantee system is that you can also receive a small interest on the capital amount, which is tax exempt.
“Being prepared is the key. You can open a Belgian bank account before you arrive and have your rental guarantee prepared in advance. It will be quicker to get a roof over your head,” Salvatore says.
Regarding insurance, it is the landlord’s responsibility to have insurance covering the building. But in 90 percent of cases, a landlord won’t hand over the keys until a tenant also takes out fire and flood insurance to cover your accommodation, and in some cases, home contents insurance.
Insurance costs depend on your insurer, what is covered and how big your apartment is; on average, a basic insurance for a 70sqm apartment can be in the region of EUR 90–120 per year. Bundling your insurances together, however, can bring down costs, for example, fire/home, car, civil liability and other insurances an expat needs when they arrive.
Inventory of fixtures and fittings
By law, an inventory must be done by two parties and the inventory is cause of much concern when renting in Belgium.
“It’s important to do it properly and take it seriously. Belgian landlords are quite fussy and you might find yourself having to pay for a pre-existing dent in the wall you never noticed,” Salvatore advises.
Creating a standing order is the easiest and more efficient way to ensure your rent is paid on time, and that you don’t forget. You can visit your bank to set this up, or arrange it online.
Step 3. Open a bank account in Belgium
It’s important to have a Belgian bank account for receiving salary and paying small daily costs but also necessary to set up the rental guarantee and insurance for you housing. “It’s really one of the first things you have to do when you arrive,” Salvatore says, “plus it’s important to have at least one personal contact at your new bank when you first move abroad, someone to whom you can ask questions, who is going to be there to help you and act as a personal advisor, maybe even in your mother tongue,” explains Salvatore Orlando.
“Besides, Belgium statistically is one of the cheapest countries in the EU for banking services and to open an account.”
To open a bank account you need to show your ID or passport plus an official proof of address if it is not written in your ID or passport. Interestingly, your official address doesn’t have to be Belgium – it can be from your home country or the last country where you lived – so this can be an important piece of paper to arrange and bring with you for your move, for example, electricity, gas, or phone bill, driving licence, or your HR working document.
Expats usually have two options when opening an account. Appropriate for a pioneer in financial services, Belgium offers purely online banking for free. Expats can opt to open an online bank account, even before they arrive, where they will receive one debit card and have access to a range of online services.
“It’s a great system but keep in mind that if you want something extra like a credit card or transactions at the branch of the bank, you can be charged every time for these additional services,” Salvatore says.
The second option is a current bank account, which includes a monthly fixed fee for the services you need, including in-branch help, online banking, and several cards.
With a current account, you can choose to have debit, pre-paid and credit cards (subject to approval of your application). Pre-paid cards, for example, can be useful as they allow you to buy things on the internet and in situations where debit cards don’t work, for example, online flight tickets. It differs from a credit card because the amount is deducted immediately from your current account, while a credit card will be debited at a later date, usually after one month.
A common feature about Belgian banking is the use of a savings account. In Belgium, savings accounts can be opened for free and pay back interest on your total amount. At the same time, you can withdraw money whenever you want because it’s not blocked. As it’s free, it’s recommended for expats to create a saving plan, where they can easily transfer money to their account on a regular basis via a standing order.
“It’s important to use the time leading up to your move to prepare all of these things,” Salvatore says, which in his opinion is key to giving you less things to organise in your first week and settling quicker into the more exciting aspects of living in Belgium.
Salvatore Orlando, head of expatriates / BNP Paribas Fortis / Expatica
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