Student Katie Read offers a comprehensive look at the cost of living in Belgium, from budget rail fares to the price of a box of Special K.
At first glance, Belgium is expensive. The double take will confirm the fact that it is indeed expensive. I almost fell over when I saw the price of a box of Special K here, and don’t even get me started on fresh milk prices, I wouldn’t pay that if these were golden cows milked by specifically appointed heaven-sent angels.
Still, you are a student. You must be stingy, because you have only just moved to Belgium and your only friend is your overdraft, a fickle friend who plans to turn around in a few years and demand it all back. Do not, however, take this as a cue to skimp on everything, to spend the rest of your time in Belgium hungry, unhappy, but debtless. Just learn where you can save a few cents on everyday buys.
Belgium is divided up into three different chunks. Each region has its own transport system, which are kindly organised so that usually one ticket will take you on train, tram or bus. They also like young people, whether you’re a student or not, so stagiaires can bask in the glory of a youth discount too.
In Brussels, you have the STIB/MVIB network. If you are planning to traverse the city regularly a MOBIB pass will come in very useful, an Oyster card-like contraption on which your season ticket is stored so you can tap in and out as you wish on buses, trams and the metro.
The TEC public transport system in Wallonia also offers discounts on all season tickets. On both the TEC and STIB networks, students are entitled to a further discount on presentation of a form signed by their college, so do not be afraid to ask for this, you could get as much as 50% off a youth season ticket.
In Flanders, the system is called De Lijn. The website does not yet have a translated version so you might be advised to wait until you can get to a ticket office to organise season tickets.
If you are planning to use the trains around Belgium as well, look at the SNCB website for the Campus or the School pass, which can also be combined with any of the three regional transport networks. The Go Pass also allows you to take 10 single journeys between any two stations in Belgium for EUR 50, which is a great way of paying for 5 friends to take a return journey to the beach at the weekend.
Don’t panic about not having a bank account before you get to Belgium. The ATMs (or MisterCash) take most of the international cards, just check with your local bank that you can use them first. In many cases, banks will not let people under the age of 26 open an account online, because they want to meet you first. However, they will usually not charge you opening or monthly fees if you are under 26.
Opening a bank account is potentially a simple process. Put your passport on the desk, fill out the account opening form and have a current utility bill at the ready with proof of address and you should be ok.
You might be told to go and get a Belgian ID card because this makes opening an account a lot easier. This is not easier for you; this is easier for the bank. Banks do have accounts for non-residents, this is a service specifically for you and I, and we will use it.
Many of the bank websites are written in French and Flemish. Don’t let this worry you too much, there will nearly always be a fluent English speaker working at the bank to help you. You might recognise names on the high street such as ING, Dexia, Fortis and Citibank, walk in and ask for some information.
Maybe the best advice is to come to Belgium with a few hundred euros and your own bank card. You might lose a few pennies in the exchange rate but at least you can choose a bank reasonably close to where you’ll be living, and you might even decide that opening a bank account in Belgium isn’t even worthwhile for the amount of time you are going to be living there.
True, Belgium is not student discount central, shops are not falling over themselves to offer 10% off your purchases, and most bars don’t advertise drinks deals or big student nights to the average passer-by. However, your uni should have some form of event organisation, and if not, the Erasmus network is wonderful even if you’re not part of the Erasmus programme… just bust in and look new.
The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is starting to gain pace in Belgium, with city-specific sites offering student nights, visits to other European cities and even an ESN student card. The card costs around EUR 5, and can be used to receive free or discounted access to events as well as some drinks deals. Check the website for more information or ask the Erasmus coordinator about the social side of the university experience.
Erasmus Student Network – Click on the map to find Belgium. Some of the sites still need some work.
The Euro is also worth a look, but make sure you will actually reap the benefits of buying one. If the only benefit they offer in your city is 10% off at the accordion shop (not joking), you might be better off without. However, they seem to offer lots of discounts in clubs and bars in Antwerp and around Belgium.
If you’re going to study in Brussels, there is a fantastic website called Brusselsmania with everything you need to know about being a student in Brussels, from good clubs and bars (including suggestions where to find the Erasmus nights) through where to find the best vintage shops to where to go paintballing on a Saturday afternoon.
Grants and loans
Another advantage of being a student is that grants and loans are readily available should you need them (which serves, albeit slightly, to cushion the blow of the cash-guzzling fiend that is studenthood). The student information site below has links to most of the programmes which offer study grants, as well as basic information about the country and how to apply to the institutions. This is worth a look even if you already know where you’re off to.
Students in Belgium are allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week in a part time job. Some employers do ask that their staff be bilingual (French/Flemish) or even trilingual if you add English to the equation, but many are happy to let you work if you know at least one of the local languages. Getting a job is a great way of improving your language and earning a few precious pennies.
The internet will most likely let you down in the search for English job advertisements in Belgium. The most useful advice for anyone would to be to stop worrying about finding a job and focus on settling in first. Moving to a new country, studying at a new university AND starting a new job where no one speaks your native language is too much newness in one go.
Wait a couple of weeks, practise your language so that you don’t turn bright red every time someone talks to you in a foreign tongue, work out when the student nights are so you don’t miss out on the socials, and then scout out some bars or shops where you might like to work. Don’t necessarily wait for an advert in the shop window; just ask if there are any shifts available, the worst anyone can say is ‘No’.
Check the study in Europe website.
Of course it’s going to be expensive if you decide to go and sit at that bar next to the famous old cathedral everyone’s looking at, put that penny-pinching student nose to the wind and scout out the good deals for yourself. At the end of the day, you’re a student, you wouldn’t have bought Special K anyway unless it was on offer, and the UHT milk, although terrible, becomes bearable the longer you spend convincing yourself that it did indeed come from a cow.