Start your business in Belgium on the right foot by reading about the potential hurdles and Belgian regulations for foreigners starting a business in Belgium.
There are over a million self-employed people in Belgium and an increasing proportion of these, especially in Brussels, are foreigners. ING Belgium, which provides financial services to residents and expats in Belgium, explains what is needed to start a business in Belgium to make the process easier.
This guide to starting a business in Belgium includes information on:
- Business culture in Belgium
- Who can start a business in Belgium
- Legal structures for businesses in Belgium
- How to start a business in Belgium as an expat
- Starting up an online business in Belgium
- Foreign companies opening up a branch or subsidiary in Belgium
- Starting up a non-profit company in Belgium
- Administrating your business in Belgium
- Business banking in Belgium
- Taxation for businesses in Belgium
- Business insurances in Belgium
- Employing staff when starting a business in Belgium
- Finding office space in Belgium
- Support and advice when starting up a business in Belgium
- Useful resources
With over 50 years of experience in advising expats on their finances, ING offers a range of banking, insurance and financial services to professionals moving to Belgium - from bank accounts to mortgages and advice on the Belgian pension system.
Business culture in Belgium
Belgium has an open economy and a fairly formalized business culture similar to its European neighbors. According to EU statistics, there are over 620,000 active businesses in Belgium. The majority of these are small or medium-sized enterprises (SME) which generate around 62.4% of value to the Belgian economy. There are many Belgian businesses owned by foreigners, with foreign-owned firms accounting for around 28% of value in the private sector. Companies are typically flat in organizational structure, with fewer levels of middle management. However, rank and title are important and decisions are generally made by top-level staff.
Belgium is considered a good place to start up a business and it has a strong entrepreneurial culture, especially in Brussels and some of the bigger cities. If you are thinking of starting a business in Belgium, it’s important to do your research on the local market and make sure you have a viable business idea. You can get support from the European Enterprise Network if you think you have a business idea worth expanding on. There are many sectors where expats can look to start a business in Belgium. The country’s largest sector is the service sector, with tourism, financial and IT services all strong. Manufacturing is also a key sector, accounting for around one-sixth of GDP, with petrochemicals, food and beverages, and scientific equipment among the leading areas of Belgian manufacturing.
Who can start a business in Belgium?
Starting a business in Belgium is fairly straightforward for anyone who is a resident and over 18 years old (16 for craftspeople). Foreigners can set up a business in Belgium, although non-EU/EFTA nationals may need a visa to enter Belgium as well as a Belgian residence permit.
Depending on what industry you are entering, you may be asked to provide evidence that you have certain skills or knowledge (e.g. a degree), including entrepreneurial and management skills. Some occupations are regulated in Belgium, which means that you have to fulfill certain conditions before you can start working. Look on the Business Belgium website for details on regulated occupations and for more information on what to do. If you are setting up as self-employed, you will also need to register with a social security fund and pay contributions. Details of other processes and requirements for starting up a business in Belgium are given in the sections below.
Legal structures for businesses in Belgium
You can set up your self-employed status as any of the following:
‘Natural person’ or sole proprietorship (entreprise individuelle/eenmanszaak)
This is where there is no distinction made between you and your business, one example being freelance workers. You are personally liable for any debts and pay personal income tax, which is higher than company tax. See Expatica’s guide to setting up as a freelancer in Belgium for more information.
A business arrangement between two or more individuals where all parties have unlimited liability for company assets, commitments and debts, and pay personal income tax on their earnings derived from the business.
‘Legal person’ or limited company (Besloten Vennootschap met Beperkte Aansprakelijkheid/Société Privée à Responsabilité Limitée; BVBA/SPRL)
The company has its own capital and is a legal entity with rights and obligations but directors are only liable for the amount invested at the time the company was founded. Company tax is much lower than individual tax. A limited liability company is set up by at least two people as shareholders where liability is limited to the amount of capital invested in exchange for shares. There’s also a one-person version of this, which requires less capital. Public limited companies require a minimum capital investment of €61,500. More information on the different ways to structure a company in Belgium can be found here.
These may be set up with at least three people and may have limited or unlimited liability.
How to start up a business in Belgium as an expat
Obtaining a professional card (Belgian permit) to start a business
EU/EFTA nationals don’t need a permit
If you’re an EU/EFTA national, you can start a business in Belgium without restriction and don’t need a permit.
Non-EU/EFTA nationals need a professional card
If you’re a national from outside the EU/EFTA, unless you already have a Belgian residence permit, you must apply to get a professional card (carte professionelle/ beroepskaart) to set up a business in Belgium. The professional card acts as your work permit. You can apply for the card when you apply for your Belgian visa, by contacting the Belgian embassy or consulate in your home country before coming to Belgium. They will forward your application onto the Federal Public Service’s (FPS) authorization service for a fee of €140. You will be advised on what you need to provide, which could include information about your proposed business, your finances, qualifications and experience.
If your application is successful, the FPS will issue you with a card initially valid for a period of between 1-5 years. You can then extend your card for a fee of €90 per year. More information on the Belgian professional card, and how to apply in the different regions, can be found on the Business Belgium website.
Registering your business
This involves a number of steps:
- Choosing the company name – this is the first stage after deciding on your legal business structure. This is the name by which your business will be officially registered and branded as. Choice of company name in Belgium is free and there are no restrictions, as long as laws are obeyed and no other company is trading under the same name. More information, along with a link to search existing active companies, is available on the FPS website.
- Writing up the company paperwork – if you are starting a limited company and incorporating the business in Belgium, you will need to draw up articles of incorporation and get these notarized. The FPS website has information on how to do this.
- Registering with the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises – before you can carry out business activities, you need to register for trading. Once you have done this, you will receive a company number which also serves as a VAT and social security number. This can be done at any authorized office. See here for list of offices in Belgium.
- Registering with the VAT authorities – companies providing goods or services covered by the Belgian VAT code, you will need to register for VAT.
- Registering with a social insurance fund – all self-employed workers in Belgium are responsible for making their own social security arrangements and need to register with a social insurance fund through which social security contributions are made. Also make sure that you are registered with a health insurance fund in Belgium.
The authorized offices where you register your business in Belgium operate as one-stop-shops where you can sort out VAT and social insurance requirements too. You can find your nearest office on the FPS website.
Licenses and permits
Certain professions in Belgium are regulated and you will need a license or evidence of professional qualifications in order to practice these within the country. Information on which professions are regulated in the different regions, along with how to speed up recognition of overseas qualifications, is available on the Business Belgium website.
Starting up an online business in Belgium
The e-commerce market in Belgium was worth €10.67 billion in 2018 and there is a growing number of businesses setting up as online-only enterprises. The process for setting up an online business in Belgium is largely similar to setting up a standard business. You still need the required business permit, have to register the business, and follow the same tax and administration procedures.
Foreign companies opening up a branch or subsidiary in Belgium
Foreign companies wanting to trade in Belgium can do so by opening up as a branch or a subsidiary. Opening up as a subsidiary means that the business in Belgium will be treated as a separate legal entity, similar to a limited company, distinct from the parent company. Opening up as a branch will mean that it has unlimited liability (similar to sole proprietorship or partnership) and the parent company is legally responsible for all debts and obligations. Foreign companies need to register with the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises and generally follow the same procedures as other businesses.
Businesses within the EU wanting to expand into Belgium can do so by forming a European Company (SE) – a type of limited liability company that can operate across multiple EU countries – providing they meet certain requirements, including a minimum capital requirement of €120,000.
Starting up a non-profit company in Belgium
If you want to start up a legally recognized non-profit organization (association sans but lucratif/vereniging zonder winstoogmerk; ASBL/VZW) in Belgium, you will need to have at least three partners, a registered office in Belgium and articles of association containing information such as purpose of organization and procedures for appointing partners/directors. Non-profit companies much register with the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises where they will be issued with an ID number upon registration. Non-profits in Belgium are usually exempt from VAT and are only subject to the income tax on legal entities.
Administrating your business in Belgium
All businesses in Belgium need to keep accurate and detailed accounts for tax purposes. These need to be kept for seven years after the tax period to which they correspond. Accounting obligations depend on your type of business:
- Small and medium-sized enterprises – need to keep a full set of accounts using the double-entry principle and can opt to submit their accounts in abbreviated form
- Large businesses – need to submit their annual accounts in full
Keeping good business accounts means keeping track of income and expenses as well as issuing invoices for goods and services according to guidelines. A Belgian invoice should include:
- Company information (legal name, VAT number, address, etc.)
- Customer information, if they are another company
- Invoice information (invoice number, date, payment deadline)
- Product or service information (description, unit price, total amount, VAT rate, etc.)
You can use this template invoice to help draw up your own.
For more information on accounting and financial regulations in Belgium, see the FPS website or the National Bank of Belgium’s Central Balance Sheet Office. Details of business accounting software available in Belgium can be found here.
Business banking in Belgium
Before you start a business in Belgium, you must open a bank account, separate from your personal bank account, for your business use only. You should put your account number on all your business documents. Belgian banks that offer business account options include:
Taxation for businesses in Belgium
All self-employed professionals starting a business in Belgium need to pay income tax on their business earnings. Companies that have been set up as a separate legal entity, e.g. limited liability companies, also need to pay Belgian corporation tax. Many Belgian businesses providing services and goods, either within Belgium or abroad, pay VAT (Belasting over de Toegevoegde Waarde/Taxe sur la Valeur Ajoutée; BTW/TVA). Current tax rates in Belgium are:
- Income tax between 25-50% of earnings/profits, depending on amount earned
- Corporation tax at 29% (reduced to as low as 20% for some businesses if they meet certain conditions)
- VAT at a standard rate of 21% of business turnover
For full details on business taxes including information on tax reliefs and allowances, see the Expatica guide to taxes for businesses and self-employed.
Business insurances in Belgium
There are a number of business insurances to consider when starting a business in Belgium, some compulsory while others are optional. Here are some of the main types:
- Public liability insurance – compulsory for all businesses operating from a premises. Covers against claims from third parties against injury, damage or financial loss caused by negligence.
- Worker compensation insurance – compulsory for businesses with staff. Covers the costs associated with work-related illnesses and injuries, such as medical treatment and loss of earnings.
- Vehicle insurance – compulsory for all drivers of company vehicles, to either comprehensive or third-party coverage.
- Professional liability insurance – optional insurance that covers costs associated with business mistakes or bad advice.
- Building and contents insurance – optional, although may be a mandatory requirement for some business premises. Covers business property and contents against damage caused by accidents or natural disasters such as fires or floods.
- Cyber insurance – optional, protecting against hacking, data loss or server failure.
- Personal insurances – self-employed workers are not protected against unemployment, so it’s worth looking at purchasing voluntary employment insurance along with compulsory health insurance.
Employing staff when starting a business in Belgium
Companies that employ staff in Belgium need to complete a few administrative steps relating to tax and social security legislation. These include:
- registering as an employer with the Belgian National Social Security Office (ONSS)
- making an electronic declaration of employment (DIMONA)
- making a quarterly multifunctional declaration to the ONSS which deals with the benefits and remunerations of employees
Once employing staff, you will need to adhere to Belgian labor laws and employment legislation. This includes:
- not exceeding the legal working week of 38 hours for all employees
- offering a minimum of 20 days annual leave for full-time staff
- following guidelines on worker safety and well-being
- paying the Belgian minimum wage
- offering social benefits such as unemployment and incapacity allowance
The Business Belgium website has information on different services that can help with finding staff and supporting employment. If you are looking to employ foreign staff at your Belgian business, you’ll have to make sure they meet the necessary legal requirements to work in Belgium.
Finding office space in Belgium
If you’re looking to reduce premises costs for your business in Belgium, why not look into the possibility of sharing space with other similar businesses and entrepreneurs? See this guide to the best coworking spaces in Belgium for some suggestions.
Support and advice when starting up a business in Belgium
There is plenty of support and advice available to new businesses in Belgium. Most Belgian banks offer start up advice. All three Belgian regions offer support and subsidies for businesses that meet certain criteria, and the EU also provides a range of support to SMEs and entrepreneurs. This includes financial support for entrepreneurs through the European Investment Fund. For help finding an expert tax accountant, check the website of the Instituut van de Accountants en de Blastingconsulenten (French or Dutch only).
- Federal Public Service Economy SMEs, Self-Employed and Energy (FPS): information on self-employment in Belgium, much of which is in English.
- Business Belgium: also part of the FPS, has detailed information in English on setting up a business in Belgium.
- Belgian Social Security (Service Public Federal Securite Sociale): FPS social security website.