Opening a bank account in your new country may feel daunting, but here is a handy guide to help you navigate through all the procedures, options and offers especially designed for expats.
Choosing a bank in Belgium
In the early days after your arrival in Belgium, you may be able to work with your bank account and bank card(s) from your home country. If you come from another European country, you may even be able to continue using that bank account and bank card during your whole stay here.
Still, a local bank account and bank card (debit card) will be handy to receive your income, pay in shops, organise your rental guarantee, and set up monthly payments for rent and utilities. Many of these features are readily available with online banking.
If you find an Expat section on the Belgian bank’s website, that is a sign that at least they have thought of you and should have a special Expat offer. Some, even have a fully functional English version of their website so that the language barrier never comes in the way of your needs.
Usual bank fees
Bank account management fees differ bank per bank. Online bank accounts typically come without a yearly account management fee. Other bank accounts have extra features, like multi-currency options. Some of those bank accounts are free for a certain period of time, or you receive a cashback when you direct-deposit your salary on the account.
Domestic money transfers are typically free of charge in Belgium, as well as EU transfers (in Euros) – even though the foreign receiving bank may apply a fee.
Foreign currency (non-Euro) transfers, or transfers outside the EU, come with transfer costs or foreign exchange costs, sometimes both. These costs differ from bank to bank, and can often be found in the bank’s “charges and conditions”, available on their websites.
Easy local and international payment options
Most bank accounts come with debit cards in Belgium. Belgian debit cards typically have the international MAESTRO function. The latter is however limited to geographical Europe, unless you “whitelist” extra countries. The whitelisting can often be done online. MAESTRO debit cards are also more and more accepted in online shops. However, applying for a credit card (VISA and MasterCard are most widely accepted) broadens your payment options internationally and online.
Online banking is well developed in Belgium and available on desktops, tablets or smartphones. Security varies from bank to bank, but a card reader or digipass are still common with full features ‘internet browser’ banking. Most banks have fully-functional apps for tablets and smartphones which include extra practical features such as QR codes. Near Field Communication (NFC), fingerprint identification, six dots and many more security methods are commonly used to log on or to perform transactions.
Financial but also insurance institutions
Most banks in Belgium offer all banking services, but they have the added bonus of also offering home, car, life and travel insurance. It can be very practical to use one institution for all of these services, especially as the fees tend to become competitive when bundled. Of course, nothing prevents you from having a bank for financial services, an insurance broker for your insurance portfolio, and even another bank for your financial investments.
The special case of US citizens
Financial transparency is constantly growing internationally. US citizens will not be able to be served by some banks in Belgium because of the FATCA regulation. The banks that serve US citizens need a W9 or W8BEN form, plus the Tax Identification Number (TIN). Also please note that no bank will offer financial investments to US persons, as only specialised financial advisers are equipped to do so.
Non-US persons will still have to fill out a CRS form and provide their TIN too.
Extras and bonuses
Some banks have developed specific communication for their expat customers, and will organise information seminars on a variety of important subjects such as buying real estate, pension and estate planning, starting your own business, tax-compliant financial investments… etc. These are most helpful to help you realise your projects in Belgium, accompanied by the financial services and insurances that fit your needs.
What if you leave Belgium again?
After you leave, a limited number of banks will allow you to keep your bank account, bank cards and all relevant related products and services. It is important to check with your banking institution which services you can keep and which not, as well as establishing new means of communication with the bank after your departure. A final, vital piece of advice: while you may have grown very fond of the wide range of services provided by your Belgian financial institution, do not forget to close your bank account when you don’t need it anymore.