The single thing I hate most about expat life is bureaucracy. I throw my arms up in the air, stomp my feet and shout ‘this country is so [insert expletive] ridiculous’ as a matter of course on every move.
For anyone moving to Belgium’s fashion capital, I can hopefully offer a few nuggets that will make your journey a little less tedious, frustrating and tiring than mine was. A few details may have changed since I was in town and fingers crossed you’ve got a fantastically efficient relocation company holding your hand along the way, but just in case, here is an outline.
Finding an apartment
Immoweb is the biggest website for rental properties, but advertisements are not always up to date. Always check the Dutch version of the site, which is generally the most updated.
If you’re looking round apartments dress smart, be polite and try to speak a little Dutch. If it’s the landlord showing you round, it pays to make a good impression.
As for rental contracts, they’re generally set up for a period of nine years. Yes, nine whole years. Fear not though, this doesn’t mean you’re handcuffed to Belgium for this long. Most leases work like this and while it can seem overwhelming for us footloose and fancy-free Brits who are used to six month contracts, all it means is that whenever you are leaving the house you must give a three month notice period to the landlord by registered (postal) mail. If you leave within the first three years of occupancy, a penalty of one to three months is applicable, depending on when you need to leave. Depending on your contract, most employers should reimburse this.
Once you’ve signed on the dotted line your new home will be inspected by a legal expert. Most likely you’ll get a hefty tome listing every single mark around the house. If you’ve got kids it can be pretty terrifying to think how much bigger the book will get when you leave, but at least it’s fair and official. And if your landlord is as reasonable as ours was, you won’t face any issues when you leave.
Getting an ID card
Officially, if you plan to stay longer than three months you’ll need a local ID card. In practice you’ll be desperate for one much sooner than this. If you want to set up a phone contract, hire a cleaning lady, make a doctor’s appointment, or do anything, you’ll need an ID. As soon as you find a more permanent home, you’ll be desperate for this goddamn card.
While no one really checks, apparently you’re meant to register with your local commune town hall (maison communale/gemeentehuis) within eight working days of arriving in the country. In reality we were only able to do it with an address, that is when we’d found our new home.
Brace yourself here, there are three steps to this hellish nightmare called registering for a Belgian ID…
Firstly, you’ll need to register with the local authorities via e-mail. Your relocation agency should do this for you and the only thing you’ll need to be aware of is that a police officer will pass by your home to check if you are really living in the house. The police then go back to the commune, who in turn will provide you with an appointment to meet with them.
Secondly, you’ll need to attend this appointment in person and take the following:
- Your passport and two copies
- Two recent passport pictures with a white background
- Your employer’s certificate if you’re working, or your marriage certificate to your working spouse if you’re not. This marriage certificate must be stamped by a notary in your host country to confirm it is a legal document and it must also be translated into Dutch (this can be done in Belgium).
- At least 20.20€ in cash (I say ‘at least’, as this figure may have gone up since I was in town)
- The police report
- Proof of your affiliation to a health insurance
Meanwhile, children under 12 years will need:
- Their passport and two copies
- Two recent passport pictures
- Their birth certificate
The only other thing to add here is that the authorities are required to speak Dutch. Nevermind that you’re new in town and have only just finished level one of whatever language you needed in your last country, here in Antwerp ‘ze speken Neeeeeederlans’. Do what I did – smile, look pathetic, try a couple of words in Dutch from Google translate and soon they’ll either take pity on you or hate how you’re butchering their language and resort to English.
Finally about a month after the above appointment, you’ll receive a letter from the commune with your PIN and PUK codes to activate your Belgian ID card. When you get these codes you have to make a new appointment at your commune to pick up your very own, new shiny ID card.
For this second appointment you’ll need:
- A document called the ‘annexe 15’ which you will have received from the commune at the first appointment
- Your PIN and PUK codes
- Your passport
- Your driving license
And then crack open the bubbly when you finally get your card. And don’t lose it. (Or expect to repeat steps 1 – 3 with perhaps a few more steps in the middle).
I was advised to apply for a Belgian driving license, but I never did. It’s free to apply, but if you’re an EU national, you don’t have to. So honestly, why bother? If you’re British and Britain leaves the EU then that’s another matter…
Getting a cleaning lady to help is best done through official cleaning companies. You pay the company with service cheques ‘Dienstencheques’ and if you’re paying Belgian taxes then you can claim the tax back, so essentially your cleaning service is subsidised by the state. To purchase any Dienstencheques you’ll need your National Number which is listed on your Belgian ID.
Even if you’re on a reciprocal expat tax system, i.e. you don’t pay taxes in Belgium but in your native country, it’s still advisable to go through an official cleaning service. The staff are vetted and receive a fair wage, it’s all legit and you can change your cleaning help if you’re not completely satisfied. A manager from the company will come and inspect your house, you can run through what to expect and sign an official contract.
I used a company called the Dienstenthuis who were great. There were a few teething issues at the start (my cleaning lady was really lovely, but need a little training) and the company came round straight away to iron out the problems. (Literally a manager explained to her how to iron).
Getting a mobile
If you want to set up a subscription you’ll need a Belgian ID card, otherwise you’ll have to resort to a ‘Pay and Go’ card – a pre-load card which can be reloaded. In my experience Pay and Go cards always seem to run out just as you’re giving your sushi guy delivery instructions, just as you hit an emergency or just as you finally get through to your best friend from home. Perhaps I talk too much, but still I reckon a subscription is the way to go.
To set up a monthly subscription, again you’ll need your Belgian ID. On the plus side, if you need to change providers at any stage then you can usually keep your number after you switch. Most companies use Proximus or Mobistar , but it’s worth checking with your employer which provider they use first – your employer may be able to get you a deal, or you may prefer to stick with the same company as calls to colleagues with the same number may work out cheaper if you’re on the same network.
I hope this helps!