I lived in Belgium for many years and loved it. My first impressions weren’t all that great, though. Paperwork mountains, unfriendly locals (in the touristy areas) and horrendous taxes. Moving to Belgium isn’t easy and living in Brussels is especially tough for newcomers.
Here are a few tips which hopefully will make your transition smoother than mine.
Moving to Belgium: Paperwork
Make copies of all your important documents. For some, e.g. academic certificates, you might need to get them apostilled. To do this you just send your original documents by secure post to an apostille service provider. I used this one.
Be patient. If you’re moving to Belgium, be aware that paperwork is notoriously laborious. You can read my post on registering and getting an ID card here.
Moving to Belgium: Transport
Stamp your transport tickets. The Brussels metro doesn’t have secure gates at every exit. This means a lot of people just jump the fare and try their luck. But boy oh boy, beware the transport inspectors who do regular checks and are the scariest thing this side of Halloween.
Give way to the right. When driving towards a crossroads, intersection or side street, don’t assume the locals are driving aggressively if they pull out in front of you. It’s Belgian law to give priority to vehicles approaching from the right.
Check your rearview mirror before you open your car door. Cycling is more than a means of transport, it’s a way of life. When leaving your vehicle, always check your rearview mirror before you open your door. I had a new near misses with several locals. Oops, sorry.
Beware of the commute. If you’re moving to Brussels or Antwerp, try to find accommodation close to your work and / or your kid’s school, or at least near the ring road. Traffic can be really bad. In fact both cities have been ranked among the most congested in Europe.
Watch your bike. Cycling is a big thing in Belgium, and cycle theft is popular too, alas. Invest in a good lock and always bring your bike in on a night. The theft of kids bikes and trailers is just as common too. While the idea of buying a second hand bike at the market might sound wonderfully sustainable, chances are it’s been stolen.
Moving to Belgium: Accommodation
Rent your apartment unfurnished. If you’re moving to Belgium, you’ll have more luck finding an unfurnished apartment. The select few furnished apartments tend to be geared towards rich (or dumb) diplomats and businessmen, costing up to twice the market rate. Sure, it is a hassle, but a bulk buy at IKEA will work out a lot cheaper than renting furnished. If your company is reimbursing you for a furnished apartment, you might have more luck renting an unfurnished place and negotiating yourself a furniture budget.
Buy service cheques (cheques services / dienstencheques). If you’re living in Belgium, you can take advantage of these vouchers for domestic help (e.g. cleaning or ironing) which are subsidised by the state. Each €9 cheque buys you one hour of work, and at the end of the tax year you can claim back 30%. So each cheque works out at €6.30 each. You can buy a maximum of 1,000 cheques per year (or double that if you have a disabled person in your family or if you’re a single parent).
Say no to junk mail. I received a crazy amount of junk mail when living in Brussels and Antwerp. You can register with your region for a sticker stating you don’t want advertorials and freebie post. (Click here for the Flanders version). Then if you still keep getting the mail, you can make an official complaint. I found that even if you just write your own sticker saying ‘pas de pub, merci’ or ‘geen ongeadresseerd reclamedrukwerk’ it does the trick.
Moving to Belgium: Culture
Learn the language. Belgium is a bilingual country, although in the north most people speak Flemish, while in the southern parts and in Brussels, French is more common. If you’re living in Brussels you’ll definitely need some basic French to survive. While almost everyone in Flanders speaks perfect English, it pays dividends to learn a few phrases of Flemish. It’s also worth noting that when you apply for your ID card, staff are instructed to speak to you in the official language. In my case, staff eventually relented and we switched to English, but I wish I’d known a little Flemish to break the ice.
Bring gifts. If you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner, it’s custom to bring chocolates or flowers. The Belgians don’t skimp here. I’ve received huge, elegant bouquets and artisan chocolates for a simple pasta night. Apparently wine and beer are given more among close friends, and only if you know the hosts well.
Check the dress code. As for weddings and other events, Belgians dress quite informally on the whole. I’ve even seen jeans at a wedding. Antwerp locals (at least in the chicest parts of town) tend to dress quite hip, rather avant-garde, but rarely formally. Having said that, it really varies, so best check beforehand.
Don’t be late. With the exception of public transport, Belgians tend to arrive punctually. Guests arriving at a dinner party will generally show up at around 15 minutes after the designated time. Business meetings usually start on time.
Take your shoes off. As in many countries, it’s custom to remove your shoes before entering a person’s home. If you’re in any doubt check your host’s footwear and follow suit. Chances are Belgians will be too polite (or reserved) to tell you to remove your shoes, but will think you’re gross if you don’t. Oh, and remember to wear nice socks!
Don’t order tap water. When dining out, don’t order tap water. According to local law, restaurants are not obliged to provide tap water free of charge. It’s very rare for a restaurant to offer tap water, and if it does, you’ll be charged for it. When I first moved to Brussels I asked for a jug of water and got a strong telling off.
Moving to Belgium: Parenting
Research childcare options. If you’re moving to Belgium and are expecting a child, start researching daycare immediately. If you already have small kids, be patient (or expect to work from home). There’s a crazy waiting list for kindergartens all over Belgium. When I lived in Antwerp all the nurseries I found (including the bad ones) had a waiting period of over nine months! There is now a rule that you have to be pregnant before applying, as some people were reserving spaces for their future children. Crazy!
Use saline solution. Belgium is a rainy country, a land of snotty noses. Do as the locals do and spritz saline solution up your little ones’ noses. Pharmacies sell large bottles of saline solution for use on kids. It’s not particularly pleasant but I found this really helped my child to breathe. If you can bear it, it works well for adults too.
Send birth cards. If you give birth in Belgium, it’s custom to send announcement cards to friends, family and colleagues immediately after the birth. Many cards I’ve seen include bank account details, which seemed a little cheeky until I kids of my own and realised how much they cost!
Don’t be alarmed to see unattended babies. Cafes, shops and restaurants in Belgium, especially Antwerp, tend to be very small. When living in Belgium it’s common to leave a baby sleeping in their stroller outside. I’ve met with friends for coffee and was gobsmacked to see children parked outside while the parents chatted happily indoors. Furthermore, in the jewish quarter of Antwerp it’s very common to see groups of young children hanging out without an adult. I once saw a five year old out alone with three babies and I asked around for help. I was quickly assured that the tight knit community looks out for each other and in fact the children were not alone, they were supervised by hundreds of adults. It’s not neglect, it’s just the lifestyle.
Moving to Belgium: Finances
Check your work contract. Net salary bears no relation to gross salary. If you’re earning €40,480 or more (gross), you’ll be whacked with 50% tax. There is however a special rule whereby senior expats working for multinationals aren’t classified as residents of Belgium and are therefore exempt, but the criteria to qualify are very specific. For more, see this guide by KPMG.
Ask about holiday pay. As for holidays, according to most Belgian contracts, you’re not entitled for paid holidays for the first year of employment. So it’s worth checking before you sign on the dotted line.
Any more tips to add to the mix? Let me know in the comments below.