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A Comprehensive Guide on Moving to Belgium

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Relocating to Belgium

At a Glance:

  • Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, German, and French. The Belgian Constitution is accordingly also  trilingual, which is a symptom of the political friction between the different language and cultural communities.
  • Its capital hosts numerous international organizations and most importantly, European Union institutions, and is renowned internationally.
  • There are many visa categories for Belgium, which differ based on the purpose of your stay.

When you tell people that you are moving to Belgium, you can be certain that someone will mention beer or French fries. However, expats in Belgium will soon find out that the country has much more to offer.

Yes, this tiny nation in the heart of Europe is the cradle of the — misnamed — French fries. It also produces delicious chocolate and countless varieties of beer. Yet, there are a few more things you should know before your move.

Not One, but Three Languages

Belgium is a small, federal parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch as the official head of state. Depending on which region you end up moving to, you will hear a variation of French, Dutch, or German being spoken by the locals. While all three of them are official languages, they don’t necessarily co-exist, except possibly in the capital, Brussels.

People moving to Belgium’s northern regions will find themselves in the Flemish-speaking part of the country. Flemish belongs to the same linguistic family as Dutch and shares many similarities with it. Therefore, if you are familiar with the Dutch language, you might be able to understand Flemish, too. If you consider settling in Belgium’s southern parts, French is the official language spoken by the majority of the population. German is only heard in two small enclaves on the German-Belgian border, where expats relocating to Belgium for professional reasons are rather unlikely to live.

The Socio-Political Issue of the Languages Dividing Belgium

The move to Belgium’s trilingual constitution is a fairly recent development — a first step towards creating a federal state. However, the linguistic division still causes problems both on a political and cultural level.

Upon arrival in Belgium, foreigners are often surprised when they realize how complex the system of government is. This is due to the autonomy of the three language communities as well as tensions between the French and Flemish parts of the population. Expats in Belgium usually discover that their experience of the country largely depends on the language community they live in.

Your move to Belgium might be complicated by the complete absence of a nationwide cultural infrastructure. Neither the media nor major organizations and institutions transcend the linguistic borders.

A Capital of International Prestige

Belgium is a relatively small country. While the entire nation prides itself on its international flair, it is mainly the Brussels-Capital Region which attracts foreigners moving to Belgium. As the only officially bilingual region of the country, Brussels serves as the national capital as well as the seat of administration for both the French and the Flemish communities. Foreigners moving to Belgium’s capital will notice the bilingual road signs, but on the streets they are most likely to hear French.

Brussels is, of course, one of the capitals of the European Union — hosting the European Commission, European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union — and home to the NATO headquarters. It is thus no surprise that the countless foreign politicians, diplomats, and civil servants active in Belgium’s capital have established English as the lingua franca of Brussels.

Government officials are, however, not the only foreign nationals moving to Belgium: in the wake of Brussels’ rise to international political significance, increasing numbers of multinational enterprises have been tempted by a move to Belgium, too.

Getting the Right Visa

EU citizens do not require a visa in order to enter Belgium. For short-term stays, there are special visa waiver programs for some countries outside the EU as well. To find out which type of visa you need, contact your nearest Belgian embassy. All visa applications must be addressed to your nearest Belgian embassy or consulate before you move to Belgium. There is one application form for short-term visas (up to 90 days) and one for long-term visas. In addition to your valid passport, several supporting documents are required, depending on the purpose of your stay. Non-EU foreigners moving to Belgium need a long-term visa.

Admin Issues for Expats in Belgium

The Short-Term Schengen Visa

Belgium is one of the original members of the Schengen area, which now includes 26 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.

You can access all the countries listed above with one and the same visa. A Schengen visa is valid for 90 days. You can enter and leave the Schengen area as often as you like. The application process takes three to four weeks, and there is a fee of 60 EUR. A reduced fee of 35 EUR is applicable to children between six and twelve years old, and to certain adult foreign nationals whose countries have a visa facilitation agreement with the EU, e.g. Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine. No fee applies to children under six years old.

To apply, you need to fill out the appropriate application form and present it at the nearest Belgian embassy together with your passport, two passport photographs, proof of insurance cover, and sufficient financial means to support yourself during your stay.

Once the visa has been granted, you need to present your valid return ticket for the journey. If you are planning a business trip, a letter of invitation from a Belgian company should be included as well.

A Visa for Each Occasion

There are several categories of long-term visas for people moving to Belgium. The category depends on the purpose of your stay. Processing times vary from weeks to months, but the administration fee is usually 180 EUR.

  • Employee visa: This is only granted with a work permit, which must be obtained beforehand by your employer (for which they require a medical certificate and three passport photos from you). In addition to your passport, you need to submit two completed application forms and two passport photographs, a criminal records disclosure covering the year preceding your application, and a copy of the medical certificate submitted for your work permit.
  • Self-employed visa: Before you can apply for it, you need the authorization of the Federal Public Service for Economy, SMEs, Self-Employed and Energy. This authorization comes in the form of a “professional card” (carte professionnelle / beroepskaart), which can be requested via the Belgian embassy by submitting the following documents: three completed application forms, three passport photographs, a project plan, and a criminal records disclosure. You should also submit your CV, certified copies of your diplomas, professional references, and letters of recommendation. Processing of the professional card can take four months.
  • Manager visa: Senior managers who earn more than 66,406 EUR a year (2016) are usually exempt from work permit requirements in general, but obviously still require a residence visa and should submit the same visa documents as employees. If you are a high-level executive wanting to work in Belgium, please ask your company or the Belgian mission how to proceed.
  • Student visa: As well as your passport, you need to submit two completed application forms, two passport photographs, and a criminal records disclosure covering the year preceding your application (if you’re 21 or over). Further, you need the original and two copies of the following: a medical certificate, a letter of acceptance from your university, a personally written pledge that you won’t overstay your visa, and proof of financial means (either 604 EUR per month of your stay or a financial support declaration).
  • Research visa: Scientists and post-docs are usually exempt from the need for a work permit as long as they are conducting research in Belgium or have a hosting agreement with an accredited research institute. The exemption can last up to three years or for the duration of the research project.
  • Specialist visas are also available for investors, interns, au pairs, de facto relationships (when one of the partners is Belgian), regrouping families (when one person of the married couple is Belgian), and working holiday visas for Canadians between 18 and 30 years old.

The Electronic Card for Foreigners

All foreigners intending to stay in Belgium for over three months must register with the local authorities within eight days of arrival. All third-state nationals residing in Belgium on a long-term visa are included in the Register of Foreign Residents.

A new, European-wide system of electronic identity cards for foreign residents has recently been implemented in Belgium. It replaces the old system of carte blanche (certificate of inscription), carte jaune (identity card for third-state nationals), and carte bleue (identity card for EU nationals). This card is issued by the municipality itself after the registration.

EU nationals residing in Belgium receive an electronic identity card similar to the type of identity card held by Belgian nationals. Third-state nationals are given an electronic card serving as residence permit, identity card, and certificate of inscription at the same time. All new cards contain a chip with biometric data (a photograph and two fingerprints). This card replaces the paper residence permits for both EU and non-EU citizens. In this way, foreigners can have access to e-government applications and sign documents in an electronic fashion.

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  • Kelly Powell

    I loved moving to Brussels. But after a while I felt homesick. On InterNations I met a bunch of people from the US. That helped a lot.

  • Maria Lombardi

    You can really get lost in the "capital of Europe" - InterNations helped me to get settled and to make a lot of expat friends.

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