The Kingdom of Belgium is a small Western European country bordered by France, Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It is a federal state divided into distinct linguistic regions with Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north, French-speaking Wallonia to the south and a small German-speaking region in the east. The Federal government has limited influence in local affairs and power is devolved to the different regions and communities which make up Belgium.
It is said that Belgium has more policy and law makers, international companies, research organisations and think tanks per square foot than anywhere else in the world. This is not surprising, the capital Brussels is home to NATO’s headquarters and is also the de facto capital of the European Union.
Despite its small geographical size, Belgium is not a homogeneous country with a single national identity. Since World War II, Belgium has transformed itself into a multicultural, liberal and modern nation. Its regional languages also influence culture – Flemish Belgians are said to be culturally similar to the Dutch and Germans, whereas in Wallonia there is more of a French way of life. Belgium is also a nation of expats, which has further added to the cultural diversity of the country. However, it can be said that on the whole, Belgians are modern and well-educated people who are proud of their multicultural country as well as their regional and national traditions.
Leisure time is spent in different ways according to the linguistic regions, but a passion for sport unites all Belgians. Football is followed with customary European fervour with throngs of Belgian fans travelling to watch the Red Devils (Belgium’s national team) play. Cycling is very popular and there is a comprehensive network of national cycling routes and accessible flat terrain. Formula 1 is also a national passion, with famous drivers Jacky Ickx and Thierry Boutsen hailing from Belgium. Family is central to all popular activities in Belgium and leisure time is often spent socialising in restaurants or at home with extended family.
Belgium has a varied cuisine which is heavily influenced by French, Dutch and German flavours and dishes. However, its position as a world centre means that you can find almost any cuisine, particularly in Brussels. The most well-known national dishes include moules-frites (mussels with fries), carbonnade Flamande (a rich beef and onion stew) stoemp (mashed potato with leeks and carrots) and of course chocolate. The composition of Belgian chocolate has been regulated by law since 1894 and the sheer variety on offer has earned the country the title of ‘Chocolate Capital of the World.’
Belgium is to beer what France is to wine and there are over 400 different types of native beer to choose from. Popular brands include Stella Artois lager and Duvel, a blond beer typical of Belgium.
Belgium is a multi-lingual country. The three official languages are Dutch (often referred to as Flemish or Belgian Dutch), French and German. Flemish is spoken by 60% of the population, French 33% and German 1%. The capital Brussels is officially bilingual (French/Dutch). Around 10% of the population of Belgium is non-native and languages spoken include English, Italian, Spanish and Arabic. Overall most Belgians speak a good level of English so foreigners can choose from many ways to communicate.
As well as the multitude of languages spoken in Belgium, the different linguistic regions have their own distinct dialects, particularly in the Dutch-speaking regions. Flemish dialects include Brabantian, West Flemish and East Flemish. Belgian-French is very similar to the French spoken in France itself so those proficient in the language should have no difficulty making themselves understood.
Belgium has a temperate climate similar to that of the UK, with cool summers, mild winters and quite a lot of rain. It is a small country so the climate doesn’t vary much from region to region. The summer months see average temperatures of between 18°C and 22°C and you can expect around 3°C to 10°C in winter.
Belgium has medium levels of crime but rates have climbed in recent years due to increasing racial tensions, especially in Brussels. The highest incidences of petty crimes against tourists are in Brussels and Bruges so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your belongings and stay with a group while walking in tourist areas after dark. However, in general Belgium is safer than other European countries such as the UK, France and Germany.
Education in Belgium is delivered by local government according to the different language communities. Schooling options comprise state-run community schools, subsidised public schools (run at municipal level) and private and international schools (fee-paying). Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six to 18 in state schools. Apart from the language of tuition, the communities (Dutch, French and German) have a unified education system with little difference in the curriculum and school policy. Primary school lasts from age six to 12, when children split off into a range of specialised secondary schools.
The academic year begins in September and ends in June (dates vary according to whether the university or college is Dutch or French-speaking). School holidays generally comprise two weeks at Easter, nine weeks in summer and two weeks at Christmas. The school day begins at 8.30am and finishes at 3.30pm, Monday to Friday.
There are six Dutch-speaking universities, seven French-speaking universities and a number of university colleges and private international institutions in Belgium. The highest ranking institution is the Dutch-speaking Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven). Responsibility for higher education is devolved to the French and Dutch-speaking communities, with both sharing responsibility for the delivery of education in the bilingual Brussels-Capital region. Students gain admission to university by acquiring a general diploma at secondary school.
Higher education is funded at community and regional level and universities manage their own budgets with little influence from government. Students are charged a comparably low annual tuition fee of around €835/£721 (EU/EEA nationals) and €835/£721 to €4,175/£3,605 (non-EU nationals), depending on the course of study.
Universities and university colleges offer a two tier system of three-year undergraduate degrees and either ‘research’ or ‘professional’ two-year Master’s degrees, with many programs taught entirely in English, particularly in the Dutch-speaking regions. PhDs are offered by research universities only and take around four to six years to complete – self-funded PhDs are rare in Belgium, most are supported by the university under a type of employment contract.
Belgium’s position at the heart of the European Union has further stimulated a strong international perspective in research across all disciplines. The private sector is the primary source of investment in research. Funding is managed at community and university level, with the two most prominent research foundations – the FWO (Research Foundation Flanders) and the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS) providing grants and fellowships for EU and international students and researchers.
In all Belgian communities, children are enrolled in primary school (lager onderwijs or enseignement primaire) at age six. At age 12 they continue to secondary school (secundair onderwijs or enseignement secondaire) which are divided into general, technical, vocational and arts. Assessment is ongoing throughout secondary education and at age 18 students receive a general diploma (for more academic subjects) which facilitates admission to higher education or a technical/vocational qualification for those who wish to enter university colleges or employment.
Attending preschool (kleuteronderwijs or enseignement maternelle) is not compulsory in Belgium, however over 90% of children are enrolled before they start school. Most state-run preschools are attached to primary schools and provide free childcare for children aged 2.5 years and above. However, state-run preschools are oversubscribed and have long waiting lists, so many parents (particularly expats) end up enrolling their children in private, fee-paying nurseries and kindergartens until they start school.
Belgium is considered to have a high cost of living compared to other Western European countries. However, this reputation is not entirely deserved, as both the UK and France have higher living costs. Although costs for utilities are high, rents in Belgium are reasonable, and significant savings can be made on food and by using the excellent and cheap public transport network. Brussels is the most expensive place to live in Belgium. This is mainly due to the fact that the capital attracts a lot of short-term expats, which has pushed up rents for prime properties in recent years.
Other pricey areas include Leuven, Mons and Antwerp, but rents and living costs are more manageable in the suburbs and rural areas. The average research/lecturing gross monthly salary is €3,600 (£3,108) in Belgium, so it is possible to have a reasonable standard of living after you have paid your bills.
Its status at the heart of the EU means that Belgium is a magnet for expats from all over the world. Despite this, rental properties are widely available and rents reasonable, depending on the property and its location. There is a broad range of accommodation options, from plush apartments in central Brussels to fully-furnished houses in the suburbs and rural areas. The majority of expats (and Belgians) choose to rent and the standard lease is up to nine years. Although there are no restrictions on foreigners wishing to buy property in Belgium, but owning a home is not seen as a good investment due to little fluctuation in house prices, as well as high property taxes and legal costs.
The best way to find accommodation in Belgium is either through an online portal such as Immoweb, with a local rental agent or by searching newspaper classifieds. If you are moving for a job in a university, your Belgian employer will generally help with relocation costs and finding accommodation.
Most landlords require a security deposit of around three month’s rent in Belgium. This amount is placed in an interest-bearing bank account in the tenant’s name and returned on leaving the property (with any damages deducted).
Homeowners (not tenants) must pay an annual tax on their property which is calculated on the presumed annual rental value and decided by the local authorities. Municipal taxes for refuse collection and other services are levied by regional authorities and are calculated at a rate of 9% of your income tax contributions and automatically deducted from your salary.
Belgium has a de-regulated gas and electricity market and there is a wide range of suppliers to choose from. The main supplier of electricity in Belgium is Electrabel. You can use Brugel or Test Achats to compare prices, deals and packages before signing up. Tap water is safe to drink and water bills are charged on an annual basis. Belgium has good internet broadband access in nearly all areas and companies such as Belgacom and Telenet offer bundled services which include broadband, mobile phone, land line and cable TV.
The basic cost of utilities (gas, water, electricity, refuse) for an 85m² city centre apartment is around €130 (€110) per month. Broadband, phone and TV packages start at around €40 (£33.29) per month.
TV licences were abolished in the Dutch-speaking regions (Flanders) and Brussels in 2001. In the French-speaking regions (Wallonia) a fee of €100 (£86) is charged per household each year. The fee is used to fund Belgium’s French and German public broadcasters, BRF and RTBF.
Belgium has a high standard of publicly-funded healthcare. The healthcare system is made up of public health facilities and services, along with private clinics and hospitals. Healthcare is funded through a national insurance scheme (paid into by all employed and self-employed residents) and the government. However, many Belgians and expats supplement their state medical scheme with a private healthcare insurance policy at a reasonable cost. All EU/EEA residents are able to access the Belgian healthcare system for free and get full benefits once they start paying into the national insurance scheme on becoming resident employees. It is advisable for those from outside the EU to take out private medical insurance on relocation to Belgium.
Belgium has a fantastic range of shopping options and is famous for its large outdoor markets selling fresh produce, clothing and traditional Belgian gifts and chocolate. You can find a list of the many markets in Brussels here. The dominant supermarket chains are Carrefour, Delhaize, Cora, Aldi and Lidl. Shops are generally open from Monday to Saturday (until 8pm for supermarkets) and most are closed on Sunday.
The sales tax rate (VAT) in Belgium is currently set at 21% for most goods and services. A reduced rate applies to certain items such as social housing, foods, drinks, hotels and medicine.
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed October 2016)
Belgium can be expensive, particularly in Brussels, but expats have reported cheaper living costs than in other major European cities. Food and eating out can be pricey but you can cut costs by shopping in budget supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl or Smatch which can be found in most urban areas. Another way to save on shopping, electricals and computing is by using the price comparison site Vergelijk.be (in Dutch).
Belgium has an extensive road network comprising toll-free motorways and dual carriageways. Speed limits on motorways are 120km/h (70mph) and 50km/h (30mph) in residential areas. Although roads are well-maintained, Belgians have a reputation for their fast and aggressive driving style so new expats should take extra care, particularly in Brussels. Signage can also be a problem – in the Brussels region signs are bilingual but in the different regions, they are in either Dutch or French. So it’s a good idea to be aware of place names and other driving rules in both languages before setting out.
Drivers with a valid European Union licence are permitted to drive in Belgium without exchanging their licence for a Belgian one. If your licence was issued in a non-EU country, you must apply for a local licence after six months driving in the country. The minimum driving age is 18.
All Belgian taxis are metered by law and can be recognised by their roof signs (they come in many different colours according to the city or company). It is not common to hail a taxi from the street and drivers are not permitted to pick up passengers within 100 metres of a designated taxi rank.
Belgium has an excellent rail network, therefore buses are only generally used for short distances in urban areas. Bus routes are managed by three companies: De Lijn (Flanders), TEC (Wallonia) and STIB (Brussels). Single tickets or discounted travel cards (see MOBIB smartcard below) for use on all public transport can be purchased from any rail or bus station.
For longer distances, Belgium has a number of privately-operated coach companies which connect towns and cities as well as travelling to neighbouring countries. See the Eurolines website for more information.
Despite its compact size, Belgium has one of the most extensive rail networks in Europe. Trains are fast, frequent and punctual. The network is operated by Belgian Rail (NMBS/SNCB) and comprises high speed InterRegio/Intercity trains and efficient local trains. High speed trains also link Belgium with France, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, with the Eurostar connecting Brussels with the UK and France.
You can purchase an electronic MOBIB smartcard which can be used for multiple journeys on the entire public transport network.
The cities of Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent and Charleroi all have efficient and cheap tram/light rail systems. You can also take the scenic Coastal Tram along the entire length of the Flemish coast (42 miles). Brussels is the only city to have a metro system (Brusselse metro/Métro de Bruxelles), consisting of four lines which connect central Brussels with the outer suburbs. The metro is operated by the Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company (STIB) which also runs the city’s buses and trams.
Belgium has five international airports, the busiest being Brussels Zaventem Airport, eight miles north of the city. Being at the centre of Europe means that the country is well connected to almost all major world destinations. You can also take short hop flights across Europe. Brussels Airlines (a subsidiary of Lufthansa) is the largest national carrier yet most budget and national airlines fly to and from the capital. Belgium is a very small country so there are no domestic flights, unless you choose to travel by private plane or helicopter. For journeys across Belgium – take the train.
Like their Dutch neighbours, Belgians are passionate about cycling. Flanders in particular is considered a bicycle lover’s dream, with flat terrain and hundreds of national cycling routes and paths. Many railway stations have bicycles for rent and you can also reserve one to be waiting for you at the end of your train journey. Care should be taken when cycling around Brussels, where cars rule the roads.
By law, workers in Belgium can only work a maximum of eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. This is higher than many Western countries and probably accounts for the fact that Belgian workers are the most productive in the EU. Employees generally work from 8am-6pm Monday to Friday with an hour’s lunch break. Working conditions vary according to region, with the Dutch-speaking regions tending towards a more flexible approach than the French-speaking areas. Maternity pay for mothers is calculated as 82% of a person’s salary for the first 30 days after giving birth which goes down to 75% after that. Fathers are entitled to ten days paternity leave which must be taken within four months of the child’s birth.
Workers in Belgium must have worked as a salaried employee for the year before a holiday can be taken. May expats are therefore unlikely to be entitled to a holiday in their first year of employment, unless an agreement can be reached with the employer. The number of days a worker can take off depends on the amount of time spent at work the previous year. This generally equates to four week’s holiday accrued over a full year of work.
There are ten public holidays in Belgium as well as several unofficial holidays, including the December Solstice and Christmas Eve, which many employers recognise.
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Easter Monday: 22nd April
Labour Day: 1st May
Ascension Day: 30th May
Whit Monday: 10th June
National Day: 21st July
Assumption Day: 15th August
All Saints’ Day: 1st November
Armistice Day: 11th November
Christmas Day: 25th December
All citizens of the EU/EEA can travel freely to Belgium and do not need a work permit. Generally, all citizens from outside EU/EEA countries require a visa to enter Belgium and a permit to work. If this applies to you, then you will need to apply for one of three visas, depending on your reason to enter Belgium. The visa you will most likely require if you intend to work in the country is a long-term visa for which you will need a firm offer of employment. Applications for visas must be applied for in your home country before arriving in Belgium. For more information, visit the Belgian Foreign Affairs website.
Taxation in Belgium is among the highest in Europe, with a rate of 50% for the highest earners compared to around 45% in other Western countries. Income and company taxes are collected by the state while local authorities are responsible for collecting property tax and municipal tax. Expats can benefit from a special tax status which can include generous allowances. To find out if you are eligible for tax breaks, contact The Ministry of Finance (Service Public Federal Finances).
The Belgium tax system is complex for expats but generally you will have to pay income tax on your worldwide income if you are living in the country for at least six months. Expats who meet certain criteria, for example someone employed by a scientific research centre on a temporary basis, can register to pay tax on Belgian-only related income. The tax year runs from 1st January to 31st December each year. You can find out more about taxes at Belgium’s Official Information and Services website.
By law, all workers in Belgium contribute to unemployment insurance which is shared by both employees and employers. EU citizens who haved moved to Belgium may be entitled to three months’ unemployment benefit from their native country. To find out if you are eligible for benefits, you can enquire at the country’s many trade-union run unemployment agencies or the state-run Auxiliary Fund for Payment of Unemployment Benefits. Contributions to the welfare state are made by employers who deduct it automatically from your monthly wage which accounts for around 25% of your pay. Expats who make contributions will be entitled to benefits, medical care and loss of work. For more information, visit the FPS Social Security website.
The state pension (rustpensioen), is allocated to people when they reach 65 but it can be claimed earlier if someone has been working for more than 38 years. Pension contributions account for around 16% of a person’s wages, the burden of which is shared between the employee and employer. The National Pensions Office (ONP or RVP) decides the amount each person receives. A general rule of thumb, a single person will receive 60% of their average wage.
In 2009, Belgium signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which built on the country’s 1963 commitment to improve the opportunities of disabled people. Disabled rights are protected by both regional and federal law. On a community level, there are also institutions promoting disabled rights covering the Flemish, French and German-speaking communities. On a local level, people can apply for Disabled Persons Status, entitling them to an allowance and a parking card, with their municipal office.
Belgium is an affluent and modern country, home to multinationals, government organisations and businesses from all over the world. This means that business culture is also highly diverse, with many nationalities influencing how things are done. However, Belgian businesses in the Flanders region are considered to have a more Dutch attitude to business, with a flatter, egalitarian structure. Businesses in French-speaking Belgium tend to be more hierarchical, similar to business culture in France.
Management styles differ according to region and type of business. Managers can range from being authoritarian, where a senior team take decisions and delegate tasks, to more egalitarian with a spirit of consensus. However, across Belgium you will find that there is a commitment to teamwork and participatory management, where even though decisions are made at the top, each team member is involved in the process. Belgian managers are known for being thorough, facts, figures and solid research are integral to the decision-making process.
Belgians are considered to be quite formal and conservative in their approach to business. You should therefore use titles (Mr, Mrs, Miss in Flanders and Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle in French-speaking companies) until invited to do otherwise. French-speaking regions tend to be more formal than in Flanders and take a French approach to business, where you should show deference to superiors.
With a long history of international trade and multiculturalism, Belgians are known for being skilled negotiators and are used to working with foreigners. However, this does not mean that social conventions and politeness are overlooked, Belgians are flexible and will aim to strike a deal which suits everyone. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Belgians like to keep their work and private lives separate, so try not to encroach on their time outside of working hours.
Belgians take personal appearance very seriously and looking polished will help you to earn respect. Smart and conservative attire for work is expected. Men generally wear expensive and stylish suits with a tie and women a trouser or skirt suit or smart dress.
When greeting your Belgian colleagues in all regions, a handshake is appropriate for both men and women. The French custom of ‘air kissing’ is not common in the workplace, even in Wallonia. Kissing and hugging is usually reserved for friends and family.
Punctuality is very important in Belgium and good time-keeping is essential if you want to make a good impression. Meetings always start on time, so it is expected that if you are going to be late, you call ahead to apologise.
Depending on the business setting, meetings tend to be formal and well-structured in Belgium. You can expect meetings to start with some polite small talk but then to follow a strict agenda thereafter. Meetings are focussed on the dissemination of information to staff and are often led by a team leader or manager. That said, they often involve people from many different nationalities – particularly in Brussels – so you can often expect quite a mix of cultures and styles at the meeting table. Always ensure you are always on time to meetings and prepared with the correct facts, figures and documents.
Belgium is divided linguistically, but Belgians see themselves as Belgians, rather than Dutch or French. Try to avoid making negative comments or comparisons about the culture of each region and how they compare to each other (or France and the Netherlands). Belgians are also quite reserved and do not take kindly to overly personal questions.
The main business languages in Belgium are Dutch, French and German. However, Belgium is a country of expats and also home to a vast range of international companies. Therefore, English is often used as a ‘bridging’ language in both professional and personal settings. You will find that most Belgians speak English very well. When emailing or telephoning, always use the language of the region (Dutch in Flanders or French in Walloon) but if you are not confident in either – stick to English.
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