Moving to Brussels

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Moving to a new country can be both exciting and frustrating. Everything is fascinating and at the same time it can be confusing to find your way around a new city, a culture and possibly a new language. The objective of this page is to provide some information for newcomers to IRIDIA, such as Ph.D. students, and Brussels in general in order to make the initial couple of weeks a bit easier. The information contained in this document has been collected by people who have been through the process. If you have any questions, suggestions, additions or such, please make them.


Contents

Short-term accommodation

For short-term accommodation (that is a place to sleep for the first couple of weeks you are in Brussels) a bed and breakfast is a convenient option. Depending on your budget and confidence in finding more long-term accommodation quickly there is a number of different options to choose from:

  • Centre Sportif de la Foret de Soignes is a sports facility in the outskirts of Brussels. It is quite cheap for longer stays at ~230 euro/month or ~16 euros/day for shorter stays. There is easy access to the university: Bus number 72 runs directly between ULB and the center (also known as A.D.E.P.S.) and the ride is 15 to 20 mins. And that is about all the good things that there are to say about the place. Breakfast is not included, the rooms are very basic, the reception closes at 23h00 on weekdays, 22h00 on Saturdays and at 20h00 on Sundays. You either have to be there before closing time or you'll have to arranged with the Security staff or the reception, that you will come at a later hour. Being so far out is by no means an ideal way to get acquainted with the city. However, if you intend to stay in short-term for a whole month Centre Sportif de la Foret de Soignes might be the least expensive option. If you want to book a room there you have to do it through IRIDIA.
  • Bed & Brussels manages rooms in more than 100 guesthouses. Have a look and contact them if you are interested. If you book a room make sure that it is close to the university (Ixelles 1050 or Uccle 1180). Hint: Go to Maporama and punch in the address of the guest house to see how far it is from ULB.
  • [1] The guest house at Square Robert Goldschmidt, 50 - B-1050 Brussels, Belgium] should be quite good, inexpensive and very close to the university. They only have few rooms.

Long-term accommodation

In case you do not already live in Brussels, one of the first and most important things to do obviously is to find an apartment. One option is to buy the magazine "Vlan" where you have lots of ads for flats and etc. You can as well visit the Vlan website, which is very good and publishes the announcements shortly after they are published in the magazine. You can try out IMMOWEB.be on which apartments are also advertised. Another great website full of ads for apartments and furniture is Expats in Brussel.

An alternative method is to simply walk around in the neighborhood you are interested in living in as the landlords hang out easy identifiable announcements. As this might not be a usual way to find accommodation in other countries it works in Belgium. There are a lot of signs put up and sometimes this is the only way in which apartments are advertised. Walking around is probably a bit more time consuming than finding a flat through the Vlan, but on the other side you get to know the area, and you are likely to find one of the apartments close to the University not advertised on the web. The signs read "A Louer" or "Te Huur", which translates to "for rent". There are lots of rooms and apartments for rent. They vary a lot in terms of quality and price, so you might have to spend some time to find something that suites your budget and your style.

Most other students at IRIDIA live quite close to the university; choosing a place in the neighborhood is likely to improve your social life.

In case you don't speak any French it is recommendable to ask a French speaker (e.g. at IRIDIA) to check the contract. Even though the probability is low that some landlord wants to cheat, it is always better to know what exactly is written in the contract!

Renting an apartment

Once you have found the property you want to rent, you need a lease (bail/kontract), an inventory (etat des lieux/plaatsbeschrijving), a security deposit, and to get the phone, electricity and gas reconnected.

There is an element of Catch 22 here - there is a certain order to get things done that, at times, seems to be mutually exclusive.


The lease

Belgium has an odd system of a standard nine-year flexible lease, and an inflexible three-year lease. At first sight the three-year lease seems the most attractive to a newcomer whose time in the country is uncertain, but this is not necessarily the case.

A three-year lease can be for any agreed period up to a maximum of three years. It fixes the rent for the period of the lease and commits the tenant to pay for the entire period of the lease. It can include a diplomatic clause (designed to indemnify the tenant if he wants to break the lease because he is leaving the country) but these have been nullified by the Belgian Courts in the past.

It is thus better to opt for a nine-year lease, which can in fact be broken by giving three months notice. But if you leave in the first, second or third year, you will pay an indemnity of three, two and one month's rent respectively. From year four, there is no penalty for leaving.

The monthly rent is fixed for nine years subject to the normal state-controlled annual indexation. The landlord can only give you notice if they intend to occupy the property personally, need to carry out major works (where major has a legal definition), or at the end of year three or year six, for no reason but subject to compensation to the tenant of nine or six month's rent respectively.

For an apartment, the monthly outgoing may include an element of rent and a fixed amount of service charge. Usually the service charge is just a prepayment (provision pour charges/vooruitbetaling) and there will be an annual assessment of common charges for the property that you will share in.

If you want to negotiate a better price, negotiate down the rental not the service charges! If there are things you want the landlord to correct before you move in, don't sign the lease until they have happened.


The inventory

The inventory (etat des lieux /plaatsbeschrijvin) is the source of more misery to tenants than any other legal document.

Typically, the landlord's agent prepares a stunningly detailed list of the condition of the property complete with photographs. The tenant reads it or not and signs. At the end of the lease, the landlord's agent checks the property and finds an unreasonable amount of property damage.

Expats have been charged for scratches in the bath that were there before they arrived, and for damp patches caused by the landlord's failure to repair a roof. That the cost of the damage often comes to about the level of the retained security deposit is a coincidence of course!

It is bad enough to have someone who seems to be less than independent assessing costs against you, even more irritating is that you have to pay 50 percent of his bill. Some agents insist you sign a document agreeing to the fee and to accept his expertise before he starts. Don't do so.

The way to avoid all such problems is simple. Select your own agent (expert immobilier/expert) to do the check-in and the check-out. That way both parties get a truly independent and fair assessment.


The security deposit

You will either need to pay around three months rental up front as a security deposit against tenant-effected damages, or to ask your bank for a guarantee.

The latter option is basically a low-cost insurance policy sold to you by the bank which gets your salary as its means of security. It is typically the better option because a bad-faith landlord needs to prove to the bank that he deserves the guarantee.


Home insurance

Whether you own or rent your property, you need to get insurance. Almost all rental agreements in Belgium require the tenant to take out insurance on the rented property within 30 days of signing a lease. This insurance is required by the Belgian Civil Code, which holds a tenant responsible for any damage to the building unless proof can be given that it was not his/her fault.

If you are renting, take your lease with you when you arrange your insurance. You are also responsible for providing cover against third party liability, but the owner is required to have a policy covering the property against earthquakes, lightning, fire, etc. If you are in furnished accommodation, you are required to take out insurance against damage to the landlord's furniture.

Contents insurance is not compulsory but advisable. Remember that theft is not covered automatically in contents insurance: it is an option. Valuable personal items such as jewellery or cameras may require an all risks policy, which will cover you for damage or loss in or out of the home. Premiums on these for desirables such as laptop computers are high.


Sharing an apartment/Renting a room

Sharing an appartment or renting a room in some bigger building which features common space for every inhabitant has several advantages over living alone:

  • you'll be never be alone
  • it's cheaper
  • you will most certainly learn french a lot faster (or chinese, or...)
  • it will improve your social life
  • you can rely on the knowlegde of your flatmates about Brussels

Of course, it has several disadvantages:

  • you'll be never be alone
  • you have to share kitchen and bathroom, which isn't always nice

It's certainly not for everyone, but it's a good and fun option. I heavily depends on your flatmates, so finding a good match is even more important than finding a nice appartment to share.

Options

If you want to share a house/appartment, you should know a few things. You basically have two options when you want to do this:

1. Rent a room in a bigger building (kind of student-dorm like) In Belgium single rooms to rent is referred to as a _kot_. This is usually the cheapest option, as you can get one for less than 300 Euros including charges. The rooms are usually rented individually by the landlord. The major drawback is that you don't know much about the people you're going to share the common rooms with. Sometimes these rooms are simply part of a Belgian family household, so if you're seeking contact to local people this might be a good way. Usually a kot is rented by young people and erasmus students. 2. A _colocation_ on the other hand is when several people rent a house/appartment together. You usually have more space and closer relationship to your flatmates. For this reason, you should choose them wisely. If your looking for a rich social life, this is the way to go. Colocations start around 300 Euros, but are usually around 450 Euros for a reasonably spaced room.

Where to look

In order to find a kot/colocation, you have several ways to look for it:


Furniture

If you move into an unfurnished apartment, IKEA is a good option. They have two branches in Brussels, the one in Zaventem is close to the airport. You can even rent a truck there to take your new furniture to your place (and it is not expensive).

Another option is second-hand furniture. Brussels houses lots of expats coming and going, so often you can find good deals for second-hand items ranging from apartments, furniture and cars. XPATS.com - a site for expatriates in Brussels and the surrounding area. Go to the Classified section and choose the http://www.xpats.com/clads/clads_display.php?Action=view&categorie=12 For sale section]. There is usually heaps of stuff for sale and many new ads are added daily.


Currency

Belgium is in the eurozone, sharing a common currency with Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Of the old EU countries, Sweden, Denmark and the UK are the outsiders and many of the 10 new EU countries plan to adopt the euro when they are ready to do so, but not for a few years yet.

Coins: 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, 1 EUR, 2 EUR

Notes: 5 EUR, 10 EUR, 20 EUR, 50 EUR, 100 EUR, 200 EUR, 500 EUR

On one side of the coins is a European Union emblem showing a map of the eurozone surrounded by the 12 stars of the union. On the other side is a design specific to the country where it was minted.

Euros from any of the 12 countries may be used anywhere in the EU. All euro notes are the same, regardless of which country they come from.

Paying for goods and services

Cash

Cash dispensers are everywhere where there is a bank, and they all take Bancontact cards — issued by local banks. But beware, you might have to wander around to find one that takes your Visa or MasterCard or other major credit and debit cards.


Credit and Debit Cards

Most types of credit card are widely accepted. If you get a standard Visa or Eurocard/MasterCard from a local bank, the standard option is for this to operate like a debit card, with the full balance taken from your account each month.

A full service credit option is widely available on request.

Diner's, American Express and other major international credit cards can also be obtained and used in Belgium.

The most common card in Belgium is the Mister Cash-Bancontact card. It is linked to your current account, and is accepted in department stores, supermarkets, gas stations, and high street shops everywhere. It's a good idea to have one of these, as there are still many places in Belgium that don't accept alternatives.

A Bancontact card with a PIN number will be issued when you open a Belgian bank account.


Proton

Belgium is a pioneer in a cashless society.

The Proton card is actually a chip integrated into your Bancontact card and is like a rechargeable electronic purse.

It is designed to pay for everyday items such as newspapers and cigarettes, as well as paying the butcher and the baker.

You can even use it for the parking meter, or to fill up your car with petrol.

This is how it works:

Using your usual four-digit PIN code, you load the card with up to EUR 1,240 at a cash dispenser,and then go shopping.

The shopkeeper enters the amount to be paid into the Proton terminal, and you put your Proton card into the terminal.

When the amount to be paid appears on the screen, you simply press the OK button, and the payment is made.

A word of caution: a lost card is like lost cash so choose the amount you load wisely.

Bank account

Getting a bank account is straight-forward. Simply choose a bank and set up an interview. Mrs. Laurence Schor (email: first name . second name @ing.be, phone number 02 639 65 46) is an excellent English speaker and very helpful. Make an appointment with her. She works for ING, which is one of the large banks in Belgium and they have a branch only ~400m from the university (Av. de l'Universite 11, 1050 Brussels). Please note that for opening an account you cannot go to the small branch on campus Solbosch. You have to go to the branch between campus Solbosch and campus de la Pleine.

Usually, banks can also help out with matters related to insurance of property etc.

Transportation

Getting around Brussels by the public transport system is easy: The city sports a decent system of metros, busses and trams. The first thing to do when you arrive in Brussels is to get a map of the busses, trams and metros. You can get that in many places, e.g. at the Central Station, get one - it will be your best friend in the beginning.

If you want to go straight to Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) from the Central Station you should take bus 71 (when you exit the Central Station the stop for 71 is just 40m up the street alongside a number of other stops). It runs fairly frequently - every 20 mins or so - from early morning to midnight.

Tickets

In busses and trams you can buy a one-trip ticket for 2 euro from the driver. They will allow you to take any means of urban, public transport for one hour. In metro stations you can also by 5 and 10 trip tickets in machines (11 euro for the 10 trips ticket), which work in the exact same way, but are cheaper. The tickets are called "Jump tickets". Once you have a ticket, it needs to be stamped by one of the orange machines located in every tram and bus (just remember to validate the ticket every time you get in, in case it's less than an hour from the previous validation, it will not consume a new ride but will stamp a transfer next to the previous one). If you use the metro, remember to stamp the ticket BEFORE entering the metro train (sometimes they have raids where tickets are checked and the cops doing that do not look friendly!)

Importing a car

From outside the EU

The various steps in importing a car into Belgium from outside the European Union are lengthy and complicated. Even armed with the most current information from the official Belgian government website, you will almost certainly need the services of a broker or specialized agent. A good agent can help you with the importation of your car, conversion to Belgian specifications, conformity certificate, and technical inspection and licensing.


A car imported into Belgium from outside the EU as part of a move of your personal and household effects can be exempt from customs duties and value-added tax if the following conditions are met:


You resided outside the EU for at least 12 months before establishing residence in Belgium;

You acquired the car abroad and drove it for at least six months before arrival;

You paid sales tax in another country;

You will retain the car for your personal use for at least 12 months following the date of import.


The Belgian customs authorities require the following documents:

Letter requesting exemption of customs duties and value-added tax;

Invoice for the car;

Certificate of title;

Sales tax receipts;

Certificate of insurance covering at least six months prior to importation;

Proof of residence in a country outside the European Union for at least 12 months before departure;

Proof of residence in Belgium and date of establishment;

Shipping document for personal effects.


For further information on import procedures, contact Belgian Customs:

Ministere des Finances Service Douane or

Ministerie van Financier Kantoor Douane

Rue Picard 1-3

1210 Brussels

Tel. 0800.147.95 (toll-free number in Dutch, English, French and German)


Where import duty exemption is not extended, as in the case of a vehicle that has been owned less than six months, a customs duty of io percent and value-added tax of 21 percent of the market value of the car as determined by customs must be paid.

From within the EU

It is much easier to import a car into Belgium from another European Union country. Present the car to the Belgian customs authorities, along with a copy of your Belgian identity card, proof of purchase and previous registration. Value-added tax will have to be paid on new cars (less than six months old or driven less than 6,000 kilometers) but not on cars considered to be secondhand – over six months old and/or with more than 6,000 kilometers on the clock. In all EU member states, VAT on secondhand cars is always paid in the country where the vehicle was purchased, because it is included in the price.

An imported car with valid foreign registration and license plates can be driven immediately upon arrival in Belgium for a maximum of six months. During this period, you must go through the formalities of registering your car with the Belgian authorities and, in the case of non-EU nationals, applying for a Belgian driving license.

Mobile phone

There are several options for getting a mobile phone and/or a SIM card. There are three companies operating in Belgium:

You can buy either a subscription where you pay a monthly fee and they'll send you a bill sized in accordance with your use. Alternatively, you can go for a prepaid card deal, where calls are usually a bit more expensive, but you do not have to lock yourself into a long-term contract. Moreover, you can walk straight into a store and five minutes later you got your own phone number. The prepaid cards can be recharged in tobacco shops and in any of the operator's braches.

Getting a mobile phone number right away is a GOOD IDEA. It is especially useful for finding accommodation. The rumor has it that Base has the less expensive deals at the moment.

Make sure that your phone is not SIM-locked and that it works with the new card before leaving the store.

Registering at the local commune

At some point you have to register at the city hall to get a residence permit. However, it's better to wait until you have found yourself some long-term accommodation before registering because they want to have your permanent address. So it’s not possible to register until you have a permanent place to live. Officially you have to do it within 3 months of arrival in case you are from an EU member state.

If you live in the commune of Ixelles you have to call the following number: 02 5156627 between 8 and 10 am to schedule an appointment.

Some days or weeks later a police man will come and visit you in your apartment to check that you are really living there (and your family members).

You will usually get a residence permit valid for one year at the time, thus you might have to renew your permit every year. For renewing the permission, you have to go to Chausse d'Ixelles 124 to present: a) the confirmation of enrollment of the university, b) a proof of coverage by your health insurance, c) a photo and d) 7.50 EUR.

Italians: registering at the AIRE

Italians that are staying in Belgium more than 12 months must register at the AIRE (Associazione Italiani Residenti all'Estero). Officialy you have to register before the 12th month, and in orderd to do that you have to go to the Consolato d'Italia in Rue de Livourne, 38. You can phone to the number 02/5431550 to schedule an appointment.

Health-care

In order to enroll in a health care plan you need contact a mutualité for instance Euromut. Fill out the web form and they will send you the necessary documents.

It take a while before you can become a member of a mutualité. However, once you are inscribed you can get any medical expenses reimbursed from the date on which you started at the university. Hence, in case something happens in between arrival and becoming a member of Euromut you are still covered.

Normally Euromut will only provide you a basic, compulsory insurance and the coverage of such an insurance is far from complete. Therefore, it is a good and cheap option to buy additional coverage e.g. for hospitalization. You can do that either through Euromut or another mutualité. The rumor has it that the insurance through the University is the cheaper one. In order to get such an insurance you should contact the ULB Social Services (internal phone numbers: 3505, 3506, 3507) or simply go to their office in the V building on the third floor (right above the university book store on Av. Adolphe Buyl). You can try with English, but your milage may vary.


The Belgian healtcare system

You can be assured of the highest-quality medical care in Belgium, regarded as among the best healthcare systems in Europe.

As in most countries, the system divides itself into state and private, though fees are payable in both, so you need to ensure that you are adequately covered through either the state insurance and/or private insurance.

The advantages of the state mutuelle/mutualiteit scheme is that you can choose any doctor, clinic or hospital you like, in any location and without referral, according to your needs in much the same way as you can with private insurance.


Doctors

General practitioners can be found in private practices or attached to clinics and hospitals. You are free to consult or register with any you like; similarly with specialist consultants. It may be a decision based on location, language or recommendation.

It's always worth speaking to neighbours or colleagues when you first arrive; everyone knows of a doctor, or has heard of one with a good reputation. Embassies usually keep lists of doctors who can work in your language, though it has to be said that most doctors have a good understanding of English.

When you first phone a doctor, check whether they are registered as national health service or private. Some are both, perhaps working at a hospital and also in their own private practice.

One thing to remember when you go to a doctor — take cash with you. Consultations usually end with a handing over of money and very few doctors offer payment by card of any type. If you have state social security, reimbursement rates are calculated and you pay the difference; if you are on a private scheme, or are uninsured, you pay the whole lot there and then. It's always worth checking fees before you book an appointment.


Dentists

The majority of dentists in Belgium are private, though there are those who accept part-payment on state insurance. Make it a priority to check when registering as the fee differentials can be huge. For any specialist work, such as crowns and bridges, the dentist may well ask how you will pay and offer you different quotations. In the big cities, Brussels in particular, there are international dentistry practices as well as Belgian.


Hospitals

As with general practitioners, you can arrange to see a specialist of your choice at any hospital. You can also walk into an emergency department for immediate treatment, though as in other countries, do not use this as a general practitioner replacement. It makes life a lot easier if you have your insurance card or other identifiable means of payment with you, though treatment will not be refused if you don't.


Emergency treatment

If you need to use the emergency 100 number an ambulance will arrive quickly and take you to the nearest emergency centre. Sometimes, a decision may be made to admit you to the best centre suited for your needs, for example, a specialist burns unit.


Pharmacies

Chemists are ubiquitous in Belgium, with the green cross sign everywhere. There is a rota system for chemists to open outside of usual hours and through the night. Lists are available from any pharmacy or check newspapers for those open at night in your area.


Health insurance

Contributions to the state health system are made by you and your employer, or by you alone if you are self-employed. Payments and benefits are administered by one of the mutelle/mutualiteit societies.

You can choose one that best suits your needs. For example, some are more geared to the self-employed, while others may provide cover for alternative medicine. Once you are a paying member you receive your social security ID, or SIS, a microchip card which carries all your details.

Hospitals and chemists will use these to calculate what you are entitled to and if there is any price difference for you to cover. As already explained, many doctors have not yet invested in the necessary technology for SIS cards in their surgeries.

You may choose to cover yourself with private insurance, indeed many overseas salary packages offer this as a benefit. However, if you are living and working in Belgium, you will still need to subscribe to the state system and your private insurance becomes an addition rather than a replacement.

If you are an EU national, the social security form E111 gives you rights to use the Belgian state system until you have organised an SIS card. You need to arrange for this form in your own country, not in Belgium.

Useful web sites

Online maps

Check the following sites for maps:

  • Maporama - an international site with lots of cities and options. Includes a route planner as well. The most accurate so far.
  • Mappy - a Belgian run site - type in an address or district and you get a zoomable map.
  • Via Michelin a nice route planer and map finder. Not as many Brussels addresses are available as Mappy, but produces nice maps for print outs.

Transportation web sites

Expatriate web sites

These websites have various sections, communities and information related to being a foreigner in Belgium and Brussels in particular. Some have sections ranging from buy and sell to expat dating. Definitely worth checking out:


Mobile researchers in Europe have their own network of more than 200 ‘service points’ in 32 countries to draw on for all kinds of support when moving between countries: visas, work permits, taxation, social security, healthcare, pension rights, accommodation, recognition of qualifications, to day care, schooling, language courses, social life and culture, intellectual property rights, and more.

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