Life in Belgium
Belgium: A History Lesson
Belgium has been an independent nation since 1830. The size of the state of Maryland, it has a sovereign, King Albert II, and is internationally known for over 700 distinctive and delicious beers, fine chocolates, lace, comic strips, and frites (french fries).
The most striking feature of modern Belgium is its division into two main language groups, Dutch (specifically the Flemish dialect) and French. Both languages are used in the Parliament, in all official publications of the central government, and are taught in schools. North of Brussels, Dutch is the official language; to the south, it is French. And near the German border, in a small area added to Belgium after WWI, the official language is German.
Brussels and its immediate surrounding areas are bilingual. Consequently, street names in Brussels are always in both French and Dutch. While many Belgians speak English, especially among government officials and in the business community, a working knowledge of French or Dutch is helpful. Moreover, because of Brussels' political and geographical position in Western Europe, languages are definitely an advantage. Fluency in English plus another European language will also add to your chances of securing an internship or a job.
Life in Brussels
Whether it is your first time in Brussels or you call Belgium home, there are many sights to see and places to visit that will enhance your educational experience in this historic city. Founded in the year 979, Brussels is now the capital of the European Union, the location of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Supreme Allied Command, and the European headquarters for more than 2,000 international companies.
Brussels' history manifests itself in the different architectural styles that abound throughout the city. Gothic cathedrals and churches contrast with beautiful art nouveau and art deco houses and the classical facades of the Royal Square (Place Royale-Koningsplein). From Cinquantenaire Park to the Royal Palace, history buffs can view monuments to the city's past, while modernists can enjoy the presence of twentieth-century landmarks like the Atomium—Brussels' Eiffel Tower.
Belgium borders France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. By train from Brussels, one can be in Paris or Amsterdam in less than two hours. You do not have to leave the city, though, to enjoy a consummate European experience. A cosmopolitan city in every respect, Brussels is home to world-famous beers, haute cuisine, and the best chocolate on the planet. Given the city's central location and cultural character, it is no wonder that Brussels is considered by many to be the heart of Europe.
The Belgian government website
contains important information for the Belgian community, business professionals, as well as visitors, in various languages.
The Belgian National Rail System (SNCB/NMBS) gets you around Belgium easily and relatively cheaply. Just go to belgianrail.be to check schedules and purchase tickets on line which you can print at home or add to your mobile phone.
For travel throughout Europe, Thalys high-speed trains run from Brussels' Gare du Midi to Paris and Amsterdam. The trip to Paris takes approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes; to Amsterdam it takes approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes. TGV trains connect Brussels to more than 30 French cities, while ICE trains travel at high speed to Frankfurt or Cologne, Germany.
Eurostar trains leave for London from the Gare du Midi. This trip takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes.
STIB (Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles) is Brussels' public transport system—one of the safest and most affordable in Europe. It provides service by metro, tram, or bus. A map of the transport system can be obtained from any of the metro booths selling tickets. Note: trams and buses often stop on request only. To hail a bus or tram, raise your hand; to board, push the green strip running vertically in the middle of the door. Buses and certain trams have an exit button that you must push to disembark.
Commuters traveling alone late at night should be cautious in certain underground stations such as Rogier, Simonis, Botanique, Gare du Midi, and De Brouckere.
Tickets include singles, five-journey cards, and ten-journey cards. These can be bought at almost any main metro station. Single tickets can also be purchased on buses and trams. Monthly and yearly passes and special reductions for those under 26 can be obtained at the Rogier, Midi, and Porte de Namur stations. A passport photograph is required.
The Airport Line is an express connection linking Brussels National Airport to stops in Brussels. The journey takes approximately 30 minutes.
Working in Belgium
As a student residing in Belgium with a student visa, you are eligible to work up to 20 hours per week (outside your course of studies). Visit the ORBEM or BGDA office to obtain the application for a Work Permit C.
*Please note that eligibility to work does not guarantee a job placement.
Registering with a Commune
Since each of the 19 Brussels communes have their own procedure, the registration process can take anywhere from two weeks to three months. Initially, you must present yourself at the Enregistrement des citoyens étrangers dans la commune/Vreemdelingen—Foreigners Registration Office of the Maison Communale (Town Hall).
The Foreigners Registration Office will give you precise details on what they will need to process your identity card. Note that their hours of operation differ from the general office hours of the town hall. Be prepared to wait, and make sure you have all the necessary documents. Also be sure that you are issued a carte identité for one year (expiration is normally October 31 of the following year).
Please be advised that after you present yourself to your commune, they will contact the communal police to confirm that you are living at the address given. The police will make a "house call" by checking that your name appears on the external building (both the doorbell and the mailbox). They may also want to view the apartment, or if you are not home they may ask you to come to the police station. This is normal practice. Further, each commune charges different fees (€5-15) to process your carte identité.
Valid driving licenses issued in EU countries are also valid in Belgium. Non-EU nationals may use their own license or an international driving license initially, but will need to apply for a Belgian license if their stay exceeds 90 days. To apply for a Belgian license, you must formally establish residency in one of the communes. Then bring your existing license, two passport-type photos, and your residence permit to your local town hall.
Nationals of EU countries, Israel, Japan, Malta, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Switzerland, and the US can exchange their own licenses for a Belgian one without having to take a driving test.