Settling down in Belgium - anyone done it?

(77 Posts)
bigtalksmalltalk Mon 30-Aug-10 13:50:04


We are currently expats in Belgium and will probably move in the next 6 months for another overseas assignment. My husband and I are starting to think longer term and neither of us want to live back in the UK (recent trip there it felt much more materialistic, family unfriendly than Belgium). We would need to plan to come back to Belgium and "go local" and I wonder if people could tell me their experiences of schools (our 2 children are too young for schools) and general living. We live in a bit of an english expat bubble where we are and I would want to get away from this area. Even though we have been here 2 yrs I am ashamed to say I know little of the nuts and bolts of living here, tax, how to buy a property etc etc.

A big concern for me here over going back to the UK would be integrating and really feeling at home as opposed to being always with people moving on.

many thanks

OP’s posts: |
natation Mon 30-Aug-10 17:38:34

We´ve been in Belgium a couple of years and hope to be able to stay long term. We will do everything possible to avoid returning to the UK. Life for families here is very very different and far more positive.

There are some downsides, eg taxes are high, the more children you have, 3 or 4 is far better than 2, the more tax reductions you have, of course you have to balance this with the extra cost of the additional children, but if you look around, there are many many more Belgian families with 3 or more children than UK families.

Another downside is that Belgians really are very family oriented, they do not socialise too much after work with their colleagues, family is typically far more important than friends. I count myself lucky that my 2 best friends are Belgian and not expats, I have friends in both communities, without these 2 friends I would possibly have far different views.

Belgians buy earlier in their life than other nearby such as Germans and French, they are typically good savers, mortgage offers are more tightly controlled than in the UK, most would rent for a year or 3 whilst waiting for the right property, there are discounts on house purchase taxes if you live 5 years without reselling for purchasing a house is a bigger decision than in the UK I am guessing. House prices in Brussels though are very very high in certain areas.

Schooling is "different" to the UK, you will need to do your own research and feel comfortable with the different system of starting at age 2 1/2 full time which is the norm. Also language of schooling is a consideration when choosing where to live. After school activities are cheap and plentiful, the UK comes nowhere near Belgium in terms of availability.

Portofino Mon 30-Aug-10 17:58:19

I pretty much agree 100% with what Natation said. We have been here 4 years and think it is wonderful country to bring up children. We have no plans to move back to UK, but rent rather than have bought somewhere as DH is on a very good expat deal. In the long term we plan to buy a house in another European country - but for retirement.

I agree about the Belgian's being family orientated. People don't seem to mix with work colleagues out of hours in the way I was used to in the UK, so against what I expected, most of my friends are other expats. Though a few of my work colleagues have come to my house, and said they were very touched by the invitation.

We are also lucky enough to live in a great neighborhood. The children all play out together and our (mostly) Belgian neighbours are very friendly. In fact we are having a street party next week and the commune is actually contributing financially to this and providing a bouncy castle! Can't imagine such a thing in the UK.

LongtimeinBrussels Wed 01-Sep-10 22:59:53

I'm a bit late to this thread and agree with natation and porto about both the downside and upside of living here. I've been here 25 years and all three of my DCs were born here. We bought our house 20 years ago and are unlikely to move elsewhere because the stamp duty equivalent is high (12.5%) though I think this has helped keep the house prices down when compared to other capital cities. From speaking to my friends, I would say that people usually have to rent for longer than a few years to be able to afford to buy as they can be looking at a lot of money to be able to afford the taxes, notary and bank costs plus the deposit (I think it's very difficult if not impossible to get 100% mortgages like we did nowadays).

We have quite a few Belgian friends, all made through our DCs (parents of school friends). I guess speaking fluent French helped there though. We socialise with them more than we do with our English-speaking friends but to be honest have less fun with them when we go out as their sense of humour just isn't the same. That sounds a bit unkind and I don't mean it to be. They are lovely but in a less fun way!

School is very different to the UK both in a good way and a bad way. It is stricter which I think is a good thing but on the downside much more rigid and oldfashioned. The children tend to grow up more slowly than in the UK which I'm very happy about but there is very little creativity in the school system, especially when they go to secondary school. They do get Wednesday afternoon off when they can, in theory, do out of school activities but it has been my experience that the teachers use the Wednesday afternoon off as an excuse to set more homework (of which there is already a lot and it starts, along with exams, at the age of six). There is also (at least in the French-speaking system) a snobbism related to certain schools and even within the school to certain subjects (the clever children are expected to do Latin and Greek for example). All this is fine I guess if your DCs find school easy. Mind haven't so this colours my opinion somewhat!

If I'm honest, even after 25 years here, speaking French and Dutch and having Belgian friends, I still don't feel completely "integrated". My friends who are married to Belgians seem to feel more integrated than I do (my DH is Scottish). I don't feel I belong in the UK anymore either though!

If you do come back to Belgium, look up porto on the threads here as she organises our little mn Belgian group!

jzh Thu 02-Sep-10 01:10:37

I've lived in Brussels for over 4 years, now back in the UK. I would very much like to live in Belgium again. Gent, Aalter, Brugge, Antwerp from my perspective are great places. I've generally worked with flemings and that has coloured my view.

I'd echo the point that Belgians I know are very family oriented, but me, as a friend, I've found I've been very well accepted into the circle of my colleagues.

Yes, Belgians love to moan about taxes but they live in a great place. For me its a hidden gem

SkiHorseWonAWean Thu 02-Sep-10 08:17:58

Depending on where you buy, you can get a great deal. i.e., if you don't try and get a townhouse in Tervuren or Uccle! wink I got a beautiful cottage in the country with land for my horses for 142k. I sold within the 5 year period and didn't have to pay any CTG either - your notaris will be able to wangle it for you.

I've lived "here" (Belgium & NL) for 11 years. I came over in 99 intending to stay 6 months - and still appear to be here! grin

Personally I prefer NL now and although I really do miss the scenery of the UK, I love living here. I feel safe and I feel my son will be able to enjoy his childhood here. When you see hoodies outside the supermarket here they offer to carry your bags rather than steal them!

I'm not sure where we'll end up long term - but we've no plans to go back to the UK for at least a few years.

You're right - everyone complains about the taxes, but there really is more to life than tax.

The Belgians are family orientated - but some are willing to form friendships with outsiders - but these are likely to be slow-burning rather than everyone gets rip-roaring drunk and declare themselves beshmatesfurrever.

Just don't let them start putting fruit in your meat dishes and you'll be grand.

bigtalksmalltalk Thu 02-Sep-10 13:01:06

Thank you for the posts. I have really grown to like it here but I am frightened by all of the practical stuff of schools, buying houses, tax etc etc. I echo the comments about the UK - I feel my children will be better off here.

OP’s posts: |


natation Thu 02-Sep-10 16:11:39

Hi again,

schools should be fine, so long as you are happy with a different system, don´t worry about the language aspect, either for you or any children.

Buying houses, well I would take my time on that one. My best friend looked for 3 years before buying a house she liked and even more important could afford.

Tax, no avoidng really, but some things are cheaper here, like children´s activities, chocolate, beer, all the essentials in life! They more than compensate for having to pay more tax.

Friendships, I feel relatively integrated, until really there is a school social event and realise that compared to other parents, I know less of them, but we have not been here that long, just a few years. But the friendships I have here are very strong friendships, far stronger than ones I formed in the UK, I´m close enough to one Belgian friend that I consider her a sister and her parents I consider to be mine and when they say they love me and the kids, it really is from their heart and felt deeply in mine. So it does make me rather biased, I could not bear to leave behind my best friend or her parents or her children and return to the UK.

I do meet plenty of people who do not like it in Belgium, but most are couples or single people without children. Most families I know who have come from the UK are very happy to be living in Belgium.

belgo Thu 02-Sep-10 16:25:54

I'm pretty much as settled as you can get. This is what I understand: Buying a house can be expensive; while the houses themselves are still in the main cheaper then in the UK, you have to pay a contribution according to the size of the house. If you buy a relatively small house (three bedrooms for example and small garden), the contribution is less, but if you buy a larger house, then the costs will increase. It makes it harder to sell on and cover your costs. It's popular to buy a house via auction, which is what we did. It's also popular to buy an old house and do it up;but getting planning permission can be a hassle and complicated; so is getting a builder/ electrician etc. It helps to speak to people and ask for recommendations, Belgium is such a small country and so many people know each other and do each other favours but it is quite hard to infiltrate this.

Taxes are high and you have to fill in complex tax forms every june; but you can pay an accountant to do this relatively cheaply and most people I know then get a lump sum in tax back. People don't buy things on credit; the culture is more to save money rather then spend it.

It is better tax and benefits wise to have 3 or 4 children!

Are you on a language course? That will really help, especially when your children start school and need help with homework, and it mean you can join the patient/teacher association which is an excellent way of getting to know people.

Adults tend to do more organised activities and be friends with the people they went to school/university with - it is hard and takes a lot of perseverance to make friends with belgians but when you do, you will fine them to be very honest and responsible people.

scaryteacher Thu 02-Sep-10 23:30:35

We have been here for 4 years now and have another 3 to go, and would like dh to get a job here when his time in the RN is up, as we really enjoy living here. I'm quite keen for ds to go to uni here as it is cheaper than UK. Ds currently at the British School, but that is because I didn't expect to be here this long.

I live in Tervuren and some of the houses aren't too bad here if you look towards Moorsel and Vossem for example, and prices generally seem to be dropping. I'd still need a hefty mortgage even if we sold the UK house to afford anything like our hiring here.

Although I live in a very quiet Cornish village in the UK, I haven't found the transition to town life too onerous here. The lifestyle seems more laid back, and I don't feel threatened here like I do if I go into Plymouth for example. I do find it expensive here though for clothes and shoes compared to UK, but then, that's why the internet was invented, to let me shop elsewhere.

SkiHorseWonAWean Fri 03-Sep-10 06:58:03

On a more practical note, would you be entitled to a Belgian pension/health services in your old age? My parents briefly considered retiring to BE but the mutuelles got a bit pissy about her health prospects... I think it's important to remember that law here is not always reality and administration can make your head spin!

I also had "problems" living in a rural community that I suspected I was frequently overcharged for services, e.g., one time I questioned a 140 euro bill for my electric gates and he automatically made it 75! confused But then I'll bet there are many townies in the UK who move to the countryside and claim the same! wink

I've also met expats desperately unhappy in Belgium - but, in all honesty these would be the type of people unhappy with moving from Slough to Maidenhead! You know, too much geographical upheaval! wink

LongtimeinBrussels Fri 03-Sep-10 09:15:48

bigtalksmalltalk, as you are expats at the moment, I would just like to say that you are likely to find you would have to take a maybe significant cut in salary if you went "local". Taxes are high and so is social security (the equivalent of NI contributions), for both the employee and employer. The employer has to pay (I think) 12.5% of your gross salary to the government as their contribution to the NI in the UK - in Belgium that figure is 32.5%. This added to the high taxes makes Belgium one of the most, if not the most, expensive country in Europe to employ people. My dh is self-employed. As there is no employer contribution to SS, his personal contribution is higher than for an employed person. Despite the fact that he has a dependent wife and three dependent children for whom he gets a tax allowance, still 50% of his salary goes in tax and SS payments! (And that's without the 21% VAT you pay on everything you purchase!)

We also have both the equivalent of rates AND council tax. You only pay the former if you own a property of course and the latter depends on wherabouts you live. We paid €1600 last year.

The tax allowance for me means that financially it is not worth me working part-time (as he would lose his tax allowance and by the time I paid my tax and ss...) and I don't want to work full-time (my dh is away a fair bit).

Just some things to consider.

belgo Fri 03-Sep-10 09:31:28

As Longtimeinbrussels says, it is harder to work part time, because it costs the employer a significant amount of money to employ someone, they would rather just employ someone full time.

Regarding health care, everyone who is registered will have a SIS card and number which entitles them to a basic level of health care. You will still have to pay a certain amount towards the health care.

We have full hospitalization insurance, from dh's work, and I recommend you negotiate this with any work contract. Even with all these insurance policies, there can be unexpected costs. For instance you have to pay for medical prescriptions and I had to buy ds aged one a spacer for his inhaler, costing nearly 50 euros. This would have been completely free on the NHS.

But the system is humane, even unregistered illegal immigrants will still be treated in hospital. If someone requires long term health care and cannot pay, they will be given help from a social worker.

Because people understand the cost of health care, there is far less abuse of the system like I saw in the UK when people would expect everyone free - not just medical care but all medicines, transport to and from hospital etc. In Belgium it's expected that family and friends help the patients with hospital transport etc.

natation Fri 03-Sep-10 17:24:55

Scaryteacher, did you know that if you stayed in Belgium, your son could study FRO FREE at a Scottish University, that´s even cheaper than a Belgian university whilch costs 1000 euro or less in tuition fees per year, undergraduate courses only in French or Dutch or German (unless at a private insitution like Versalius).

Here´s a little link to free tuition in Scotland .... our eldest son I hope will study there, his French is not yet fluent enough for a Belgian university unlike his siblings, I have told him English and Welsh universities are no go due to the tuition fees .....

EU students, excluding those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, are entitled to free tuition for the minimum duration of your degree programme. You should apply to the Student Awards Agency for Scotland to have your fees paid. Information can be found on their website at:

LongtimeinBrussels Fri 03-Sep-10 21:11:42

Natation, I took ds2 to an open day at Heriot-Watt (near Edinburgh) and we were told by the saas representative there that because we were both born in England, ds2 would be considered an English student even though he has lived in Belgium his whole life. Ds2 was hesitating between H-W and Reading and because he preferred Reading at the open day chose there (he's got a loan for the tuition fees so it's not something we personally are concerned with). However I'm pretty sure we got bad advice because I have friends whose dcs weren't even born outside of England who are getting free education. Should have looked into more but he was after all an saas rep at a uni open day! Although ds2 preferred Reading, he may have thought differently if he'd realised it would most probably be free. (He's absolutely loved his first year there though so that's a relief!)

Scary, do you know much about Belgian universities? Most of our Belgian friends now have dcs going through the system. There is a lot of repeating of years and nearly everyone seems to do a "deuxième sess" (resits at the end of the summer). Approximately a third get through the first year (less in some courses) and that after the resits. Ds1's best friend was on an engineering course where only 13 out of 100 got through the first year! For a lot of courses this is partly due to the fact that there is no strict admission criteria but for his course there was an entrance exam! The elder brother of one of ds1's friends has done his first year twice, his second year twice and his third year twice. He's now going on to do his Masters (two years here in Belgium). If he takes two years to do each of those years, he'll be 28 by the time he finishes! When I told them that ds1 had finished his course (he's 21), they were amazed!

LongtimeinBrussels Fri 03-Sep-10 21:13:34

Sorry, overuse of exclamation marks there blush.

natation Fri 03-Sep-10 21:44:53

Nothing on SAAS website distinguishes British students born in England and Wales and living outside these countries at the time of application for funding and all other EU nationals. Just imagine if it were the case, all English and Welsh born people living in Scotland would have to pay too. I have English born relatives brought up in Scotland who have paid nothing to go through Scottish univerities since fees were introduced for Enlgish and Welsh resident students - rule is on residency not on nationality so even Scottish born students residing in England and Wales have to pay tuition fees in Scotland.

Ok maybe I am wrong.

natation Fri 03-Sep-10 21:59:11

Sorry about the long quote, direct from the SAAS website. If you are EU including and have lived in Belgium for the past 3 years before moving to Scotland to do a full degree, you are eligible for TUITION FEES PAID only, if a previous resident of Scotland, you get the full package of bursaries and loans.

EU tuition fees only award
To be eligible to apply for payment of EU tuition fees only, you must meet the following conditions.

◦You are an EU national (other than a person who is a United Kingdom national who has not utilised a right of residence), an EU overseas territories national or the family member of either.
◦You have been ordinarily resident in the EU, the EU overseas territories, elsewhere in the EEA or Switzerland for the three years immediately before the first day of the first academic year of your course (the relevant date). For the majority of students who start a course in the Autumn term, the 'relevant date' is 1 August.
◦You are taking a course of full-time study in Scotland and plan to graduate in Scotland.*

LongtimeinBrussels Sat 04-Sep-10 13:22:29

Thanks very much for that Natation. I was pretty sure (after the fact) that we'd been given bad advice. This most probably affected his decision as he thought he'd be paying €1800 in Scotland versus €3200 in England - a price he thought worth paying as he was happier with Reading. Had he known that Scotland would be free he may well have chosen to go there! He's happy where he is though (fortunately, otherwise that would have been yet another educational decision gone wrong that I could have beaten myself up about)so I guess it's neither here nor there now.

Whereabouts in Brussels are you?

italianmom Thu 09-Sep-10 18:16:23

Hello everyone, I also was looking for info on schools in Belgium. I hope you can answer a couple of questions.
From what I hear schools are very rigid. Is this hard on your kids? How is the relationship between teachers and students? Are the teachers allowed to be mean and rude to the kids? What do you hate about the schools? What do you like? Do your kids like school?

Thank you

natation Thu 09-Sep-10 19:02:12

I can only speak first hand about 2 schools that our children are at, the youngest are at a fondamentale, that's a combined maternelle (2 1/2 to 6) and primaire (6-12), the elder one has just started secondaire.

Our fondamentale is not particularly strict with negative discipline like detentions or sanctions, in fact I have never heard of it in our school, the children are expected to and appear in the main to do exactly as they are told. But from someone coming from the UK like I did, it does seem rigid in that the little ones keep to a routine of free play with parents until 9am, circle time, toilet, back to class for planned activity, morning snack, toilet, outside play, back to class for continuation of planned activity, lunch, sleep for youngest or outside play, then same in the afternoon.

I hear occasional shouting at children in class, but mainly the school is quiet and calm during lesson times - one of my best friends teaches maternelle so I often stay when other parents have gone to help her out and I volunteer during the lunch hour, so I get more of an insight than most other parents, I also know some of the other staff reasonably well. But this is MY EXPERIENCE, others may have not so happy experiences.

What do I hate about the school? Nothing except that it seems far too underfunded, even compared to other schools in the area.

What do I love about the school? Loads. The teaching staff are a great team, they unusually socialise outside work (Belgians don't often do this), they genuinely love their jobs and the children, are very motherly especially to the little ones.

Our kids absolutely love their schools, could not bear to remove them from where they are.

italianmom Thu 09-Sep-10 21:38:40

Thank you natation for your quick reply. Can you tell me more about secondaire school? I know students could be made repaet a year and I am just woundering how the all process works. I understand that sometimes it is actually better for a child to repeat a year and sometimes it is only fair that if the child doesn't apply hisself there should be a punishment, but it could also be very humiliating... Again what I am more worried about is the teachers. I am ok with rigid teachers but not with abusive teachers. I grew up in Italy, and yes it was many years ago, but some of my teachers in secondary school were definally abusive and they didn't care about doing their job. I don't want my kids to experience that.
Thank you very much again

LongtimeinBrussels Fri 10-Sep-10 00:01:32

Hi italianmom, what do you mean by rigid? Do you mean the routine as natation talks about or the inability to be flexible? I don't mind the routine rigidity but I find the inflexibility of the system (in my experience they follow everything to the letter, for example when marking work) oppressive. Overall I have found the system to be a discouraging one rather than an encouraging one which I think is also hard on the children. I also think there is too much learning by rote and not enough application. Information goes into the short term memory for tests but has little to "hang on to" in the long term memory. There is very little creativity too.

In the 19 years of taking my children to school, I have seen behaviour towards some children that I would consider mean though as far as I am aware but my own dcs have pretty much escaped this. I wouldn't say I've seen abusive behaviour though. As with any school, you will always find good and bad teachers, those that care and those that don't.

You can fail and therefore repeat a year anywhere in the school system, well most probably from 3rd maternelle onwards. As it happens relatively frequently I don't think the children necessarily see it as humiliating. My ds1 repeated a year (2nd year secondary) which wasn't a problem age-wise as he was born on the cut-off date but it made him lazy. You could argue that he had been lazy before and that's why he failed (and you wouldn't be wrong!) but repeating a year made it worse!

What do I like about the school? Well I do actually like some of what the discipline offers - the children seem to be well-behaved for the most part, they seem to be in less of a rush to grow up than their UK counterparts and they are allowed to be competitive (maybe too competitive though).

Ds1 absolutely hated the Belgian system and we moved him at the age of 16 (and to great expense, we will be poor pensioners!) to the British School. It was like night and day! Ds2 didn't mind but found school easier than ds1 anyway and dd enjoyed the first four years of primary because she had lovely teachers. However, she doesn't enjoy the large amount of homework and things to learn that she gets every week nor does she enjoy the two lots of exams she has to take every year (all from the age of six). She didn't enjoy 5th last year and is already saying she's bored after only just over a week back at school

I'm sure you can tell that I'm not as enthusiastic as natation. I think your judgment is also clouded by how easy your dcs find school. The Belgian system is fine for those who don't struggle but not for those who do.

italianmom Fri 10-Sep-10 05:14:27

Thank you for sharing your experience.It is definally hard to know what the right thing for the children would be. I do think it is good that the schools are very structured, but I definally don't want my kids to feel overwhelmed all the times they are in school.
You are talking about exams that the kids take every year, how stressfull these exams are in primary school? Are you still happy that your kids are growing up in Belgium?
Again, thank you for taking the time to share your experiences.

scaryteacher Fri 10-Sep-10 09:53:25

Problem for us Natation is that ds will go 6th Form in the UK as a boarder, as we don't know where we'll be, and also my dh is HM Forces, so we would be counted as English, as we have a BFPO address. Dh is also paid by HMG, so unless he gets a job at NATO before ds applies for uni we are stuffed. We know we'll have to pay anyway.

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