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Living in Belgium - A Guide for Students

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

What's it like to study abroad in Belgium?

Belgium is a tranquil, open and welcoming country, known for its chocolates, beers and comics. But the country has a lot more to offer: museums, great countryside (which is generally flat so great for cycling), medieval villages and towns, fresh produce as well as varied and tasty food which benefits from a number of influences such as German, French or Turkish cuisines. You’ll find the weather on the mild side, with dry and hot summer (around 25°C) and winters which rarely go below -5°C, snow lasting more than a few days at a time.

Student life is not that different from other European countries and further afield: there are halls of residence, canteens/student refectories, student parties, societies and student jobs.

Key facts for Masters students in Belgium

  • The Belgian academic year usually runs from September to July.
  • Around 43,000 foreign students study at Belgian universities.
  • Austria spends approximately 6.6% of GDP on education as a whole and 1.5% on tertiary education.
  • There are three official languages in Belgium. Dutch (Flemish) is spoken by around 60% of the population, with the majority of the remainder speaking French. A smaller number speak German.
  • The currency of Belgium is the euro (€).
  • Belgium has a population of around 11 million, with around 1.8 million living in the region of the capital, Brussels.
  • Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, with a federal organisation and a democratically elected parliament
  • Belgium is a predominantly secular state, though it has a rich history of Roman Catholicism.

Culture, leisure and everyday life for Masters students in Belgium

You may have heard that Belgium is divided between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) and the Walloons (French speaking) but the country is, wherever you go, welcoming and Belgians are generous, relaxed and eager to share their culture and gastronomy. There is also a sense of order and rigor in Belgian life which can make things easier when you are settling in, although it may be a culture shock.

The whole country attracts curious tourists, keen to discover its quirkiness, from unusual sites (Manneken-Pis or Atomium), culinary specialities such as fries, fricandelles (best not to ask what it is) or waffles, or its cultural events such as carnivals, parades or les Géants.

A constitutional monarchy and independent since 1930, Belgian society comprises historically of very different groups of people. Belgium is located in Western Europe and has a population of around 10 million. Boasting a small coastline, Belgium is also surrounded by neighbouring countries, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

The country is proud of its capital, Brussels, which is home to nearly two million people, of which around 500,000 are expats. The second largest city is Antwerp, a trade centre for the diamond industry. Brussels is also the capital of Europe on a wider scale and of the region of Flanders on a local scale. At a crossroad in Europe, Belgium is where most of the European institutions (Parliament, Council of Europe, European Commission) are based as well as NATO and international corporations (around 1,000 multinationals are based in Brussels or its vicinity).

Business travel is a priority for the tourism industry. Every year approximately 14 million business people come to Brussels for conferences, exhibitions, meetings, fairs or European summits to meet with business partners.

Accommodation and living costs for Masters students in Belgium

It is generally quite easy to find accommodation in Belgium, with the exception of Brussels where the accommodation demand from local, business and expat communities is high. University residences, however, provide a good option in cities and many universities will reserve rooms/flats for international students.

Sharing a flat is not necessarily the most popular accommodation option amongst Belgian students, except in University residences and if you are going to live in a private accommodation, studio flats are widely available.

Accommodation types

Broadly speaking, your choice of accommodationas a Masters student in Belgium will be from the following three types:

  • University residences: individual single/double rooms (called “kots”), room-flats (kinda like a studio with private kitchenette and bathroom) or flats may be on offer.
  • Private or public residences managed by private companies or local/regional authorities.
  • Private sector.

Accommodation costs

University residences will have a range of facilities and therefore of price:

  • Single room: €220-250 ($280-320) (shared facilities) or €300-325 ($382-414) (en-suite)
  • Double room (per person): €120-140 ($152-178)
  • Studio flat: €300-400($382-510) (and may or not include utilities).

For private studios, the rent is likely to be €250-500 ($320-638) depending on the location, size (you’ll often see it described in m2) and the level of comfort/luxury!

General living costs

The Université de Liège has a handy cost of living guide. Although this is focussed on the city in Liège, prices are similar across Belgium, even in the capital Brussels. In general you’ll find the cost of everyday goods fairly reasonable, even so that people in neighbouring countries living near the borders, make the journey over for groceries, petrol, leisure (just imagine: “I'm just nipping to Belgium for some milk” which I actually did, on foot, when I lived in the Netherlands!). To find out about the price of everyday items, click here.

Working whilst studying a Masters in Belgium

Students who are EU nationals may be employed in Belgium under the same conditions as Belgians. There is no need to apply for a work permit. Please note that for nationals of Bulgaria and Romania, there is currently a transition period during which students from these countries require a work permit. A spouse and the children of an EU student may also work in Belgium, even if they are non-EU nationals, although you do need to be married and to be living together.

Non-EU students who want to work during the academic year, are required to have a category C work permit but not during the summer holidays. A work permit can be applied for at the Office des Etrangers.

Whatever your nationality, you can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to all postgraduate students. These could be a great way of topping up your funding if you have difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

Other useful information for Masters students in Belgium

The above information has hopefully given you a good idea of what to expect from life in Belgium as a Masters student. You should be ready to find accommodation, look for a job and go see the famous Manniken-Pis. There are a few other details you'll want to read up on before you head to Belgium though. 'Read more' for a concise guide to travel and health insurance for Masters students in Belgium.

Travel and transportation

With its central position in Europe, it is easy to travel to neighbouring countries by air or train from Belgium. Brussels is an international hub for air traffic and is connected to a large number of destinations. You can travel to Paris, London, Amsterdam or Berlin in under two hours, ideal for exploring, networking or if you are thinking of doing a placement/internship. Within Belgium, the transport systems are well established and reliable, offering trains, buses and excellent road networks. What will surprise you is the scale if you come for a large country. Even the capital is small despite its international and dynamic feel, but it still boasts an underground. Whether in the city or in the countryside, you won’t fail to notice how green everywhere is. In Brussels, for example, 14% of the city are green spaces.

Medicine and health insurance

In Belgium, health insurance is compulsory. As a student, you have access to what is called “mutuelle” which allows you to get your medical costs reimbursed. Depending on whether you are an EU or a non-EU nationals, there are different ways to cover the cost of such insurance.

If you are from an EEA country (EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), your national system covers you in Belgium. Before leaving your country, you must acquire a health insurance European card. This card will allow you to join a health insurance company (mutuelle) in Belgium and to have most of your medical expenses reimbursed.

If you are from a non-EU country, you MUST have health insurance cover during your stay in Belgium, either by securing cover in your home country or by taking out insurance in Belgium through your university (approximately €10 / $12 per month).

In addition, students who are enrolled at university in Belgium benefit from a liability insurance which protects you in case of accidents related to any university activities. Some international students, however, take additional insurance cover such as a comprehensive mobility insurance policy for the period of their studies.

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