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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in Belgium

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

A constitutional monarchy 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, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

The country is proud of its capital Brussels, which is home to nearly 2 million people, of which around 500,000 are expats. Brussels is the capital of Europe and also capital of the region of Flanders on a local scale. Belgium is where most of the European institutions are (Parliament, Council of Europe, European Commission) 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.

Everyday life

Belgium is a tranquil, open and welcoming country, not well known other than for its chocolates, beers and comics. But the country has a lot 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 influence 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.

You may have heard that Belgium is divided between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) and the Walloons (French speaking) but the country, wherever you go, is 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.

Cost of living

The Université de Liège has a handy cost of living guide. Although this is focussed on the city of 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.

Remember that if you are receiving a salary from your university to undertake your PhD, you will have to pay taxes (which are generally taken directly from your pay by your employer) and you may therefore not have access to student discounts.

Getting there and getting around

With its central position in Europe, it is easy to travel to neighbouring countries by air or train. 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 going to conferences. You’ll also have easy access to number of research facilities and resources. 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.


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 or 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. Broadly speaking, your choice of accommodation will be from the following three types of accommodation:

  • University residences: individual single/double rooms (called “kots”), room-flats (like a studio with private kitchenette and bathroom) or flats. Some universities will have reserved spaces for research students.
  • Private or public residences managed by private companies or local/regional authorities.
  • Private sector.


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

  • Single room: €220-250 (shared facilities) or €300-325 (en-suite).
  • Double room (per person): €120-140.
  • Studio flat: €300-400 (and may or not include utilities).

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

Visa, immigration and work permits


If you are from a country of the European Union then your identity card or passport is sufficient.

For postgraduate researchers from non-EU countries, you need to apply for autorisation de séjour provisoire (ASP) or temporary residence permit, which can be obtained from a Belgian consulate or embassy in your home country. To apply for your APS, you will need:

  • An offer of admission letter from your institution.
  • Proof of financial support during your studies, currently €525/months OR evidence of a scholarship/bursary/research staff contract which would cover this amount OR a combination of the two.
  • Medical certificate which shows you have been cleared of quarantinable diseases.
  • A certificate of good behaviour (equivalent to a criminal record check), which can be obtained from your local police station.
  • A valid passport for the duration of your PhD.
  • Completed visa form.

Registration on arrival

Anyone who lives in Belgium for longer than three months must sign up to be included on the registre des étrangers (foreigners’ register), and that includes EU and non-EU research students. To do this you must first obtain a declaration d’arrivée (arrival declaration) from your local town hall. This must be done within three days of arrival. Once this is done you will have to go to your local Office des Etrangers (foreigners’ office) to obtain a carte d’identité d’étranger (foreigner’s identity card) and for that you will need to provide:

  • Your student visa (for non-EU students) or a workers’ visa depending on your PhD status (student or employee – check with your university which one applies to you best).
  • Your passport.
  • Proof of enrolment/employment at your institution.
  • Proof of address.
  • Three passport-size photos.

Remember your visa is a Schengen visa which allows you to freely move from one country to another in the Schengen area.


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. If you have a spouse and children and you are an EU student they 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. If you are employed by your university to do your PhD, your university will advise you but you are likely to need a work permit.

Medical and personal insurance

In Belgium health insurance is compulsory. As a student and/or research staff you have access to what is called “mutuelle” (student or not, depending on your status) which allows you to get your medical costs reimbursed. Depending on whether you are an EU or a non-EU national, 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/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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