Life in Belgium 🇧🇪
Belgium is a small country in the heart of Europe with high living standards and great public facilities. It offers an excellent quality of life. The country has 11.5 million residents, most of whom speak English fluently.
Flanders, the northern part of the country, is Dutch speaking. Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium, is French speaking. In Brussels, the capital, most residents speak a combination of Dutch and French.
The main cities to live in are Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp. By international standards these are relatively small cities. Brussels has a population of about 1.2 million, Antwerp 1.1 million, and Ghent 500.000.
But Belgium is very much a car country and also offers many beautiful smaller accessible cities and towns to live in. Examples are Mechelen, Lier, Waterloo, Nazareth, Wilrijk, Grimbergen, Tremelo, etc.
Since the country is small and everything is close by, you probably won’t spend too much time in the car. Both forests and the seaside usually don’t take more than 1 hour to get to by car. And the railroad system (and metro system in Brussels) functions reasonably well.
Most expats tend to live around Brussels, Antwerp or Ghent. For couples with children, the public education system is excellent. There are also several different private schools for those interested.
Healthcare is easily accessible and mostly free.
Tech companies in Belgium
Most technology companies in Belgium are based in Flanders and around Brussels. Wallonia has been trying to catch up but still offers less IT job opportunities.
The country currently counts 3 unicorns: Collibra (based in Brussels), Odoo (Louvain-La-Neuve, in Wallonia) and Deliverect (Ghent, in Flanders). Unicorns are tech startup companies valued at more than $1 billion and generally recruit a lot of tech talent.
Other large IT employers in Belgium are:
- Local divisions of multinational companies, such as Microsoft, Siemens, Dell, SAP, HP, etc;
- Local telecom companies Telenet, Proximus and BICS, and Orange;
- SWIFT, the leading international payment network headquartered in Brussels;
- And the Belgian government throughout its different departments. Smals is one of the bigger players here, creating e-government services exclusively for the government
Aside from these larger employers, the country also counts many smaller companies (SMEs) with less than 50 employees. Many of these offer an excellent salary and great quality of life, and can be wonderful places to work at.
Remote working is widely accepted in Belgium: most companies allow techies to work remotely from home at least for a few days per week.
While we would love to list all small software and tech businesses in Belgium, there would just be too many. 😀 We have listed nine interesting companies in Belgium to work at here, or you can take a look on Linkedin, Creativeskills.be or Student.be (if you are just starting out).
A workweek in Belgium legally consists of 38 hours of work, and a workday can at most be 8 hours of work. Companies typically have working days of either 7 hours 36 minutes (= 38 hours/week) or 8 hours (= 40 hours/week).
When working 40 hours/week this is compensated with an extra 12 days/year of paid holidays per year. This is on top of the legally required 20 days of holiday per year, and 10 public holidays. Not too bad, right?
When you get an employment offer, depending on the country you are considering moving to, the salary offered will usually be expressed as a gross amount per year or per month (XX,000 EUR per year, or X,000 EUR per month).
In Belgium, an offered salary will usually be expressed as a gross salary per month. That means you will receive at least 12-times the gross salary quoted.
Legally you are also entitled to extra holiday pay: the required holidays you take off are compensated by the company, and you will receive an additional cash compensation to cover holiday expenses.
Holiday pay will be a bit less than a single month of salary (92% of your gross monthly salary), calculated pro rata based on the amount of months you have worked for the company in the previous year.
Aside from holiday pay, the company you work for is usually also required to pay you an end of year bonus equivalent to one month of extra salary ('13th month'). Most companies pay this regardless of the results of the company.
Some companies also offer a 14th month, plus an additional bonus sharing system. But this is less common.
This all seems complicated, but as an employee you can assume you are getting 13,92 months of gross salary per year. On top of this, companies also add a lot of different perks into your salary package (such as internet, a car, phone, computer, meal vouchers, etc) due to tax reasons.
As an example: if you’re getting a gross salary of 4,000 EUR/month, then you will be making at least 55,680 EUR/year (= 13,92 x 4,000), excluding perks and additional bonuses.
Interesting to know: on top of your salary your employer also has to pay the state an extra employer tax. That amounts to approx. 25% of your gross salary.
You don’t see this money on your payslip, but it contributes to your future pension rights that you build up in Belgium.
The example salary above of 55,680 EUR would cost the employer 69,600 EUR, excluding perks.
Capable IT and tech candidates are highly sought after in Belgium. The market has been constrained for years and there is a general shortage of candidates. This creates an opportunity for you!
Compared to other sectors in Belgium, salaries are high. Most positions pay well. And good candidates, including junior people, actually have a lot more negotiating power during interviews than they think.
HR firm Robert Half has done research wrt. average gross salaries in IT in Belgium. They came to the following conclusions:
This overview is split up in junior, mid-level and senior positions.
- Software development, individual contributor
- Software development, management
- Software, project management
- IT Infrastructure, systems engineer
- IT Infrastructure, network engineer
- IT Infrastructure, management
Taxes and social security
Salary information by itself is not very useful unless you also have an idea of the taxes and social contributions you need to pay. By European standards gross salaries in Belgium are high.
The downside: Belgium is a high income-tax country. In fact, the highest tax rate is 50%! This obviously has an impact on your after tax compensation.
The upside: companies tend to put together a salary package so that employees are well compensated through a combination of cash and perks. These perks are usually taxed in a more beneficial way (read: significantly lower than your cash salary).
Most tech employees, on top of their cash compensation, often receive a car, meal and eco vouchers, a laptop and phone including subscription, a tablet, and internet at home. This saves you a lot of (after tax) euros each month.
The exact salary calculation is complex. Based on your income level within IT you can likely expect to pay between 35% and 45% of your gross salary in a combination of social security and income tax – unless you can make use of a special tax regime.
As an example, a gross salary of 3550 EUR/month ends up being 2300 EUR/month after tax (~35% tax). With a higher gross salary of nearly 7000 EUR/month, you would end up with nearly 3800 EUR/month (~45% tax).
These salary tax contributions give you access to high quality healthcare and help you build up pension rights in Belgium. They also give you the right towards future unemployment benefits should you ever lose your job.
Belgium also has two available special tax regimes that can apply in certain situations. One for expats, and one for researchers.
The expat regime allows a company to exempt up to 30% of your salary from tax for a maximum period of 8 years. This regime was reformed in 2023 to attract more foreign talent to Belgium (meaning: you!).
The research regime is similar, but requires you to spend 80% of your time on fundamental research within a Belgian university or a company.
You can read more here about the Belgian expat tax regime.
Cost of living
Your living expenses are made up of different things: renting (or buying) a property, utilities, transportation, groceries, and leisure.
Let’s start with renting. Compared to other European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris or Vienna, cities in Belgium are not the most expensive to rent in. But they are also not as cheap as some southern European cities.
Rents are generally well balanced for the salaries one can make. And you can often save money by skipping the main cities (Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent) and moving out a bit further.
If you end up getting a company car as part of your salary package, this might make sense. Be mindful that the smaller cities and towns in Belgium have a lot less going on in the evening and weekends - it’s about finding a balance.
If you are young and single, and looking to meet up with people in the evening, city life is recommended. Apartment sharing is common in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels and you can get rooms starting from 400 EUR/month, sometimes including utilities.
If you’re a bit older and with a family, or just want more privacy, then you are looking at renting (or buying) a full apartment. Rents these days generally start around 800 EUR/month, and commonly go up to 1200 to 1400 EUR/month, excluding utilities.
Renting a house is also possible, but these tend to be more expensive. Expect rental prices of at least 1500 EUR in a larger city, and above 1000 EUR outside the city.
Depending on how well insulated your property is, combined utilities for an apartment (water, gas and electricity) should be at least 250 EUR/month. Most buildings in Belgium are heated with natural gas and have seen increases in their energy bill due to the Ukrainian-Russian war.
Your monthly grocery bill will depend on the size of your family, but based on the results of our Reddit poll (taken at the end of 2022) many families spend somewhere between 200 to 600 EUR/month. Most companies offer meal vouchers as part of a salary package.
Mandatory public healthcare fees are deducted together with your taxes from your gross salary payments. As a result, the copay paid by a patient requiring medical treatment is relatively low.
Visa requirements for moving to Belgium
Depending on whether you are a European citizen, you will need a visa to be able to stay in Belgium for more than 90 days.
European citizens (also including citizens of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway and Switzerland) enjoy the right of free movement within the union, allowing them to relocate to another European country for work purposes without restrictions.
But if you do not hold EU citizenship, you will need a work visa to relocate to Belgium. For most this will be a national long-stay visa, the so-called D visa.
Before you can apply for your work visa, you will need to find a job. When you have found a company willing to hire you, your future employer should give you a written employment contract in either Dutch or French. Once signed, the company can then initiate the application for your work permit. (You can also handle this process yourself through the embassy, but usually your employer takes care of this)
As part of this application, the Belgian government will want some additional information from you, including a certificate that you have never been convicted of a crime, a medical certificate, and proof of (future) health insurance.
Once your work permit is approved, you can then apply through your local embassy or consulate for your long stay D visa. There are some fees associated with this. Once your visa is approved you are good to go to make your move to Belgium!
Family members (spouse, children) can come with you to Belgium on a family reunification visa.
Acquiring Belgian citizenship
For non-EU citizens interested in acquiring a European nationality, and eventually being able to move freely and relocate within the Schengen area, Belgium offers most residents citizenship after 5 years.
Assuming you have been resident and professionally active within the country, Belgium considers you integrated in local society and you can request Belgian citizenship without having to take any tests. This is usually processed and granted within 4 months.
Moving to Belgium, practical steps
Ready to move to Belgium? Read our article with some practical steps on what this involves.
Life is good in Belgium. Taxes are high, but so is the quality of life and the opportunities the country offers.
Are you ready to make the move? Check out our article on moving to Belgium