It feels like Belgium might just have one of the most bureaucratic and tricky systems of welcoming foreigners.
Before you begin reading this intentionally light-hearted take on an otherwise frustrating start to my expat life in Belgium, let me just say that the content is based on my experience and is intended as entertainment. It should not in any way be construed as advice; it's just me making light of the somewhat complicated series of hoops that I've had to find and leap through!
It didn't help that we moved from New Zealand to Belgium in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when everyone was grappling with drastically changed processes, and much of life had moved online.
On a side note, my partner, Nico, is a Belgian citizen, although that didn't spare him the painful process of helping me navigate the Kafkaesque system that is the Belgian administration.
1. The Arrival - Sep 9
We landed in Belgium, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after an intense 59-hour journey from our two-year life in New Zealand. We'd had such a great experience with immigration and general bureaucracy there, so we naively thought we would just spend the first few days and weeks getting everything settled in our new home. That was a significant underestimation in time.
2. The Declaration of Arrival - Sep 10
Armed with bucket loads of online research, including wading through the British Embassy site, the official Belgian government pages and practically every single Belgian expat site available, I understood that I needed to declare my arrival at my local town hall within eight days of arrival:
Screenshot from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/living-in-belgium#residency
3. The Self-Isolation - Sep 10-23
All well and good, aside from the global pandemic wreaking havoc out there, meaning we were required by the Belgian authorities to self-isolate for fourteen days. So what about that eight day mark?
Online research to the rescue! I found a little nugget on the Belgian government's website indicating that, due to the pandemic, I could simply email my declaration instead of showing up in person. Problem solved.
Please note that this website used to say just email firstname.lastname@example.org with your application details. It has recently been updated to show that in fact, you must now come in person.
4. The First Email - Sep 10
So, I set about emailing my town hall everything they had asked for, all carefully marked in bullet points, documents labeled and attached.
5. The First Response - Sep 15
Five days later, I received an email back:
6. The Questionnaire & The First Appointment - Sep 15
Alright! A questionnaire! This will solve everything - a real, tangible step-by-step system that will prove I have done my due diligence. Right?!
Questionnaire completed, I was informed that the earliest possible appointment at the Immigration Centre was November 25th. Not quite eight days after my arrival, but seventy-seven days. Strange.
Screenshot from: https://www.brussels.be/choose-your-step
7. The First Phone Call - Sep 16
I decided it was time to talk to a real person who could help untangle the web of conflicting suggestions and so I found a phone number for the City of Brussels.
Much to my despair, the person on the other end spoke no English. So with my faithful interpreter (Nico) in tow, we were put through to another department. The call failed. We called back and were given the other number to call direct. It didn't work. We called again a third, fourth and fifth time, but by then no one picked up anymore - I suspect they were fed up with us calling.
We tried again a few hours later and thankfully, someone actually picked up. Still in French, alas, which resulted in the following translation courtesy of Nico.
The person on the phone was absolutely, assuredly, 100%-positively convinced that anyone with a British passport (me) did not need to register at the town hall. After all, Brits were still European (until Brexit). So basically, they said I had the right to work, the right to live and the right to everything all Europeans do within the EU.
That November 25th appointment was simply, according to our new friend, a formality to properly prove that I was a resident of Belgium, before Brexit occurs on December 31st.
8. The Appointment To-Dos - Sep 16
According to the appointment confirmation email, I had to bring a few things with me. One of which was a certificate from the local Actiris branch to prove I was a job-seeker. Actiris is essentially an employment agency that helps people to find jobs in Belgium.
9. The Actiris Appointment - Sep 25
I called and scheduled an appointment at the local Actiris branch and was told that all I needed to bring was my passport.
Upon arrival, I learned that actually you cannot register at Actiris unless you are already registered with your local town hall. Which is interesting, since in order to register with the town hall, you need to be already registered with Actiris.
This was the first of several circular events, where one thing needed another thing that also needed that first thing.
After being told off (in French) for showing up without said town hall registration, I was starting to feel disheartened. Somehow, Nico convinced the clerk to give me a certificate of job-seeking, with the clause that I would not be able to use any of the 'perks' of the Actiris system, such as free French classes, something that I clearly desperately needed.
10. The Town Hall - Sep 30
After mulling over the fact that we had received the wrong information somewhere, we decided to drop in at the town hall to try to declare my arrival for a second time. Armed with all the documents that I had sent in with that initial email, we set off.
Upon arrival at the town hall, I was promptly informed that due to COVID-19, you can no longer simply 'show up at your local town hall to register.' Never mind that this is what is recommended on the British Embassy website. Instead, we were given the phone number of someone who works somewhere in the town hall's immigration department...we think. It was never clarified.
11. The Second Phone Call - Sep 30
We immediately called the number and, after a lengthy conversation, were informed that I should resend my initial email to a new email address so that we could essentially begin the process all over again.
12. The Second Email - Sep 30
Right away, I sent an updated version of my original email and also asked for confirmation about that November 25th appointment.
13. The Second Response - Oct 5
Five days later, an email arrived. By now we had moved from our AirBnB into a hotel, just a few weeks away from moving into our new apartment. While I didn't get an answer about that November 25th appointment, I was told:
14. The Third Email - Oct 19
With those original eight days well and truly in the past, it turned out I couldn't even register until we'd moved in to our apartment. Thankfully, I just had to wait two more weeks and the day we moved in, I promptly resubmitted for a third time, my declaration of arrival.
15. The Third Response - Oct 20
Ah ha! The mysterious person behind this email is going to handle my file. When? Not sure. All I can say with certainty is "definitely not within eight days."
16. The Appointment Cancellation - Oct 21
I did what I was told and went ahead and cancelled the initial appointment I had so painstakingly spent days trying to book. As a reward, I received an email asking me to be patient!
17. The Fourth Email - Oct 22
Six weeks after landing in Belgium, I received a job offer. Now I was no longer the job seeker I had declared myself to be way back in early September, rendering my visit to Actiris useless.
I emailed to explain that my status had changed from 'job seeker' to 'employee' and to please, very kindly, make that change to my file.
18. The Fourth Response - Oct 28
And then I received my National Number. Just like that I had the confirmation that - after forty-five days in the country - I was now in the National Register of Belgium. Oh and could I please fill out some more paperwork, thanks.
I still had to wait for the next step: being visited by the police to prove I lived where I said I did. Until that happened, I wouldn't be able to collect my National Identity Card.
19. The Police Come to Visit - Nov 4
Completely unannounced (even though I had been told they would let me know when they would be visiting) - a policewoman rang our doorbell. Thankfully we were both home at the time to show our IDs and prove we lived in our apartment. The policewoman sweetly apologized for the lengthy delays but was unable to tell us how much longer we had to wait. No surprise there.
20. The Fifth Response - Nov 9
I heard back from town hall a few days later. It was time to make a new appointment at the town hall to collect my National Identity Card, so I followed the link provided and booked one of just a few time slots left in very late December.
21. The Second Appointment - Dec 21
Six weeks later, I eagerly walked into the town hall to pick up my brand new ID, silently celebrating the end of the process. Alas, it turns out I had once again been misinformed and I was only being summoned to supply my signature, a photo (which I had emailed them two months ago) and an administration fee of €26.
I was then informed by the less-than-sweet man behind the desk that I would need to wait another couple of weeks for a letter to arrive at my house that would contain instructions to book another appointment to collect my card. Why this couldn't come by email, I couldn't tell you.
But with Christmas fast approaching, I was about to enter the New Year technically a Belgian resident, albeit lacking the physical proof.
22. The Third Phone Call - Dec 22
The next day, instead of faffing around with the online system, I called the town hall and asked if I couldn't just book my appointment now without the letter. In a stroke of luck, the wonderful woman on the other end of the phone happily booked a January 14th appointment for me. I danced with joy.
23. The Third Appointment - Jan 14
On a cold and snowy morning in Brussels, a big smile under my mask, I walked into the town hall and came out bearing my ID card with my photo, my signature...everything in the form of a hard, green plastic E card, signifying a major milestone in this process.
I wish I could say that's the end of the journey. But alas, this is Belgium and I'm a Brit, and naturally that means Brexit has to cast a shadow across all this hard-earned joy.
In late December I received a letter from the Ministry of Immigration informing me it was time to apply for my NEW residency card. I hadn't actually received my first one yet (my E card), but Brexit now required British immigrants living in Belgium to carry an M card, which would signify our rights under the Withdrawal Agreement.
I had to wait to receive my E card to start the process for the M card, which I have now begun. But that's a story for another day and who knows how long that process will take. The person I asked this question of at the town hall stated, "literally no one knows."
So that's reassuring.