Welcome to Belgium! Whether you come for your master studies, a PhD, your first job or one of many, Belgium is a lovely country where “nothing is far” and there are plenty of things to do and to visit.
Which city you should choose to live in? What processes do you need to confirm your stay is legal? Which bar or pub should you visit that does not have many ratings, and may not come to the top of your search results on Google or Tripadvisor? What time periods should you plan your holidays around? Which apps are useful to use for those staying for a longer period of time, and what other kinds of things should one consider if they are making the move to Belgium as opposed to just a short visit?
Look no further, after asking current CommUnity members what they would recommend, the Leuven CommUnity has prepared this paper to guide you through the marvelous Belgium.
Belgium is a country with three official languages: French, Flemish (Dutch), German. Bruxelles is the only one where French and Flemish are officially recognised at the same time and signposts will include both languages. Otherwise the country is divided in two macro regions: Wallonia in the South (French side) and Flandres in the Northern part (Flemish). The most famous cities of Belgium (like Antwerp, Leuven, Gent, Genk, Hasselt, Bruges) are placed in the Flemish side except Liege and the small Namur that are in Wallonia nearby the German border.
As a Master or PhD student you will probably end up in KU Leuven, although UGhent and UHasselt are growing and expanding at a fast pace. Moreover, Antwerp offers many working opportunities and it is very well connected with Holland’s most important cities in the northern side of the country, as it is placed at the border between these two countries. The French side offers instead opportunities in Liege and in Louvain-la-neuve for the presence of the French side of the KU Leuven. Beware not to confuse Louvain-la-neuve with Louvain when in a French train station or in Brussels! Beware that Brussels most used language is French.
How to get started in Belgium
If you come as a Master student all the information you need is usually given in English by your university, and this information is really useful to move your first steps in the city. Also for non-students, these guides contain all the info regarding the public organization of the city you will live in. Few links can be found here:
- Leuven (KULeuven) - Registration guide for European and non European students. Browse the website for more about other information on the city.
The most important documents required are the house accomodation contract and your student/working contract. KU Leuven usually provides this as soon as you register. Otherwise you have 8 days after the housing contract starts to report yourself to the stadhuis (cityhall) of your city. In Leuven the amount of international students is so high that you need to get an appointment first. If you get there few days later after the 8 days span it is not a problem. At this point you should be able to provide your housing contract, a work/student contract or a student agreement, up to 3 photos ID/passport style and don’t forget your ID/Passport and Health Insurance Card/Papers! The health insurance should cover the period of your stay; if not, you need to go back to your country to get a new one. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the rest of the documents ready, you have up to 3 months to report your contracts signed and depending on your short/long stay you need to provide other documents.
For PhDs the legal status is “student,” so differently than other countries you are treated as a student (discounts, no taxes) while getting paid by the university of your reference.
- Brussels Zaventem: 10/15 minutes from Brussels and 20 minutes from Leuven by train (1 hour by bus, but much cheaper) and it is directly connected with the major cities of Belgium. It is the international Belgian hub. It is highly suggested to use this airport for transfers. Beware that access to the airport by train is taxed, therefore common tickets must be integrated with a Diabolo tax.
- Charleroi (Brussels sud) - Ryanair hub for cheap flights. It is based in Wallonia and it takes up to 1 hour and a half from Brussels (2 hours from Leuven, without a car). More than Brussels south, it is Belgium South.
- Liege, Antwerp, Courtrai-Wevelgem are much smaller but if they feel nearer to you you should get them a try. Maastricht, Eindhoven, Colon are also quite accessible if you live in Genk, Hasselt or you can either consider Amsterdam if you live in Antwerp.
International train connections:
- Low speed international Dutch rail train that goes from Brussels to Amsterdam;
The use of Thalys is amazing, first class high-speed train with good student fares (29€ Paris - Brussels, 2 hours time). This train covers different cities:
- Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam, Amsterdam
- Paris, Brussels, Liege, Colon, Aachen, …
National train connections:
They are operated by NMBS/SNCB and you can identify them with a B logo. They are really useful to move between cities and the most important lines are:
- Oostende - Genk/Hasselt or Oostende - Liège. This line connects directly Gent, Bruges, Brussels and Leuven.
- Hasselt - Antwerp and it goes through Leuven and the airport.
Good to know tricks:
- Go Pass 1: Cost reduction for less than 26 years old (you are always asked for ID)
- Go Pass 10: 52€ for less than 26 years old, 77€ for 26 years old or more. This pass works between two Belgian cities and it is not valid for the airport! However, if you are crazy enough to use Charleroi Airport or you want to visit other cities it is quite convenient. (Brussels - Leuven is the cheapest ticket at 5.5€ euros). Little detail, you must write your journey on the ticket, so remind yourself to keep a pen with you every time you travel!
There is also a Dutch train going from Brussels to Amsterdam, which I don’t know much about.
The buses are managed by different companies in Brussels, Flandres and Wallonia. The one most of you will deal with is De Lijn, which works in all Flanders. You can use the same tickets in Ghent, Leuven, Antwerp or Hasselt. From Hasselt it is possible to go to Genk/Maastricht or to Aachen in more or less one hour. It is also possible to travel from Leuven to Brussels. Although this solution is slower than by train (1 hour vs. 30 minutes), it is cheaper.
The companies active in Brussels can instead be found here.
Good to know tricks:
- If you are KULeuven, there is an opportunity to buy a discounted De Lijn annual transportation pass when you register. For a special pass only for Leuven it is 20€, while employees and PhD can ask for a discounted annual pass valid all over Belgium for nearly 90€, instead of 320€. This pass can be used everywhere on De Lijn.
Sim card and internet
In Leuven until last year there was a service (kotnet) connected with the University that gave internet for free to students, until a certain amount of data (frustrating most of the time). I unfortunately believe kotnet is going to be phased out in Leuven and I don’t know what will substitute it. If you instead need to get your own internet subscription you can choose among Proximus, Telenet, Scarlet, Orange and few others. Telenet is the biggest provider and they are fast and reliable. Proximus has a very nice student option, but beware that it may take one or two weeks before they install it. Scarlet is known to be the cheapest, but it is the low cost company of Proximus and sometimes it has no connection at night, which can be frustrating when you have to deliver a last minute entry.
Concerning the SIM Card, you don’t really need a Belgian number, even less if you are an european student. Most of the national services won’t be able to contact you by phone and they will do that directly through email. If you instead come from outside europe you can consider the companies said before for the internet.
This city will get a stand alone section due to the high percentage of Master students that will check this guide to study at KU Leuven.
The most useful stores you will get to know in your year there are going to be:
- Velo - Here you can rent a bike for around 70 euro per year and a deposit of the same amount. You can get your bike fixed whenever you want during the whole year and if it gets stolen… Anyway for the same price you can get a second hand bike from students leaving the city through the Facebook groups Leuven Junk Shop and Leuven Second hand Shop.
- Colruyt - It’s the cheapest food store in Leuven with a wide range of products and good vegetables and fruits. They also have paper and pens for school from the cheap brand “Everyday”. But keep in mind that they only take cash or belgium cards (Bancontact circuit).
- Spit - If you need dishes, furniture, vacuum cleaner or anything else. This is a cheap second hand store where you can find a lot!
Otherwise there is a lot being sold in the facebook groups linked before. If you are a PhD student, the best periods to get occasions in the early February or in June/July and in August as people leave the country and need to sell everything.
International life in Leuven
One of the most remarkable facts of Leuven, as a city and as a university, is the high average level of English, which makes it easy to communicate with anyone. If you want to experience it first-hand, I recommend you to participate in the Orientation Days. Many activities are organized to get to know what the city has to offer. These days also allow you to get to know different organizations, groups and programs you can join and where you can spend time with people from your country, people who share your hobbies, etc.
The first point of contact for international activities is Pangaea. Pangaea is a must-go for all the KULeuven associates. There you can find board games, happy hours on Fridays (2 belgian beers for the price of 1!), or just to have a coffee with a free refill policy in an inspiring atmosphere. Pangaea also organizes activities to get to know Belgium from a different point of view.
Moreover, the ESN Association is always eager to help international students, organize travellings and even sport activities and parties. ESN membership is usually granted to all the international young people, independently from being an erasmus students.
Places to visit
As you can read in many tour guides, Brussels is a nice place to visit, it is worth even just to have a walk in the centre. Since it is the capital of Europe, it is mandatory to pass by! There are lots of museums and exhibitions all over the center (very close to the central station). The best recommendation is to follow them on Facebook or just randomly walk the center. A super famous stop in Brussels is Delirium Café, mostly famous for its own personal beer brand, it offers 3162 different beers and it has the world record for the highest amount of different beers offered. However, if you live in Leuven, you probably want to try the The Beer Capitol with more than 500 varieties of beer.
Another monument to be visited in Brussels is the Atomium, a landmark building a bit far from the center (but worth it!) that hosts a museum and temporary exhibitions.
Last thing about Brussels is the Rue Neuve, which is a busy shopping street where you can find the most famous brands. My advice would be to get off the train in Brussel-Nord and have a walk until the center.
Apart from Brussels, four more cities are a must in Belgium: Ghent, Bruges, Namur and Antwerp.
In Ghent you can have an amazing walk through the medieval center (it is worth to visit the Gravensteen castle), where you will be surrounded by magnificent churches and bridges.
Bruges is the capital of West Flanders, with a borough of cobbled streets, full of characteristic bridges and canals.
I would suggest to visit both Ghent and Bruges in the same day, since the characteristic city center isn’t too big. It is possible to buy only the ticket to Bruges and this allows you to stop in Ghent and jump on the train again after your visit to continue the trip.
Namur hosts the Citadel, an amazing medieval fortress at the confluence of the Meuse and the Sambre. It is really worth spending half a day walking in the gardens and climbing up the Citadel to enjoy the magnificent view over the two rivers.
Antwerp is one of the most populous cities in Belgium and it hosts one of the biggest ports in the world. First, you will arrive in the central station, which is a four platform-level building: already a beautiful place!
It is possible to use the bike sharing service and I would recommend it. It is also possible to get a daily bus pass or to walk around. There you can also see trams going underground like a metro.
With the bike you can easily reach the port, where I recommend visiting the “Museum aan de Stroom”. The top floor is anyway independent from the visit path and leads to an amazing view of the port and of the whole city below.
In the center you will sense the intense history of trading and a walk in the oldest diamond district in Europe will show you the splendour and the great trades that used to take place in this area.
But the places to visit are not finished yet! There are plenty of smaller places worth visiting in Belgium. A place I would recommend is the coast between Oostende and De Panne. Some people also goes there to bathe in July, the only summer month of Belgium.
The best way to enjoy the sandy beaches is to rent a car, because this way you can reach some places otherwise impossible to be reached by train. Just across the border between Belgium and France, there is the National Reserve of the Dune Marchand, where you can also see some bunkers from the second world war and the French city of Dunkirk.
In collaboration with the CommUnity Post