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Expat Welcome Desk: Expert advice on day-to-day life in Brussels
Whether you’re newly arrived or been here for years, sometimes you need help with the day-to-day practicalities of Brussels life. Last year, the Expat Welcome Desk helped more than 2,000 people solve problems with accommodation, residence permits, income tax and much more – making a bridge between the international community and the Belgian administration. Amélie Bovy, legal adviser at the Expat Welcome Desk for the past eight years, explains more…
Who do you help?
It's mainly EU institutions staff, but we are open to anyone coming here - working for an international company, as a journalist, a lobbyist and so on.
What are the most common mistakes that new arrivals in Brussels make?
One is signing your rental contract too quickly, without knowing the law. The new Brussels Housing Code came into force on 1 January 2018 but we still see contracts that are not up to date. The trap is to sign the standard nine-year lease when you only plan to stay in Brussels for one or two years. In that case you'll pay a big penalty at the end. That is a big mistake that we see a lot of the time. We check the lease, explain the rules and the law (differences between a short-term and long-term contract), how to break the contract, how to get back your deposit, and how to deal with any dispute with the landlord. We do not act as a lawyer but we can guide and give a lot of advice.
The other mistake is to forget to register at the commune or to minimise the importance of such a formality. This is a mandatory procedure when you stay more than three months in Belgium and this step will be necessary for your daily life: opening a bank account, registering your car and getting a parking card, registering for Belgian health insurance. There are 19 different communes in Brussels and the system for registering and getting a residence permit is not always the same. They're not supposed to speak English, which doesn't help. We intervene very often in this kind of process.
Is it just for people who are new in town?
We have people contacting us for any problem they face during their stay. You could get a fine for your car that you don't understand, or have a problem with the Belgian administration. You might want to know how to get Belgian nationality. Even before the EU referendum in the UK we had people asking this question, but it's true that these last three years we have helped a lot of UK citizens (EU officials and their children, but not only) wishing to acquire Belgian nationality.
You must get all sorts of other questions?
We get questions relating to any matter, from how to import your car to obtaining a work permit and the social security system. We had someone who wanted to find out how to bring their cat with them to Brussels – so, yes, it can be very specific.
Do you see a big influx on new arrivals at certain times of the year?
For interns of the EU institutions it's mainly September/October and February/March. For other staff it's really throughout the year. We do have rush periods, such as for the income tax return. We know that during May/June we will face several questions every day.
You help fix people's problems. But can you help prevent them in the first place?
People often try something themselves, and it's at the end that we attempt to solve the problem. It's sad because often it's gone too far. That's why we try to help people in advance, so they can avoid these problems – by knowing the situation, knowing the rules, knowing the law. That's what we do here: taking our time to explain.
We also organise during the year several sessions to inform our target group and various seminars in English on precise subjects (tax returns, Belgium healthcare, rental contract etc). We write a monthly article in the newsletter be expat be.brussels (sent by Visit.brussels) on administrative aspects of life in Brussels.
How can people contact you?
Our three team members are easily reachable by phone. You can book an appointment to come and see us. Sometimes people just pop in, but as we are a small team, we recommend an appointment. And there are many questions that we deal with by email before people arrive in Brussels. We can give a lot of information by email. We speak English, French and Dutch – and the service is free and independent.
The Expat Welcome Desk reopens after a summer break on 16 August.
+32 (0)2 430 66 00
or arrange an appointment at 63 Avenue d'Auderghem in the EU district