Brussels serves as the seat of the European Parliament and is home to foreigners from around the world. If you’re an expat in Belgium, you’ll find a wealth of resources catered to your needs. Belgium has been moving towards becoming a cashless society and, as a result, has one of the most modern and efficient financial frameworks in the world.
If you’re just getting started and are wondering what you need to know to set up your own bank account once you’ve arrived, read on.
The specifics will vary from bank to bank, but in general you’ll need:
- A valid passport or Belgian ID card
- Proof of residence (a utility bill or rental contract usually works)
Most of the time, you’ll need to open your bank account in person, although some banks are offering the option to open one online. Once your account is opened, you’ll receive your debit or credit card via snail mail within a few days. However, if you’re keen to get it sooner, you can often arrange to pick it up at your local branch.
The good news if you’re hoping to open an account before you arrive is that many banks allow you to do it online. You’ll just need to submit your request to the bank and then they’ll send you all the forms you need to fill out. Many Belgian banks accommodate accounts for non-residents, too. However, in most cases you’ll be asked to provide proof of Belgian residency once you arrive. Certain banks may allow proof of residency from your home country, but you’ll need to ask your specific bank for details.
Another option that many expats choose is to keep their international bank account and check if there are any Belgian branches. If your local bank doesn’t have branches in Belgium, it may have partnerships with banks that do. Partnerships give you the added benefit of lower fees or completely free ATM transactions in addition to other benefits.
As a pioneer of cashless technology and digitised banking, Belgium provides a wide range of options for the web. Telephone and online banking services are generally included in your banking package, and in the rare case your bank doesn’t offer online services, you should probably find another one. While online is useful for checking your balance, sending payments, paying bills and changing your personal details, you can still visit your specific branch in person for specialised transactions.
Due to the large expat presence in Belgium, you’ll tend to find a bank with international capabilities and English-speaking services. The largest banks in Belgium are Belfius, BNP Paribas, ING Bank and KBC Bank.
In addition to their local banks, Belgium also has a number of international banks:
As a foreigner, you’ll probably want to know what you can get with each bank. To decide which is best for you, check out the basics of what these expat-friendly Belgian banks have to offer:
Headquartered in Brussels and owned by the state, the bank offers over 800 branches and 3000 ATMs.
- A range of current/checking accounts with monthly fees ranging from €1 for a basic current account and €17 for a platinum account.
- MasterCard credit cards for a €1 monthly fee.
- Special MasterCard for €6.50 per month with travel insurance and travel cancellation benefits.
Don’t let the name worry you, the bank is a subsidiary of BNP Paribas. They’ve got 789 branches and quite a few ATMs - 3,819.
- Investment and savings services.
- Free current/checking account for ages 18-27 with a personalised bank card, rechargeable prepaid card, a Visa card in the first year and access to savings apps.
- A comfort pack for managing money as a couple. They offer three current accounts for two people along with Visa classic credit card for a monthly fee of €3.
Much like BNP above, they’re a subsidiary of the ING group, offering all retail and commercial banking services, with more than 670 branches around Belgium.
- Free online current/checking account.
- Classic current account is €30 annually with 12 free debit transactions per year.
- Youth Account - free account for those under 18.
- Credit cards - you can choose either Visa or MasterCard.
A truly pioneering bank, they were the first digital-only bank in Europe. Also owned by BNP Paribas, they have millions of customers across Belgium, Austria, Germany, France and Italy.
- When you open an account they’ll give you either a bucket of paint or €50 in cash.
- Brokerage, insurance and loans services.
- Free bank cards for each account holder.
- Support via website, app and phone.
- Extensive digital capabilities via online and mobile app.
- Integration with Google Pay app.
Belgium is a modern and advanced financial centre which means banking there should be straightforward. While minor differences occur from bank to bank, you can expect quick customer service and automated digital capabilities.
Both debit and credit card payments are accepted at small and large retail operations. However, if you carry cash instead, you’ll generally find that it’s accepted in most places. It’s probably helpful to note that Belgium recently phased out €1 and €2 coins, so you’ll probably find it tough to spend those.
ATMs are located in most banks, as well as in various storefronts and high-traffic areas. If you’re using a machine outside of your bank network, however, you’ll likely be subject to ATM fees. The good news is that most ATMs will accept your card, even if it’s international.
Some ATMs are physically located inside of a bank, and lock their doors to non-members after-hours. Members have to use their bank cards to get inside. Otherwise, you can expect most branches to be open during standard business hours, Monday through Friday.
You’ll encounter a variety of charges for banking services, depending on your bank. While some online checking accounts are free, others with premium additions can cost you over €100 annually to maintain. If you’re a student or eligible for a youth account, you’re likely to find a free or low-cost account with access to debit and credit cards.
Most banks offer international money transfers, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a cost. EU transfers may tend to be on the cheaper side, while wider global transfers are subject to inflated exchange rates, service fees and even hidden charges.
Most banks use the SWIFT network to send your money outside the EU. And, despite it’s name, it’s not known for being so swift, and it’s definitely not cheap. Up to 5 banks will charge you a flat fee for sending money, so expats making international transfers can end up with rather unpleasant surprises. Not to mention the notoriously poor exchange rates that are generally offered. So with varying fees, banking systems that vary from country to country and long wait times, it can be difficult to plan ahead for money transfers.
To avoid uncertainty and unpleasant fees, use a service like TransferWise. If you have a bank account in Belgium or know someone who does, you’ll find the fees delightfully low, as well as transparent. Not to mention your money will be exchanged at the real exchange rate you find on Google, rather than at a sneakily low price.
Good luck on your new adventure in Belgium!