Contemplating a move to Belgium is quite a task in itself, however once you have made the decision to relocate, there is then the rather complex exercise of figuring out immigration regulations, spousal rights and customary red tape. Who better to enlighten us on the ins and outs of the Belgian immigration system than the experts themselves, Fragomen. We’ve asked them the burning questions you want to know the answer to – whatever stage of the immigration process you are approaching, they’ve got it covered.
It is key to find out if you need a Belgian visa or permit to visit, live, work or study in Belgium. The Belgian legislation applicable to the employment of foreigners makes a distinction in the rules applicable to the right to enter and stay and the rules applicable to the right to work.
What kind of preparations are recommended before relocating to Belgium in regards to immigration and visas?
“It is key to find out if you need a Belgian visa or permit to visit, live, work or study in Belgium. The Belgian legislation applicable to the employment of foreigners makes a distinction in the rules applicable to the right to enter and stay and the rules applicable to the right to work. EU/EEA and Swiss citizens can work without a work permit in Belgium. Third-country nationals, however, will typically need a work permit to engage in economic activities.”
What is the Blue Card System? Why is it necessary to differentiate between highly-skilled / highly-paid workers and everyone else?
“In 2000 the European Council met in Lisbon to define the strategic plan that could help the Union’s competitive position in the global market in terms of employment, economic reform and social cohesion as part of a knowledge-based economy. In that meeting the Union set the strategy to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.
In order to establish this goal the EU established measures to attract highly skilled employees from outside of the EU, one of those being the European Blue Card. Why exactly was it deemed so important to put the focus on this? At the time the Council concluded that the growth of the EU would be at stake because of the lack of highly qualified and skilled human capital. Therefore, special schemes and measures had to be put in place to increase Europe’s attractiveness towards highly-educated and talented foreigners to help build this competitive knowledge-based economy.”
There are three types of work permit:
Type-A work permits allow you to work for any employer indefinitely;
Type-B work permits allow you to work for a specific employer for up to a year (renewable);
Type-C work permits allow those staying in Belgium only temporarily – such as students – to work for any employer for up to a year (also renewable).
There has recently been some reform to the “Blue Card System”, have the changes benefited workers or have they made the process more difficult and restrictive?
The EU Blue Card scheme has been in operation since 2009. The scheme was proven unsuccessful for a number of reasons, including more attractive national parallel schemes, limited associated rights and its limited ability to attract young talent. The European Commission adopted a proposal to review the EU Blue Card scheme to address those weaknesses and to improve the EU’s ability to attract and retain highly skilled workers in 2016. It foresees more flexible admission criteria, extended labour market access and intra-EU mobility rights for EU Blue Card holders and facilitated access to EU long-term residency. The Commission’s proposal is currently discussed between the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council and will hopefully be adopted in the course of 2018.
What are the most common queries that your team deals with in regards to visa processes in Belgium?
- Can my spouse work? Not automatically. “The spouse of a foreign worker does not have an immediate right to work on the basis of the dependent residence permit. They still require a work permit B sponsored by an employer. The good news on the other hand is that the status of dependent spouse offers access to a work permit B category with more relaxed eligibility criteria.”
- Can we expedite the procedure? “Unfortunately it is not possible to opt for an expedited procedure in Belgium. The relevant authorities usually handle applications on a first come first serve basis and strive to deliver in a consistent manner against stable processing times (2-4 weeks for work permit applications and 5-15 working days for visa applications).”
- Does the embassy keep my passport? “Some of our clients who have a very busy travel schedule are terrified of having to surrender their passport at the Embassy while applying for their visa. Luckily we often have good news as most embassies quite cooperative towards the requests from applicants to to give the passport back if they can substantiate the urgent need for this (eg. Business travel).”
- Does the EU Blue Card offer me the right to work in the entire EU? “Unfortunately this is not yet the case. The EU Blue Card only grants work rights in the member state that has issued the EU Blue Card. I have to explain to our clients that they still require work authorisation if they would go to work in any of the other member states.”
- Can my (non-married) partner come with me? Again, not necessarily. “This often creates a “reality shock” for non-married couples as they are forced to make a choice to apply for family reunification by either marrying (abroad or in Belgium) or concluding legal cohabitation upon arrival in Belgium (subject to various eligibility requirements).”
- My work visa is about to expire, should I renew my visa even when I’m already in Belgium and have a residence permit? “The work visa is “transferred” into the residence permit upon completing the town hall registration procedure. The legal status of the foreigner in Belgium is not defined by the visa as soon as they have the valid residence permit. Their status is 100% compliant and covered when they have a valid work and residence permit.”
What is the process from work permit (A, B or C,) to residency (D) to citizenship?
- To apply for unlimited residency you have resided legally in Belgium for an uninterrupted period of five years.
- If you hold a Blue Card from another EU-member state, and have lived elsewhere in the EU, this can count towards your five-year period.
- Acquiring citizenship requires the applicant to have a permanent residency status.
- Once permanent residency is acquired it then follows a ‘Nationality Declaration’ track.
- Nationality Declaration:
– Legal residence of between five and 10 years in Belgium;
– Be able to prove that you speak one of the three main languages;
– You are socially and economically integrated.
Want to acquire citizenship through marriage to a Belgian national?
- You must have been living together for three years;
- Still fulfil the five-year residence requirement;
- Also have knowledge of one of the three main languages.
Are entrepreneurs able to apply for a Professional Card without holding any other visa for residency in Belgium? Are the visa and immigration rules different for entrepreneurs?
“As a rule, a foreign national exercising a self-employed activity in Belgium needs to be in possession of a Professional Card. Some foreign nationals are exempt from this requirement, such as foreign nationals who come to Belgium on a business trip, provided that the trip does not exceed three consecutive months. Whether the entrepreneur needs a visa and/or Belgian residence permit will depend on their nationality and duration of stay in Belgium. The general rules apply which are similar for foreign employees and self-employed.”
What is the EU Intra-Corporate Transfers directive and when do you think it will be transposed into Belgian legislation?
“The EU ICT directive harmonises the conditions of entry and residence for third-country nationals amongst the EU Member States (excluding UK, Ireland and Denmark) in the framework of an intra-corporate transfer (ICT). An ICT is the temporary secondment of a third-country national who resides outside the EU, from a company established outside the EU to which the employee is bound by an employment contract to a group company located in a Member State. This directive introduces for the first time a European ICT work permit that enables the third-country national to work under certain conditions in EU Member States other than the one that issued the EU ICT permit.
Given the intra-EU mobility rights associated with this new EU ICT permit, it is crucial that Belgium implements the European Directive as soon as possible. Not doing so places Belgium at a significant competitive disadvantage not only in attracting this type of skilled worker but investment as a whole. It creates an obstacle for economic growth and strategic planning for multinational companies that have their regional headquarters in Belgium and have positions with pan-European duties or have to develop skills in a multicultural international environment. The transposition of the Single Permit and the EU ICT permit is anticipated for the second half of 2018.”
The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) was adopted by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on 19 October 2017. What does this mean for travellers?
ETIAS is an electronic monitoring system and will be compulsory for third country nationals who do not need visas to travel the Schengen Area. It will be the equivalent of ESTA (similar system in the US) and it will aim to ensure that people travelling to the EU do not threaten the security of the Schengen countries and to impede irregular migration.
Legislation setting ETIAS up is being discussed internally in the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. Once both institutions agree upon their respective position, discussions in trialogues between the European Parliament, Council and European Commission will begin. It is expected that ETIAS will be fully operational by 2020.
With thanks to Jo Antoons, Alexander De Nys, Christine Sullivan, Andreia Ghimis and Rimma Abadjan of Fragomen.