As previously reported, there are recognised and non-recognised licenses, EU models and non-EU models. Recognised European model driving licenses that do not have an expiry date, need to be exchanged within two years of registering as a resident in Belgium. Owners of a recognised EU model license with an expiry date need to be exchanged before this date, or within five years of registering here, whichever comes first.
Where the recognised driving licenses enjoy a fairly straightforward exchange process, both non-recognised and non-European models go through a lengthy and complicated procedure. There are two main bottlenecks in the exchange process: the length of the authentication procedure and the booking of driving exams.
Owners of a recognised non-EU model driving license are able to exchange their license after having been registered as living in Belgium for over 185 days. Until then, they can drive with their national license. Owners of a non-recognised non-EU model driving license will need to sit an exam before being eligible for an exchange. This exam can only be booked once the expat has received their Belgian resident’s card and has been registered here for over 185 days. To further complicate matters, owners of a non-recognised driving license are not allowed to drive in Belgium once they have registered as a resident with a Belgian town hall.
Efforts to Align Procedures
The main difficulty in trying to coordinate a smoother process and align exchange procedures stems from the fact that we are dealing with both regional and federal authorities, as well as individual communes. Any driving license sent in for exchange goes from the town hall to the local police, then on to the federal police for authentication. Once it has been authenticated, the driving license goes back to the local police and then on to the town hall. As the federal police are confident that licenses are authenticated within two to three weeks maximum, it appears the delays are on a more local level.
The committee has explored multiple options, including enquiring whether expats could present their driving license to the federal police in person or submit their documentation along with the Single Permit request. Sadly, neither are options as they would require a change in the law. Similarly, asking embassies to provide an authentication document is not as straightforward as it sounds. Although a handful of countries do this, they are few and far between and a number of countries (including the USA) have already indicated they will not be implementing such a system.
Although hardly ideal, it would appear that lobbying with your local mayor and/or town hall is most impactful Deborah Loones tells us. She has done so for Ghent and has the impression that the procedure has sped up somewhat. Together with Eléonore van Rijckevorsel she has been in touch both the Vereniging van Vlaamse Steden en Gemeenten, or VVSG, and the Federal Government to see if the exchange of driving licenses and speeding up access to (bi)lingual exams can become a priority.
Individual Town Hall Procedures
In the meantime, our committee has started enquiring with different Brussels town halls as to their procedure. We have started listing their responses in an Excel spreadsheet, which our relocation members can find under the ‘full member info’ section of our website after logging in. Whatever the outcome of these talks, the relocation committee continues to make driving licenses a priority.
On the upside, there is good news from the commune of Etterbeek. They have now launched a brand new website. Expats looking to register as first time residents of Etterbeek can now use the email address firstname.lastname@example.org to book their appointment. EU residents can book their appointment online and only need to show up to collect their new IDs. Non-EU residents will need to make an appointment and come in to request their IDs in person. Simply use the green button ‘prendre rendez-vous’ on the new website www.etterbeek.be. Along with the new website comes a new address for the town hall, which has now moved to Avenue des Casernes 31, 1040 Etterbeek.
Quick Overview for Etterbeek Town Hall
■ New physical address: Avenue des Casernes 31, 1040 Etterbeek
■ New website: https://etterbeek.brussels
■ New procedure for registrations:
∞ Non-EU: first registration only on appointment, as well as all other steps of the registration and renewal: https://etterbeek.brussels/fr/demarches/adresse/premiere-inscription-ou-suivi-ressortissants-hors-ue
∞ Non-EU: Collection of residency card or registration certificate on appointment: https://etterbeek.brussels/fr/demarches/identite/carte-b-e-f-h-ou-aia-pour-etrangers-demande
∞ Non-EU: collection of a residency without appointment is possible following the instructions outlined here: https://etterbeek.brussels/fr/demarches/identite/carte-b-e-f-ou-h-pour-etrangers-retrait
∞ EU: first registration by mail: https://etterbeek.brussels/fr/demarches/adresse/premiere-inscription-ou-suivi-ressortissants-ue
∞ EU: order and collection of the card on appointment on: https://etterbeek.brussels/fr/demarches/identite/carte-b-e-f-h-ou-aia-pour-etrangers-demande
The Recognised European License
Member countries of the European Union give out a European model driving license. These driving licenses are recognised throughout the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) as well as many other locations around the world. In broad strokes, if you have a European driving license and are living in Belgium you need to exchange it before it runs out, or if you are settling here on a more permanent basis (exchange within 2 years of settling in Belgium).
Although you can drive here with your Guadeloupian license (yes, as an overseas department of France it’s part of the EU), it may be worth considering exchanging it for a Belgian one if you plan on being here for a while. At the very least you should get your license registered with your local commune, so that if you were to lose or damage it you can easily request a replacement. So far, so good. The matter gets somewhat more complex however as we venture further afield.
The Recognised non-European License
If you are the proud owner of a recognised non-European driving license then according to the conventions of Vienna and Geneva you may legally drive your car here. However, this only holds true providing you do not possess either a Belgian ID card, or an A, B, C, D, E, F, E+ or F+ card.
As soon as you are officially registered as living here you receive your Identification Number of the National Register (rijksregisternummer/numero national). Your newly acquired residential status automatically means you will need to exchange your license for a Belgian one as you are now a Belgian resident. This in theory should be a straight-forward exchange of licenses.
The non-Recognised non-European License
The same system applies with a non-recognised non-European driving license: you can legally drive here with your foreign driving license until you are awarded residential status. As soon as you have received your national number you will need to exchange your driving license for a Belgian one.
However, as your license is not recognised here, you will need to sit both theory and practical exams before it can be considered for exchange. Unfortunately, a letter from your embassy attesting to the validity of your license is of absolutely no value in this process.
The International Driving License
If you are here on a business trip visa (90 days max) then you may want to request an international driving license from your home country to cover the duration of your stay. Check with your home country whether you need an international driving license to go with your national license in Belgium. This will differ from country to country, but your embassy will be able to advise you.
The international driving license has no actual legal value in Europe. It merely serves as an additional document to go with your national license. An international driving license is valid for one year only and must be collected in person from your home municipality, which means you should have obtained it before coming over.
The Exchange Process
The process of exchange is simple in theory: you go to your local municipality with your current driving license and your Belgian ID card and request an exchange. Your license is sent off for a check and then exchanged for a Belgian one.
It is important that your license meets the following requirements: you have the same nationality as your license – or you can prove you were residing in that country for at least 185 days in the year you received it – you received it before moving here, it is valid, and the categories awarded are recognised here.
If your license is not in one of the recognised national languages, you may need to have it translated by a sworn translator before it can be considered, especially if it is not in our Latin alphabet. If your country does not follow the Gregorian calendar (as we do in Europe) then the valid from/to dates will also need translating. Some embassies provide standard translations of national driving licenses, so it is worth checking with your embassy.
Your license is then sent off to the FOD Mobiliteit en Vervoer who will verify that your driving license is not counterfeit. Providing your license is real and you do not need to sit any additional tests it will be exchanged for a Belgian one. This usually takes between six and eight weeks. The commune essentially acts as a letterbox, so how quickly they send it on to the Ministry can also depend on their own backlog.
If you have to sit both theory and practical tests, then you will need to pass these before your license can be exchanged for a Belgian one. Larger cities such as Brussels and Antwerp offer driving tests in a number of different languages, or you can bring a sworn translator along at your own expense.
Again, much depends on how long it takes for you to book (and sit) your exams and receive your test results. Bring your results along with your national license (and any translations) to your local commune and ask for the exchange process to be initiated. You should have your new license within 6 – 8 weeks.
Good to know: a national foreign license (whether recognised or non-recognised) always exempts you from driving lessons, providing you are requesting a license with the same categories (AM, A, B, C, D, G) given out in Belgium. You may however still need to take theory and practical tests, depending on the license you hold.
You can start taking theory lessons online even before you arrive in Belgium and can book your exams the day you receive your national number. Sending off proof of passing with your current license gets things moving as quickly as possible.
We have to remind expats that driving without a license is illegal in Belgium and leaves you open to fines if you are stopped by the police, and worse: potentially uninsured should something happen. Although some communes provide a document stating your license has been sent off for exchange, we are told this has no legal value at present.
You can request your national license back when you leave Belgian territory and give up your residential status. Should you come back again in future years, you will have to start the exchange process again. Until you have physically received your Belgian license you can still change your mind and request your national license back.
List of recognised EU and EEA driving licenses:
List of recognised non-EU and EEA driving licenses:
FOD directive on exchanging European driving licenses:
FOD directive on exchanging foreign driving licenses:
Exams with an interpreter:
When an expat moves to Belgium they are legally required to exchange their national driving license for a Belgian one. Although the FOD Mobiliteit en Vervoer provides us with a list of countries that award recognised non-European driving licenses (countries not listed are not recognised), and although each and every local commune has received exactly the same directive when it comes to handling foreign licenses, many members report long delays, lengthy processes and conflicting instructions.
One thing is clear: you can drive here with your foreign license as long as you are not registered as a Belgian resident. As soon as you are registered, you need to exchange your license for a Belgian (European model) driving license. It’s this registration process where some of the perceived delay comes from: whereas you can get registered within 2 weeks in a smaller commune such as Waterloo, it can take up to 5 months in a busy commune such as Brussels city centre. Going back to the commune to initiate your driving license exchange after you’ve already been living and working here for five months can feel like red tape for the sake of it.
It is also clear that legally you may not drive without a valid driving license. If your current license has been sent off for exchange, you cannot drive until you have received your Belgian one. Quite simply because under Belgian law you cannot be insured without a valid driving license. The question is at which point your foreign license becomes invalid: is this as soon as it is sent off or only once you’ve received your new one?
“Getting stopped by the police for a routine control and being fined is a risk that some people are willing to take,” Eric explains. “However, it’s not the fine that’s the problem, the problem is if an accident happens. We know of companies that ask their employees to return their car keys to HR on the day they receive their Belgian ID cards. The car stays in lock-up until they have received their Belgian license, it’s a strict policy. A few years ago an expat had an accident while his license had been sent off for exchange and the lease company refused to cover the accident. Thankfully it was mostly material damage to the car, but imagine if you seriously injured someone. You’d be paying both financially and emotionally for the rest of your life.”
“Some communes provide the expat with a document they can show the police in case they are stopped,” adds Koen. “Unfortunately, we’re not sure what the legal validity of this is, even if it is provided by the commune itself. Whether or not this document will get you out of a fine may depend on the policeman who stops you, but you have to take into account your insurer as well. Will they cover you if you drive with a document that certifies your license is being processed? Many brokers will, but you never know for certain until something happens. And finally, the Ministry tells us that such a document holds no legal value. It’s a very murky situation with a lot of grey areas. The expat thinks they are covered and upholding the law, but in actual fact they may not be.”
With the exchange of a foreign driving license taking around six to eight weeks on average it is easy to see why expats, employers and relocators alike would like to see this process speeded up. ABRA’s relocation committee has been exploring the options.
“There are a number of different avenues we have been exploring,” Eric tells us. “The very best outcome would be a faster process altogether. But we understand there are just two people at the Ministry to cover all the driving license exchanges, which means there is an immense backlog. More funds to process foreign arrivals isn’t exactly a popular request.”
“As an interim measure we would like the Ministry to ratify a standard document nationwide that covers expats during the exchange process,” Koen continues. “This of course is a big challenge and one we can use help with. Finally, this document needs to be accepted by insurance and car lease companies, although insurance coverage is for a large part the employer’s responsibility. But it would be good to be able to advise clients which insurance companies will accept such a ‘covering’ document.”
“We have a few client companies who have already expressed an interest in supporting our efforts for this interim document and a faster exchange process. ABRA members – and ReLocate readers – can be of great help here: the more companies that get behind our cause, the stronger our voice will be as we lobby the government. So please ask your clients if they would be willing to attest to the impact of the exchange process on their business. Companies make a serious investment every time they bring over an expat and for them to then have to turn around and say ‘sorry boss, I can’t drive until January’ is problematic to say the least.”
If you would like to get behind our cause and help us lobby for a faster driving license exchange process as well as an official interim document for drivers, then please contact Eric Klitsch or Koen Reekmans via: email@example.com