Belgium is one of the smaller countries in continental Europe and the “middle child” of three countries comprising “Benelux” (the others being the Netherlands and Luxembourg). It is an often-overlooked country but many consider it a European gem. Its capital, Brussels, is nicknamed the capital of Europe as it is home to the European Union headquarters.
In Brussels, one can find a unique blend of shops with both Dutch and French influences, some of the best food on the continent, and several world-class museums. Beyond Brussels, tourists swoon over charming medieval towns such as Bruges and Ghent, whose picture-postcard perfection looks to be untouched for hundreds of years.
Passports & Visas
Belgium is a member of the Schengen Agreement. This means it has an open border with other Schengen countries. Citizens of EU and EEA countries, most of North and South America, Japan, Israel, Australia and New Zealand do not require a visa to visit Belgium.
Obtaining a US passport
The US Government Website is where to start.
You can apply for visas at any Schengen country member. You should apply for the visa at the country member where you will be spending the most time.
The US embassy in Brussels handles American political relations and all major US affairs. Travelers should first contact the Passport and Citizenship Unit which can handle most queries.
Embassy of the United States of America
American Citizens Unit
Boulevard du Régent/Regentlaan 25
B- 1000 Brussels
Telephone: (+32) (0)2 508 2196, between 8.30 to 12.30 and 1:30 to 4:30
(+32) (0)2 508 2378, between 8.30 to 12.30 and 1:30 to 4:30
(+32) (0)2 508 2382, between 8.30 to 12.30 and 1:30 to 4:30
Appoints for passport and consular services are a walk-in service, Monday to Thursday 1:30 to 3:30 and Friday 9 to 11.
Belgium Tourist Information
Culture and History
The Belgian Tourist office has written this useful article which covers the full history of Belgium, including information about the current royal family.
Currency and Money
Belgium is now using the Euro as a part of the Eurozone. Cash machines (ATMs) are available throughout the country and credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. While Belgian banks do not charge fees for foreign credit cards, be aware your bank might.
Driving in Belgium
The Belgian rail network is so extensive that you’ll find few cities or towns in the country that can only be accessed by car. Tourists may find the Belgians to be quite aggressive on the roads and fast drivers. Despite this, laws are strictly enforced – drunk driving has a very low alcohol tolerance, seat belts are mandatory, and speed limit violators are faced with heavy fines. Adding to the mix is the confusing road sign language; in the east part of Flanders signs are only in Dutch, and in the south near France the signs are only in French.
Electricity in Belgium
Electricity is 230volt/50Hz and takes continental European two-prong plugs. Make sure your appliances can accept the higher voltage of power (American outlets provide 120 volts) or you’ll need a converter and an adapter. Some appliances and computers can accommodate either 120 or 220 volts either automatically or with just the flip of a switch on the appliance. (Check it out before you buy.)
Emergency Numbers in Belgium
In an emergency always dial 112; the operator will direct you to police, ambulance, or the fire department based on your situation.
Etiquette in Belgium
Cleanliness is a matter of national pride so tourists are encouraged to be tidy. Always bring a gift if invited to visit the home of a Belgian and be on time. If you are shaking hands, be sure to shake hands with everyone in the room, including children. The language issue can be confusing as one or two languages could be spoken depending on the region; if you’re not sure, speak English first.
Public Hours in Belgium
Shops are usually open by 10AM and close between 6PM-7PM; department stores stay open later, up to 9PM on Fridays. Shops are not open on Sunday, and in rural areas some shops may close for lunch.
The biggest issue plaguing the cities of Belgium are pickpocketing. Pay very close attention to your belongings at all times, even in a location which might seem very safe.
Central European Time (CET), which places the country on the same time as cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Rome. It is one hour ahead of Ireland and the UK.
Tipping in Belgium
It is law that service charges for the meal are included in the price. However, exceptional service can be rewarded with up to 10% tip, but it is not expected and not customary unless the service was extraordinary. It is normal to round up taxi fares to provide a small tip.
Weather in Belgium
A day in Belgium is not complete without a discussion of the weather, which can range from snow to warm sunshine all in one day. Rain is a common feature, although it rarely rains all day, so be sure to pack accordingly. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing in winter, and summers can be hot, in the 70s or 80s (F). The driest, warmest months are July-September.
Main Sights in Belgium
Brussels is the capital and is where many of the obvious tourist attractions can be found. Apart from enjoying such tasty food as French fries and Belgian waffles (both good enough to be considered national dishes), one should not miss the excellent cluster of museums on the Royale-Koningsplein, including the Museum of Modern Art and Museum of Historical Art.
Tourists leave with a smile on their face at the Manneken Pis, one of the city’s iconic monuments. Children will love the Atomium, an enormous science complex out on the edge of town. For more information on Brussels, check out our Brussels Guide.
Other popular cities to visit include the charming medieval villages of Bruges and Ghent, as well as the lesser-known Belgian cities of Ostend and Leuven.
Getting Around Belgium
Brussels Airport is the country’s main airport and the most centrally located. Because of the EU and other major institutions such as NATO being located in Brussels, you’ll find frequent air service to other major European cities, but international air service beyond Europe is somewhat limited. Train service into central Brussels from the airport is scheduled every 15 minutes and is less than a half-hour trip.
Charleroi Airport, dubbed “Brussels South” provides air service for low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and Wizzair and is approximately 1 hour from Brussels. Antwerp also provides passenger air service and a short schedule of regional flights.
Bus services are quite good and well complement the extensive rail network; most operators run under the Eurolines brand.
Boats and Ferries
Ferry service is provided to the UK by P&O Ferries on the Zeebruggee to Hull & Rosyth route. Passenger and car ferries from the UK are operated by DFDS Seaways.
Daytime-only ferries are available from Oostende to Ramsgate by TransEurope Ferries.
Belgian Rail is the country’s primary operator of the rail network. There is a national tariff system and integrated timetable. Many services are international, just passing through Belgium, and these are operated jointly with the neighboring countries. Most services of use to tourists run in/out of Brussels and no seat reservations are required; for all high-speed service to Lille or Paris you will need a seat reservation. Rail service is frequent, of high quality, and probably the best way to travel the country.
Car Rental companies are the standard set of brands, and it is recommended to make your booking before leaving home. American citizens are permitted to drive with a U.S. driver’s license for the duration of a visit to Belgium.
Taxis can normally not be hailed off the street; you must go to one of the taxi stands located throughout a city. For a rural pick-up or door-to-door service you must phone ahead; your hotel or accommodation can do this for you.
The state of health care in Belgium is of high quality, and you should have no trouble finding English-speaking services. If you require medical assistance, contact your accommodation to get in touch with a local physician.
No permit is required to carry medication in your luggage. However, you should pack your medication in its original containers and/or have your doctor’s prescription with you. Customs officials will have to be satisfied that you are not importing more than would be necessary for your personal use, taking into account the drug type and length of stay (for no more than three months).
Lodging in Belgium
The major cities offer both backpacker-style accommodation, rental apartments, and hotels. A popular choice seems to be the ubiquitous bed and breakfast, which offers reasonable rates and a hearty breakfast is a great way to start the day. For a few of our recommendations in Brussels see this post: Where to Stay in Brussels
Public Holidays in Belgium
New Year’s Day (1 Jan)
Independence Day (21 Jul)
Assumption (15 Aug)
All Saints’ Day (1 Nov)
Armistice Day (11 Nov)
Christmas Day (25 Dec)
Boxing Day (26 Dec)
Telephones in Belgium
To dial a number in Belgium from the USA, dial ‘011’ plus the country code of ‘32’ plus the city code plus the local number. Example: 011 32 2 543 44 99
To dial a number while in Belgium, drop the country code but add a ‘zero’. Example: 0 2 543 44 99
Useful Country Codes:
USA and Canada 1
Returning to the US
Customs, VAT & Duty-Free
When you return to the U.S., you’ll need to declare everything you brought back that you did not take with you when you left. If you are traveling by air or sea, you may be asked to fill out a Customs Declaration Form provided by the airline or cruise ship. Keep your sales slips. Try to pack the things you’ll need to declare separately. Read the signs in the Customs area; they contain helpful information about how to clear Customs.
For complete information on Customs, look at the U.S. Government Customs Website
Value Added Tax (VAT) Refund Information
We have found it such a hassle to try to reclaim the VAT tax that we simply do not bother. If however, you will be spending a great deal of money, it might be worth the many steps you will need to go through. Also, remember that a 6 percent V.A.T. (Value Added Tax) tax is added to rates for all restaurants and hotel rooms. Service is included. This 6% V.A.T. tax on services is not refundable.
Travelers to Belgium from outside the EU are entitled to a reimbursement of the 12 % V.A.T. (Value Added Tax) they pay on all purchases as long as the purchases add up to no less than 90 Euros in the same store and on the same day. The vendor must provide the purchaser with a duly filled out invoice which includes the price of each good, the V.A.T. paid for each item, as well as the identification (name and address) for both vendor and purchaser. The goods must be brought out of the European Union within three months from the date of purchase.
At the time of departure Belgium and final departure from the European Union territory, and before checking in your baggage, you must bring your invoice(s) and the merchandise purchased to the Belgian Customs in order for them to process your V.A.T. refund claim (there is a specific booth for this purpose just prior to the entrance to the international area at the international port, gate or airport).
If you are a U.S. or Canadian resident, you may qualify for a personal exemption which allows you to bring goods of a certain value into the country without paying customs duties, excise taxes, or Value Added Tax.