March 11, 2012

So you're moving to Leuven, Belgium?

Author's note August 8, 2014: I lived in Leuven from January 2010 to April 2012; after a brief 1 month move to Barcelona, Spain, I relocated back to the US in May 2012. I now live in Seattle, WA. Most of the information on here is reflective of spring 2012. I have had so many inquiries to this original post that I have added updates below. Readers, thank you so much for your awesome comments, and for reaching out to me through the contact form. Neeli. 

Moving abroad is thrilling and exciting, but once the adventure of moving settles a bit, questions about meeting friends and doing basic stuff will undoubtedly arise. But who to ask? This post is a collection of bits and pieces of advice given to me from friends, personal experiences, and browsing the internets.

While we initially moved to Belgium for work, we were totally falling over ourselves at the idea of exploring Belgian beer and biking more closely, and to travel around Europe (with a European country conveniently as home-base). I think the context of "the why" you move is very important in your overall adjustment. Your personal viewpoints on adventure can help you ease into what you get vs. what you expect. Take for example the work on which we moved, a research position at the university. The private employment sector may help you with relocation, housing, moving, lease agreements (3-6-9 year ones), vehicle rental/purchase, obtaining a driver's license (it's easy), visa paperwork, enrolling in health insurance (SIS card), and the bureaucratic Belgian integration. Coming over on an academic position meant that we got support with the visa paperwork and the integration. I found these two things essential in relocating and would not recommend moving without them. Navigating the paperwork solo is daunting and difficult. Having an employer know exactly what steps to take is essential.

Part of adjusting is obvious, but other parts aren't. It took me 6 months to figure out the schedules of the bakers, markets, grocery stores, pharmacies, recycling and trash pick up schedules, and the correct way to set out recycling paper. While Belgium is a country where English is spoken and understood well, it is still culturally different in ways that don't become obvious until you go through the process of setting up your life again. Google translate and common sense are essential.

Meeting others:
Meetup: The Leuven New in Town Meetup organizes social outings monthly. It's laid back, English-speaking, and a great way to meet other international residents. Brussels has many more Meetup groups (beer trekking, crafting, language groups) including other expat groups such as InterNations or the American Women's Club. Joining a sports club, volunteering at an organization, or taking language courses are all great ways to meet others too.

City and practical: There is always something going on in the center. Subscribe to the city's RSS feeds. Read it in Dutch (use Google Translate if needed); the English site is only geared towards tourism - not towards living in Leuven. The site has all of the essential living information on it.

The Afvalkalender: Garbage, recycling, compost, and paper are all collected twice per month; this ain't America strict rules apply on how and when to set these out. If you never recycled before (what kind of person are you) and choose to throw it out with the trash sometimes the city garbage collectors will leave your garbage (also if it is not tied correctly) conveniently for you to sort out. It is essential to get the Afvalkalender (trash calendar). The city mails them out in early January.

The LibraryTweebronnen Bibliotheek. Leuven's library has a good collection of English, French, German, and Spanish books, music, and DVDs. I hope it is obvious that they have an excellent Dutch book collection. To obtain a card, bring your ID card and EUR 5 and ask to obtain an abonnement (membership). You can check out up to 15 items at a time. Everything is automated, and the staff are very helpful. There is a nice cafe downstairs where you can read your books and enjoy a nice lunch or beer.

No one uses Craigslist: They use Tweedehands, Kapaza, and ebay. If there is some listserv that contains this info for ex-pats please someone tell me! De Spit, a second-hand store, is hit or miss with household goods, but often sells furniture, large appliances, and kitchen goods for dirt cheap. They'll pick up or deliver for EUR 25. Obvious mention: IKEA. Amazon is not widely used, but many stores will ship. The hubs was able to purchase brewing supplies from a Belgian vendor. 

Housing: most posts for housing are on Immoweb. I think email is used less reliably than the US, always follow up with a phone call.

Get a bike: Long term bicycle rental can be done at Velo.  You can rent out a bike month-to-month, or yearly (all good rates). Bike theft can be very common if you leave your bike outside overnight, and it isn't locked to anything; it is a national past-time to steal bikes. Storing bikes indoors, or locked to something with heavy duty U-locks can be a deterrent. My Dutch course had a section on how to report bike thefts.
Short term bicycle rental can be done at the Fietspunt in the station (also operated by Velo). This is a good option for weekly or daily rentals. 

Bike routes: Flanders and Holland have a bike number network called the Fietsnet. I've written about using it here and here. I credit usable bike lanes, excellent city infrastructure, and the Fietsnet for living without a car the entire time we've lived here (ok, I credit my friends too because they are so kind and incredible to help out and take us along on trips). 

Gyms and sport clubs/halls: If you're affiliated with the university you can apply for a membership to use the sports facilities they are all very good and affordable; Sportoase is the biggest gym/wellness facility in town. It costs more, is centrally located, has weight machines, group lessons, indoor pools, squash courts, climbing wall, and a basketball gym. In September, the papers publish a listing of all the sports clubs and activities. Leuven has a well-organized ultimate scene too (search for JetSet). 

Driver's License: If you are from the US, you can usually trade in your current (cannot be expired) US driver's license for a Belgian one at the city hall. Are there other readers that have done this? If so, please comment, I'd love to hear about your experiences. Go with recent passport photos and bring cash. You'll trade your current license and be issued a Belgian one; if you move away permanently return the Belgian license and the city will return your original license. I had no problems obtaining this, and I was able to use the Belgian license abroad and back in the states. It took 20 minutes and I walked out the same day with the license. On a trip back to the states, I went ahead and got an international permit to accompany the license (again passport photos and cash), but I never needed it. Your identification card will be your "main ID" not your license (this is a pain in the wazoo when you go back to the US, when you only have a Belgian ID card and now a Belgian license, oh what fun when trying to explain it as your form of ID). The cheapest place to get passport photos is the train station (5 for EUR 5). 

Haircuts: Of all the things moving will do to your life, finding a new stylist is always the hardest. They don't use a razor for cuts. Always take a picture of what you want, or maybe an older picture of you with your desired haircut. Don't worry so much, if you end up with a new haircut it's not the end of the world. Bangs/fringe are called frou-frou which are typically straightcut fringe or bangs; for swept over bangs do the hand motion or be descriptive enough. Layers are called lagjes; if you take a pic along with you, you can say ik wil hetzelfede kapsel houden which means the same hairstyle as before, then use descriptors such as alleen een beetje korter of hoger of langer (a bit shorter or a higher or longer). Remember use cm to designate how much of the bottom you want off (for example één of twee centimeters is genoeg (1-2 cm is enough). I would recommend Sizoo on the Diestestraat and Academy-Coiffure on the Muntstraat. 

Trains. Give yourself enough time to buy tickets if you purchase them on the day of travel. You can only use bancontact or proton at the automated stations (idiotic, I know) and the automated stations are few and far at any of the stations (Brussels Zuid/Midi I'm talking about you). If you must catch a train and haven't purchased a ticket, find staff on the train and let them know as soon as you get on. They will often waive the buying on board fee. You can usually find them by hanging back on the platform towards the center of the train. They'll whistle and indicate "all clear," and you can let them know. A go-pass (for those under 26 y/o at EUR 50) or a 10-time pass can be purchased at the station (EUR 74). The ticket should be filled out before entering the train (or as soon as you sit down). You can have multiple people use the ticket (one line per person). Just fill in the origin and destination. Each line is good for one 1-way journey at EUR 7.40. Book tickets for the high speed trains like, Thalys and Eurostar, in advance. You'll always get a better rate. On weekends (travel beginning after 7 pm on Friday up until 11:59 pm Sunday) a weekend ticket can be purchased for a much lower rate, and it includes one outward journey to your destination and one return journey. The advantage of this is that you don't have to complete travel on the same day. It is not for "x" amount of travel between 2 destinations (e.g. Brussels to Gent) for an entire weekend. 

Bus: De Lijn is the bus system in Flanders; busses are well connected, and in rural parts shuttle busses can be called (see this useful post from the Thirsty Pilgrim). De Lijn also runs the trams. 

Use-it maps. These are free tourist maps written by locals. Ask at any tourist office, they are free! If you use the Leuven map, you might even teach your local friends new things about Leuven.

Car Share: Cambio is a carsharing service. I've rented cars from the aiport at Zaventem and at an Avis in Korbeek-Lo. Car rental is a major pain in the arse, and expensive. I would love to get feedback if you've used Cambio.

In Belgium, accessing the doctor (huisarts), and medical system is easy. English will not be a problem. Dentists are tandarts, veterinarians are dierenarts. If you need to see a specialist, your normal doctor will refer you after an initial consultation. Going to the doctor is easy. Once you find a doctor, you'll call and set up an appointment (often you can go the same day, or that week). When you arrive to the doctors office, you are rung in, and asked to wait in a waiting area. Many huisarts offices are located in neighborhoods, and many are independent (zelfstandige). In a main clinic you can check in with reception, but in an independent office, you let yourself in, and you wait. The doctor comes and meets you, escorts you to the office (office and examining room are often the same), and at the conclusion of your visit, you pay (bring cash), and the doctor escorts you out. The cost of medical care is affordable. An office visit without health insurance is usually EUR 20-25 and you'll leave with a green or white rectangular document. Once enrolled in the Belgian health system (probably CM), your health insurance (de ziekteverzekering) will give you a sheet of yellow stickers (kleurtjes), which you paste onto the top of the document; bring these same labels to a doctor's appt. Then you drop it in a box at any health insurance office to get up to 75% of your costs reimbursed. A doctor recently told me that the sheets are basically money. CM is very efficient.

If you're used to preventative care in the US (regular blood and cancer screenings, blood pressure and weight checks) the system here is slightly different. Some screenings are viewed as not medically necessary. It depends on the reason for your visit. On request, these can be done. When I inquired about this difference, I was told that they follow evidence-based medicine and guidelines, along with basic common sense. Of course, I went back and looked these up. Although, I think screening is cost-effective, and generates baseline data about basic health, I've concluded that Belgians access the health care system as needed, they have efficient electronic medical records, they are probably more likely to visit the same doctor over time (Belgium is a tiny country); the doctor may manage risk factors more effectively, or manage symptoms before they become risk factors, and develop a broader understanding of the patient's health. On average, visits are longer. A doctor will develop more of a rapport with patients because they are obtaining a lot of the subjective data (e.g they are learning about their patients, instead of managing the symptoms they come in with). Costs for visits, prescriptions, routine procedures are all much cheaper than the US. The point that is made from every American I talk to about the medical system is that Belgian's pay a much higher tax rate; the benefits/drawback, rights, and monetary expenditures of healthcare in a private or socialized system warrants its own post. However, I have been very happy with the care here - and I have never had a to deal with a disgruntled receptionist, and overall I think the US could benefit and learn from many of the ways that other countries manage their health care models. 
Random note: Since I moved back to teach nutrition courses at a large public university, I actually taught about health care and researched the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) extensively, along with how Americans access the health care systems in the US. My experience in Belgium made me far more passionate about fixing the health care system in the US - and far more knowledgeable about the issues that make the US model an extreme health care model compared to economically similar industrialized countries where citizens access a universal tax subsidized model. 

Pharmacies: around town pharmacies, or apotheeks, are designated with a green plus sign. Most are open normal hours. For instance, they are open 8-12 pm, closed for lunch ~12-1:30 pm, and then reopen 1:30-6:00 pm. Although it's weird that they sell make-up and other "health" products, apotheeks are where you can find most OTC meds, and of course where you go to get prescriptions filled (voorschrift). Honestly every time I've had a prescription filled I literally go through shock. The costs are so affordable; some prescriptions for women's health (shall I point out the terrible political mess that is being made of birth control in the US?) can be filled every 3 months, or once per year. Once. per. year. Go on, guess how much. OTC drugs are not sold in grocery stores or drugstores. Most major apotheeks rotate weekend and overnight hours. This info is posted outside of the apotheek, or online here and here.
Update: one year of mostly generic oral contraceptives cost me 54 EUR without health insurance. 

Pets: Belgium is pet friendly. The paperwork for bringing your pets is almost as long as the paperwork you will have had to fill out to move here. Check the Belgian consulate for the necessary paperwork, and allow 3 months to get it done. You'll need an international microchip (even if you already have a domestic one), proof of rabies vaccination within a specific time before emigrating, and have your paperwork cleared by your state's (e.g the state that you depart from) USDA office. Mr. Duds is a cat; once his paperwork was done, we carried it, him, (and copies) with us while traveling, and it's become a distant memory. It was a pain at the time, but it was uneventful. We had no problems at immigration/customs. There are lots of vet offices (dierenarts).
Update: Going through security with a pet at Zaventem (Brussels National Airport) was painless. All the airport personnel that I encountered were proper and friendly. They were also excited to see the cat. In contrast, when we left Europe, we left from Spain, and the airport security personnel were total dimwits when it came to pet security inspection. 

Language courses: if you have time to commit to 6-12 hours per week of language courses, the intensive language courses at the Institute voor Levende Talen (ILT) and Centrum voor Levende Talen (CLT) are exceptional. You will be speaking the language in some format when you leave. I have nothing but gushing compliments - and you'll meet lots of other people in the courses. I took Dutch and Spanish through both institutes and I can say that I'm functionally fluent (can go to the markets, talk on the phone, set up appointments, speak with medical staff, bank, and get by on my Dutch) after completing Level 2 at ILT. I took Spanish (Level 1) at CLT this summer and it was a great course for the value and time (2 weeks intense summer course). Groep T offers courses which can accommodate working hours, so this may be a great option, however friends that took courses at ILT and CLT complain about the courses lacking intensity. In addition, reading newspapers, watching TV, trying to speak Dutch/Flemish everywhere you go, and forcing your Belgian friends to speak with you are all good ways to gain confidence in speaking, and they are all great ways to learn about Belgian culture and history.

Shopping, finding exotic foods, where to buy good coffee and beer:
The major shopping sales (Zolden) occur during January and July. Smaller sales do occur, but these are the largest. You might have price sticker shock, and the customer service is different (at store like H&M, Zara, Pimkie you put your clothes away after trying them on). Most stores are open from 10-6 pm; grocery stores are open 8 am - 8 pm (approx.). Most stores are closed on Sundays. At grocery stores, be prepared and bring your own bags.

The markets. Sunday is Heverlee, Monday is Wijgmaal, Wednesday is Kessel-Lo, Friday and Saturday are Leuven. The markets sell everything from fresh produce, cheese, eggs, breads, meats, seafoods, to clothes, crafts, fabrics, plants, and flowers. The prices are all very good; be prepared to look very local and assert yourself when you're next in line. Using the markets is the best way to pick up the language and get a bit more comfortable using it.

Food and cooking: in Leuven, you can purchase Mexican ingredients, like chipotle peppers, pinto beans, and black beans, at Exotic World on the Brusselsesteenweg. They have Indian, Chinese, Korean, African, Turkish; for southeast Asian go to Thai House Supermarkt on the Tiensestraat. There are many ethnic food shops along Brusselsesteenweg. I have never been too pleased with their selection of produce, it often looks days old.

Coffee: Koffie Onan. Always full of Spaniards and Americans. They started self-roasting their own beans. The staff are excellent, knowledgeable, and very kind.
Update: Recently, I read that a Starbucks is coming to the Leuven train station. Someone send me a picture!

Beer: Most grocery stores have a decent selection of beers. For harder to find items head to ABS Drinks in Winksele or ABC Drinks in Leuven. They carry hundreds of different Belgian beers.

Bottle deposits (e.g. beer bottles): As you live here, you'll see that most people buy crates of Stella or Jupiler. When you purchase them this way, you pay some extra as deposit (between 10-20 cents) for the bottles and crate (often EUR 4.50). As for other beer bottles, check the back, and look for a coin deposit sign. Most grocery store have an automated bottle return where you can bring beer bottle back for a deposit. Print out a receipt and take it with you to the cashier (kassa) on checkout.

Embarrassing things I hate to admit:
1. I did not know that you had to put dishwasher salts in the dishwasher. 
2. I was caught throwing bottles away; a woman saw me dumping loads of beer bottles into the recycling bin and she had to show me the deposit sign. Groan!
3. Karl got a EUR 50 ticket for biking with his backlight off. The police are serious about enforcing traffic regulations; biker's beware!

If you use this and it's helpful, or you have a suggestion/update please comment below. I'll likely update this. I've been abroad since Jan 2010.

Things I now miss:
1. the laid back and constant use of the bicycle for nearly all modes of transportation
2. Certain aspects of the food culture: dairy foods in Europe, the markets, smaller portion sizes for drinks and beverages, very little mark-ups on beer and wine at restaurants. The smaller portions of foods at the grocery stores, and the total cost of healthier, whole, foods is cheaper in Europe than the US. 
3.  Terraces in pedestrian-only plazas. In general, I miss the plazas and the social nature of how well connected the plazas are to the rest of the center. 
4. The ease at accessing the medical system there. Even as a foreigner it was easier to get an appointment at a doctor's office than an insurance-carrying person in the US. 
5. The way that news is reported. 

Author's note August 8, 2014: I lived in Leuven from January 2010 to April 2012; after a brief 1 month move to Barcelona, Spain, I relocated back to the US in May 2012. Most of the information on here is reflective of spring 2012. I have had so many inquiries to this original post that I have added updates above. Readers, thank you so much for your awesome comments, and for reaching out to me through the contact form. Hartelijke dank! Neeli


  1. Wow, this is invaluable information for anyone moving to Leuven, and Belgium in general. We should totally promote this post to get ranked highly by the web crawler bots... nice post!

    On a tangential note, I just realized: are you aware what "khavanu" means in Flemish dialect, if pronounced in a certain way? I'll let you figure it out ;-)

  2. Thank you for all of the practical and helpful information!

  3. Debbie, I hope it's useful. Are you moving to Leuven?

  4. Its really informative blog.I want to share another link of a one of the best house relocation company that is Removals in surrey. Which provide best services of house relocation.

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  7. Great info! I've been living in Leuven for a year now and wish I'd found your site sooner.

    1. Kelly, thank you! Anything to add, or update? How do you like Leuven so far?

  8. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
    new car deal uk,.

  9. Hello!

    Thanks for all the information!

    I am potentially moving to Leuven in Jan 2014 (for a research post-doc); I am visiting the city in 3 weeks for the first time to decide if I can live there. Although I wish to do the research project (it is a great opportunity for me) I have lived in East Germany for 3 years and so I am cautious about moving to another country where I cannot communicate (I am Irish and therefore English is my primary language). I find this very frustrating in Germany, where I cannot call and organise my electricity, heating, etc...(my institute's admin people do it for visiting researchers) and often find myself letting things go (bad attitudes for example) in stores, etc....that I would never do at home. Although I have lived briefly before in the Netherlands, and so really feel there is a huge difference in the attitudes of 'East' and 'West' Europeans, I wonder what your opinion on the attitudes/views of Leuven locals to foreigners in their town. I think my biggest issue that has me, as yet, undecided on the move, is that where I live now is that the locals seriously dislike the foreigners and let it show, after a while it is easier to not say anything and therefore not let on that you are a foreigner, but I find this diminishes my confidence after a while. Your opinion on how foreigners are viewed in Leuven would be great :-)


    1. Hello G,
      I hope that you go for your visit. I honestly think the city is very charming and you will be surprised at how friendly it is towards foreigners. While I have not lived in Germany, I do think living in NL and Belgium is easier for English speakers because English is widely spoken among the Flemish and the Dutch. Did you learn German? I thought learning the language made it easier to fit in.

      We moved for a research post-doc with KUL. Due to the size of KUL and the fact that Leuven is very much a "college" town you will likely meet lots of locals and ex-pats. Leuven is close to Brussels, with great train access, super bikeable, and has a lot of things going in during the year. If you have time during your post-doc you can take Dutch classes at the ILT within KUL. I think attempts at speaking the language are appreciated, but you will find that once people hear an accent, they will switch automatically to English. I do think that Belgians appreciate others trying to speak their language, but they are also realistic. Once you make friends with Belgians they are your friends for life.

      In terms of utilities, the major companies (Luminus, Telenet (internet), and VZW (water) will speak with you in English if you ask first in Dutch, and they will say they speak a little and then they will be entirely fluent. As for stores, I think they are much less friendly than the Irish or Americans, but I think this is less about friendliness and more about being reserved. However, I can commiserate!

      I live in AL (in the US) now, and let's just say that I felt more at "home" in Leuven than I do here. If you go, please let me know how it goes for you!

    2. Aww, Nilam. You're too nice. Het spijt me dat je Leuven mist. Wij missen jullie!

  10. Hi,

    Thanks for your reply. I tried to learn German, but working all day at an English-speaking institute and socializing with work colleagues meant that the opportunities to practice were few and far between...I can manage to get around town and shops, etc....but actual German conversation is beyond me. I am glad to hear that Belgians are open to people trying to speak there language, I find the Germans (or East Germans at least) get irritated if you try and get something wrong, after a while it's easier not to even try as it is disheartening to have your efforts laughed at! I visit Leuven to meet the lab group (also at KUL) the first week of Oct and also get a feel for the city. I'll let you know how I get on, thanks again for all the advice :-)


  11. Hi,

    Just an update as I visited Leuven this past weekend :-)

    I liked the city and am planning on taking the post-doc position :-) However, I will live in Brussels and commute as Leuven is a bit too much like the small German city I live in now (Leipzig) and I feel that I don't want to live in such a place again! I am looking forward to working there though as I liked the university itself and the campus.

    Thanks for the info on Leuven, it really helped me know what to look for :-)


    1. Yay! I'm so happy for you and congrats on your upcoming move (I'm a bit jealous!). You will love Brussels. Belgium is just the shit.

  12. This is the best article about Leuven I have found out by google.
    Wish you keep adding more stuff in here. I might have a chance to do my degree there soon. This is invaluable!

  13. Am so glad that I found this post. I live in Cataluña and my husband lives in Denmark. We are moving to Leuven next month. Thank you very much for all the information. This is gonna help us a lot.

  14. Did you get a pic of the Starbucks yet? If not, let me know and I will send you one. Just tell me where to send it. Great article. I just moved here for one year to study at KUL and this orientation is very helpful.

    1. Glen, I haven't received one and I would love to see! Can you send me a message in the contact form above and I'll email you directly? I hope you enjoy your time at KUL. I'm glad the info is still relevant.

  15. Hi Neeli,

    Thanks a lot for such an informative article on Leuven. My office is in Sint-Truiden, but I have deciced to live in Leuven. All your information has given me more confidence to move to Leuven.


    1. Hi Srini, Thank you for taking the time to comment and share that you found the (probably outdated) materials useful. Cheers and I hope you enjoy living in Leuven. Neeli