What makes Belgium a unique country to travel to?
Belgium is a highly developed and stable democracy with a modern economy. Tourist facilities are widely available.
Although Belgium remains relatively free of violent crime, low-level street crime, such as muggings, purse snatchings, and pickpocketing is common, particularly in major cities. Thieves loiter in transportation hubs like the metro (subway) and train stations, notably the Gare du Midi, the primary international train hub in Brussels. They take advantage of disoriented or distracted travelers and watch for people who put their luggage down and are inattentive for even a moment. Be particularly vigilant in these areas. Keep your eyes on your belongings. On trains, don’t place valuables on overhead racks.
Thieves often operate in teams. Once they identify a target, they cause a distraction. One way to do this is to create a random commotion such as by dropping money, cell phones, or other objects on the ground. Another way is by bumping into or shoving the target, especially in crowds. Still another common method is for an accomplice to get the target’s attention by speaking to that person or asking to sign a petition while the partner carries out the theft. Be alert to distractions.
Thieves also operate in restaurants, bars, and hotels. Take appropriate caution in these locations. Don’t sit next to doors where thieves can reach in and grab a bag that is placed on a chair or on the floor next to it. Exercise good security and safety practices when selecting and checking into hotels. Ensure that rooms have door and window locks. When possible, select a room above the ground and first floors.
Another problem is theft from vehicles. Do not leave anything visible that might attract a thief, even while you are driving. Items left on the passenger front seat of a car are particularly vulnerable. Always drive with your windows up and the doors locked. Thieves will sometimes position themselves at traffic lights to scan for valuables in stopped cars. If they see a purse or other valuables, they break in and steal the item before you have time to react. If doors are locked, thieves may smash the window to steal. Use parking garages when possible, as they are generally more secure than street parking. When a parking garage is not available, look for a spot near a street light.
There have been instances of small groups of young men who prey on unwary tourists, usually at night in the Brussels metro (subway). These thieves typically seek small, high-value items such as smartphones and MP3 players. You should carry only a minimum amount of cash, credit cards, and necessary personal identification (see Special Circumstances, below, for acceptable forms of identification). We advise against wearing expensive jewelry and watches.
Scammers have victimized U.S. citizens around the world, including in Belgium. A common scam involves an Internet friend or partner who is reported to have been detained by immigration authorities in Belgium en route to the United States and will not be released unless additional funds are paid to the “traveler” for Belgian customs fees. In every case, these reports have been determined to be confidence schemes. Several U.S. citizens have lost tens of thousands of dollars in such scams. Funds transferred in response to such offers can rarely be recovered. Information on fraud schemes can be found in the Department of State's International Financial Scams brochure. Although the scammers are pretending to be distressed U.S.-citizen travelers stranded in Belgium, it is important to realize that the scammers are, in fact, most likely not in Belgium. The point of the scam is to make the target believe that the message is coming from Belgium when it is really coming from another country. U.S.citizens in the United States who have been victimized by Internet crime should report it to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. U.S. citizens present in Belgium who have been victimized should contact the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels (Telephone 011-32-2-811-4057). Depending on the circumstances, the Regional Security Office can then direct you to the appropriate Belgian, United States, or international law enforcement agency.
While you are traveling in Belgium, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own, and criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. For instance, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children, or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Belgium, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Persons violating Belgian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking illegal drugs in Belgium are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements, and customary international law, if you are arrested in Belgium, you have the right to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the U.S. Embassy of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the Embassy.
Arrest notifications in Belgium: While some countries will automatically notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Belgium has two official languages: Flemish, which is a form of Dutch, and French. Flemish is spoken in the northern region known as Flanders. French is spoken in the southern region known as Wallonia. As a result of having two languages, many cities have two or three names, and some Belgians cannot speak with other Belgians. The language is also reflected in the media, which offers both French and Flemish versions of TV, news, and radio. Many Belgians speak more than one language and are therefore sought after as employees for international companies.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
High-quality medical facilities are widely available in Belgium. The large university hospitals can handle almost every medical problem. Hospitals may not necessarily have staff members who are fluent in English. The Embassy's Consular Section maintains a list of English-speaking doctors. Equivalents for most, but not all, U.S. medications are available through local pharmacies with a prescription from a Belgian physician. Travelers to Belgium are encouraged to bring a sufficient supply of prescription medications for the duration of their stay.
Safety and Security
Belgium has been largely free of major terrorist incidents. As with other countries in the Schengen area, Belgium maintains open borders with its neighbors, allowing the possibility of terrorist operatives entering/exiting the country with anonymity. Belgian law enforcement and security officials, in close cooperation with neighboring countries, maintain an effective anti-terrorism effort and a welcoming environment for tourism and business.
Prior police approval is required for all public demonstrations in Belgium, and police are present to ensure adequate security for participants and passers-by. Nonetheless, spontaneous demonstrations do take place in Belgium from time to time in response to world events or local developments. Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable. You should avoid them if at all possible. Be alert and aware of your surroundings, and pay attention to what the local news media have to say.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Belgium, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.
Belgium’s road network is generally well built and maintained, but you may occasionally encounter potholes, even on principal roads. Sufficient lighting exists on major highways, but on rural roads, it is often insufficient or nonexistent. Belgian rules for right-of-way differ from those in the United States, and new drivers should thoroughly understand these rules before driving in Belgium. For instance, traffic coming from the right generally has priority at uncontrolled intersections, even if coming from a smaller street. The maximum speed limit on Belgian highways is 120 kilometers (72 miles) per hour but is not always posted. The maximum speed in urban areas is normally 50 km (30 miles) per hour, but in central Brussels, it is 30 km (19 miles) per hour. While Belgian authorities strictly enforce speed limits, many Belgians still drive significantly faster than the posted limit. Claiming ignorance of the speed limit may not prevent you from getting a significant fine for speeding, and your vehicle may be impounded if you can’t pay the fine on the spot. Belgian police also conduct breath analysis checks for alcohol use, particularly at night and during major holidays. The legal limit for operating a motor vehicle is .05 percent blood alcohol content.
Roadside assistance and information on road conditions are available in English from Touring Mobilis, telephone 02 286-3040. Belgian police will also provide information on road conditions, telephone 02-642-6666. Emergency services are efficient and responsive. For police emergencies, dial 101 by phone within Belgium. For all other emergencies, dial 112.