Belgium 2013 Crime and Safety Report
Stolen items; Theft; Transportation Security; Riots/Civil Unrest; Economic Espionage; Information Security
Europe > Belgium > Brussels
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Belgium is a highly developed and stable democracy with a modern economy. Tourist facilities are widely available.
Belgium remains relatively free of violent crime, but low-level street crime is common. Muggings, purse snatchings, and pocket picking occur frequently, particularly in major cities. Thieves often loiter in transportation hubs like the Metro (subway) and train stations to take advantage of disoriented or distracted travelers.
While most monetary transactions are available (cash, credit cards), U.S. money orders cannot be negotiated. Personal checks may only be cleared through a bank at which a person holds an account, and clearance can take two to four weeks. Banks and exchange facilities may refuse U.S. dollar denominations of $50 and $100 if they are not equipped with devices to identify counterfeit currency. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) are widespread and accept most U.S. ATM cards for fund withdrawals. If you want to purchase Euros, you are likely to find a more favorable exchange rate at banks than at money exchange facilities at tourist locations, train stations, and airports.
Small groups of young men sometimes prey on unwary tourists, usually at night and often in metro stations in Brussels. These thieves typically seek small, high-value items such as mobile phones and MP3 players.
Overall Road Safety Situation
You may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the U.S. Belgium's road network is generally well built and maintained, but you may 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 U.S., and new drivers should thoroughly understand these rules before driving. For instance, traffic coming from the right generally has priority at uncontrolled intersections and roundabouts, even if coming from a smaller street. The maximum speed limit on highways is 120 kilometers (72 miles) per hour, but it is not always posted. The maximum speed in urban areas is 50 km (30 miles) per hour; however, in Brussels city limits it is 30 km per hour. While authorities strictly enforce speed limits, many Belgians drive significantly faster than the posted limit. Claiming ignorance may not prevent you from getting a significant fine for speeding, and your car may be impounded if you cannot pay the fine on the spot.
Police conduct breath analysis checks for alcohol use, particularly at night and during major holidays. The legal limit for operating a motor vehicle is 0.05 percent blood alcohol content. Roadside assistance and information on road conditions are available in English from Touring Mobilis, Telephone: 02 286-3040. 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.
A growing problem, especially in Brussels, is theft from vehicles, both moving and parked. Thieves will sometimes position themselves at traffic lights to scan for valuables in stopped cars.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
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 with anonymity. 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.
In general, large public demonstrations are announced on the Demonstration Notices page on the U.S. Embassy Brussels website. Prior police approval is required for all public demonstrations, and police are present to ensure adequate security for participants and passers-by. Nonetheless, spontaneous demonstrations do take place in response to world events or local developments. In September 2012, protests erupted in the Arab and Muslim world over a low-budget U.S. film that portrayed Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed in insulting terms. On September 16, 2012, police announced they detained 230 people in Antwerp after clashes at a demonstration against the film. The protestors shouted anti-U.S. slogans, and some set fire to the U.S. flag, according to television footage of an unauthorized demonstration the day prior in an area that has a large Muslim population. It degenerated into clashes with police after officers blocked the protestors from moving to a main thoroughfare. One policeman was lightly wounded. A leader of an Islamist group was among those detained, according to television news reports.
On January 25, 2013, police fired water cannon and pepper spray at steelworkers, protesting outside the Prime Minister's official residence in Brussels ahead of crisis talks on a big wave of job cuts. Several hundred workers, angered by a steel maker's decision to close a string of Belgian plants and lay off 1,300 workers, hurled firecrackers, rocks, and bottles at officers struggling to keep barriers in place. Six steel plants are slated for closure in the Liege region, and union representatives have called for the plants to be nationalized. On January 24, workers burned tires and wooden pallets outside one of the plant headquarters, and unions called for a general strike at sites still open. Steel makers have blamed weak demand for cars and cutbacks in auto plants for the falling demand for steel.
Economic Espionage/Intellectual Property Thefts
Commercial and other forms of espionage have attracted media attention. In September 2012, the head of Belgium's state security service stated that Brussels has more spy activity than almost any other city in the world, with "several hundreds" of active foreign intelligence officers and agents. He said that espionage is at the same level as the Cold War in the city, thanks to its enormous concentration of diplomats, businessmen, and international, NATO, and European institutions. He stressed that information with commercial or political value -- particularly energy policy -- is sought just as much as "classic" defense secrets. He said spies usually pretend to be diplomats, journalists, lobbyists, businessmen, or students, and apart from intelligence-gathering, they try to influence decisions made by senior staff. He said that spies first make friends with officials at seminars or social events, according to an acronym for the kind of people they target: Mice (money, ideology, compromise, ego) -- people who are greedy or in debt, who have radical ideas, who have guilty secrets, or who want to be James Bond. In some cases, he said, spies initiate contact in Brussels but wait until the target gets a new post in their home country before trying to recruit them.
Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Belgium are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
Belgian law requires that everyone carry official identification at all times. This ID must be displayed upon request to any Belgian police official. U.S. citizens who are not Belgian residents will need to present a U.S. passport.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements, and customary international law, if you are arrested, 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. To ensure that the U.S. 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.
Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime
If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime, you should contact the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. The local equivalent to the "911" emergency line is 101 for emergencies requiring police assistance. For all other emergencies, please dial 112.
The Belgian "Commission for financial assistance to victims of intentional acts of violence" provides financial compensation, under specific circumstances, for victims of crime and for those who have suffered injuries and consequent loss caused by such incidents. The Commission also provides for dependents or immediate family members of homicide victims. For more information, contact the Commission by phone at 32 2 542-7208; 32 2 542-7218; 32 2 542-7224, 32 2 542-7229; by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
While you are traveling in Belgium, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Persons violating Belgian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned.
High-quality medical facilities are widely available.
You cannot assume your insurance will go with you when you travel. It is very important to find out BEFORE you leave. In many places, doctors and hospitals still expect payment in cash at the time of service. Your regular U.S. health insurance may not cover doctors' and hospital visits. If your policy does not go with you when you travel, it is a very good idea to take out another one for your trip. For more information, please see the Embassy’s medical insurance overseas page.
Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics
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.
CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
You can find good information on vaccinations and other health precautions, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/belgium.htm.
For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the World Health Organization (WHO) website, which also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
One common trick at the three train stations is for a thief to ask you for directions while an accomplice steals your luggage.
Areas to be Avoided and Best Security Practices
In Brussels, pocket picking, purse snatching, and theft of light luggage and laptops are common at the three major train stations: the North Station (Noordstation or Gare du Nord); the Central Station (Centraal Station or Gare Central); and especially the South Station (Zuidstation or Gare du Midi, the primary international train hub). RSO advise you to pay particularly close attention to your personal belongings when in Metro and train stations.
You should always be watchful and aware of your surroundings. Thieves also watch for people who put their luggage down and are inattentive for even a moment. It is a good idea to hold onto your hand luggage at all times and not to place carry-on luggage on overhead racks in trains. Do not leave your valuables in plain sight where a thief may spot them. If thieves see a purse or other valuable item, they break the window and steal the item before you have time to react. Always drive with your windows up and doors locked. Whenever possible, park your car in secure areas or parking garages.
You should carry only a minimum amount of cash, credit cards, and necessary personal identification. RSO advises U.S. citizens to avoid wearing expensive jewelry and watches. Do not buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal to bring back to the U.S., you may also be breaking local law.
Be alert and aware of your surroundings, and pay attention to what the local news media have to say. Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable; you should avoid them if at all possible.
U.S. Embassy/Consulate Location and Contact Information
Embassy/Consulate Address and Hours of Operation
U.S. Embassy, Consular Section
25 Regentlaan / Boulevard du Regent
Embassy/Consulate Contact Numbers
Telephone: 011-32-2-811-4000 (available 24/7)
If you are going to live in or visit Belgium, please take the time to tell our Embassy about your trip. By registering with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), we can keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements and help your friends and family get in touch with you in an emergency.
Belgium is a party to the Schengen Agreement. This means that U.S. citizens may enter Belgium for up to 90 days for tourist or business purposes without a visa. Your passport should be valid for at least three months beyond the period of stay. You need sufficient funds and a return airline ticket. For additional details about travel into and within Schengen countries, please see our Schengen fact sheet. Visit the Embassy of Belgium website for the most current visa information. If you need additional information about entry requirements, including visas for employment or study in Belgium, you can contact the Embassy of Belgium at 3330 Garfield Street NW, Washington, DC 20008, telephone (202) 333-6900, fax (202) 338-4960; or one of the Belgian Consulates General in Atlanta, Los Angeles, or New York. Detailed contact information can be found on the Embassy of Belgium website.
Non-EU citizens staying in a private residence must register with local Commune authorities within three days of arrival. You must request any change in visa or resident status through Commune authorities. You must complete any such request prior to the expiration of the current status. You should note that given the substantial requirements to change status, it is nearly impossible to do so within the 90 days permitted to remain in Belgium without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program. Since April 1, 2007, non-Belgian employees and self-employed persons or their employees who carry out short-term assignments in Belgium must declare these activities in advance. This mandatory "Limosa" declaration applies to: (1) Employees and apprentices who come to Belgium to execute certain temporary work and who, because of the nature of their short term assignment, are not subject to the Belgian social security system; (2) Self-employed individuals and self-employed apprentices who come to work in Belgium temporarily, whether or not they are subject to the Belgian social security system.
OSAC Country Council Information
The Regional Security Office (RSO) at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels is proud to host Belgium's OSAC Country Council. For more information on the Country Council, including the times and meeting locations, please call 011-32-2-811-5472.