About the show
Each episode on the investment Immigration Podcast by Uglobal.com, host Salman Siddiqui sits down with leading professionals, attorneys, thought leaders and government officials to discuss the latest developments impacting citizenship and residency by investment. Whether you´re someone who takes part in cross border transactions, works in the investment immigration community or are personally interested in participating in citizenship or residency investment, tune each week to the Investment Immigration podcast to stay up to date on what´s happening in the investment immigration world.
About the host
Salman Siddiqui is the host of Uglobal’s Investment Immigration Podcast series. Siddiqui is a versatile storyteller and embodies the spirit of a true global citizen. His own immigration journey took him to many places around the world, including the UK, Cyprus, Turkey, and Qatar. He has written dozens of in-depth articles and features on global investment immigration programs for the Uglobal Immigration Magazine and website. He is a journalist and creative content editor by training. He earned his master’s in arts degree from SOAS, University of London. He is currently based in Berlin, Germany.
Salman Siddiqui: Welcome to the Investment Immigration podcast by you Globalcom with weekly in-depth interviews with the world's leading investment immigration professionals. Welcome to another show of the Investment Immigration podcast brought to you by Uglobal.com. I'm your host, Salman Siddiqui, and today we are going to focus on Belgium and the investment immigration options there. Why are people not aware about the options there? We are going to talk also about the different kind of visa options that one can utilize to maybe buy real estate or start a business or acquire a company there. So, to understand all of this, I have a special guest today in our episode. Her name is Emmanuelle Halabi. She's the founder of Halabi and Associates. She's joining us all the way from Brussels. Welcome to the show, Emmanuelle.
Emmanuelle Halabi: Thank you. And hello, everyone. And thank you for your invitation.
Salman Siddiqui: Thank you. And let's get into the heart of the matter. Firstly, why don't people know much about Belgium's investment immigration options? Just explain to us what people are missing out on.
Emmanuelle Halabi: Oh, it's complicated. We are communicating a lot about it on our website. It's true that if we compare with other EU countries, probably other EU countries communicate more. I think about Portugal, we know that they do. They go with the golden visa. I think Spain does it as well. And it's true that Belgium doesn't really communicate. They should because as any other EU country, Belgium needs and loves foreign investment. So that's why we are here as well, to communicate on their behalf.
Of course, Belgium is a great country, except for the weather. We can't have everything. But I mean, of course, as you know, we are lucky to be the headquarters of Europe. So, it's a very central place. We have the sea; we have small mountains, but mainly we have a great quality of life. Even if we criticize a lot, like everyone does. But I mean, we have a great health, Social Security system in Belgium. Once you arrive, of course, you have to register to health insurance. But once you do it and it's not so expensive, it's quite cheap if we compare with other countries. You have a great coverage if you get sick or anything. We also have a very high level of education and schools and universities are, I won't say free; at least schools are free, except private school university are not free, but they are also very cheap if you compare with other EU countries. So, I think we are very lucky because we have a great system, which allows everyone to have great chances for the health, for education, and also great quality of life, great restaurant food, and beers.
Salman Siddiqui: Of course. And this is something like, of course, one expects from a European Union country, especially from Belgium. And but what I want to understand from you is, and I'm sure a lot of our listeners also want to know, is what options do investors have. Especially those who come from non-EU countries into investing in Belgium, and what kind of visa categories are there for them?
Emmanuelle Halabi: It's a great question. So, I would say that we have to divide two categories of investors. We have private investors, people like you and I, who would like to settle in Belgium because it's a nice place to live. You don't really need to work in Belgium, but you can prove that you have personal assets, rents, dividends, pension, whatever, which allow you to live in Belgium without having to work. So, this is the first kind, and we call it in French, Visa Rentier So, we say in English, a return visa. The second type of investor are investors who want to invest in in an economic activity and they want to work as self-employed, maybe to be director, CEO of a company that they want to found or co-found. And so, in such a situation, they need to submit for the professional cap, which is another procedure. But I think that we are going to talk about both today. Maybe you want me to start with the Annuitant visa?
Salman Siddiqui: Yeah, let's do that. So the annuity visa, who is it for, really? And just an overview of this particular visa category, and how it facilitates immigration for individuals looking to come into the country.
Emmanuelle Halabi: So, this is usually what we recommend when we have a client who can demonstrate that he has personal income without having to work. I mean, by that, for instance, you have your own company in your country. You don't need to work there anymore because you have a great team and you just need to keep being the boss, and you receive dividends or any other incomes, or you own real estate and you receive rent from it or in other country, EU, a country or even in your country of origin. But it can also be an investment that you want to do in Belgium. The Annuitant visa concerns any people who doesn't want and doesn't need to work in Belgium. But this person has to prove that she has personal incomes and those incomes have to be sufficient and regular. And at the end of the day, once they receive the visa, they must prove that they can transfer those incomes into a Belgian bank account that they will be allowed to open in Belgium. So, I would say that this is the main criterion, proving sufficient means, but it's not enough. You also have to prove that you have strong ties with Belgium. For instance, because you used to live or work in Belgium or with Belgian people, or maybe because you have family in Belgium, or also because you invested in a real estate in Belgium or maybe in a Belgian company as an investor, not as a self-employed, but I mean not as an active associate, but just as an investor.
Emmanuelle Halabi: This can also be proof of a strong tie that justifies that we want to be in the country where you have your assets in Belgian company that you support financially. So, I would say that those are the main requirements. And it's true that when we have a client who comes to see us and ask what his options are, we usually explain that he has three options to get the permanent residence, and maybe later the citizenship. The first one is the Annuitant visa; if he can afford to prove those sufficient means. The second one is the Single Permit, which is a work permit by working for a Belgian employer. And the last one is the Professional Care, which means an investment in a Belgian company. But it's true that for the professional care, honestly, it's more tricky to get it. It's longer, it takes a lot of time. I will talk about it later, but they do a lot of check and investigation. And so, it might take a year. If we compare with the Annuitant visa, we usually get a decision between two and four months. Also, the conditions are easier.
Salman Siddiqui: That's a very good explanation of the difference between the two categories. But before we jump on to the professional category that you mentioned, let's talk about the sufficient means required for the annuity. What does Belgium consider as sufficient means for this particular visa?
Emmanuelle Halabi: So again, since they don't really communicate about this Annuitant visa, they don't communicate neither the condition. So, it's really the practice. So, what they mainly want is that people don’t become a load for the Social Security system, and so they usually consider the minimum to live under poverty. So, for the moment, for instance, we usually recommend having minimum €2,000 per month net from any kind of income, which can't be a salary. So, if, for instance, you say I'm a worker for a company abroad and this company allows me to come to Belgium and they will keep paying me, this is not accepted because they consider that it's not stable since the contract might end once you arrive to Belgium. For instance, the opposite. In Spain, they make the Digital Nomad visa. Now we don't have it yet in Belgium, but I pray for to get it because since Covid-19, of course everyone wants to become a digital nomad and it would make sense to do that in Belgium as well, but it doesn't exist. So, for the moment, it can't be sufficient means from work I mean from a work contract if you work for someone else. But if you are your own boss and you own your company, which provides you monthly salary dividends, or you have rents from real estate, all those kind of incomes are taken into consideration. The most important is to be above €2,000 if you're alone and I would say €3,000 minimum if it's a family, to be sure.
Salman Siddiqui: So, before I ask you a question about the digital Nomad visa and why Belgium still doesn't have it, I want to ask who is particularly applying for these kinds of visas? Is it mostly people who are already in the EU and want to move to Belgium now? Or are people outside the EU utilizing this?
Emmanuelle Halabi: Well, it's a good question. I would say both. Mainly since I'm a Lebanese origin, I have a lot of clients from Lebanon who want to do that because they already have family in Belgium and they want to get closer to their family. We also have former ambassadors who used to live in Belgium and they were very happy and they invested in real estate. And so, they want to stay here at the end of their mandate. We also have people coming from abroad and, you know, they have family here or relatives or friends or business relations. And they came often to Belgium. They realized that it's a great country, and then they decided to invest in Belgium. Also, because real estate investment in Belgium it's still interesting compared to other EU countries because it's cheaper. If you buy an apartment in Brussels, you can have a great and big apartment for €300,000. You can't get that in Paris or otherwise, it's a studio and it's very small. So, if you compare, it's cheaper and you have a great turnover. If you rent it, it will usually after five years, you already have a great turnover. So, it's a good place to invest in real estate.
Salman Siddiqui: So, talking about the real estate option now, how do you recommend people to do that? Do you recommend them to come via this Annuity visa? And then they come and see a property and put their money in it. Is that the route you recommend to them?
Emmanuelle Halabi: It really depends. Of course. If they never came or came only twice, they have no guarantee, the file is not very strong. I won't recommend investing already the money, but at least to prove that they are already contacting some real estate agencies, and also to prove that they have the funds to invest in a real estate. And so, we provide a strong file with guarantee that they are planning to invest if they receive the visa. And usually what the Immigration office decides, they say, okay, we trustt you. It seems that you want to invest, but for the renewal, if you haven't invested, it's tricky if you don't have other great information for us in your file, you know. Now, if it's for people who used to come to Belgium and they already have a good situation here and family and they can afford, yes, we recommend to already invest because the file will be stronger. It really depends, it's case by case. You know, if you have a lot of family here and a very strong file, it's not so necessary. But if the file is not strong enough and we want to strengthen it, of course we recommend to already do the investment, prove that the investment brings already money, and then we have a good file.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. I understand. But to clarify, people who don't have, say, for example, strong family ties or that sort of connection in Belgium, they cannot come into the country and buy property, like the way we see it can be done in Portugal or was able to do that in Malta. It's not the same way that we see. This the strong connection with Belgium has to be proven.
Emmanuelle Halabi: Yes, but having a lot of real estate can be a strong connection with Belgium. For instance, I have one client. They have no property yet once we submitted it, but most of their family was here and so it was okay. And at the opposite, I have a family without family in Belgium, but they invested a lot if in real estate. They also used to work with Belgian companies, and it worked. So, I would say that the real estate can also be proof of the strong tie if this condition is not sufficient yet. Yes, investing in real estate or also taking shares in Belgium companies and invest in Belgian companies can become a strong file with strong ties with Belgium.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. And in terms of where they can invest in real estate, are there any restrictions? Like, for example, they can invest only in Brussels, or they can basically buy property anywhere.
Emmanuelle Halabi: They can buy anywhere. Mainly what we recommend is also not take any mortgage or pay it completely, so you can get the benefits completely as well, especially if we need to prove that it's the incomes in Belgium. The only restriction is, of course, the money laundry checks that they usually do. So, we have countries on the blacklist ad on the red list and we know that it's trickier for them to prove the origin of the money. So sometimes it takes longer. But I mean, if everything is clean and clear, there is no problem at all, and they can invest in any real estate.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. Okay. And once one gets a real estate property, whether it's a villa or an apartment, what happens then? Do they get a residence permit that allows them to stay there for a long time, or they are allowed to stay until they own the property? How does it.
Emmanuelle Halabi: We have, of course, to submit an application. So, there are two options. Either people are in their country of origin, and so we submit it through the Belgian embassy in the country of origin, or if they are already in Belgium under another status or even with a visa, which is valid, they can also submit from Belgium. In the application we have to provide a very strong file with the proof that all the conditions are filled, criminal record, medical certificate, proof of sufficient means, proof of strong ties, and so on. And if the file is approved, they receive a visa if they apply from abroad or they receive a one-year card, if they apply from Belgium and every year they have to renew it by proving that they have sufficient means transferred on the Belgian bank account that they have to open, of course. And so, for instance, if in the application we said they are planning to invest in real estate and this is the condition, why they finally approve it in the year before we submit for the renewal, it's better to prove that they did the investment and that they have the money back. And so, we have to do that during five years. And once we want to submit after the five years, we can also submit for the permanent residence. And if they get it, it's great because there´s no condition. If we go with the permanent residence, which is the EU permanent residence, it's a ten-year authorization. And so after that they are safe.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. Understood. Okay. There is an option to that leads to permanent residency through this path. That's really interesting. And what I also want to understand from you is they can buy any kind of property and there are no restrictions in that way. But are there any eligibility restrictions in terms of knowing the language or passing some cultural integration test, or something like that for people who buy properties in Belgium?
Emmanuelle Halabi: Not at his stage. Of course. Knowing an official language is a plus for the proof of strong tie. So, it really depends on if someone has no strong tie but speaks French, okay, that's great because it strengthens the application. So again, it's a matter of appreciation depending on the other criterion. But later, if they want to submit for citizenship, yes, knowing one of the language is a requirement. And also, the integration course might be a requirement if we don't choose another criterion.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. And in terms of bringing their families to the country, how difficult or easy is that process? Do the main applicants, can they bring their families immediately when they are applying through this route by buying property or making their files stronger? Or do or do the families have to wait?
Emmanuelle Halabi: No. So usually what we do, if people are ready, we do for the whole family together. By family, I mean the spouse and the children under 18 years old. What they will do, they will first consider the examination for the one who is the inheritance. So, who owns the sufficient means. And then if they say yes, they transfer the application, the rest of the application, to the family reunion department, which will take the decision for the rest of the family. But they can also decide to start with one. And then a year later, when everything is ready and the rest of the family comes, again it’s the spouse plus the children under 18 years old.
Salman Siddiqui: And does the sufficient means threshold increase when one applies with family?
Emmanuelle Halabi: Of course. So, if you're alone, it will be around €1,007. It should be enough. But if it's a family for the moment, it's €2m000 and every year, sometimes twice, and sometimes three times a year, they increase the amount. So that's why to be comfortable, what we usually recommend to our clients, since we must do that for the next five years, we say let's start with €3000. At least it's safe and we can guarantee that for the next five years.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. That makes perfect sense. Now, moving on, let's also talk about what you mentioned earlier, which was why Belgium still doesn't have a Digital Nomad visa. So many other countries in the EU and other countries outside the EU have that. And Covid is now almost over and still it doesn't have it. Why is that?
Emmanuelle Halabi: The best point in Belgium is that we are a small country with a very complex political system because we have three regions, three communities, and everyone has to agree. We have seven political parties around the table and it's quite tricky to find an agreement. So, the innovation in immigration law is not the best point in Belgium. So probably they will copycat the other countries later.
Salman Siddiqui: Do you think it's going to happen, though? Is it on the cards?
Emmanuelle Halabi: If it's interesting, financially, they might do it, but I really don't know if they will. I hope. I'm considering about making a lobby on them because I think that it would be great for Belgium, of course.
Salman Siddiqui: Yes, definitely. Now, moving on, you mentioned about this option for having a Professional card in Belgium. So first, please explain to our listeners what that is, and are there different types of professional cards available, and how does that relate to the residence permit application process? So, if you could explain that, please.
Emmanuelle Halabi: Yes, of course. So, the Professional card is concerns people who want, to be investor in a company and let's say work for the company, are active in the day to day as administrator, CEO, director, whatever. And so, this is trickier, because of course, due to competition reasons, before they give this authorization, the region wants to be sure that they will be economic benefits for the region if they approve because they want to protect the other Belgian company. That's the main reason. So, the main criterion, the main requirement, if you want to submit for a Professional card, is you have to be clear about what you want to do as a business in Belgium, and you have to demonstrate that there will be economic benefits for the region where you want to settle the company. So, this is the tricky part as well because you might have a great economic project, but if, for instance, all your clients and all your suppliers are in Brussels, but you decide to settle the company in Wallonia, Wallonia might decline and say that there are no benefits for Wallonia, because everything is in Brussels. So, you also have to think about this Once you choose the place you want to submit for the Professional card. And so what we usually recommend when we receive people, the first step for us is draft a business plan, a financial plan with a Belgian accountant, who knows how the regulation works and how much taxes we pay, because a lot of people are not aware about the taxes here in Belgium, which are quite high, to be honest. You must have a great accountant to avoid to pay too many taxes. And sometimes they think that it's the same than in their country.
Emmanuelle Halabi: For instance, in Lebanon, they pay they pay 10% of taxes, which is nothing. So, once they arrive here, they have a financial plan, but they take into consideration the Lebanese taxes, not the Belgian one. And of course, the difference between 10% totally and 21% VAT plus 20% for the company tax plus the taxes on your employee, it is almost 70% of your turnover that goes to the tax. So, this is really important to prepare properly the project, have a great financial plan, realistic but sexy but realistic as well. A great business plan market survey to know your competitors who will be your target. Everything must be very defined and clear and only once this job has been done and we have a great project, then we can submit for the professional card and expect a positive decision. But it's not so easy because you have to provide a lot of documents, do a lot of work to prepare the documents, provide also the proof of your skills, of your financial assets, because you have to be solid. You need money to develop a business and it takes time. So, you have to be patient. Sometimes we have clients, they come to see us, and they say, I want to open a company and get my professional car in two months. No, sorry, it won't be possible. Even if we work very hard every day and every night, this won't happen because they take a lot of time. They have a lot of applications to examine, and they do so many checks that we usually explain that it will take minimum six months and it can be a year before you receive a decision.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. So, the processing times can be longer for this time?
Emmanuelle Halabi: It's, yeah, it's very technical.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. But share with us some success stories about what kind of financial plans work. Maybe you know of a client, maybe your own clients that you could share which were successful in the end, and your recommendations based on that.
Emmanuelle Halabi: So, I would say that usually, when it works, it's because our client has already a contract with Belgian client or supplier. So, for instance, of course doctors, when they have a contract with the hospital, they get the Professional card, quite easily. Also, IT consultant; but saying I'm an IT consultant, even if we need it consultant all over the world, it's a good thing. But having a contract proving that you will provide services to Belgian companies puts the file higher. So, this is usually the main recommendation. If you have no client at all, no supplier, and you just say, I want to do things with no idea about how, when, who, it won't work. But if you have a clear vision and you can also prove that you have already a contractor, probably it will be approved. And usually those are the cases where the professional card are approved. It's always people who have at least one or two contracts with Belgian clients.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. And a question connected to that is, for example, if somebody is an entrepreneur, they want to establish a startup in Belgium. Do they have to then, based on what you're telling me, my understanding is they'll have to first find a local collaborator for their project and then make a business plan. And then their chances of getting approval for the application would be higher. Is that how it would work?
Emmanuelle Halabi: Yes, I would say so. I will take another example. We had the Lebanese clients again and they wanted to open a Lebanese restaurant in Belgium. We have plenty of Lebanese restaurants. It's very trendy. Everybody loves Lebanese food. If they want to make the same project in Brussels, it would probably have been declined. But since they decided to open the restaurant in Mons and we check on Google and there were no other Lebanese restaurants with the same project around Mons at the place they wanted to open it. It was approved because this was the first important element. No competitor in the area and the second one. So, they made the financial plan. They already found the producers and the suppliers to buy, I don't know, the meat, the vegetables and so on. They already get in touch with local authorities to know how it works and get some information and assistance. They already published a job offer to find a chef, and so the project was already on track. And so they approved because it was realistic and they already have concrete elements to provide.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. Okay. And for example, I want to understand if this is basically coming from the perspective of, say, the American investors, and they want to come to Belgium and they say, for example, somebody wants to buy a hotel or establish a hotel, how would you recommend them to go about it? Would they also be coming through the professional part, or are there some other route for annuity part? How would you recommend to them to go about this?
Emmanuelle Halabi: It really depends. If the investor had the money and they can prove that they have money to invest in the hotel. And, for instance, they say, we want to buy this hotel that’s going to close and probably fire all the employees. We will buy it and we will keep all the employment, there are high chances to be approved because they will save employment and they will. But of course, they must prove how they're going to do that, how they're going to do better than the previous one. What's the new strategy, the new target, the financial assets that they will invest? So again, it's a matter of how you build the file. Now, if it's someone who has no money to invest, but he will probably manage the team, maybe I will recommend splitting the file. The one with money, they would invest and buy the hotel and got the Professional card, but maybe the one who has no financial assets but the skill. Maybe, it's interesting for him to be hired with a work contract and submit for a single permit because it's faster, it's cheaper and it's safer. So, it's again, case by case, depending on the profile, depending on the strategy. We can also eventually consider to hire a part of the potential associate, maybe as a worker with a contract to get a single permit and go faster, or we do the Professional card for all of them. But then we have to demonstrate that each one will have a specific function, has a specific profile required to get great profits for the company and the project.
Salman Siddiqui: So, speaking of the profile of the candidates. The government is interested in investing in or they want more people to come. Are there any particular industries or particular categories of professionals that the government is targeting?
Emmanuelle Halabi: Yes and no. Not in the low, except in Vlaanderen, which it’s the Dutch part, they officially published a year or two ago a kind of regulation with their criterion. And if you fill three criteria on five, for instance, then they will say yes, the two other region, we are still waiting, but this doesn't exist. So, it's usually the practice. What we also recommend, if it's notona consultant or something like that, and if it's someone who wants to open a business. Indeed, each region has its own website and each region decides to put energy on sectors. For instance, in Wallonia, energy and I.T., that are very trendy. And of course, if you go with this kind of areas, you will probably get more strength for your fine than if you go. I don't know, if you open another restaurant and you already have 100 restaurants in the city. So, it's interesting to go and check. Depending on the region, you're planning to open your business, to check if the area is one of the interests for the region and maybe change the region. If you realize that another region has more interest in this area than the one expected.
Salman Siddiqui: Okay, good. And now before I let you go, I want to also talk to you about something controversial, which is looking at the region, especially in the EU. We see that the European Commission is breathing down on certain golden visa programs which have been there. So, given that background, a lot of investors always have this question about what if I put my money there, I invest so much time and money, would would my application be safe? So, given that background, what do you have to say about Belgium options for investors looking to emigrate?
Emmanuelle Halabi: Honestly, I think most of the EU countries do the same. When there is money, there is interest. And so, if we have investor ,private or for companies, who can provide guarantee that financially there are strong. Usually, they say yes, if the profile is good, because Belgium needs that. So, I really think that anyway, the way we work because we understand that it's a concern, you know, putting a lot of time, money, energy for an application that's finally rejected, it's not okay. So, what we do in our law firm is that we split the application in several phases. And what we usually explain to our clients is if you open a file with us before we submit the application, we will open what we call the preparatory phase, which means we send you the list of the document which is adapted to your situation based on our experience, 20 years. And we do a lot of it. So, I think we we are starting to have a great experience. And so, each list is individualized. Once the client has all the documents, we first check them. We provide recommendation. If the file is not strong enough, and sometimes it's not strong enough. And so instead of paying the second fees and other fees, administrative fees and wasting time, we say, okay, either we push on and then you update whenever you can and you come back after six months, one year, and that happens a lot.
Emmanuelle Halabi: And then the chance of success is very high, or we stop it or we go forward because the file is great. And so, I think this is the best way, you know, to work, because of course we can never guarantee. And you know, when you receive a client in consultation, he provides some information, you can't check and verify them before you receive the document matching the information. And then you can say, okay, we have a strong file or not. So I think it's a wise way to work, but I would say that mainly since two or three years ago, we decided also to focus more on economic immigration, which means Annuitant visa, Professional card and Single payer, because clearly we get higher positive results since we do that, because this is clearly what they want in Belgium. They prefer this than an humanitarian case. So clearly with a strong file and of course we can help to build them. But with the strong file, you have very strong chances to be approved. That's what I would say.
Salman Siddiqui: I see. All right. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
Emmanuelle Halabi: It was my pleasure. And maybe another important information I forgot to mention. I'm sorry. I know that our clients ask this a lot. In Belgium, one of the reasons also it's important and it's interesting to choose Belgium is because for the citizenship, we have conditions which are softer if we compare to other country, because after five years, once you receive first you have to get the permanent residence. But then once you have it after five years of legal residence, you might be eligible for the citizenship. And the procedure itself takes six months. If we compare with France or Italy, I know that it can take two or three years. In Belgium, it takes six months if all the conditions are filled. So of course, there are other conditions. We talk about it earlier, integration, language, but I mean, it's quite easy to get them. You have five years to get to reach them. And so, I think it's another very interesting advantage is that after five years, you can get an EU citizenship.
Salman Siddiqui: That's indeed a big advantage for many of our listeners who are tuning in. I'm sure they'll be watching for that citizenship option as well. So, thank you so much.
Emmanuelle Halabi: Thank you again for.
Salman Siddiqui: Sharing with our listeners and to our listeners. Please stay tuned to our show. We'll be bringing you more episodes about more programs from around the world. Thank you.
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