I’m sure that Belgium isn’t unique in it’s frustratingly convoluted public administration system (though if you watch this video, you begin to understand why it’s so convoluted) and I understand that immigration policy is necessarily complicated. But it’s still a frustrating experience.
So remember when I wrote about the hassle of getting my fingerprints taken so I could get an FBI background check? There were a handful of other documents I also collected while I was home that I was told I would need once I arrived back in Belgium. This included such basic documents as a medical check-up and the background check, but I also had to travel to Harrisburg (2 hours from my hometown) to get apostiles for both my diploma and birth certificate. In total, I probably spent over $100, once you break down the processing fees, administrative fees, and general cost of the items (and not counting the trip to Harrisburg, since I turned it into a day trip to Gettysburg with Mom and Dad, who covered most of the costs — Thanks guys!).
Once I got back to Belgium, guess how many of these documents I actually needed.
That’s right. None.
Upon my return, I first registered in the city hall as a tourist. That came with its own annoyances, particularly that the woman who was helping me used four (four) of my best-ever passport photos (i.e. all I had left) to put on four copies of a document that no one has ever asked to see (and is now expired, so no one will ever see them). Then Joery and I had to register as a couple, which is similar to a civil union in the U.S., so that I could apply for residence status based on our relationship.
As it turns out, the only document I actually needed for legalizing our relationship was the one I didn’t get while I was in the US. It was the affidavit of celibacy (that name still cracks me up), which I ended up having to go to Brussels twice to get. Once to actually go to the US Embassy and swear that I am not married or in a serious relationship with anyone other than Joery (seriously, I had to hold up my right hand and everything) and the second time to go to the Belgian Department for the Interior because I didn’t have a stamp on it. Why no one mentioned that this stamp was necessary before I went to the Embassy, I don’t know.
To make a very long process short, after registering as a couple, having two visits by the police to verify we were, in fact, living together, and waiting for the police to send the documents back to the city hall, I was finally able to produce the “samenwoning” (literally “living together”) contract, along with a few other docs, to the immigration office so they could issue me a temporary permit.
So the process that started in January is now (semi)over in May.
We still have to get my permanent card, which will be valid for 5 years, and to do that there are still more documents we have to collect. They include proof of health insurance, proof of a suitable residence, proof we have a durable relationship (meaning we have to prove we’ve been together for at least two years. I have some sweet time-stamped photos from my first visit to Belgium in 2006 I’m going to send in. Joery ruining all my awesome European photos with time stamps finally worked in his favor) and proof of financial means. We have an appointment
today in three weeks (our insurance company is kind of dragging their feet on processing our request) to turn in the aforementioned documents. This means — taking the 3-month processing time into consideration — I will finally be a permanent resident of Belgium — by the end of September.
Now, this experience differs for everyone. I think the process for me went rather smoothly (aside from a few minor setbacks, like not having the proper stamp on my affidavit of celibacy and needing to wait a month or so between every appointment), but this can be attributed to a few things: Joery being a Belgian citizen, me being an American citizen, us having been registered as living at the same address for the last two years (which makes proving our relationship rather easy), Joery owning his apartment, us being in Belgium, which I hear has rather relaxed immigration procedures, among others. Every situation is evaluated individually (which also means you can’t just call the city hall beforehand to talk about your case, you must make an appointment to get every stupid question answered. And just because you have an appointment doesn’t mean you don’t have to wait for an hour, or so.)
The best advice I can give (if you happen to be going through or trying to go through the same thing) is to stay flexible. Things will go wrong. You will have the wrong (or completely unnecessary) documents. You will have to suffer through long waits in order to get an appointment. You may also have to use all your awesome passport pictures on the document no one will see, leaving the zombie-photos for your permanent card (and no, I can’t just pry them off — I tried. They have a stupid stamp on them). Staying calm is hard. I had my fair share of mental breaks, particularly when my tourist visa expired and I still couldn’t get an appointment at the city hall. But as long as you satisfy all the requirements, it should be a rather painless process (at least in hindsight…nothing was that bad).
So good luck. And if you have any questions, please direct them to the city hall of your domicile.