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Banking on Belgium

By - October 16, 2006 (Updated: November 28, 2014)


In the mid 1990s, Belgium revolutionised banking by leading the way into a cashless society. At least, that’s what my bank’s advertising tells me. Actually, my wallet contains way more cash than it ever did in Canada – and trust me, it’s not because I have any more money.

One of the first things Andrew and I did when we arrived in Belgium was open a bank account. In fact, there’s not much you can do in Belgium without one. We needed it so we could rent our house, buy insurance, and even get a movie rental membership.

Opening the account was the easy part. Our banker was helpful and friendly. She patiently explained all of the facets of our new account – on-line banking, Proton, Bancontact, Mastercard – we had it all. We left clutching our shiny new cards and waited for the first chance to use them.

Bancontact was relatively painless for us. Canada has had a bank card system called Interac for about ten years now. It is so integrated into our lives that I rarely ever had more than coffee money in my purse (Tim Horton’s coffee shops being just about the only place in Halifax that doesn’t take Interac.) Keying in my four-digit PIN to pay for things was like second nature.

Here in Belgium you also have Proton, which is supposed to be used for small purchases. You load money from your bank account onto your Proton (a small chip on your bank card) and supposedly use it like cash. Honestly, I don’t see the point to Proton. You are still using the same card, but it is less secure because if it is stolen, the thief doesn’t need your PIN to access the money.

The main problem though, is whether you use Bancontact or Proton, not all shops and restaurants take either. Many small or privately owned businesses still take only cash.

Leaving the store and going to the bank machine is where the similarities to Canadian banks end. Back in Nova Scotia, I could stick my card in any machine and access my money. If the machine didn’t belong to my bank, it would charge me a small fee. In times of emergency, when I needed cash fast (two for one shoes at Payless for example) any bank machine would do.

Here in Brussels, things haven’t been that easy for me. There have been occasions when I have gone from bank machine to bank machine in attempt to get my card to work – to no avail. I was tempted to point the finger at my bank (not to name names but it is a lovely shade of orange) until one evening when we were dining out with friends.

When it came time to pay, the credit card machine was broken. The guys had to find a bank machine to settle our bill. After three attempts, our friend (who actually works for a bank) had to hop on a tram to get to a machine that he knew would accept his card. We were in downtown Brussels.

But by far, my oddest Belgian banking experience involved my credit card. I stopped by my bank branch because I needed to change my Mastercard’s PIN. My banker smiled and told me it was no problem. Thinking she would have me key in my new number on the keypad beside me, I waited while she tapped at her computer. She then handed me my card and told me to visit the bank machine down the street – one that belonged to a totally different bank.

Thinking she was having fun with the stupid foreigner I asked for clarification. She assured me it was the machine for the rival bank. I inserted my card, followed her instruction and sure enough, my PIN was changed.

One thing our Belgian bank has down pat however is bill payment. All of my bills are paid from the comfort of my computer desk. While I had a good on-line banking system in Canada, person to person transfers had to be made at the bank branch. Here, as long as I have the account number, I can deposit money into my landlords’ account without ever leaving home.

To throw another wrench in the works, Andrew is still technically a Canadian employee and as such gets paid through Canada. We have to maintain our Canadian bank accounts as well. Because it is next to impossible to transfer money from our Canadian bank to our Belgian one (without paying a small fortune in fees) we end up taking out a lot of cash.

Even without the Canadian payroll issue, I can’t see my Belgian life becoming cashless anytime soon. Until that time, I’ll be waiting patiently for my bank card to be accepted at more than three machines in Brussels.

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