The Act of 11 July 2021 has introduced a new type of residence permit in the Belgian Foreigners Act. This new type of residence permit can be called the ‘Search Year’ residence card, and allows third-country nationals who have completed their higher-education studies in Belgium to exceed their stay in Belgium in order to search for employment or start a business.
The concept of a Search Year residence card has been introduced by article 25 of the EU Students and Researchers Directive (EU 2016/801). This article obliged Member States to make it possible for third-country nationals who have just completed their studies on their territory, or for researchers, to reside in that Member State for an additional minimum period of 9 months in order to accommodate their search for employment or their plans to start a business.
As this Directive had to be implemented into national legislation before 23 May 2018, students in other Member States already applied for this ‘search year’ possibility. Unfortunately, Belgium did not manage to make the necessary legislative changes in time.
Because of that, the Administrative Foreigners Court (Raad voor Vreemdelingenbetwistingen/Conseil du Contentieux des Étrangers) has decided in two similar cases in February 2021 that the Belgian immigration authorities cannot reject requests from foreign students in Belgium for this search year, due to the EU Students and Researchers Directive having direct effect.
Luckily, the Belgian legislator subsequently amended the Foreigners Act of 15 December 1980 by the Act of 11 July 2021, and, since 16 August 2021, a Search Year residence card can be applied for in Belgium.
The following third-country nationals are eligible to apply for the Search Year residence card:
third-country national students who have obtained a graduate, bachelor, master or doctorate degree from a university or higher education institution in Belgium;
third-country national students who have obtained a degree in another EU Member State, but who have been spending part of their studies in Belgium because of a study exchange programme (e.g. the Erasmus programme).
The Search Year residence card will have to be applied for at the town hall of residence, at the latest 15 days before the expiry of the current student residence permit. Once all the necessary documents, such as proof of completion of studies in Belgium, have been submitted to the town hall, the town hall will forward the application to the Belgian immigration authorities.
If the authorities approve the application, they will issue a residence permit type A, which will be valid for 12 months.
The Royal Decree of 20 July 2021 has added the Search Year residence card holders to the Royal Decree of 2 September 2018, regarding the employment of third-country nationals with a specific residence status in Belgium, so as to include them in the list of third-country nationals who have access to the Belgian labour market.
This means that Search Year residence card holders may perform any type of employment on the basis of their residence card. However, once a profound employment situation has been found to exist, an application for a Single Permit needs to be submitted as soon as possible.
Even though the Search Year residence card will be valid for maximum 12 months, and even though the holder has full access to the Belgian labour market, both the regional employment authorities and the Belgian immigration authorities have already expressed that a Single Permit still needs to be obtained as quickly as possible if an employer intends to hire a Search Year residence card holder.
Search Year residence card holders, however, do not need to await the approval of the Single Permit before starting their employment activities. They can already start work on the basis of the Search Year residence card. The Search Year residence card can thus become a very useful tool to avoid the very long processing times of the Single Permit application.
If you require assistance to obtain the Search Year residence card or the Single Permit, please do not hesitate to contact PwC Legal.