Have you ever had to go to the hospital because of an accident or serious illness? It probably wasn’t fun or cheap, even if you have health insurance. Now imagine the same thing happening to you in a foreign country, with a totally different culture, language, and health care system.
Even if you’ve never broken your leg or contracted a serious disease, millions of other people have, and having these things happen to you while abroad can drain your wallet and your time in a big way.
Because of this, if you’re planning a trip abroad — particularly to countries with high rates of violence, disease, or both — you need to know about travel health insurance. Having your health insurance sorted out before your departure can save you lots of money and trouble if you do have a medical problem on your trip.
Understanding Health Insurance When Traveling Abroad
While you may already have health insurance in the United States or whatever country you live in, you must understand that most private health insurance plans are not valid when traveling internationally. Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs are also not valid abroad.
In addition, the vast majority of countries require foreign nationals to purchase health insurance valid in that country as a precondition of entry. This is done to ensure that you won’t be a burden on their health care system if you become sick or injured.
If you require a visa to enter a certain country, you’re generally also required to purchase valid health insurance as part of the visa application process. For example, you’ll need to purchase health insurance if you’re going to study abroad in certain countries.
However, even countries that allow visa-free travel generally require health insurance, and border guards may request proof of it at ports of entry. For example, Belarus strictly enforces its health insurance requirement on foreign nationals and denies entry to individuals who don’t have coverage.
Travel health coverage generally falls into three categories:
1. Travel Health Insurance
Travel health insurance is standard health insurance and pays for routine medical services. Overseas travelers frequently purchase this type of health insurance because it covers the vast majority of cases. A popular travel health insurance company is Seven Corners. They have several different types of plans available to travelers.
2. Medical Evacuation Insurance
Medical evacuation insurance covers emergency medical transportation out of a given country. It’s ideal for:
- Travelers going to remote regions where local medical care is not readily available
- Cruise ship passengers, since ships at sea only have basic medical facilities
- Travelers going to developing countries where health care facilities may be low-quality or unable to provide specialized types of care
If any of these scenarios apply to you, consider purchasing a medical evacuation insurance plan in addition to standard travel health insurance. Many travel health insurance plans include medical evacuation insurance, either as part of a general package or as a supplement.
3. Accident Insurance
Accident insurance provides coverage should you suffer from a serious illness or injury. Accident insurance also provides coverage should you die overseas and wish to offset the costs of burial.
Accident insurance is a good choice for:
- Travelers engaging in risky physical activities, such as rock climbing or surfing
- Travelers who are worried about being maimed or killed in an accident
- Travelers who don’t have life insurance or whose life insurance is invalid where they’re planning to travel
You Can’t Afford to Skip Travel Health Insurance
You may think you don’t need health insurance — and the country you’re visiting may allow you entry without requiring you to provide proof of having it — but you don’t want to risk not having it.
For example, one of my friends had appendicitis when she was traveling in France and didn’t have health insurance. After she had her appendix removed at the hospital, the French government tracked her down and stuck her with a €14,000 (roughly $16,000) medical bill. France also banned her from re-entering the country, and other Schengen Area countries in Europe, until she pays it off.
Additionally, while you may think you’re healthy and won’t run into problems overseas, many countries have inadequate sanitation systems, polluted drinking water, or other hazards you might not consider. For instance, two of the most common killers of Americans abroad are drowning and traffic accidents, both of which can happen to anyone.
In short, going without health insurance when traveling abroad can cost you in terms of both your health and your bank account, and it could even ruin your trip before it begins.
Travel Insurance vs. Travel Health Insurance
While travel insurance and travel health insurance overlap somewhat, they are not identical.
Travel health insurance merely covers medical issues, while travel insurance is a suite of trip-related insurance programs that may or may not include health insurance.
Travel insurance targets travelers who are worried about other problems that may occur on an overseas trip, including theft, lost or delayed baggage, and flight and transportation cancellations. As a result, it’s generally more expensive than travel health insurance. The price of health insurance depends on your age, trip length, and coverage amount, while the price of travel insurance is usually 4% to 10% of the cost of the trip itself.
If you’re looking for travel health insurance, a travel insurance plan that incorporates a health insurance component may be a wise investment.
What to Look For in a Travel Health Insurance Plan
Not all travel health insurance plans are equal, so research them carefully to find one that meets your needs. Here are some general things to look for when selecting a health insurance plan. Depending on your health, travel itinerary, and planned activities, you may not need plans that have some of these features, but they’re generally good things to look for when making your decision.
1. Emergency Medical Care
This is a no-brainer. A quality insurance plan should allow you to obtain emergency care in the event of an accident or illness.
2. Emergency Medical Transport
If you’re traveling to a remote region or developing country with inadequate health care services, you’ll need a plan that allows you to obtain transport out in case of a serious medical problem.
Many plans bundle medical evacuation insurance into a general health coverage plan, but others are much cheaper and only offer select types of coverage.
3. Financial Coverage
How much does the plan cover in terms of cost? How much are you required to pay out of pocket, if anything? Does the plan cover prescriptions? Your plan should offer the level and type of coverage best for your needs.
Generally, health insurance coverage abroad is quite affordable, with premiums rarely exceeding $20 per day.
4. Coverage Areas
What countries does the plan cover? Does it cover only one country, or is it applicable to multiple countries? You’ll need a plan that offers coverage across all of the countries you’re visiting. Your other option is to purchase plans for individual countries.
5. Coverage Length
Choose a plan that covers the entire duration of your trip. A plan that only partially covers your trip is a bad idea since you’ll be completely unprotected during the parts of your trip when you’re not covered.
Generally, many travel insurance plans offer per-trip and annual coverage, with the latter being ideal if you spend a lot of time overseas.
6. Pre-Existing Conditions
If you have a pre-existing condition, you’ll need a health insurance plan that covers it.
7. Coverage for Specific Activities
If you’re planning to engage in rock climbing, surfing, or other potentially hazardous activities when traveling abroad, you’ll need a health insurance plan that covers injuries you could sustain from these activities.
8. Travel & Accommodation Expenses
It’s a good idea to opt for a plan that covers travel and accommodation expenses incurred while seeking medical care.
9. 24-Hour Help Line
Many travel health insurance plans provide 24-hour phone lines, allowing you to get assistance or answers to your questions whenever you need them.
10. Direct Payment to Hospitals
One of the most time-consuming and frustrating issues with health insurance in the United States is the tug-of-war between health care providers and insurance companies over cost. This becomes even more of a pain when dealing with foreign hospitals.
Many plans deal with this problem by making direct payments to hospitals, cutting out the red tape and giving you one less thing to worry about.
Before you purchase any health insurance plan, research the reliability of the company underwriting it. Check out online reviews and assessments from former customers, as well as the company’s solvency. Mainstream news sources such as Forbes offer frequent reviews and comparisons of travel health insurance firms. You can also find reliable reviews from guidebook companies like Lonely Planet and on sites such as Reviews.com and InternationalInsurance.com.
The last thing you want to do is buy a plan from a firm that’s teetering on the edge; if they go out of business, you’ll lose coverage and won’t be able to get your money back.
Not all insurance plans are available in all areas, so make sure your preferred plan is available to residents of your home area.
How to Obtain Travel Health Insurance
Many people find health insurance confusing as it is, and international health insurance is even more of a mess. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to obtain coverage for your upcoming journey.
1. Purchase a Travel Supplemental From Your Existing Health Insurance Provider
Many health insurance providers offer supplemental packages that extend their coverage to foreign countries. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield offers a supplemental package called GeoBlue to U.S. customers traveling overseas.
The advantage of a plan like this is that it requires little thought to set up; you merely need to arrange the details with your insurance provider. Since you’re already purchasing insurance from this company, you’ll know what to expect when dealing with them.
The downside to supplemental insurance is that it can be costly due to the expense of coordinating health care across multiple countries. If you’re planning an extended trip overseas, these costs can add up.
Additionally, if you opt for a supplemental insurance plan, you’re limited to the services your existing health insurance company provides.
Some providers don’t offer travel health insurance at all, or they only offer it in limited ways, such as only extending it to certain countries or covering a limited set of circumstances. Check with your existing insurance provider to see if they offer supplemental overseas coverage, and if they do, what it covers. If your existing insurance company can’t meet your needs, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
2. Purchase Travel Insurance
If you’re planning to purchase a general travel insurance package for your trip, many plans include health insurance alongside it. One popular company that many Money Crasher readers have used is World Nomads.
The biggest advantage of a travel insurance plan is that these plans are specifically for tourists and you can customize them for your specific needs and itinerary. Travel insurance plans are available for just about every country and cover a wide variety of scenarios in which travelers might find themselves.
The downside of a travel insurance plan is that if you’re not interested in general travel insurance, you’re paying for a product you largely won’t use. If you don’t need or want travel insurance, you may want to skip it and go for a health insurance plan by itself.
Further compounding this is the fact that travel insurance is generally costlier than health insurance. With travel insurance priced according to the cost of your trip, coverage for more elaborate vacations can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
In general, obtaining health coverage through a travel insurance plan is a good investment if you’re planning an expensive trip, such as a wedding or honeymoon, and you want full-spectrum protection. Travelers who are more frugal can likely afford to skip it.
3. Purchase Local Health Insurance
Many countries allow foreign nationals to purchase health insurance from the government or private firms that operate within that country. For example, Belarus allows foreign nationals to purchase health insurance upon arrival at Minsk National Airport.
The biggest advantage of local health insurance is that it guarantees you coverage from health care providers in the country. Some countries, such as Belarus, don’t accept foreign or travel insurance plans, so local coverage may be your only option in these cases.
Depending on your travel itinerary, local insurance may also be cheaper than purchasing a supplemental or travel insurance plan. For example, in Belarus, local insurance costs as little as €31 (roughly $36) for a 30-day coverage period. If you’re planning to spend an extended period in one country, local insurance can save you a lot of money.
The biggest downside of local insurance is that it’s only valid in the country in which you purchase it, and it doesn’t cover medical evacuations. Local insurance leaves you at the mercy of the medical providers in the country where you buy it. This may not be an issue if you’re traveling to a developed country, but if the country you’re going to has an inadequate health care system, local insurance may not be sufficient for your needs.
Local insurance is a good option if the country you’re purchasing it in has a good health care system, and it may be your only option for some countries. However, make sure that local insurance can meet your needs before you sign on the dotted line.
4. Arrange for Health Insurance as Part of Your Visa
If you’re planning to study abroad, traveling a country as part of a group tour, going on a cruise, or going to a country where you need a tourist visa to enter, you’re generally required to purchase health insurance before your trip.
In the three former cases, your university or tour company generally guides you through the process, so you won’t have to worry. Remember to do your research, however, to ensure that the coverage you get is the coverage you need.
In the latter case, you must arrange for health insurance on your own. To do this, you can use a supplemental insurance plan, travel insurance, or local insurance.
5. Use Your Credit Card’s Travel Benefits
Some premium travel credit cards offer travel health insurance benefits to cardholders. For example, many American Express cards offer generous travel insurance policies.
If you have credit cards, check your provider’s terms and conditions to see if there are any travel-related benefits you can take advantage of on an overseas trip.
The Best Insurance for the Job
In general, the type of insurance plan that’s best for you depends on a myriad of factors, such as where you’re going, how long you’ll be abroad, and what you’ll be doing on your trip. Weigh these factors carefully before you decide on a plan.
Protecting Your Health Overseas
Even with a good health insurance plan, you should still take steps to guard your health and well-being on an overseas trip. Travelers can avoid many common problems and save money with some prudence and common sense.
Here are a few ways you can safeguard your health both before and during your adventures. While these may seem like simple tips, many travelers act carelessly when they travel abroad and end up paying the price. Taking steps to protect yourself now can save you from a painful hospital trip, an expensive bill, or worse.
1. Research the Country or Countries You’re Visiting
Check out authoritative sources such as government websites, travel websites, and guidebooks to learn about the countries you’ll be visiting and the risks they pose to your health or safety.
For example, the U.S. State Department’s International Travel section has up-to-date profiles on every country in the world and the hazards you can expect when visiting there. Guidebook companies such as Lonely Planet often provide very detailed information about individual countries, regions, and even cities.
You can also often find information in newspapers and other news sources. Search for news articles about the countries you’re visiting so you can stay current on possible travel risks, such as disease outbreaks, civil wars, terrorism, and street crime.
While it’s also possible to check out travel forums and sites such as TripAdvisor, take advice from anonymous users and non-verified sources with a grain of salt.
2. Get Vaccinated Before Traveling
Many developing countries continue to struggle with diseases that have been all but eliminated in wealthier ones, so visitors from developed countries run the risk of coming down with diseases for which they have no immunity.
Research what kinds of diseases are common in the countries you’re visiting and obtain vaccinations for them if possible. Government websites such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are an invaluable resource for this. For example, the CDC recommends that most travelers to the Philippines obtain hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations before traveling. They also recommend vaccinations against Japanese encephalitis and rabies for some travelers.
While most hospitals and clinics lack vaccinations for these diseases, many large cities have travel clinics where you can obtain the shots you need for your trip. These clinics often require you to pay in cash, though you may be able to use insurance depending on your existing coverage. Check with your insurance provider beforehand.
3. Exercise Common Sense
You can avoid many health problems by exercising caution and being careful about what activities you choose to engage in. For example, if you’re traveling to a country with dirty or polluted tap water, avoid drinking it or using it to brush your teeth, and boil it beforehand to kill pathogens if you must use it.
For countries with endemic food poisoning problems, carefully choose where you eat to ensure that your meal isn’t tainted.
If you’re in a country known for frequent traffic accidents, such as Thailand, be careful when crossing the street. If you have asthma or other respiratory conditions, prepare appropriately when traveling to countries with high amounts of air pollution or lax environmental laws.
If you’re planning to engage in certain outdoor activities, observe all safety procedures and avoid unnecessary risks.
Protect yourself from criminals by staying in safe neighborhoods, watching yourself at night, and maintaining situational awareness at all times. Be careful when consuming alcohol and other mind-altering substances due to the effects they have on perception and judgment.
4. Look Up Local Doctors & Hospitals at Your Destination
There are a number of resources you can use to find doctors and clinics abroad. For example, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) maintains a list of approved English-speaking doctors and clinics in numerous countries around the world. You can also contact the embassy in your area as well as your insurance provider for recommendations.
Health insurance is an oft-neglected but significant part of overseas travel. Not only is it a requirement to enter many countries, but lacking health insurance puts you at risk of permanent disability, death, or crippling debt if you do end up having to go to the hospital.
With a solid health insurance plan, you’ll be able to have the overseas trip of your dreams, seeing all the sights and doing all the things you want to do without having to worry about getting sick or injured.
While there are no guarantees in life, given the value of your health — as well as the cost of traveling abroad — a few extra dollars spent on a good health insurance plan may be an investment that pays dividends.
Have you ever purchased health insurance when traveling abroad? How was your experience?