Health Insurance Abroad: The Complete Guide

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Going abroad for the first time without your family can be thrilling, yet simultaneously terrifying. The same can be said for the second, third, and tenth time. Are you 30 and planning for a volunteer trip overseas? It’s still scary, and that’s okay!

On the cusp of any international travel—short- or long-term—it’s normal to have an imminent feeling of the unknown and unexpected weighing down on your mind. As much as I’d love to tell any future adventurer to look to toward the horizon, ignore the risks and gallop off into the Icelandic sunset on a miniature fluffy horse, the fact is that that’s just awful advice to give. The better piece of advice is plain and simple: Cover your hiney with health insurance abroad.

Girl with backpack going hiking

No matter the adventure, don’t leave without securing medical insurance abroad!

No matter your age, international travel experience, destination, or purpose for venturing abroad—be it studying, volunteering, teaching, interning, or otherwise—there are very real risks that need to be acknowledged and properly prepared for before you head overseas. While packing your life away for a study abroad trip and raising funds for a volunteer stint abroad are pretty important, your medical insurance abroad carries the most significant weight. Forgetting a hairbrush or not having enough money for a daily gelato is a bummer, but not having health insurance coverage abroad when tragedy strikes can have lifelong consequences. 

Travelers, parents, and other family members alike can be comforted by the knowledge that there are comprehensive coverage packages out there customizable for any type of travel abroad—from teaching in China to snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. And just like that, taking the first step out into the Barcelona cobblestoned street doesn’t seem so intimidating! You’re covered. 

In this comprehensive guide to health insurance while abroad, you’ll learn the ins and outs of…

  • An overview of medical insurance abroad
  • How your destination influences your coverage 
  • Using an existing domestic plan overseas
  • What’s covered in international health insurance
  • Difference between travel insurance and international medical insurance
  • What to do if an emergency happens abroad
  • Insurance abroad considerations for types of travel
  • Suggested insurance providers

If you’ve been ignoring the nitty-gritty logistics of traveling abroad, then this guide to health insurance abroad will cover everything you need to know. Let’s get started!

The rundown of medical insurance abroad

Skier in austria who has health insurance

Even if you don’t plan on skiing in Austria—or anywhere—during your travels, stay safe by having health insurance coverage abroad.

In the unusual case that you’ve already mastered how your domestic insurance and healthcare system works at home, that’s great! It won’t be of much help here, however. With a spectrum of healthcare systems around the world and third-party insurance providers working as middlemen to make it all easier to understand, that Thai snack of grasshoppers isn’t the only foreign concept on the table. 

Generally, medical insurance abroad covers whichever dates you want, ranging from a day to a year and more. As health and finances are inarguably some of the most important assets we have, finding the correct health insurance while abroad should be a priority. Because it’s a preventative service, it’s easy to consider it an afterthought and not budget sufficiently for an adequate policy. Just remember, insurance abroad should be one of the top items on your travel list!

All your insurance abroad travel questions answered

The world of insurance is complicated enough, and throwing “international” into the mix makes it all the more confusing. How’s one to know about insurance abroad without having spending hours making phone calls to countless companies and embassies? We got the answers to your questions.

1. Do I need health insurance while traveling internationally?

Just like at home, health insurance helps pays for medical attention ranging from emergency room visits to prescription drugs. Internationally, you may face additional challenges as a foreign national that health insurance coverage abroad will help face, such as emergency evacuation or exorbitant healthcare costs if not covered. Apart from the fact that many travel programs or visas require some degree of coverage, having a safety net while traveling is always a good idea

[Browse All Providers of Medical Coverage Abroad]

2. Does my travel destination make a difference?

Yes! Your destination country or countries can impact what kind of health insurance coverage abroad you need and if you need it at all. For example, U.S. citizens whose long-term travels take them to countries in the Schengen area will need a certain amount of insurance coverage to qualify for a visa after the 90-day tourist visa period is up. Most countries in Western Europe are in the Schengen area, including Spain, France, Germany, and Italy. 

Those who aren’t U.S. citizens may need insurance coverage to apply for a visa just to enter the area to begin with. For either case, there are specific stipulations for the holiday health insurance abroad to qualify for a Schengen area visa. Amongst other requirements, the insurance must cover a certain amount of Euros and should be valid for the applicant’s length of stay.

Other countries requiring proof of health insurance before entry are Cuba, Antarctica, and the United Arab Emirates. Before securing a generic health insurance abroad, be absolutely sure that your destination countries’ insurance requirements are met. Otherwise, your coverage may be all for nothing!

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3. Does my health insurance cover international travel?

Depending on your domestic insurance, you may have some coverage abroad for basic short-term trips in some countries. However, more often than not, you’re looking at limited coverage, higher deductibles, and higher minimums to pay if an emergency does arise. For Medicare recipients, there is generally no coverage outside of the U.S. and its territories.

Before purchasing insurance abroad, check in with your current health insurance provider to be sure you’re not getting double coverage!

Student visiting doctor while abroad

Health insurance comes in handy if you need to visit a doctor or clinic on your travels.

4. What does insurance abroad cover?

Medical insurance abroad alone typically covers anything from emergency doctor visits to lab orders to emergency surgeries to dental care for pain relief. Although often included, emergency evacuation and repatriation of remains (return of a body if passed away) are considered separate line items. When reading through policy coverage, be sure these basic services are included, as well as others like emergency family travel arrangements in case a family member needs to fly out to the bedside. 

For travelers with a chronic illness or preexisting conditions, its essential that a health insurance abroad covers all medical needs and provides for prescription drugs for longer trips. Otherwise, you may be looking at out-of-pocket expenses and that’s the last way anyone wants to remember their travels!

5. How much does insurance abroad cost?

Rule of thumb when when choosing an insurance abroad: Don’t shop for the cheapest. A low price isn’t reflective of a good deal, rather it may just hint at a bare boned policy with high deductibles and minimums. Policies can start at a little more than a dollar a day for shorter trips, but ultimately, travel health insurance cost is determined by these factors:

  • Limit of coverage, amount of deductible, and add-ons (i.e. skii insurance)
  • Traveler’s age
  • Duration of travel

After you have an idea of the coverage your travels and your health condition requires, the fun part begins. Shopping! Medical insurance websites include an option for a free quote, so you can get a fairly good idea of cost and the policy breakdown before you commit.  

[Get Even More Travel Medical Insurance Advice]

6. What’s the difference between travel insurance and medical insurance abroad?

After doing a bit of research you may have come across insurance abroad, travel insurance, and international medical coverage. What’s the difference? Sometimes these variations are combined into comprehensive packages. Let’s break down common types of coverages:

  • Trip insurance or travel cancellation insurance: This type compensates for lost, stolen, or damaged luggage while in transit and for unplanned trip cancellations in stated circumstances, such as a relative passing away.
  • Medical evacuation and repatriation: If you need to get transported to a hospital or even airlifted to seek special emergency care, then evacuation coverage has got your back. Repatriation also makes sure you can get paid to back home for special care in unforeseen circumstances.
  • Emergency medical expenses: When generally thinking of medical insurance abroad, this kind of coverage is most commonly referenced. Avoid paying medical bills by making sure you have an adequate coverage for medical expenses. 
Person on a plane with medical insurance abroad

Travel worry-free for flight delays, lost luggage, and other inconveniences—your insurance will have your back!

7. Who do you contact if you need medical attention?

First and foremost, after purchasing a suitable medical insurance abroad you need to print out your policy (if you don’t receive a physical card) and carry it on your person at all times. Having a claim form or two printed, saved and ready in a secure place will also save buckets of travel down the road if you’re unable to later. Participants of an organized travel program can also get assistance from program organizers, who may also have a good idea of how to approach medical emergencies in the country. 

Every international insurance provider will have a hotline available to contact with country-specific protocol and instructions if you need to seek medical attention. Additionally, the country’s U.S. Embassy provides information on local doctors and hospitals available. Just look for the “American Citizens Services” tab on your country’s U.S. Embassy website

8. What’s the right type of insurance for my travels (study/intern/work/etc)?

Not all health insurance coverage abroad is made equal. Meaningful travel comes in all lengths and varying degrees of adventure. While some adventure travel may involve extreme sports like scuba diving, a two week volunteer project in a large city is relatively low-key. Be aware of what risks and characteristics your travels entail and make sure you pick up the right plan to cover them. 

  • Study abroad. With durations ranging from a few weeks to a whole year, study abroad can be confusing when it comes to insurance. Luckily, most study abroad program providers offer comprehensive information on how to get covered, if they don’t already include a plan in the program. (P.S. Studying abroad with a chronic illness? Read about what you need to know!)
  • Volunteer abroad. The unique characteristic of volunteering abroad is that your horizons are a lot wider, including stays in off-the-beaten path areas and more community integration. As such, infrastructure and access to comprehensive healthcare can be scarce. For volunteers with medical conditions relying on special treatment, look into plans that cover pre-existing conditions and prescription drugs abroad.
  • Intern abroad. Organized internship abroad opportunities through third-party programs or universities will often offer insurance abroad for the duration of stay. These plans are already suggested with the internship and destination country in mind, so you don’t have to navigate the confusing world of coverage yourself. 
  • Teach abroad. One of the perks of teaching English abroad is the medical insurance abroad included in work compensation packages (or at least a partnership with a company to direct you too)! Included insurance policies are a sign of a well-rounded employer and saves a ton of leg-work in the relocation process. Whether the coverage is offered through a third-party recruiting organization or directly by the employing institution abroad, there’s bound to be a preplanned insurance policy available. 
  • TEFL courses abroad. TEFL courses abroad never last for more than a few months at a time, and as such are easily coverable by normal health insurance abroad. For the time spent abroad learning about grammar games and classroom management, a general international medical insurance should do!
  • Gap year. Going abroad through an organization? Then you may already have international insurance coverage included! Students traveling independent can look into youth plans or student-targeted packages. 
  • Completing a degree abroad. Being a full-time student for multiple years as you complete a degree abroad looks similar to expat insurance. However, students may be able to qualify for a domestic insurance depending on your citizenship and the destination country. The best place to get information is the university’s international office or a health department that’s familiar with insurance for international students. 
  • High school abroad. Typically, high school students won’t be traveling internationally solo. Teen travel programs should offer insurance as a part of the deal, so check in with an advisor to be sure what the benefits are. 
  • Language school. Because many language school courses are short enough to fit into a tourist visa stay and students won’t theoretically be cliff diving, basic international insurance packages are a good fit. Depending on the program, you may be fit for a student insurance type of coverage, specially tailored to your needs.
  • Adventure travel. Thinking of bungee jumping in Costa Rica or horseback riding in Mongolia? Because of the “living on the edge”, extreme sports aspect of adventure travel, you’ll need insurance that includes those kinds of riskier activities. Read into the find print and be certain that the kinds of activities you’re interested in are covered.
  • Work abroad. Working abroad long-term means needing health insurance coverage abroad will almost certainly be a given. If your employer doesn’t provide it, then look into plans geared toward expats and working professionals. 

9. How do I find international travel-specific insurance?

A quick search for “international medical insurance” can yield a good number of reliable sources. Ultimately, quality health insurance abroad comes down to reading the fine print and knowing exactly what you’re getting. The U.S. Department of State provides a list of recommended insurance providers for international travel that’s definitely worth checking out. 

Take the scary out of travel abroad with the right international health insurance coverage!

Three girls hugging

Friends don’t let friends travel without having health insurance while abroad!

Securing a well-rounded health insurance coverage abroad should be one of the first items on that travel checklist! Even if you don’t have a preexisting condition or need for medical attention while overseas, you can never anticipate emergencies and accidents. Because insurance is often a requirement for travel programs, international visas, and some types of employment abroad, it’s best to start researching ASAP to have a thorough understanding of it works and which plan fits best. 

Remember: Even if a medical risk is 0.01%, it’s a real risk that can put you financially in a pickle for your entire life. Get all your ducks in a row, secure an insurance plan, and then go forth to have the time of your life abroad worry-free! 

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