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Health insurance for travelling abroad

Health insurance for travelling abroad

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Last updated: 08 November 2021

We don’t anticipate spending our holiday in hospital wards or GP surgeries, but it does happen. Many a holiday has been by delayed by twisted ankles, sun burn, ear infections, skiing accidents, or stomach complaints. And depending on where you’re headed, treatment for these accidents and ailments can be difficult to procure or very expensive. 
That’s why it’s crucial to ensure that you have some form of health insurance when you’re headed abroad and away from the safety net of the NHS. The type you need will depend on your destination and how long you’ll be away.

Health insurance via travel insurance

Standard travel insurance policies will include some coverage for medical expenses, which can be very expensive outside of Europe and especially in the United States. 

These policies can cover the cost of emergency healthcare and even some routine GP visits around the world. In the event of serious injury, they can also cover the cost of emergency assistance and repatriation—for instance, a return to the UK via air ambulance so you can receive treatment or recuperate at home.

This is in addition to the other coverage offered by travel insurance: against lost baggage, cancellations, and theft, among other things.

Travel insurance policies are designed for use on short, discreet trips, with a set itinerary, although you can sometimes get backpacker or gap-year insurance which will cover you worldwide for periods of up to a year.

As a rule of thumb, you should look for travel insurance policies which have at least £5 million of medical cover, although you can get away with a lower amount if you’re exclusively travelling in Europe (where you’ll be entitled to free or discounted state healthcare via an EHIC card—see below). 

The cost of your travel insurance will depend on your destination, your age, and your pre-existing health conditions, all of which you’ll need to disclose when applying for a policy.

What isn’t covered by travel insurance?

Like with other private health insurance policies, travel insurance plans will come with standard exclusions for medical treatment. For instance, they won’t cover pre-existing conditions. As part of the process of purchasing travel insurance you’ll need to disclose any conditions you’ve been diagnosed with and received treatment for in the last few years (usually five). This can include diabetes, heart conditions, and respiratory problems like asthma. 

Claims you make for treatment of these conditions, including emergency treatment, will be rejected. Failing to notify your insurer of any pre-existing conditions can also lead to the rejection of claims and possibility of invalidating your entire policy.

Standard travel insurance policies will also exclude medical care for injuries sustained during extreme sports, including winter sports. If you’re hitting the slopes, you might want to get a specialist winter sports travel insurance policy.

Childbirth generally isn’t covered, and you may struggle to get travel insurance if you’re in the late stages of pregnancy.

And particularly relevant for holiday-goers, treatment for accidents caused by alcohol aren’t covered. The language in many policies is often vague however and drinking a glass of wine at dinner probably won’t invalidate the claim you make for treatment for the ankle you sprained a couple hours later - provided you weren’t seriously inebriated.

Treatment for injuries sustained in natural disasters and terrorist acts may also be excluded.

Insurance in Europe via an EHIC

All UK residents are entitled to free or discounted state healthcare in the EU, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, with the presentation of a European Health Insurance Card, or EHIC.

These cards are free and last for five years, at which point they can be renewed.

EHICs aren’t a substitute for travel insurance, however. In many countries, locals face charges for access to state-provided healthcare, and an EHIC only guarantees you treatment at those rates. Travel insurance can cover these costs and, if you’ve used an EHIC, you’re often spared paying your policy’s excess.

Additionally, in many countries, state-run hospitals and surgeries aren’t widespread. In the event of an emergency, you may be taken to a private hospital, for instance, where you’ll face charges for treatment. Travel insurance will allow you to claim to cover these costs.

Ideally, when headed to Europe on holiday, you should hold both an active EHIC and have arranged travel insurance.

International health insurance

Travel insurance covers you for short periods spent abroad. If you’re living overseas for a prolonged period, depending on your destination, you might want to consider international health insurance.

You can also sort out health insurance from a local provider, but international health insurance provides some advantages:

  • Greater choice of treatments, doctors, and hospitals, which may be crucial if you don’t speak the local language.
  • 24-hour customer service hotlines, in a language you understand.
  • Transportation and repatriation costs can also be covered, in the event of an emergency.
  • These policies can cover you around the world, which will be useful if you’re travelling, even back home. Your access to the NHS lapses when you’re no longer an ordinarily resident, and making National Insurance contributions in the UK.

The cost of international health insurance will depend on your age, health, the level of coverage you choose, and your destination. Premiums may be very expensive for coverage in countries like the United States where the cost of healthcare is very high.

International health insurance might not be necessary in countries where residents can access to state-run healthcare similar to the NHS. 


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Fergus Cole

Author: Fergus Cole

Fergus is a journalist specialising in the personal finance, energy and broadband sectors. He also has a passion for travel and adventure so tries to make the most of this in any spare time he gets.

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