Updated: 19 April 2022
Ensuring you choose the best expat insurance plan for your needs should be one of the first things on your to-do list once you decide to move to a foreign country. It’s essential to ensuring you don’t live out one of those nightmare stories that uninsured travelers and expats face when struck with a medical emergency.
You might even discover that national insurance policies in your new home country don’t provide sufficient coverage. And many countries won’t allow you to maintain a long-term residence if you don’t have insurance.
So how do you sift through policy after policy to find the right fit for you? First, let’s go through the basics and learn more about expat health insurance.
Expat Insurance Explained
Expat insurance policies are designed to cover financial and other losses incurred by expats while living and working in a country other than one’s own. This is different from expat health insurance. Expat insurance should be arranged before you relocate.
These policies usually cover the duration of your stay and can be purchased on a 6-month to annual basis. Expat policies are virtually a necessity.
Most common insurance policies purchased by expats include:
- Personal property
- Automobile insurance
- Personal liability insurance
- Emergency evacuation
- Medical and dental coverage
- Short-term travel insurance
And in some cases, specialty insurance can be purchased for high-risk areas of the world that provide coverage for:
- War and terrorism
- Kidnap and ransom
- Casualty insurance
What About Expat Health Insurance?
Expat health insurance, also known as international health insurance, works similarly to health insurance you have in your country. You pick a plan, decide on the coverage you want, and then you pay premiums monthly or annually. If you get sick or into an accident and receive medical treatment, the insurance provider will cover a part (or all) of your medical bill.
The difference is that international medical insurance or expat health insurance will also cover your medical expenses abroad, whereas a local insurance scheme will not.
When shopping around for expat health insurance, you should have an idea of what you’re looking for. Generally, all policies cover the following basic items:
- Hospitalization and intensive care unit
- Surgery and anesthesia
- Lab tests and X-rays
- Physician visits
- Urgent care and emergency room visits
- Prescription medication
Sometimes, different plans will also offer coverage for the following as an optional “add-on”:
- Pre-existing conditions
- Dental care
- Vision care and prescription eyeglasses Physical therapy
- Chiropractor visit
- Mental health
- Chemotherapy or radiation therapy
- Hazardous sports
- Nursing care services
- Evacuation or repatriation (to your home country)
- Alternative medicine
- Preventative care like routine checkups
How to Choose the Best Expat Insurance
To choose the best expat insurance, you need to analyze how your personal situation affects your health care needs and make sure that your insurance plan covers them.
Evaluate Your Existing & Future Requirements
Ask yourself: What services do you usually use, or foresee using in the near future? Will your spouse and children receive full coverage?
Planning to have more children is a major determinant in this category, as are pre-existing medical conditions and chronic usage of medications. Not all health insurance companies cover every pre-existing condition, and for those that do, you might need to pay a higher premium. Plus, if you plan to stay in your new country until retirement, not all insurance plans cover all ages.
Do You Need Expanded Coverage?
Consider what types of expanded coverage you would like, including dental care, maternity, cancer, and mental health. The preference for a private hospital room also needs to be discussed.
If you are relocating to a country without advanced care or that faces the risk of conflict, some insurance companies provide medical evacuation and repatriation costs.
Consider Your Budget
Determine how your finances will cope with your choices. There is often a tradeoff – lower deductibles and copayments mean higher premiums, so if you are prone to hospital visits, you might want to think about minimizing these occasional costs.
Evaluate Customer Service
It’s a basic requirement that any international healthcare customer service operation is multilingual, offers 24/7 availability for a customer claims, and is not an answering service. One way of checking service quality is to call during off-peak hours with non-standard questions to assess the quality of the response you get.
It’s also important to understand the claims process, particularly in a new country where record-keeping might not be at your accustomed level. If a claim is not complete, who is responsible for obtaining the missing information? Is a translation of medical documents required, and does it need notarization? If you get the sense that reimbursement will take forever and require a lot of footwork on your part, you might want to ask the same questions of a different insurance company.
Read the T&Cs
Finally, as with health insurance in general, the fine print may hide some nasty surprises that can make a particular policy useless for certain people. With every new insurance policy, it is essential to understand policy exclusions, which can mean zero reimbursement for claims regarding diagnostics, age-related diseases, and specific problems like cataracts and joint replacement.
So, if you have a family disease history that points in the direction of a policy exclusion, it might be wise to keep shopping. It’s a similar story with waiting periods, as some policies will not reimburse you for particular treatments until a certain time has passed after coverage is initiated.
Ask About Medical Network Coverage
In many instances, an insurance provider will have a direct connection to the clinic or hospital that you visit, so that you simply need to supply your insurance card for the claim to be handled automatically.
In other cases, when there is no such connection, the patient must provide payment on the spot, then submit a claim and wait for reimbursement, which can be a nuisance. It’s therefore an advantage to sign up with an insurance company that has a wide network and a good chance that your local clinic or hospital will be part of it.
Taking all of this into account, it is difficult to compare policies. A “dream policy” is, of course, worth more. But again, the devil is in the details. Although a certain policy might provide most of what you want, it may not keep paying forever. You should therefore examine maximum payouts, which can be annual, lifetime, or based on other factors.
One way to get an overview of your choices is simply to put them in a table. There are various brokers who can put one together for you, but to illustrate, here is an example.
You should also take a look at health insurance company reviews. And don’t forget that the insurance industry is always changing, so it pays to shop around every few years for a more competitive policy or price. This is even more so when you are an expat because risk factors vary from country to country.
And finally, chances are that, as an expat, you will need to visit a doctor at least once during your time abroad, so it might be worth paying a premium for a stable, extensive policy that gives you peace of mind. Spending a bit more for less of a headache might be a great decision for many.
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