Millions of UK citizens travel to Europe each year and over 1 million UK citizens reside in EU countries on a permanent or long-term basis. With so many people travelling from the UK to countries in the European Union, the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, it’s important to know which healthcare services are available.
What is a European Health Insurance Card?
Known as an EHIC, this card enables its holder to access free or subsidised state-run healthcare services throughout Europe. Available free of charge, over 27 million Brits already have valid European Health Insurance Cards. Although an EHIC will enable you to access any necessary treatment until your planned return date, it will not cover all costs.
An EHIC won’t cover:
- Cost of travelling back to the UK
- Treatment at private medical centres or administered via a private physician
- Mountain rescues
- Patients who have travelled to Europe in order to obtain medical treatment or give birth
- Treatment which can be postponed until you return home
Generally, an EHIC is valid for a period of 5 years, so you won’t need to get a new card every time you travel to the EU within this timeframe. However, your entitlement to treatment under the EHIC scheme may change when the UK leaves the EU. If so, you won’t be able to use your EHIC, even if it has yet to expire.
Can tourists use an EHIC?
Yes. The European Health Insurance Card is designed for people who are travelling within the EU on a temporary basis. If you’re going to Spain, Germany, France or another EU country on holiday, for example, your EHIC should enable you to access state-funded medical services while you’re there.
Of course, the scheme only applies to necessary medical treatment. If your medical treatment can wait until you return back to the UK, it will not be covered or subsidised by the use of a European Health Insurance Card.
As the EHIC is only applicable to people who are in the country on a temporary basis, you may be subject to different rules if you’re emigrating or staying in another European country on a long-term basis.
Do you need travel insurance to go to Europe?
Many people assume they don’t need to bother with travel insurance if they’re going to Europe and they have an EHIC but this isn’t true. Although you don’t have to have travel insurance in order to be able to travel, it is sensible to ensure you have valid insurance in place in case you require medical treatment when you’re outside of the UK.
Even if you have a valid European Health Insurance Card, travel insurance is a low-cost way of ensuring any or all of your medical costs will be covered.
For example, a valid EHIC will enable you to access subsidised medical care but there is usually some cost which must be incurred by the patient. By obtaining comprehensive travel insurance, you can purchase a policy which will cover these costs and which will also cover services which aren’t included under the EHIC scheme, such as assisted-travel back to the UK.
Which countries don’t accept the EHIC?
You can use a valid European Health Insurance Card in the EU, EEA and Switzerland but the following states and countries do not accept the EHIC:
- Isle of Man
- The Channel Islands, such as Guernsey, Sark and Alderney
- San Marino
- The Vatican
Due to this, any UK citizen travelling to these areas should obtain valid travel insurance so that the cost of any medical care they require can be claimed back.
Is there a universal healthcare system in Europe?
No. Every country has its own healthcare system and they vary dramatically. Whilst UK citizens may be used to how the NHS works, healthcare facilities in other European countries can operate differently.
Furthermore, your experience of healthcare facilities in one European country won’t necessarily prepare you for accessing medical help in a different region of Europe. Some countries have a national healthcare service, for example, whilst others, such as Austria, have a regional-based system.
You should always research your destination beforehand and ensure you’re aware of which medical services are available and how you can access them. Illnesses and injuries can occur at any time so even if you’re heading to Europe for a short trip, such as a weekend mini-break, it’s worth having the information to hand.
Can you get healthcare for pre-existing conditions in Europe?
If you have a valid EHIC, you’re entitled to treatment for pre-existing conditions. In fact, a valid European Health Insurance Card enables you to access the same state-funded healthcare services as citizens of the country you’re visiting. Although you may have to pay a fee to access some healthcare services, this won’t be increased or inflated because you’re not a resident of that country.
As highlighted above, holders of valid European Health Insurance Cards should obtain travel insurance before going to the EU, as there are a range of situations an EHIC Renewal won’t cover. However, not all travel insurers cover pre-existing medical conditions. Before purchasing a policy, it’s vital you read the small print and double-check the terms and conditions. Whilst there are specific policies aimed at individuals with pre-existing health conditions, this won’t automatically be included on a standard policy, which means your healthcare costs wouldn’t be covered by your insurer.
What will happen when the UK leaves the EU?
It is estimated that over 42 million UK citizens travel to the EU each year and the UK has already issued approximately 27 million European Health Insurance Cards. While the UK remains in the EU, these cards should remain valid and you should be able to access healthcare as usual.
When the UK leaves the EU, however, the validity of your card may change. In fact, UK citizens may no longer be able to access state-funded healthcare services at a reduced cost when they’re in EU countries.
Unfortunately, the post-Brexit situation in relation to healthcare services is unclear. Whilst some Member States may decide to allow UK citizens to continue to use European Health Insurance Cards, this has yet to be decided. Similarly, a grace period which allows UK citizens to use an EHIC for some time after the UK has left the EU has been suggested.
As no firm decisions have been made, it’s advisable to assume that your European Health Insurance Card will not be valid once the UK has left the EU. Instead, UK citizens will need to rely on travel insurance policies in order to recoup the cost of obtaining medical care when they’re abroad in the EU.
Living and working in the EU
If you travel from the UK to another EU country and you plan on staying there for a long time, alternative healthcare guidelines may apply. Each country has different citizenship or residency rules, so you’ll need to find out whether you can become a citizen in the relevant country before you get there.
If you’re travelling to another EU state in order to study, for example, you may be able to apply on their state system and obtain a country-specific health insurance card. If so, you should be able to access state-run services in the same way as other citizens of that country.
Similarly, working in another EU country may give you certain rights when you need medical assistance. If you’re unable to obtain citizenship, your employer or the UK government may fund the cost of your medical care when you’re working in an EU country, for example.
Alternatively, if you’ve moved or retired to an EU country, you may be able to access UK-funded healthcare services. Generally, this is dependent on whether you’ve contributed to the UK system via national insurance or whether you’re receiving an exportable benefit or pension. If so, you should be entitled to UK-funded healthcare.
However, UK citizens living or working in other European countries will also be affected by Brexit. When the UK is no longer part of the EU, UK citizens living in other European countries may lose their entitlement to state-run services and/or citizenship or residency. As negotiations are still underway, it is unclear exactly how UK expats will be affected so it’s advisable to check for updates regularly, particularly if you are planning to emigrate from the UK or are already leaving in another EU member state.
Getting medical help in EU countries
Wherever you plan on travelling to, it’s vital that you carry contact information of relevant healthcare services. Emergency numbers vary from country to country, for example, so you’ll need to know how to request an ambulance, the police or fire bridge when you’re at your destination.
If you’re worried about accessing healthcare because you don’t speak the local language, you can prepare yourself by learning some basic words which will help you to access help in an emergency situation. However, many hospitals in EU countries can provide translators when they are required. If you’re unwell or injured when you’re in Europe, ask for help from an English-speaking physician or for a translator to be present, if you need one.