If you reside in any country within the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Union (EU), or Switzerland, then you should apply for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) when travelling to any other European country. All EU and EEA residents qualify for free or reduced healthcare at state medical facilities, so long as they hold a valid EHIC. However, the EHIC card does not replace travel insurance, and cannot cover all potential healthcare costs. Below we explore who needs an EHIC when they travel, and what this card can offer for the holder.
What is the EHIC?
European nations that are joined by EU membership, or part of the EEA, share a common treaty when it comes to the healthcare of citizens. As a result of this agreement, any resident of a qualifying EEA nation can access necessary healthcare services when they visit another European country. Healthcare services will be provided under the same terms as they would be for residents of that nation. This might mean receiving free healthcare (such as in the UK), getting reduced rates for treatment, or being reimbursed for the full bill once the patient returns home.
All of this is made possible by the EHIC. This card is proof of residence in a qualifying country – and therefore is proof of eligibility for healthcare services. Showing a valid EHIC at the hospital or medical centre allows the patient to receive prompt healthcare, often without worrying about paying any bills. The EHIC replaces the old E111 certificate, which was discontinued in 2005.
The EHIC is only applicable at state healthcare facilities. Any private treatment will incur the same cost that a resident patient would pay. In some regions, only private healthcare is available. Always check when arriving at hospital, otherwise you could incur large bills for treatment that the EHIC cannot cover. However, a good travel insurance policy should help you if you do build up additional costs through private treatment.
Who needs an EHIC?
Every traveller visiting one EEA country from another should have a valid EHIC. This includes adults and children. If you are the parent or guardian of travellers under 16, it is your responsibility to ensure they have a valid card. You can apply for cards for the whole family at once. Teachers visiting Europe with boarding school children, or caregivers for dependent adults, can also apply for the EHIC on behalf of any traveller in their group.
Eligibility for the EHIC depends on residential status, not on natural citizenship. Therefore, a person who holds a non-European passport, but is a resident in an EEA country, can apply for a card. The EHIC is based on residency and not on taxpayer status. Therefore, any resident of the UK is eligible for a card, not just those who have made sufficient National Insurance contributions. However, a valid NI number is required to apply.
The difference between travel insurance and the EHIC
Even if you have taken out a private travel insurance policy, you will still need to apply for the EHIC. In many cases, insurers will lower your premiums, and even waive the excess for treatment, if you have a valid card. This is because treatment costs much less, and reimbursements are therefore far lower, when you make use of your right to EHIC healthcare provision. Some insurers no longer offer policies for European travel unless an EHIC is presented.
However, you should never skip travel insurance and rely solely on the EHIC. For comprehensive travel cover, both are required. The EHIC is simply your proof of eligibility for hospital treatment or routine care at a state facility. It cannot cover you for private treatments, for ambulance travel costs, for prescriptions, or for repatriation in the event that this is necessary.
Travel insurance also covers a variety of other potential expenses, such as cancelled or delayed flights, lost or stolen belongings, and any liability for accidents or damage. An insurance policy is a comprehensive way to protect yourself when you travel. The EHIC, on the other hand, covers healthcare services only. It cannot cover you for lost medication, for injury liability, or for missed travel caused by illness.
Is my EHIC still valid?
The EHIC is valid for a period of five years from the date of application. It must be renewed within six months of expiry. On receipt of a new EHIC, the date resets – giving you five years of use before the next renewal. Before you travel, it is essential that you check the dates on all EHIC cards in your travelling party. In the event that a renewal is necessary, you can apply online or over the telephone. It should take just seven days for the new card to be delivered, but allow a little longer to make sure the card is ready to travel with you.
If you travel without a valid EHIC, but you are eligible to hold one, it is possible to call and request a Provisional Replacement Certificate (PRC). The PRC can replace a lost or stolen card, until a new card can be sent out to the holder’s address. This can also be applied for if an EHIC has expired, and there is not sufficient time to request and receive a replacement. However, there can be costs incurred when arranging express delivery of a replacement certificate. The EHIC, on the other hand, is completely free.
UK citizens: the EHIC after Brexit
The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union in 2019, and therefore EHIC eligibility will cease. Those travelling from and to the UK will no longer be eligible for free or reduced cost healthcare at state medical facilities, unless the final deal agreed includes some provision for EHIC access. At the time of writing, all EHIC cards issued to UK residents are due to expire on October 31, 2019. Until this date, new EHIC applications can be made and cards are still required when travelling in Europe.