With a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) you have the right to be provided with state-sponsored healthcare during any temporary stay in another European Economic Area country. It is also valid in Switzerland. The card covers any medical treatment that you require until the date you are booked to return home. State-provided healthcare facilities are required to provide treatment for an EHIC holder in the same way it would be provided for someone who lives in the country in question. This means that treatment is provided either at a discounted rate or, in some cases, for free. It all depends on the state-provided healthcare system of the country in question.
The current arrangement
At the time of writing, one’s entitlement to an EHIC revolves entirely around insurability under the EU, and not on the nationality of the applicant. This is the case for all EEA countries. In the UK, the healthcare system is residency-based, meaning the determining factor for insurability is residency and not proof of past/present National Insurance contributions and UK tax payments.
If your main country of residence is the UK, and you are not insured by a different EEA country, you should be considered for insurance by the UK in accordance with EU law, meaning you should be entitled to a UK EHIC. An EHIC remains valid for a period of 5 years, after which it must be renewed in order for you to maintain your entitlement to state healthcare overseas. Of course, there is another major factor that could influence this for UK residents in the not-too-distant future.
The Brexit issue
With the EHIC being mainly applicable to countries that are part of the European Union, Brexit could mean things change for UK residents. The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on 31 October 2019, and if this happens without a deal being struck then your access to state healthcare during visits to EU countries is unlikely to stay the same. An EHIC will remain valid up until the point when the UK departs from the EU, so if you are planning a trip before the end of October 2019 you should still proceed to apply for one (or use your current valid EHIC, as applicable). It is always recommended that you take out travel insurance in addition to carrying an EHIC, as this increases your coverage and minimises the risk of receiving large medical bills.
If you are planning a visit to an EU country after October 31 2019, it is even more important that you take out medical travel insurance. The current situation is one of uncertainty, and there are no guarantees that an agreement will be reached anytime soon about the provision of healthcare for UK nationals visiting EU countries after Brexit. With a good travel insurance policy in place, you can ensure you are covered in the event that you have an accident or fall ill whilst abroad.
What about if a deal is reached?
One agreement that has been made between the UK and EU is that there should be a transition period that extends to the end of 2020 to enable time for negotiations to continue regarding a future UK-EU relationship. This transition would come into effect if both the UK and EU are able to ratify the current withdrawal agreement that has been drawn up by the British government. During the transition, the UK law would still be subject to all EU law, and all citizens would maintain the same rights and guarantees as before. This would mean a UK-issued EHIC would continue to be valid until 31 December 2020. However, there are still significant challenges for the UK government to overcome if they are to get the existing withdrawal agreement accepted, so you should not expect the transition period to be inevitable.
Beyond the transition period
The terms of the agreement state that there will be the option to extend the transition period by up to 2 years if necessary. This, of course, would mean the EHIC could continue to be valid right up until the end of 2022, but again this is far from guaranteed. As for what happens after the transition is complete – that is not clear.
The UK government has clearly expressed its desire for the EHIC to remain valid for both UK and EU nationals after Brexit, and negotiations are still ongoing on this front. Currently, the UK has reciprocal deals in place for healthcare with non-EU countries like Australia and New Zealand. It may be that similar agreements are sought with EEA countries, or it may be that a wider agreement is reached to keep the EHIC in use. Whatever the case, we do not know what to expect at this stage.
This is why the UK government has published extensive advice on what to do when visiting or staying in EU countries. The general gist of it is that you should continue using your EHIC up until the day the UK leaves the EU, but you should also buy travel insurance to ensure you get full coverage. If you are planning a trip after the current Brexit date, you should definitely buy travel insurance to ensure you have the funds to access medical care in the event that the EHIC is no longer valid.
So, in answer to the original question, an EHIC card is valid for a period of 5 years from the issue date. This is the standard time period, but for UK nationals there are other factors that will impact on how long their EHIC can be used. There are still more developments to come on that front, with the Brexit uncertainty gradually clearing to yield a better view of the future relationship between the UK and EU. The UK government is working on bringing some clarity about what travellers can expect when visiting EU countries after Brexit, but at the moment there is very little definitive information available. Keep an eye on developments as they happen.