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Is the EHIC free?

When travelling from one European country to another, it is important to have a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Residents of qualifying European Economic Area (EEA) countries who travel to another EEA nation are entitled to free or subsidised healthcare, at the same rate as a resident of that country. However, they need to show a valid EHIC to prove their eligibility – otherwise they might have to pay the full cost of treatment.

Costs associated with the EHIC

The good news is that applying for an EHIC is completely free. Your country of residence will have an online portal through which you can apply. There is no cost for issuing the card, which should arrive within seven working days of the application. Once you have an EHIC, you are entitled to medical treatment during a trip to any EEA country, or to Switzerland. There is also no charge for renewing an expired card, which must be done at least every five years.

In the event that an EHIC is lost or stolen, the holder can apply for a Provisional Replacement Certificate (PRC). This interim document shows that the person is entitled to hold an EHIC, but does not currently have access to their card. The PRC can also be applied for if an EHIC has been forgotten, but medical treatment is needed. Like the EHIC itself, applying for the PRC is free.

The only exception to this is when an EHIC needs details updating, or a PRC is applied for during a trip away, as applying online might not be an option. If the certificate or card is applied for over the phone, the issuing office might charge for the call – depending on which country is issuing the document. This is not always the case – in the UK, for example, the call is free with most mobile plans or from a landline telephone.

Does the EHIC guarantee free healthcare?

One common misconception is that healthcare is completely free when the patient has an EHIC. In many cases, this is true. For example, a visitor to the UK who has a valid EHIC can receive free NHS treatment, as emergency and routine medical care is free at the point of use. However, in some European nations, state healthcare is subsidised rather than free. If this is the case, both residents and visiting EHIC holders are required to pay towards treatment.

Not all healthcare is free or subsidised, either. In the event that an ill or injured person is taken to a private hospital, for example, then the full cost of treatment will apply. The EHIC only covers treatment at a state-operated medical facility. Wherever possible, make sure that you request a state healthcare facility when seeking treatment – though due to location and other factors, this may not always be possible.

Other charges can be accrued during treatment. For example, prescription medication often carries a charge. Some branches of medicine might not be included in state-funded healthcare, either. For example, eye care and dental emergencies are not part of the NHS in the UK, and so charges will apply. Repatriation (being transported back home after or during illness or injury) is also exempted from the EHIC.

Can’t travel insurance cover these medical costs?

To account for these potential expenses, it is crucial that any EHIC holder also has good travel insurance. Both a travel insurance policy and an EHIC are essential when travelling between European nations. Many insurers will only issue a policy if the policy holder can prove they have a valid EHIC. Otherwise, medical treatment can become far more expensive than is necessary. In the event that medical bills are accrued by an EHIC patient, the travel insurance policy should cover these. Insurance might also cover repatriation and other non-funded expenses.

Does the EHIC cover planned medical treatment?

All manner of medical care is included in the EHIC. This includes treatment for emergency illness or injury, but also routine care for a pre-existing condition. This can include maternity care. However, there are some exceptions which cardholders must bear in mind. The free or subsidised treatment is only available when circumstantial; the patient must not travel for the express purpose of receiving medical care, or giving birth.

In the event that healthcare providers suspect medical tourism, as opposed to genuine need that arises during travel, then the patient could find themselves charged for the full price of their care.

How to apply for an EHIC

Though there are restrictions on the treatment that can be claimed, the EHIC is still a very comprehensive scheme which keeps tourists and travellers safe during trips throughout the EEA. You can expect to receive a high standard of care, without being faced with huge medical bills, in the event that something goes wrong. It is therefore essential to have your EHIC, or your replacement certificate, with you at all times.

Every traveller needs their own valid EHIC, including young children. Parents can apply for the cards as part of a family group, including for partners as well as their children. Teachers and care providers can also apply on behalf of their students, or for any dependent person in their care. Applying is fast and simple. You need each traveller’s details, including name, date of birth and National Insurance number (if applying from the UK).

Both the national government’s website and the state healthcare service will have details on applying, including links to the application portal. It is important to apply through the nation in which you are resident – not the country you hold natural citizenship with. For example, a foreign student currently residing in the UK should apply for a UK-based EHIC, as this is where they would receive healthcare when they are not travelling. A passport cannot, therefore, replace the EHIC, as the issuing nations may differ.

Remember to check that the EHIC is in date before travelling. The cards expire after five years. You can renew a card within six months of the expiration date. For the UK, all EHIC documents will cease to be valid after October 31, 2019, due to the nation’s upcoming exit from the European Union.