Health and Wellness

Navigating the World of International Health Insurance for Expats

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by Cyrus Kioko


Ahoy, intrepid wanderers of the expat realm! Today, we’re plunging headfirst into the swirling seas of international health insurance. They aren’t the friendliest of waters, but the good news is that you won’t be sailing solo through this rough sea of policies and coverage jargon; I’ll be guiding you through every wave and whirlwind.

To navigate the world of international health insurance as an expat, start by getting acquainted with the basics: what it is, who it’s for, and what it covers. Once you’re clear on these, explore expat coverage options, choose the right plan, and decide how to purchase it.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, and I’m about to walk you through every single detail. So batten down the hatches and secure your metaphorical life jackets because we’re about to chart a course through the seas of expat health coverage – it’s bound to be a wild ride!

The Basics of International Health Insurance

Getting the hang of the basics is a must-do for anyone looking to figure out how to navigate the tricky world of international health insurance. Dealing with insurance always means diving into the nitty-gritty, but international health insurance really ups the ante. 

Think of it this way: If regular insurance were your average mystery novel, international health insurance would be the Sherlock Holmes edition, full of unexpected plot turns. The devil wears details, and in international insurance, he’s got a wardrobe upgrade. 

So before you even think about things like what plan suits you best, let’s make sure you’ve got the basics down.

International Health Insurance: What is It and Who’s It For?

International health insurance is pretty much your run-of-the-mill health coverage with a passport. Unlike regular health insurance, whose coverage is confined within your home country’s boundaries, this one spreads its wings and covers you wherever you go worldwide. 

International health insurance plans are tailored to address the unique health and medical needs of individuals living, working, or traveling abroad. That includes expats, digital nomads, international students, and jet-setters who need health coverage that extends beyond the borders of their home country.

Just so you know (and this is important), international health insurance usually doesn’t do much for medical bills back home. Some plans might throw in a bit of help for unexpected stuff during a quick visit, but that’s about it. So if you go for a routine check-up or anything like that during your visit, you’ll probably be on the hook for covering those costs yourself.

Speaking of coverage…

What Does International Health Insurance Cover?

You probably know that international health insurance covers medical expenses for any inpatient, outpatient, and preventive care you may need abroad. That’s absolutely true, but it’s often lost on many people that that’s merely one item on a pretty long list of what’s covered by international health insurance.

Most plans also cover costs related to:

  • Emergency evacuation. Imagine you find yourself in a medical pickle, and you need to be airlifted to the nearest top-notch hospital. Any decent international health insurance plan will cover the costs associated with that evacuation.
  • Repatriation of remains. In the unfortunate event of the worst-case scenario, international health insurance will cover the expenses associated with repatriating your remains to your home country— morbid to think about, but a thoughtful provision.
  • Maternity care. Many plans (especially those targeting young couples, families, and women of childbearing age) cover pregnancy and childbirth costs, from prenatal check-ups to hospitalization for delivery and postnatal care. This is usually an optional feature, so be sure to specifically ask about it if you’re planning on starting your family or expanding your current one during your stay abroad.
  • Mental health treatments. In the past few years, especially since the COVID-19 era, mental health awareness has skyrocketed. Insurers are catching on and tweaking their plans to meet the growing demand for coverage that prioritizes our mental well-being. International health insurance providers, in particular, are in the spotlight for these changes because their main clientele —expats— deal with some pretty unique challenges that can make keeping a sound mind a bit trickier. That’s why plans geared towards global nomads are increasingly covering the costs of mental health services, such as therapy sessions, counseling, and psychiatric treatments.
  • Management of chronic conditions. International health insurance often covers expenses related to the diagnosis, treatment, and management of chronic conditions. The extent of coverage may vary depending on your policy and provider, but most plans with this option cover doctor visits, prescription medications, hospital stays, and necessary medical procedures.

International health insurance might also chip in for things like alternative therapies— you know, those treatments that don’t exactly fit the “standard medicine” mold but often lend a helping hand to conventional treatments. Think chiropractic care, acupuncture, aromatherapy, naturopathy, and massage therapy.

Now, don’t go thinking this is a perk that comes with every international health insurance plan; you have to ask for it. I’m only throwing this nugget out there because Complementary And Alternative Medicine (CAM) –which alternative therapy is part of– has been gaining popularity in the last couple of decades, particularly in Australia, Canada, Finland, Israel, the US, and the UK.

It’s also worth mentioning that some plans come with “extras” that aren’t exactly tied to healthcare but can seriously up your travel convenience. These include:

  • Trip interruption and cancellation services. That means your provider will help you out with arrangements if you need to interrupt or cancel your trip due to a covered event, such as a medical emergency.
  • Lost luggage assistance. This means your insurer will help with filling a report for missing items with the relevant authorities, communicate with the airlines to track lost luggage and deliver it to you if found, and guide you through the claims process if you need to file a claim for the lost items. Depending on your plan, they may even offer reimbursement for essential items, such as clothing and toiletries, that you need to purchase while waiting for your luggage to be recovered.
  • A network of healthcare providers. Many international health insurance plans have a network of healthcare providers, clinics, and hospitals in various countries. If your insurer has such a network in our destination country, you’ll have a much easier time finding a healthcare provider.

The Different Types of International Health Insurance Plans Available for Expats

Alright, buckle up because we’re about to plunge deeper into international health insurance. 

I might have hinted at this before, but let me really drive the point home just to make sure we’re singing from the same hymn sheet: international health insurance providers roll out a variety of plans, and each comes with its own set of features. It’s a no-brainer, really, considering every expat’s health wish list is as unique as their favorite comfort food.

Let’s take a closer look at each plan type.

Comprehensive International Health Insurance

Think of this one as the all-you-can-eat buffet of international health insurance plans. It covers a bit of everything – hospital stays, doctor visits, prescriptions, and emergency medical evacuation. Depending on your plan, coverage may extend to preventive care, wellness programs, and even dental and vision care.

This type of coverage is a great fit for expats who are often on the go for long periods. A lot of folks assume it’s super pricey because it covers pretty much everything, but the truth is, it’s not always the most expensive option. It’s in the mid-to-high price range, with the average plan running around $5,500 a year.

Emergency Medical Evacuation Insurance

This type of coverage saves the day in times of serious medical trouble. Imagine you’ve set up your new home in a bustling city or a serene countryside, soaking in the cultural vibes or getting on with school or work, and suddenly, your health throws a surprise party you didn’t RSVP for. You’re sick or injured, and the local facilities aren’t equipped to handle your situation.

That’s when Emergency Medical Evacuation Insurance throws on its superhero cap and covers the costs of whisking you away to a top-notch medical facility. We’re talking airlifts, maybe even in a fully equipped air ambulance if things take a serious turn. It’s like having a personal medical Uber for emergencies.

The cost of this superhero coverage is surprisingly reasonable, with the average plan ranging from $200 to $1,000 annually. For the peace of mind that comes with knowing you can be swiftly moved to the right medical care, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Travel Health Insurance

This plan is mainly tailored for individuals embarking on short-term international travels, but I’m throwing it into the mix here because, surprise, surprise, expats can be quite the globetrotters. 

Picture this: you’re a Canadian living the “expat life” in the US for work, and your boss decides to spice things up with a work assignment in France. That’s where travel health insurance struts its stuff, stepping in to cover emergency medical expenses, unexpected trip interruptions, and other travel-related snags that might pop up during your expeditions.

Because the coverage duration is usually limited, these plans don’t cost anywhere near the other two we’ve reviewed so far. Annual expenses typically range from $200 to $1,000, depending on your plan.

International Health Insurance with Maternity Coverage

This can be referred to as just “maternity coverage” or “international health insurance with maternity coverage,” depending on the plan and insurer.

How come? Let me explain. 

Maternity coverage can vary among insurance providers. That is true for both international health insurance and conventional insurance– but since we’re talking about the former, let’s stick to the topic.

In some cases, maternity coverage may be offered as a standalone plan that individuals or families can purchase separately to cover maternity-related expenses specifically. This is more common when maternity coverage isn’t automatically included in the standard international health insurance plans. In such a case, the ideal name would be just “maternity coverage,” probably prefaced with the word “international” to emphasize the global or cross-border nature of the coverage. 

On the other hand, we have international health insurance plans that offer maternity coverage as an add-on or optional rider. In such instances, individuals can choose to include maternity coverage in their overall health insurance plan for an additional premium. In such a case, we’d refer to the whole policy as “international health insurance with maternity coverage” to effectively convey the idea that maternity coverage is an add–on. 

Whether as an add–on or a standalone plan, maternity coverage covers pretty much the same costs across the board:

  • Prenatal care.
  • Hospitalization for childbirth.
  • Postnatal care.

Some plans go above and beyond to cover medical expenses born (get it?) out of pregnancy and childbirth complications as well as newborn care costs. Obviously, these extras are going to bump up the cost of your plan, and the extent of coverage they offer will vary depending on your policy. 

Speaking of costs, they do vary depending on your plan, insurer, and other individual-specific factors, but international health insurance plans with the “maternity coverage” add-on usually cost between $1,500 to $7,000 annually. I couldn’t find data on standalone maternity coverage, so you’ll have to get in touch with your insurer for a quote if you’d like to take that route. 

Group International Health Insurance

Group International Health Insurance is exactly what it sounds like – coverage for a bunch of people who meet specific criteria. Typically, these criteria involve being part of the same company, belonging to a professional association, or participating in a specific group or organization. These plans are often offered by companies with a globally mobile workforce to cater to the needs of employees who find themselves jet-setting around the world.

Here’s where things get tricky: the “sponsoring” company isn’t always on the hook for the bill. It depends on who you work for and what kind of arrangement you’ve got going on. Some companies go, “We’ve got this fam,” and foot the entire bill for their globetrotting employees. Others might do a cost-sharing tango, where you and the company split the insurance cost. And for some, it’s an optional add-on.

Alright, so what’s in the box coveragewise? 

The usual health insurance goodies – doctor visits, hospital stays, and emergency evacuations – are all part of the standard package. But hold on, it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. Depending on your plan, dental, vision, and sometimes even life and disability coverage might be included.

Now, about getting into the “group” – it’s usually your employer pulling the strings. If it’s part of the job perks, fantastic! But if it’s not, and you’re eyeing that safety net, you might have to sign up solo (in which case it’ll just be a normal individual plan).

Keep in mind that (and I can’t emphasize this enough) the specifics can vary wildly. Some companies offer top-tier coverage, while others stick to the basics. The cost-sharing dance may be more of a tango in some places and a gentle sway in others. Also, eligibility criteria and the sign-up process can differ, so it’s worth checking the fine print.

International Health Insurance With Dental and Vision Coverage

Dental and vision insurance is another type of coverage that you can either snag separately or as an add-on to your existing international health insurance plan. And just like the maternity coverage we looked at earlier, the name changes depending on whether you’re purchasing dental and vision coverage as a standalone policy or an add-on. 

Dental and vision benefits are often offered as optional add-ons in comprehensive international health insurance plans. Remember when I mentioned that comprehensive international health insurance can sometimes extend coverage to dental and vision care? That usually happens when you either snag dental and vision coverage as an add-on or opt for a comprehensive policy that already has that coverage “built-in.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. The option to purchase dental and vision coverage as an add-on isn’t exclusive to comprehensive international health insurance plans. Some basic or standard health insurance policies may also allow you to add dental and vision coverage for an extra premium.

Whether as an add-on or an independent policy, dental and vision insurance policies typically cover costs for:

  • Preventive oral and vision care.
  • Basic procedures for eyes and teeth.
  • Prescription glasses and contact lenses (including lens enhancements such as anti-glare coatings, progressive lenses, or transition lenses).

Of course, some plans offer more comprehensive coverage than others. For instance, some may cover more extensive dental work (like root canals, crowns, bridges, and dentures) and orthodontic treatments like braces, while others might stick to the basics I’ve mentioned above. 

That’s why it’s so important to understand the limits of your coverage before you commit to a specific dental and vision policy (or any other policy, for that matter). Find out if there are annual/lifetime caps on certain procedures or exclusions/waiting periods applicable to some services.

International Health Insurance with Pre-existing Condition Coverage

This one is pretty self-explanatory: an international health insurance plan that comes with additional coverage for pre-existing conditions. Keep in mind that in this context, pre-existing conditions are defined as any health issues or medical conditions you might have before purchasing a health insurance plan.

This is basically a comprehensive international health insurance policy with extra coverage for pre-existing conditions (which comprehensive health insurance plans typically don’t cover). That means it covers your standard healthcare costs, too – not just those arising from the treatment of pre-existing medical conditions. A wee bit of overemphasis, but bear with me because I’m trying to hammer that point home.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to pass a little health check called medical underwriting to get this superpower coverage. It’s like getting a health check-up from your insurance provider: they’ll have someone dig into your medical history, check out your treatment plans, and see how you’re doing health-wise. The results of that check-up will determine how much your plan costs and what limitations come attached to it.

Choosing the Right International Health Insurance Plan

Having explored the fundamentals of international health insurance and unpacked the different plans catering to expats, it’s time to play matchmaker. Living the expat life comes with its unique set of challenges, and health insurance is no exception—it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Understanding your unique needs is the key to finding the right plan. But let’s be real: navigating a foreign healthcare system and choosing from a seemingly endless list of coverage options can be a bit daunting.

So, how do you ace this mix of detective work and matchmaking?

Here’s what to consider:

Your Health Needs

Taking stock of your health needs sets the stage for a tailor-made insurance plan. Think of it like buying shoes – you wouldn’t pick random sizes and hope they fit, right? Your health needs are your unique size, and finding a plan that fits snugly ensures you’re covered where it matters most.

The easiest way to find out what your health needs are would be to go for a full-blown check-up. Schedule that not-so-fun visit to your healthcare provider, get those vital signs checked, and discuss any ongoing health concerns. 

Remember, it’s not just about the big stuff. Seemingly small details like prescription medications, minor or supportive ongoing treatments, or regular appointments matter, too. The more details you gather, the better equipped you’ll be to find a plan that aligns seamlessly with your health story.

Don’t forget about your future plans, either. Are there any big life changes on the horizon? Maybe you’re thinking about starting a family, planning a sabbatical, or taking up a new hobby that could impact your health. Considering the future ensures that your health insurance plan grows and adapts with you.

Your Coverage Area

Once you’ve got a handle on your health needs, it’s time to map out your coverage area. Where will your expat journey take you? Different regions might mean different healthcare systems, and that’ll factor into your choice of insurance plan. 


I’d rather show you what I mean with a couple of examples, so kick your creative mind into overdrive and tag along as we explore two scenarios where your choice of insurance plan might vary based on your host country’s healthcare system:

  • Scenario 1. Your destination country is known for its excellent public healthcare system. The locals swear by the efficiency of public hospitals, and routine check-ups are readily available. In this situation, opting for a comprehensive plan might be the way to go. That’s because you can rely on the local healthcare system for your day-to-day needs and use your comprehensive plan as a safety net for unexpected medical events or specialized treatments.
  • Scenario 2. Your expat journey takes you to a country with a less developed healthcare system, and you live in a remote location with limited access to top-notch medical facilities. In this case, choosing a plan with emergency evacuation services becomes crucial. Why? Because if you ever find yourself in a situation where the local facilities can’t meet your needs, having the option for swift evacuation to a better medical facility can make all the difference. 

I could go on with more examples, but I’m pretty sure these two adequately demonstrate how considering your destination’s healthcare system can dictate your choice of insurance plan. 

Now, the healthcare system isn’t the only location-specific factor that’ll play a part in the type of insurance plan you opt for. The overall cost of living will come into play, too. Generally, the higher the cost of living in your destination, the more comprehensive a plan you’ll need because your medical expenses will likely be higher.

Lastly, don’t forget to take into account the insurance regulations and requirements in your host country. Some countries have explicit health insurance requirements for expats. For instance, Schengen countries mandate a minimum coverage amount for international health insurance, typically around €30,000. This means your insurance plan should provide at least €30,000 in coverage to meet the minimum standards set by Schengen countries.

Policy Limits and Exclusions

Nine times out of ten, considering your health needs and your coverage area will give you an idea of what types of international health insurance plans might suit you. But you’re not done just yet. You still need to narrow down your options further, and considering your policy limits and exclusions is one way to do that. 

Policy limits are basically the maximum amount your insurance provider is willing to pay for covered medical expenses within a specific timeframe. These limits can be applied annually or over the entire duration of the policy:

  • Annual limit: This is the maximum amount the insurance company will pay for covered expenses within a single policy year. Once this limit is reached, you, the policyholder, will be on the hook for any additional expenses.
  • Lifetime limit: Some insurance plans have a lifetime limit, which is the maximum amount the insurer will pay over the entire duration of the policy. When this limit is exhausted, so will be the coverage.

Why does this matter?

Well, because your policy limit plays a big role in determining how much you pay in premiums.  The higher the policy limit, the higher your premium will be. That is, of course, if we hold all other factors constant because your premium will depend on a multitude of other factors such as age, what shape you’re in healthwise, plan type, etc.

Now, let’s talk exclusions. These are the specific conditions, treatments, or circumstances that your policy doesn’t cover. Examples include pre-existing conditions, cosmetic procedures, age-related conditions, preventive care, and types of care that aren’t considered medically necessary. 

It’s important to understand your plan’s exclusions because they tell you exactly what medical conditions you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket. If you’ve got your heart set on a plan that excludes a treatment, condition, or circumstance that you need coverage for (you’ll already know this if you put genuine effort into understanding your health needs), ask your insurer if they offer an add-on for that specific exclusion. Just keep in mind that the add–on will bump up the overall cost of your policy.

Network of Providers

This isn’t about finding out whether your plan comes with a network of providers. That’s pretty much standard in international health insurance.

What you need to think about is which healthcare providers come with the plan you’re eyeing. Make sure they’re reputable and equipped to handle any unique health needs you might have, especially if you’re living with a condition that requires specialized care. 

If you have preferred healthcare providers or medical facilities, check if they are included in the plan’s network, too. Some plans may offer flexibility in choosing healthcare providers; others not so much.


Premiums are the regular payments you make to keep your insurance coverage. Generally, the higher the premium, the more extensive the coverage you get.

While choosing a plan with premiums that fit comfortably within your budget is important, you don’t want to base your choice solely on affordability because that’ll mean sacrificing too much on the coverage front. Instead, aim for a nice balance of affordability and coverage. That “balance” varies from person to person because our health needs and pocket depth are all different, so I’ll leave it up to you to strike it.

Deductibles and Co-payments

Alright, let’s knock off the definitions before I explain why these matter: 

A deductible is your health insurance’s way of saying, “Hey, chip in a bit before we start covering your medical bills.” It’s the amount you pay out of your own pocket before your insurance coverage kicks in. 

For illustration, let’s say your plan has a $1,000 deductible, and you incur medical expenses of $5,000. In such a situation, you’d foot the bill for the first grand, and then the insurance would swoop in to cover the rest (subject to any other policy terms and conditions, of course.)

A Co-payment, on the other hand, is a fixed amount you pay for a covered healthcare service, usually at the time of service. For example, if your plan has a $20 copayment for doctor visits, you would pay $20, and the insurance would cover the rest of the cost. Copayments are typically defined on a per-visit or per-service basis.

There are a couple of reasons why you should consider these two when choosing an international health insurance plan:

  • Both are forms of cost-sharing between you and the insurance company. Understanding how they work can help you effectively split the financial responsibility for healthcare expenses between you and your insurer.
  • You can leverage them to save on premiums. Plans with higher deductibles and copayments often have lower monthly premiums. That means you can deliberately choose a plan with higher cost-sharing to reduce your upfront premium expenses.
  • Understanding how they work can help you budget effectively. Knowing your deductible and copayment amounts can be super helpful when managing your finances as an expat. It allows you to know what chunk of your medical bills you’ll pay out-of-pocket, setting you up nicely to make informed budgeting decisions.
  • They may affect your access to healthcare providers. Plans with higher cost-sharing might provide more flexibility in choosing healthcare providers. That means if you’re willing to pay a higher deductible or copayment, you may have a broader network of providers to choose from.
  • They might dictate when you can access preventive care. Some plans may offer free or low-cost preventive services even before you meet your deductible.
  • They allow you to align your choice of insurance plan with your risk tolerance. Generally, plans with higher deductibles and copayments transfer more financial risk to you but may result in lower overall costs if you don’t require frequent medical care. You can use that info to sync your plan with your risk appetite.

The Insurance Provider’s Reputation

Before you settle on a specific insurer, take a good look at what people are saying. Dive into those customer reviews on independent sites and find out how they handle claims, treat their customers, and what folks think about their overall service. 

As trivial as it seems, this is crucial because it allows you to learn from other people’s experiences. Learning the hard way isn’t cool, especially when it comes to your health and wallet.

Purchasing International Health Insurance: To Broker or Not?

Spoiler alert: it depends on what matters most to you. Going through a broker and going directly to the source (i.e., the insurance provider) are both valid routes with their own perks, but I won’t bore you with those details. Instead, I’m going to make it super simple for you to decide. 

All you need to do is write down a “yes” or “no” to the following questions:

  1. Do you have a clear understanding of your international health insurance needs?
  2. Are you comfortable navigating the complexities of insurance plans on your own?
  3. Is having a wide range of insurance options important to you?
  4. Would you prefer personalized advice based on your unique circumstances?
  5. Do you have the time and inclination to thoroughly research and compare different insurance plans?
  6. Is direct communication with the insurance company a priority for you?
  7. Are potential cost savings a significant factor in your decision-making process?
  8. Do you value having an advocate in case of claims, issues, or disputes?
  9. Are you tech-savvy and comfortable using online tools to explore and purchase insurance policies?
  10. Would you prefer a streamlined and quick process for purchasing insurance?
  11. Is having direct access to customer reviews and testimonials important to you?
  12. Are you open to paying broker fees for personalized guidance and assistance?

Got your answers ready? Great! Now count the number of “Yes” and “No” responses and check them against the “marking scheme” below: 

  • If you have more “Yes” responses, you might be better off using a broker. Chances are you need all the help you can get to purchase the right insurance plan.
  • If you have more “No” responses, going directly to the insurance source could be the way to go. You probably know enough about international health insurance to navigate the purchase process on your own and save some money along the way. 

Remember, these are just suggestions, and it’s totally fine if you want to go against the findings of this simple questionnaire.

Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
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