Paying for Medical Care While Traveling or Living Abroad

But… what do you do about health insurance when you leave the country? What do you do when you have to go to the doctor when you’re traveling or living abroad?

costa rica dentist

I get variations on these questions more than most others, partly because I have a lot of Americans buying my cheap living abroad book and reading this blog. When we’re spending a huge wad of our earnings each month on health care and are still brainwashed into thinking we have a great system, we wonder if all hell will break loose if we get sick overseas or have an accident.

I am an ambassador for one particular travel insurance company and have long been a customer with an annual plan. But I have to admit I almost never bought travel medical insurance for myself when when I was backpacking around the world. The main reason was, it’s just so much cheaper to simply pay for medical care when I needed it once you are outside the U.S.

Much Lower Medial Care Costs Abroad

I’m now an advocate for travel insurance because it gets you a lot of peace of mind as a traveler for benefits that go beyond just the doctor visit. What you actually pay that doctor though, if it’s a somewhat routine visit, is not going to bust your budget.

Where I live in Mexico, a visit to a little consulting doctor booth next to a pharmacy will literally only cost you a few dollars. When you step up to a specialist, it can get as high as $45. No, that’s not a co-pay, that’s the total. I’ve had dental work done for 1/5 of the quote I got from a U.S. dentist. One time in Nayarit state years ago, a little girl ran into my car from the side and I spent hours shuttling her and the family to a doctor then a hospital. After two exams, x-rays, bandages, stitches, and enough pills to medicate an elephant, I was out a grand total of $42. If she had needed to spend the night in the public hospital it would have been $18 more.

This article on Panama lays out what foreigners living in Panama think about the system there and what they paid for care. It ranges from $45 for a doctor visit to $1,800 for four nights in a hospital with round-the-clock care. If you had to do that in the USA without health insurance, you’d be selling your house to cover the bills.

If you spend time on traveler message boards or Facebook groups, you regularly see stories about someone visiting a hospital after some kind of scrape or fracture and walking out after paying $15 or $20, in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and Nepal.

People I have interviewed in Ecuador have raved about getting a doctor visit, meds, and a cell number for follow-up questions and paid less than $30.

My mom flew to Costa Rica three times last year to get her teeth worked on, with loads of implants, crowns, and who knows what else. Even after the flights and hotels, it came out to around half what her small-town home dentist had quoted her, in a nicer facility.

Or Your Medical Care Might Be Free

In some countries, the doctor’s visit might be free–or close to it at least. Some countries have a public health care system that’s covered by taxes and they don’t really have a way to do a whole different kind of billing for foreigners. So if you need medical care in Argentina or France, for example, the doctor’s assistant will be baffled if you ask how to pay. You are just on the hook for medicine and tests or x-rays.

medical care costs abroad Unsplash photo by Rawpixel

In general, if a country has universal health care—which is most countries these days—you will at least be paying far less than you would pay in the United States. In many cases though, it’s just not worth it for them to set up a system for travelers to get billed.

Some countries have a scheme where visitors automatically get health insurance that covers them in the country while they are there. These tend to come and go though. If they offer it, you will usually see the country making a big deal about it on their official tourism website because it’s a marketing decision to pull in more older visitors with plenty of money.

When You Still Need Travel or Expat Insurance

It’s the “What if?” questions that are answered by an insurance plan that covers you abroad. Some people would gladly pay more to have one less thing to worry about. And high-risk activities (like heli-skiing or class 5 rapids kayaking) may warrant a high-risk policy. Plus I have bought annual medical evacuation insurance that is guaranteed to fly you or a member of your family to a real first-world hospital should you get bit by a python or chewed by piranhas in the middle of the Amazon. I wouldn’t want to head into an area hours from any medical facility without some kind of backup plan in case.

Plus now, as an expat living in Mexico, my wife and I have a catastrophic plan with a high deductible that covers us in two scenarios: 1) If something really bad happens in Mexico and one of us needs to be in the hospital for weeks. Or 2) If anything happens in another country that requires serious medical care, including in the USA. Natuarally, if the U.S. is included in the plan, that doubles the cost.

I also have an annual, multi-trip policy for travel with Allianz that I renew each year. I do it as much for the delay and cancellation coverage as the medical part because I fly a lot.

What’s the best solution for you? If you’re on a budget and young, you may be able to just pay out of pocket as you go. If you’re in a cheap country or in a European one that covers tourists in an accident, it’s far cheaper just to wing it. Have money in your bank account, an ATM card, plus a credit card and you’re good to go.

 

Comments
  1. Si Campbell

    When we lived in the southern Bahamas for a semester my elementary school age son had to go to the local clinic to treat a nasty cut/scrape . After the nurse practitioner had fixed him up I asked her how much we owed. She looked at me as if she didn’t understand what I asked. After a pause, she said: ” there isn’t a charge for school-age children”.
    The Bahamas can do it but the USA can’t ?

    • Tim Leffel

      I had a similar experience in Belize. She said, “payment is voluntary–put it in that box.” It was like a donation to charity to help get extra supplies.

  2. .cb

    I guess that depends on the country and the hospital. If its a government facility chances are that is free but if it is not then currency exchange is now a factor

  3. Andrea Sharp

    Hi! What about dental/health care in the UK or Australia? Any idea how they charge foreigners? More detail country by country would be most welcome to see if you feel inspired to write such an article. :)

    • Tim Leffel

      Andrea, I’m only writing about the places to live that are cheaper than the USA or western Europe, so I’ll leave Australia and UK prices to someone else to research—though if you’re American it will surely be far less than you pay stateside. Pretty much every independent study shows we have the highest medical costs in the world and get far worse care for what we pay as well.

  4. HoGro

    Tim – What do you recommend coverage-wise for American ex-pats who come back to USA for visits? Get a short-term policy with an international insurance company that includes the USA?

    • Tim Leffel

      Yes, you either need an annual expat policy that covers the USA or you need to buy an individual one of some kind (could be really comprehensive travel insurance) each time you’re headed there. You don’t want to take a chance of being in the USA with no insurance of any kind because you could get into a car accident or something and be up the creek financially.

  5. Omar

    Dental care in Australia is extremely expensive by Asian standards. An initial consultation with a dentist costs A$180 for the consultation & A$150 for the obligatory X-Ray.
    Treatment with modern machinery ie imagery machines can be as low as A$50 in Indonesia.

  6. Brian

    Tim, care to share the company from which you purchased your catastrophic plan? We’re trying to sort out details of a year in Eastern Europe and want to explore a variety of options for medical insurance. I like your strategy.

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