Moving To Europe IX – Getting Health Insurance & Setting Up A Cellphone/Data Plan
This is the second-to-last post in my “Moving To Europe” series, and since I’m getting close to the end (and kinda want to wrap it up) it’s actually going to be a two-fer wrapped into one.
What we’re going to cover today are two final, practical items that you’ll want to think about before moving abroad -> getting health insurance and setting-up a cellphone/data plan. Neither are difficult topics, but they do require a little pre-planning and forethought. So, let’s dig right in…
International Health Insurance
If you’ve followed my US Health Insurance posts over the years you’ll know that they’re usually >3,500 word tomes of heavy, detailed information. I typically have to take a big breath (and fortify myself) before writing them. And because of their complexity, and the controversy of the issue itself, they’ve always generated a ton of (often) contentious comments. Health Insurance in the USA is a touchy issue, no matter which way you look at it.
The good news is that, if you’re moving abroad, health insurance is actually super easy, and there’s really just two main ways of going about it. Either you buy private insurance, or you become a “local” and join up to whatever national health care is available in your new country.
Buying Private Health Insurance
If you’re planning to come to Europe as a tourist, either short-term or longer-term you’ll want some kind of health insurance to cover you during your trip.
Now if you’re based in the USA, some US insurances do have options to cover you abroad. For example, if you’ve got Florida Blue (BCBS) you can get an extra piece of coverage called “GeoBlue” which will cover you while you travel abroad. The insurance can be customized for smaller trips, or longer stays, and even to cover pre-existing conditions. In a similar vein, if you’re on Medicare, you can buy a Medigap policy which will cover any expenses incurred outside the USA. So if you’re planning to keep your US-based insurance while you travel, definitely check your existing plan before you go.
If you’re planning a longer stay abroad however, it’ll typically be cheaper just to buy a separate plan for your travel. Not only is it super easy to do, but it’s also really inexpensive, especially if you’re used to US-type insurance prices!
You can buy insurance directly through one of the bigger guys like IMG International, AXA, BUPA or Allianz or go through an online broker (e.g. Insubuy or American Travel Insurance) which will quote across multiple guys and consolidate the options for you. All kinds of plans are available, including:
- Comprehensive Coverage: You can buy comprehensive coverage for your specific period of travel, at whatever levels of coverage & deductible you like. Optional add-ons may include repatriation and emergency medical evacuation, ADD (accidental death & dismemberment) and coverage for extreme sports.
- Long Term Visa Insurance: For those applying for long-term stay visa’s (i.e. to stay more than 90 days), you can buy plans with the exact coverage required (typically, a minimum of $65,000 coverage for a full year) to satisfy your visa requirements. Most companies will even provide a visa letter & all the formal documents needed for the health insurance part your application.
- Coverage For Pre-Existing Conditions: For those with pre-existing health conditions, it is possible to buy plans that cover them but you’ll need to specifically search for and specify those conditions up-front. Allianz, in particular, offers several options here.
Oh and how cheap is cheap?? Well Paul bought a comprehensive policy that covers up to $1,000,000 of expenses with ZERO deductible that cost….drum roll….$945. And yes, that’s the price for the whole year, not per month. The plan even covers him for temp visits back to USA (when he goes to see family, for example).
If we’d decided to go with a smaller insurance plan (say, only ~$65,000 coverage, zero deductible) he’d only have paid around $705 for the year. An incredible deal!
Becoming A “Local”
If you’re moving permanently to Europe and plan to become a “local” then you can typically apply for local health coverage. In most of Europe health care is universal which means it is run at the national level and primarily funded through public taxation. So for most folks, once you join the local health care system your care will either be completely free, or very cheap indeed (depends on the country).
The way you join the system depends on which country you move to.
For example, in France anyone who has been living in the country as a permanent resident can apply for French health care coverage. You need to have lived here for three months on a ‘stable and regular’ basis, and you need to provide certain documents (including birth certificate, proof of residence/address etc.). Depending on your income you may also have to pay a social contribution (cotisations sociales) to cover your healthcare. Once active, your will be covered for 70-80% of your medical costs anywhere in France. If you want more coverage you can buy an inexpensive “top-up” policy (l’assurance complémentaire santé), that will cover almost everything else. Read THIS article or THIS article for more details.
Once you’ve established yourself locally, you will also be able to get reimbursed for any unplanned medical expenses (urgent care, emergency care etc.) throughout Europe with a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Easy peasy.
Cellphone Plans (Incl. Data) In Europe
Most of us can’t live without a cellphone or data plan these days, and if you’re making your living online you definitely can’t live without it.
Now Europe is a modern place which means there are plenty of places you find free WiFi. Many of the bigger cities (e.g. Paris) offer free WiFi city-wide, but otherwise public spaces such as visitor centers, cafes. pubs etc. will usually have it too. So if you just need to hop onto data every now and then, or make a few calls over WiFi, then you can just do that locally without any prep work at all.
That said, if you want a cellphone plan that can travel with you everywhere there are several ways to do it. And just like with health insurance, you can either travel with your US-based plan, or go “local” and get set-up with a plan after you move.
Using A US-Based Plan Abroad
First things first. Never, ever travel abroad with your US cellphone without first investigating your international coverage. If you don’t plan ahead and your phone starts to roam you’ll be hit with ASTRONOMICAL fees. You do NOT want that nasty $$$$$ surprise on your bill!!
With that said, all of the “big guys” in USA (Verizon, ATT etc.) offer some kind of international travel plan that you can buy or add-on to your phone plan if you decide to travel abroad.
For example, ATT offers an International Day Pass that offers talk/text and the same data you have at home for an extra $10/day. Verizon offers a similar deal called Travel Pass, also for around $10/day. That’s OK for a short week of travel, but if you’re abroad for a month you’ll be paying $300 to use your phone! It’s cheaper than roaming fees, but still….ouch!
Paul and I definitely didn’t want to pay that much when we first moved to France, but thankfully we found two other options which are infinitely cheaper and work really well.
T-Mobile (Simple Choice Plan)
T-Mobile used to be the sad little brother of the cellphone guys in the USA, but IMO they’ve made incredible strides over past few years both in terms of coverage and options.
We had them as a back-up plan for the last year of our travels through the USA in the RV, and we used them more than we thought we would. When we moved to Europe they got even better! You see if you have a qualifying Simple Choice Plan you get unlimited international text & data coverage (listed as 2G) in over 210 countries for NO EXTRA CHARGE! And calls only cost you $0.20 per minute. It’s a pretty awesome deal!
As an example, our Simple Choice plan cost ~$35/mo. While we had the plan I popped the SIM into my phone and used it across UK and France for multiple weeks of travel. I only expected 2G coverage (since that’s what the T-Mobile website says you’ll get), but I actually got 4G coverage almost everywhere I went, even at our country house way out in the boonies here in France. I was blown away!
The big “gotcha”? You can’t travel indefinitely with the T-Mobile plan. You are expected to “reside in the USA” so the majority of your phone use has to be in the US. If you try to use it long-term while abroad, T-Mobile will eventually catch you and kick you off the plan for excessive roaming. There are no exact time-frames, but from what I’ve read 3-mo is about the max you can get away with. We used them for about a month in France before we switched to a local plan.
Project Fi (Google)
Another very popular cellphone plan choice for international travel is Project Fi.
With Project Fi you pay $20/mo for the base plan. That gets you unlimited texts and voice calls at $0.20 per minute across ~170 countries. Data costs extra at a flat rate of $10/GB, but it’s decent speeds (either 3G or 4G) and the cost is capped at $60 (6GB). Users can then continue to use data up to 15GB/mo (no extra charge) before speeds are fully throttled. So you basically get 15GB of data for $60. Not too shabby!
The big bonus? You only pay for the data you use. So if you don’t use any data, you don’t pay anything extra at all and if you only use a few GB of data, you only pay for that. Plus the data can be used on your other devices by turning on your phone hotspot (no extra charge for hot-spotting).
The negative? You only have a limited number of phone models to choose from (although a few other phones, like iPhone can be “hacked” to kinda, sorta use it).
I’ve known several friends who’ve traveled all over the world with Project Fi and absolutely love it.
Buying A SIM (Online Or Locally)
Another option for traveling with your phone abroad is to simply buy a SIM online (before you travel) or on arrival (at your destination) that covers you in the local area you plan to be.
In Europe, in order for this to work your phone has to be unlocked and able to work on GSM networks*. As long as both those things are OK, you can simply buy a SIM anywhere you want, pop it into your phone and you’re good to go!
There are basically two ways to buy:
Buy A Global SIM Online: If you want a SIM before you travel, you can purchase “Global” SIM card online that will allow you to use your cell phone at reduced rates around the world. For example OneSIMCard and WorldSIM both offer these kinds of products. These can be useful if you’re planing short-term spurts of travel across multiple countries, but for longer-term travel in a single country, they are generally too expensive for what they offer. For example, at WorldSIM, a “European SIM” with 1GB of data,100 mins talk, and 100 texts for 7 days costs $30. It’s a tad pricey.
Buy A Local SIM On Arrival: If you’re traveling to a specific country it’s typically much cheaper to buy a local SIM on arrival. You can either get these at the airport or (generally even cheaper) at a local telecom store. For example if you’re landing in France you can buy a Europe Vacation SIM from Orange (one of the biggest providers here) with 10GB of data, 120 mins talk, 1000 texts for 14 days for EUR 39.99 (~$47). That’s not too bad.
*NOTE/ In the USA phones bought under contract are often locked until paid off, so check with your carrier before you travel (sometimes you have to ask or go through a process to unlock them). Also, most newer phones support GSM, but some older US models are CDMA-only.
Getting A Local Cellphone Plan
If you’re settling locally in Europe the absolute best deal is to get on a regular, local monthly cellphone plan. Now you’ll typically need a local address to do this (proof of residence) so it’s not really something you can do as a temporary visitor, but as long as you have that there are TONS of options.
Just like the USA, each country typically has a select number of big-name carriers with a lots of smaller or low-cost carriers. And just like the USA, you can sign-up to plans that are either contract based or month-to-month. Unlike the USA however, most data plans are cheeeeeap!
I’m not going to go through all the plans in all the countries (waaaay too many options), but I’ll give you our example. We signed up with Orange (formerly France Telecom, and the biggest guy in France) and got two cellphones with unlimited talk/text and 80GB of total data, all hot-spottable and usable across all countries in Europe for a total of EUR 63 (~$74) per month. Pretty sweet deal! It took around 2 weeks to get set-up (lots of documentation, and then we had to wait for the SIMs to come via snail mail), but once we had it, it was awesome.
That’s it for all my practical posts! I’ve got ONE last post coming up that’s going to deal with the emotional side of transition, the stuff that happens after you’ve made your move and you suddenly go WHAT HAVE I DONE?? That one is coming next….SPONSORED LINK:
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