Every year, around 40 million people across Europe apply for a new European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Like its predecessor the E111, EHIC is designed to give Europeans access to state healthcare across the continent at the same rates as residents of the countries concerned. EHIC can save you huge sums of money on your travel insurance, and can prove very useful if you have a per-existing or chronic condition and struggle to get adequate cover. There are however many misconceptions about EHIC, how it works and where it can be used, so if you are thinking about applying for EHIC for your next European trip, start by working out whether it is accepted in the countries you are thinking of visiting.
What is the difference between the EU and the EEA?
Two abbreviations you’ll often see thrown around when discussing EHIC are EU and EEA. EU we’re mostly familiar with – it’s the European Union, which is made up of 28 countries including the UK. The European Economic Area (EEA) is a slightly larger trading and free movement area which as well as all of the countries in the EU, also includes Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. EHIC is an EEA invention, which means that you can use it when travelling to Norway or Switzerland, even though they are not in the European Union.
When Europe is Not Europe
Europe has a flexible definition depending on who you are speaking to. Look in any atlas, and you’ll see Europe defined as stretching as far east as the Caspian Sea, bordering Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. If you take the Eurovision song contest as your indication of what constitutes “Europe”, you could include Israel and Turkey. Russia, which is sometimes thought of as being in Europe, stretches half way across the world to the Pacific Ocean. So it’s easy to see where the confusion arises. Only EEA countries use EHIC. So even if you are geographically in Europe on your visit to Georgia, Ukraine, Moscow or Azerbaijan, your EHIC card will do you no good at all. Lists of countries in the EEA are widely available online.
There are also smaller parts of Europe which are commonly visited by tourists which are administered outwith the EEA and where you cannot use your EHIC cover. These include some of Europe’s tourist hotspots such as Monaco, Gibraltar and the Vatican City. If you are spending all or part of your trip in these places, you’ll need separate travel cover. Closer to home, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are considered as independently administered jurisdictions, and are not part of the EU or EEA. Despite this, arrangements are in place separate from EHIC which allow UK residents to get emergency medical treatment on the Isle of Man and in the Channel Islands free of charge. This is not the case for EHIC holders whose cards have been issued by EEA member states other than the UK, so again separate cover will be needed.