When I decided to go to China for the first time, finding an affordable and comprehensive health insurance was one of my first concerns, as I knew that, while in my country I was covered by the welfare system, in China I was on my own. This also applies for short-term travelers: unless you have international insurance, you won’t be covered while traveling around Asia.
Why do I need an health insurance when I travel to China?
Health insurance isn’t compulsory when you travel, so you can still go to Asia without any insurance and hope to never get sick, have an accident, lose your luggage or having your flight canceled by a storm.
However I won’t do it myself. It’s too risky. Especially when you consider that a good travel insurance only costs you a couple of USD per day.
Chinese hospitals are business oriented and they won’t help you unless you can pay cash in advance or they can verify that you’re covered by an adequate medical insurance.
I repeat, if you can’t pay nobody will help you. Also, the international hospitals in China (where doctors and nurses can speak English) are often more expensive than hospitals in the U.S.
I’ve heard plenty of horror stories of western tourists or expats that were left to die or lose a foot in an Asian hospital because, after being a victim of an accident or bad food poisoning, they didn’t have insurance or enough cash to pay for the emergency treatments they needed. Can you afford to pay 5,000 or 10,000 USD cash?
If you can’t, then I suggest you get a quality travel medical insurance before going to China, Thailand or wherever you are going.
Hospitals in China
In China there are mainly two kinds of hospitals:
1) The public hospitals where nobody speaks English, and where you’ll have to wait for ages, you won’t have any privacy and where the hygienic conditions are somewhat dubious (there are exceptions but in this case the prices are usually higher).
2) The international hospitals, where doctors and nurses can speak English, the service is faster, you’ll get privacy conditions similar to the ones that you find in the west and the overall hygienic conditions are usually better.
If you don’t speak Mandarin, you want to end up in an international hospital, especially if you are seriously sick. Because of this, when in 2010 my former boss explained to me that I was going to get insurance that would only cover my expenses in a public hospital, I chose to purchase private insurance by myself.
Privacy in China…
I took the above pic in one of the best public hospitals in Hangzhou (a metropolis neighboring Shanghai) in 2011: my girlfriend was discussing her case with a doctor and several patients gathered around her looking at her problem and even giving advice to the doctors regarding the treatment. I was amazed by the complete lack of privacy. Chinese people aren’t bad. They just don’t know what the word “privacy” means.
What insurance do we recommend?
For traveling o short-term stays, we recommend World Nomads because it’s quite flexible (you can choose the duration of your policy), it covers you almost worldwide (so you won’t have to subscribe to a new policy if you live in China and decide to take an holiday in Thailand), it can easily be extended online, you can buy it online even if you have already left your country, its price is quite cheap for the value it offers, it gets consistently good reviews and it comes recommended by Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and many more.
Also, beside covering you in the case of sickness and injuries, it provides emergency medical evacuation, it covers you if you have to cancel your trip due to unforeseeable events outside of your control, and it covers your gear (laptop, smartphone, camera, etc) if it gets stolen or damaged whilst travelling.
However, note that if you’re going to move to China – or another Asian country – and stay there for a long period of time, let’s say more than 6 months, you may want to check other (more expensive) insurance companies (click here to learn more). The reason is that World Nomads, if you have a severe health problem, will send you back to the country where you enjoy national health coverage (for instance to UK, if you’re an UK resident and are covered by NHS).
Thus, if you’re giving up your coverage in your former country of residence because you’re moving out for long periods of time, World Nomads may not be the most appropriate choice.
What should a good insurance cover?
In my opinion, the basic requirement you should have is that your insurance covers you for medical expenses, hospitalization and treatments, medicines and emergency transport or repatriation.
Another important point is to make sure that the insurance covers you for personal liability. This means that if you hurt somebody, you can settle for a monetary compensation instead of going to jail. You don’t want to pay the compensation yourself, do you?
Also, as already said, there are a lot of nice bonuses you can get such as trip cancellation or interruption reimbursement, extreme sports coverages, stolen or lost personal effects reimbursement and so on.
Regardless of the insurance plan you choose, before purchasing it, I do recommend that you check by yourself what your policy will cover and what situations will be excluded by the coverage.
Just to give some examples, if you’re already sick before purchasing the insurance, you won’t be covered for that particular sickness; and if you get drunk, start to punch people on the street and end up in jail, you’ll be left on your own as well. Just read the policy before buying anything!
What should I do when I need medical assistance?
[Disclaimer: We don’t work for an insurance company and these are just general guidelines. You should always talk with an operator of the insurance company from whom you purchased a policy in order to be sure of what to do].
First of all, I suggest you have your insurance provider’s emergency phone number and policy number (you’ll get the info as soon as you purchase a health insurance plan) in your phone contacts under the name “ICE health insurance”. ICE is an acronym that stands for “In Case of Emergency.” So, in the case you are the victim of a bad accident and you’re unable to communicate properly, any doctor or paramedic should find it and call your insurance provider before making a move (unless they’re retarded).
You should also keep this information in your wallet in the case you aren’t carrying your phone at the moment of the accident. The best advice I can give you is to always carry a copy of your travel/expat insurance document (you’ll receive it by email after you purchase the insurance) with you.
If you can call your insurance company yourself – for instance, in the case you’re the victim of food poisoning – then do so before going to the hospital because, if you go to the “wrong” hospital, the insurance may not cover your expenses. Also, some hospitals will only accept cash.
It’s not a big deal: just call an operator and tell them your name, policy number, the nature of your problem and any other useful information and they will re-direct you to the nearest hospital that accepts coverage by your insurance company.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it mandatory to take out a health insurance plan before traveling to China?
No, it isn’t mandatory. However, as was already explained at the start of this article it is highly recommended, because in the event that something serious happens to you and you don’t have the cash available to pay for it (or credit cards -in hospitals that allow it), it’s unlikely that they’ll take you in!
Is travel insurance recommended even of a person wants to move to China for a long period of time?
No, if you want to move to China then it is better to take out a policy for expats. Click here to read our article on this type of insurance.
Will the insurance companies you recommend cover me only if I’m traveling in China?
No, they can cover you in any country in the world. If you intend to travel to other countries just let it be known when taking out the policy, which can be done right online by clicking on the company links that you’ll find in this article.
The price is usually the same unless you’re traveling to the United States (those traveling to the United States pay more since American hospitals are the most expensive on the planet).
What happens if I decide to extend my trip after I’ve already taken out an insurance policy?
In the event that you decide to prolong your trip, you can also prolong the duration of your policy (always online).
Do I have to print out a copy of the policy that I received after buying it online?
We always recommend that you print out at least two copies, and always bring a copy with you (even folded inside your wallet). That way if something should happen to you you’ll have the policy on hand.
Moreover we recommend keeping a copy on your smartphone, in the form of a PDF document or screenshot.
*For Canadian and US residents, unfortunately due to financial services laws, World Nomads cannot provide a discount. This promotional code cannot be used with any other discount offer, including World Nomads Members’ discount for travel insurance policy holders. This promotion ends on the 1th of April 2018.