Most Britons overestimating the value of the European Health Insurance Card

7th July 2016

Seven out of 10 UK holidaymakers expect free emergency medical treatment in Europe and 7% think it will get them home by air ambulance using a European Health Insurance card.

Yet, although it is a ‘must-have’ piece of kit for a European trip, according to new research from travel insurance, the vast majority of UK holidaymakers over-estimate the benefits it can provide. While some  70% believing it entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe, 6% believe it will get them free emergency medical treatment anywhere in the World.

Unfortunately, although an EHIC is extremely useful, can save you money on emergency medical expenses and even reduce or cancel out your excess on some travel insurance medical claims, its benefits are not as comprehensive as many people think.

For example, 7% of holidaymakers responding to the survey believe that an EHIC would entitle them to medical repatriation by air ambulance if they were seriously ill or injured in Europe. In reality, you will need a good travel insurance policy or generous friends to pay the several thousand Euros it would cost to bring you home under medical supervision.

The EHIC and Brexit

In research carried out before the EU referendum, 23% of UK holidaymakers felt worried that a Brexit would mean they would lose valuable medical protection provided by the European Health Insurance Card.

The EHIC is an initiative of the European Economic Area (EEA) rather than the European Union (EU) so whether or not UK citizens will keep this reciprocal benefit depends on how deep the Brexit goes. Regardless, nothing will change until the Article 50 negotiations to separate the UK from the EU are concluded, which could be two years or more.

Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are members of the EEA but not the EU and all three accept the EHIC so the UK could possibly take this approach. Switzerland is neither a member of the EU or the EEA but still accepts the EHIC as part of the single market.

Also, the UK already has reciprocal deals with a number of countries, including Australia, Israel and Russia, under which visitors can receive free urgent treatment. So even if it was no longer part of the EHIC initiative, it might agree similar deals with EU countries

EHIC benefits – The Facts (for now!) – The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is free to most UK residents. However residents of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not eligible for EHICs. Parents and guardians can apply for EHICs for those aged under 16 and each member of a travel party must have their own EHIC.

An EHIC entitles the bearer to the same level of state medical care provided to eligible nationals of the EEA country they’re travelling in. This means that the treatment may be provided for free, or at a reduced cost, in all EEA countries and Switzerland. The EEA includes all 27 members of the European Union (EU) plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. The EHIC is not accepted in Turkey as it is not a member of the EU or the EEA.

However, the provision of state care varies from country to country. Healthcare and treatment may not be free and you should not expect to always be treated as you would if you visited your NHS doctor or hospital. Not all EU countries pay the full cost of medical treatment as you’d expect from the NHS. For example, in France a patient may be expected to pay for a consultation with a doctor but will have up to 70% of the cost reimbursed later. The patient may also be expected to contribute to the cost of staying in a hospital overnight.

There are also no guarantees that an ambulance will take you to a state hospital for emergency treatment, and many of the smaller hospitals and clinics found in holiday resorts are private. If you end up at a privately run clinic or hospital your EHIC may not be accepted for any treatments.

Medical repatriation – No insurance? No chance (unless you can pay for it yourself)

When it comes to medical repatriation, the EHIC is of no use at all. An EHIC does not cover the cost of being flown home under medical supervision from any destination and the Government generally does not pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home unless there are very unusual circumstances. The costs of a medical repatriation can be huge – according to one insurer, the cost of flying one seriously ill British holidaymaker home from the Canary Islands by jet air ambulance was nearly £23,000. In most cases the costs will be covered by a reasonable travel insurance policy but without that cover, friends and family may end up footing the bill to get you home.

A free EHIC? That will be £35.00 please.

Unfortunately there are still plenty of online companies charging anything from £14.99 to £35.00 to ‘process’ these free applications, despite it being a very straightforward, 10 minute job on the official government website:

Alex Edwards, travel insurancespokesperson at, said: “70% of UK holidaymakers believe that the EHIC is some kind of ‘get out of hospital free’ card but that’s simply not the case. Whilst it is a really useful piece of plastic to take with you on trips to Europe, it’s no replacement for the medical expenses cover provided by a decent travel insurance policy.”

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