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Holidaymakers overestimate benefits of EHIC cards

Written by: Paloma Kubiak
Holidaymakers are being reminded not to use the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) as a substitute for travel insurance as it doesn’t always entitle you to free emergency medical treatment abroad.

The EHIC gives UK citizens access to the same level of state medical care provided to nationals of the European Economic Area (EEA).

But as the provision of state care varies from country to country, this means it will either be free or at a reduced-price so you should never expect to be treated as you would visiting your own NHS doctor or hospital.

As an 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. They may also be expected to contribute to the cost of staying in hospital overnight.

Research from Gocompare Travel found that the vast majority of UK holidaymakers overestimate the benefits an EHIC can provide. Nearly seven in 10 people believed it entitled them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe while 6% thought it would get them free emergency treatment anywhere in the world.

The comparison site said an EHIC is “extremely useful” and can save money on emergency medical expenses, but its benefits aren’t as comprehensive as many people think. A small number (6%) also saw an EHIC as an alternative to having travel insurance rather than something which complements it.

EHIC facts you need to know

Parents and guardians can apply for the EHIC for those aged under 16 and everyone needs to have their own EHIC.

You should never have to pay for the card – some unscrupulous sites charge people up to £35 to help apply but you can do it quickly and for free yourself by visiting the official government site at

It will be useful in all EEA countries including Switzerland. The EEA includes all 27 members of the European Union (EU) plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

However, the EHIC isn’t accepted in the popular holiday destination of Turkey as it’s not a member of the EU or the EEA.

Gocompare Travel warns that even if you’re travelling in a country where there’s free or discounted emergency health care, there are no guarantees that in the event of an accident an ambulance will take you to a state hospital for emergency treatment. Many of the smaller hospitals and clinics found in holiday resorts around Europe are private. If you end up at a privately run clinic or hospital, your EHIC may not be accepted for any treatments.

Further, an EHIC won’t entitle you to medical repatriation by air ambulance if you’re seriously ill or injured in Europe. Travel insurance is vital here as generous family and friends may need to stump up several thousands of euros to bring you back home for treatment. In a recent case, an ill British holidaymaker was flown home by air ambulance from the Canary Islands at a cost of £23,000.

The government generally doesn’t pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home unless there are very unusual circumstances.

What about the effect of Brexit on the EHIC?

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

However, as it’s an initiative of the EEA rather than the EU, whether or not UK citizens will keep this reciprocal benefit depends on how deep the Brexit negotiations go.

Regardless, nothing will change until the Article 50 negotiations to separate the UK from the EU are concluded in 2019 at the earliest.

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.

Amanda Bathroy, insurance editor at GoCompare Travel, said: “An EHIC can help you to get free or discounted emergency medical services in state run clinics and hospitals while on trips to Europe, but it’s not a guarantee that you won’t have to pay anything.

“Having an EHIC may mean that you don’t have to claim on your travel insurance for minor injuries in some circumstances, and some insurers will waive the policy excess for medical claims where you’ve used your EHIC but where it doesn’t cover the full cost of your treatment. Holidaymakers should always arrange suitable travel insurance to ensure they’re covered for all emergency medical treatment and medical repatriation if necessary. An EHIC complements your travel insurance but it certainly doesn’t replace it.”

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