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Paying for Major Medical Expenses While Living Abroad

When venturing abroad, travelers may be exposed to more than another country's culture and history. According to the World Health Organization, "More than 900 million international journeys are undertaken every year. Global travel on this scale exposes many people to a range of health risks."[1]

When planning to travel overseas or preparing to live abroad, individuals should make sure they are financially prepared to handle medical emergencies. Here are a few options to help ease the process of international payments for major medical expenses while abroad.

Buy International Health Insurance

International health insurance can preserve peace of mind and thousands of dollars. On a spring break excursion to Cairns, Australia in 2009, Britney Muller, then a student at the University of Minnesota, had a scuba diving accident that caused her eardrum to rupture. Muller was admitted to a local hospital where doctors performed two surgeries. Her total medical bill was roughly $10,000 U.S. dollars (USD).

In the case of a major medical emergency, it is important that travelers and expats have access to emergency funds for travel expenses in order to pay for immediate attention.

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"Luckily, my parents and I had purchased student insurance through the University of Minnesota, which covered most of the expenses," Muller says. Ultimately, Muller and her family were reimbursed $5,800 USD.

Create Emergency Funds

In the case of a major medical emergency, it is important that travelers and expats have access to emergency funds for travel expenses in order to pay for immediate attention, which may include down payments, medication, emergency procedures and transportation.

Even individuals with international health insurance may be required to pay upfront for emergency medical expenses. For example, the hospital in Cairns that Muller checked herself into required a down payment of more than $1,000. "I didn't have that much money on me at the time, so I had to call my parents and use their credit card information," Muller says.      

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Instead of running up their credit card balances, individuals can use a trusted online foreign exchange service to obtain the necessary funds for travel expenses. For example, online wire transfers provide the fastest online FX delivery option for sending money overseas. And with 24/7 account access and customer service, travelers will have peace of mind in the case of an emergency.

By using a trusted online foreign exchange provider, individuals can monitor the status of their international payments - so there are no questions about when and where the money will arrive. "Partnering with a reputable, trusted brand is one way to [ensure] … your payments are safe," says Steven Hunter, head of small enterprises at Western Union Business Solutions.

Embassy Assistance

Consulates can provide additional resources to citizens, such as hospital and physician listings. In some cases of medical emergency when all other methods of international payment are exhausted or impossible, individuals can call on their home country's embassies for financial assistance.

For example, the U.S. Department of State's American Citizens Services, in some instances, can provide small government loans to American citizens who need medical attention as part of the Emergency Medical program.

For citizens of Canada who incur medical expenses while living abroad, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada offers services through embassies, consulates and high commissions abroad, including temporary loans.

While the U.K.'s  Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)  does not offer temporary medical loans, British citizens traveling abroad can call on FCO to act as a liaison with their travel insurance company in the case of a medical emergency.

By planning ahead, individuals can ensure they'll be able to take action quickly and cover their medical costs if an unexpected emergency occurs while they're traveling overseas or living abroad.


[1] "International travel and health," 2012 Edition, World Health Organization



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