If you are a foreign student applying to study in the U.S., there will be many surprises in store for you. While some of those surprises might be fun—from a secret, off-menu items at In-N-Out Burger to deep-fried Twinkies at the state fair—you shouldn’t let health insurance be one them.
Introduction to Health Insurance in the US
Health insurance in the U.S. is probably not at all like what you are used to—the system is almost unique in the world. The U.S. does not have a nationalized healthcare system, so if you need any kind of medical care while there, you will be expected to pay out of pocket unless you have an insurance plan to cover the cost.
With some of the highest costs for medications, doctor’s visits, and even administrative costs among all developed countries, this is not where you want to be paying for your own healthcare!
In fact, even if you were leaning toward chancing it (not a wise choice), your school won’t let you. They will require you to obtain adequate medical insurance coverage.
That’s right, before you can enroll and hit the books, you’ll need to prove that you have valid and adequate health insurance in the U.S.
You could navigate the terrifyingly complex federal and state regulations to get your own private insurance, but there is a much simpler route available to you—go through your school.
Your school will require you to have health insurance that meets the required standards, and will probably be cheaper too. Think about it: this is a healthcare plan shared by a pool of young, healthy people.
You will not find a similar bargain on the open market, where the people looking for insurance are usually much older and unemployed.
Automatic Enrollment or Suggested Plans
Some colleges and universities automatically enroll their students in an insurance plan—for those students coming from abroad who do not have health insurance in the country, the school has a plan all set up and ready for you to write a check to, included in your tuition bill.
While convenient, your choice is limited in this case. The school’s chosen plan will usually provide perfectly adequate coverage for anyone with typical medical care needs.
A good example of this is the University of California network of schools. At UC schools, such as UCLA, students are automatically enrolled in UC SHIP (UC Student Health Insurance Plan).
If you have other insurance, the burden is on the student to waive their enrollment. This is convenient for international students, and the UC SHIP coverage is more than adequate.
Alternatively, some schools have a sponsored health insurance plan—one that they endorse and that meets all the requirements of the school and the various legal entities concerned, but that you are not required to choose.
If you prefer a different plan, for reasons we’ll get to, then you are free to choose that plan, so long as it also meets the requirements of the school.
Striking out on Your own
A few, though not many, schools have no set option in place, and leave it up to the students and their families to find the right plan for them. This is rare, however, and in most cases the school will at least give you the guidance of a sponsored plan.
If you are left to your own devices, or if you choose to get your own coverage, then you will be doing more of the legwork. It is relatively easy to find out what your school requires of your health insurance, just check out the Student Health page and find the insurance information.
The easiest way to get a summary of what your plan needs to include is to take a look at the waiver you’ll need to submit if you opt to purchase your own plan, not the school-sponsored plan.
Taking a look at this list of requirements will quickly reveal that you are not going to get away with purchasing a bare minimum plan. Most schools require that you not only have health coverage that allows you to access a local network of doctors and hospitals (common sense), but that also gives you access to some level of mental health services, and for international students, includes some special features, like repatriation of remains.
Furthermore, you will almost certainly have to purchase insurance in the region you are attending school—that’s usually the only way that you will have access to a local network of medical services and meet requirements such as having your plan benefits detailed in English, and being able to access an insurance office in the U.S.
If you prefer to choose your own plan, but need some guidance on where to begin, take a cue from the insurer your school has chosen—that company is probably major health insurer in the region, and will have a suite of plans and coverage options for you to choose from.
Most schools offer plans from Blue Cross Blue Shield or Aetna, two huge health insurers with a national presence in the U.S.
Given the added complexity of purchasing your own plan and ensuring it meets all of your school’s requirements, not to mention federal and state regulations, you are probably convinced by now that sticking with the plan your school offers is a good idea.
And it is, with one exception—if you have uniquely extensive medical needs. For most, even those with debilitating conditions, the school-sponsored health insurance plan will be more than enough.
But if, after careful research, you know that you will need more than the school’s health plan covers, it would make sense to buy more comprehensive care. Remember that medical care in the U.S. Is exceptionally expensive, and you do not want to be stuck with a bill to cover out of your own pocket.
Health insurance WILL seem unreasonably priced to you, especially compared to nationalized health care systems in other countries, and it is worth getting adequate coverage for your needs from the get-go, or you risk facing a much bigger bill than your semesterly insurance coverage would require.
There is nothing logical or predictable about medical expenses for uninsured foreign nationals in the U.S.
Use Your Resources
In the end, you should lean on the resources you have access to for advice about your health insurance. Your admissions consultant should be able to point you in the right direction regarding the policies and procedures of your various schools of interest or help you choose a regionally appropriate insurer.
And once you have been accepted into and chosen the school you plan to attend, you can avail yourself of the resources of the registrar’s office and Student Health services, which should be able to advise you on this critical aspect of student life.
Andriana is a Chicago native with strong Mediterranean roots. After exploring over six fields of study as a Northwestern Wildcat, she completed her BA in Psychology and Business Administration. She is a content manager at Admissionado.