Travel insurance or international health insurance: What’s the difference?

A couple, both in red shirts, standing on a cliff looking at the northern coast of Madeira island

What is the big difference between travel insurance and international health insurance – and what is the right choice for you as a digital nomad?
Why does one cost less than 100 euros a month and the other usually costs (well) over 200?

Insurance is always the subject of lively debate in the digital nomad community. The question of what recommendations there are for travel insurance or health insurance for digital nomads comes up again and again.
The problem is that the discussions are unfortunately comparing apples with oranges when everyone throws in what he or she has taken out themselves. This is because crucial aspects are not taken into account. We explain them here!

Don’t let your insurance become a source of unsurance

It makes a considerable difference whether you take out international health insurance for several hundred bucks a month. Or just travel insurance, which only costs you 50 bucks. The contrast is not that the insurers are lining their pockets in one case. These are simply two completely different categories.
We want to tackle these misconceptions and clear up the myth.

The difference between (long-term) travel insurance and worldwide health insurance explained by Christoph.

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Rough rule of thumb: Anything that costs less than 100 euros a month is not health insurance, but at best travel insurance. This always requires underlying health insurance in the home country. If you don’t have that, you can save yourself the travel insurance as you are not insured against the existential cost risks – expensive treatment following repatriation to your home country.
Let’s avoid this and develop a smart concept for your plans together.

Christoph Huebner, specialist broker for digital nomads

The crucial question: How long are you traveling and do you plan to return?

There is no one solution for everyone. Different life plans require different solutions: Full-time nomads need a different type of health insurance than “winter nomads” who only do home office for a few months a year from places where it’s warmer.

The decisive factor as to whether you should opt for travel or international health insurance is the length of your planned trip – and the extent to which you want to keep your options open for later.

  • Would you like to travel for just a few months or years, take some time out and explore the world?
    In this case, travel insurance that is valid in addition to your regular health insurance in your home country is sufficient. Because you will not (completely) deregister from the domestic social security system for this adventure.
  • Are you planning to live and work abroad for several decades and then settle down somewhere?
    Then you should take out international health insurance. This is because you are leaving everything behind in your home country and also giving up your access rights to social and health insurance in your home country. Travel insurance is then no longer sufficient.
  • Or are you making a life decision to be completely location-independent without the firm intention of one day retiring to a country with a social system?
    Then you should take out lifelong health insurance with ageing provisions and unlimited validity worldwide.

These factors – plus, of course, the level of protection you want – play the central role in your decision.

Travel insurance or (international) health insurance?

Let us now clarify what exactly the difference is between travel insurance and international health insurance.

Depending on your age, international health insurance will cost you at least EUR 200 to 400 per month. Travel insurance, on the other hand, is available for as little as EUR 50 to 80 per month. However, this also offers you a different range of services:

Travel insurance

  • For emergency medical treatment on site
  • Rescue and recovery costs
  • Repatriation for serious treatments
  • Limited duration: 1 to 5 years
  • Low cost: 50 to 80 EUR/month
  • Pre-existing conditions: Excluded
  • Requires mandatory health insurance in the home country
  • Examples: HanseMerkur, UKV, Envivas, Dr. Walter

International health insurance

  • For treatments whereever you are staying
  • Duration: Basically unlimited, but more than 10 to 20 years makes little sense
  • Cost: 200 to over 400 EUR/month
    (depending on age and world region)
  • Pre-existing conditions: Can be included
  • Examples: Foyer, Allianz, AXA, PassportCard, COVRD.EE

Travel insurance is designed for emergency treatment

Travel insurance policies have a limited duration – usually up to twelve months, in some cases even up to five years. In addition, it only pays for “small things” on site. For extensive examinations and treatments, it will fly you back home – out of its own area of validity and back into the area of validity of your home health insurance. That makes them unusable for long-term nomads.

These limitations keep the risk calculable for the travel insurer. And that’s why the premiums are so affordable.

Travel insurance policies do not check whether an underlying (statutory or private) health insurance policy is in place when the policy is taken out or during the term of the policy. However, they simply define this in their conditions, for example in the section “Insurable persons”. And whoever does not have one after medical repatriation is solely responsible for this.

Christoph Huebner, specialist broker for digital nomads

Because of this limited time frame, travel insurance is also based on a completely different calculation basis. It covers emergency medical treatment en route, such as treatment for a cut or acute toothache.

Chronic illnesses, on the other hand, are not covered. This means that if you have to go to the doctor during your trip to have a chronic disease checked or to have your insulin prescribed, the travel insurance will not cover these costs.
The same applies to pre-existing conditions, such as the unhealed consequences of a recent surgery, which still requires aftercare.

Good travel insurance plans for digital nomads at least cover “unforeseen deterioration of the condition” in regards of chronic illnesses. This means that although the diabetic’s insulin is not insured, emergency care due to hypoglycemia is.

Christoph Huebner, specialist broker for digital nomads

International health insurance is valid regardless of location and for an unlimited period of time

In contrast, international health insurance always covers you in the place where you are staying (with exceptions, for example when traveling to “expensive” countries such as the USA). If you are traveling abroad for an indefinite period of time, you should therefore take out international health insurance.

The cost of such insurance is based on:

  • the range of services,
  • your age,
  • pre-existing conditions and
  • the cost level of your destination country or world region.

You should therefore think carefully about which benefits you would like to have in your insurance cover.

One example, two scenarios: Gun shot in Colombia

Let’s illustrate the whole thing with a concrete example: You want to add some spice to your location-independent lifestyle as a digital nomad and your mobile home office follows your curiosity. You will immerse yourself in the fiery adventures of Latin America for the winter season.

In return, you take out long-term travel insurance for 65 euros a month. This is because you are still registered in your home country and continue to pay for your health insurance – or at least have some sort of an entitlement depending on the regulation of your country.

Everything is going great, but then the adventures in Colombia turn out to be a little more fiery than expected: After a wild club night, you get into a shootout between two clans on your way home through dark back alleys.
And you get shot.

What does your travel insurance cover if you have been shot?

Scenario 1: Smooth shot through the upper arm

A bullet hole is painful, but not a tragic problem: it can be treated as an outpatient. First stop the bleeding as quickly as possible and go to the nearest hospital. The wound is cleaned and dressed there.
Non-sterile projectiles and fiber residue from your clothing entering the shot channel can cause contamination. Antibiotic therapy is therefore administered as a precautionary measure. You will also need to visit a few times to check the wound and change the dressing.

How does your travel insurance respond?

Your travel insurance will cover these costs and you’ll have a wild story to tell in the future.

So far, so good. However, the situation is completely different if the gunshot wound is more dangerous.

Scenario 2: The lung shot

The shot lands in your lung. Stopped by a shattered rib, the projectile gets stuck. A bullet lodged in the lungs is life-threatening for several reasons. The lungs are a very blood-rich organ. Each gunshot wound destroys dozens of small and large vessels from which you bleed internally.

Because air passes through the gunshot wound into the narrow cavity between the ribs and pleura, which is otherwise only filled with a thin layer of fluid, the elastic lung tissue collapses: A pneumothorax.
Consequence: The injured lung no longer participates in breathing. Only the uninjured lung is now left to oxygenate the blood. And that is not enough.

You lose consciousness – and a lot of blood.

When you wake up again, you are lying in a clean hospital room and the nurses and doctors standing around your bed speak your mother tongue. You realize that you are at the most renowned hospital of your home country.

What has your travel insurance done?

You were first transported to the nearest emergency room. There, the clinic staff will have found your insurance details and contacted the service center of your travel insurance company. The experts there then clarified the assumption of costs for the emergency treatment. A few days later while you were still in coma a special ambulance plane was chartered to fly you to your home country – under medical supervision around the clock, of course.
This transport alone cost almost six figures.

The treatment of a pulmonary shot is very complex and the healing process is lengthy. That’s why it’s clear to the travel insurance company: in this case, its priority is to get you home!

There are two reasons for this:

  1. Most patients heal faster and feel more comfortable in a healthcare system that they know and trust – and when the staff speak their language.
  2. The second reason is a commercial one: it is cheaper for the travel insurance company to get you out of its area of validity for the treatment – back into the scope of coverage of your actual health insurance, which pays for the costly and lengthy treatment. The travel insurance’s obligation to pay benefits ends where you are handed over to the domestic healthcare system.

There are digital nomads who are roaming the globe only with travel insurance and have canceled everything at home. The problem: If you have terminated your last health insurance, you are effectively left without coverage.

Christoph Huebner, specialist broker for digital nomads

International health insurance is quite different. Although they are more expensive and will cost you at least 200 to 300 euros a month, they will also pay for the treatment of your lung injury in Colombia – or in the nearest hospital that meets international standards.

Your health is your most valuable baggage

The belief that you are young, healthy and invulnerable is beautiful, but unfortunately also very fragile.
Especially if you travel a lot as a digital nomad and experience many wild adventures, your health is the most valuable asset in your luggage. A serious injury, a nasty infection or even chronic illness can quickly shatter your dream of a nomadic life if you haven’t made sure beforehand to get the best possible care – no matter where you are.

Conclusion: Do digital nomads need travel insurance or health insurance?

We’ll find out together what suits your plans best!
Our founder Christoph has been a perpetual traveler himself for a long time. He knows many of your problems, worries and questions from his own experience. Together we will support and advise you along the way.

As fully licensed and independent insurance brokers for digital nomads, we work with all relevant insurance companies in this market. We analyze the small print and put together the right solutions – depending on your goals, your age and your pre-existing conditions.

Let’s find the right insurance for your plans together.

F.A.Q.: Frequently asked questions about travel or health insurance

Do digital nomads need travel insurance?

Travel insurance is not health insurance! Anyone who buys travel insurance must have access to the healthcare system in their home country. Otherwise, international health insurance is the better choice. If you only travel in Europe and still have statutory health insurance at home, you may already be adequately covered as a digital nomad with the EHIC.

As a digital nomad with travel insurance, can I cancel my health insurance?

No! Then you can save yourself the travel insurance. Because in an emergency, it will take you back to your home country for treatment. And if you are then uninsured there, you can quickly be faced with existential financial risks.

What is the best travel insurance for digital nomads?

That depends on whether you are already on the road or before you leave the country. Many good insurance policies can only be taken out if your trip has not yet begun. There is a suitable offer for every budget and every desired coverage level. Let’s talk and find the best travel insurance for your nomad adventure plans.

How much does travel insurance for digital nomads cost?

Less than 100 euros per month. Low-cost providers and special tariffs, for example for students on a semester abroad, are available for less than 50 euros a month. Good long-term travel insurance for location-independent travelers is somewhat more expensive.

author avatar
Christoph Huebner Chief Nomad
Christoph, an entrepreneurial spirit and avid traveler, has been a leading insurance industry expert since 2010. Founding a remote insurance brokerage, he turned into a perpetual traveler by 2017. Today, he's a top authority in global health insurance for digital nomads.