Health Insurance for International Students

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Contributor, Benzinga
December 10, 2021

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), approximately 1.1 million international students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities for the 2019-2020 school year. If you are one of those international students traveling to the U.S., you could have quite a shock when you realize you don’t have the same universal healthcare programs provided by your home country.  Expensive healthcare and medical procedures can leave you financially devastated without health insurance coverage. Most colleges in the U.S. require foreign students to carry health insurance. 

Here’s how it works.

The Mandate

Many U.S. colleges and universities mandate student health insurance. This requirement includes health insurance for international students. Some higher-learning institutions offer health plans for students, but regardless, if the university requires a health plan, you must find coverage to meet the mandate, which is handed down from the U.S. Department of State, a branch of government regulating America’s foreign policy. According to the IRS, you must be considered a “Resident Alien” for federal income tax purposes to fall under any federal health insurance mandate.

The Visa Changes Everything

Your foreign student health insurance requirements will depend on your type of visa. For example, if you are on a J-1 or J-2 visa, you must have insurance. However, F-1 visa holders don’t need State Department mandated insurance, and some schools bring students in on those visas. You will have to check first.

Some states overrule visa exceptions and require all students to have insurance irrespective of what the State Department says. It’s not a blanket rule for everyone. 

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can rely on free healthcare such as community healthcare clinics. Access to these healthcare facilities is extremely limited, and you may not meet the eligibility requirements. You have no guarantee you won’t need emergency services or even routine healthcare while you are living as an international student in the U.S. 

The U.S. has one of the most costly health care systems in the world. Even if your school’s state has no mandate, it may be to your advantage to carry health insurance to cover costly U.S. healthcare. 

Does the School Have an Insurance Plan?

Before making the final decision to purchase health insurance, check with your school to see what is available to you. A college can be a massive institution with billion-dollar endowments and lots of employees. It may have its own insurance plan, and it can enroll foreign students on those plans. However, some schools are better organized than others, and it might take some wrangling to get this process to work. Some U.S. universities have health insurance specialists who consult with you and advise you of your health insurance options.

Other Healthcare Options

Whether or not your school has a health insurance mandate, you may still need healthcare in a country where it is expensive and universal healthcare is lacking. Finding health insurance as a foreign student could be challenging, but other healthcare options could suffice..

Even though access to free clinics in your area may be limited, if you are in immediate need of healthcare, it doesn’t hurt to check. If you have an emergency, you may be able to obtain emergency healthcare on your campus that can treat you for immediate healthcare needs. 

These school clinics are sometimes staffed by students and overseen by medical professionals. Services are generally limited to basic healthcare such as first-aid. However, some campus healthcare centers are quite sophisticated and comparable to primary healthcare centers. Even if the services at on-campus health centers are not free, they are usually available to students for a minimal fee.

You may also look into purchasing private insurance, but it has to be domestic — in other words, you must purchase a U.S. health insurance policy. You cannot purchase a plan from another country hoping it will work here. Most schools and the State Department are not okay with that. To be eligible for international student health insurance, you need to be a full-time student enrolled in a U.S. college or university.

One practical solution for health insurance for international students is temporary health insurance or a short-term policy. If you are only going to be in the U.S. for a short time and are already covered at home by your parents’ health insurance, this easy and workable solution keeps costs down.

Short-term health insurance policies are also more affordable for students on a budget. Some insurance companies selling international student health insurance do not provide policies to students enrolled in Optional Practical Training (OPT) or for students on an F-1 visa. For these students, a temporary health insurance policy may be the only option.

Registering for Classes Might be Difficult

If you are an international student without health insurance, you might not be allowed to register for classes even if you get through customs and get settled. Your best bet is to contact your school and ask about registration procedures and health insurance requirements. The school can advise you, and once you know the rules, you can purchase the correct health insurance plan to meet the school’s requirements. 

Compare Health Insurance

When you are young and in good health, healthcare coverage is the last thing on your mind. The problem is, you never know when an unexpected illness or healthcare emergency could develop. Why not find an affordable healthcare plan to avoid the burden of unexpected medical expenses and financial debt? Several private insurance companies sell health insurance coverage designed specifically for international students. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best health insurance plans available to help you get started.

  • Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Insurance
    Best For:
    Nationwide coverage
    securely through Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Insurance's website
  • Sidecar Health Access Plan
    Best For:
    No enrollment period health insurance
    securely through Sidecar Health Access Plan's website

    Plans referred to above are excepted benefit fixed indemnity insurance products marketed and administered by Sidecar Health Insurance Solutions, LLC and underwritten by Sirius America Insurance Company or United States Fire Insurance Company, depending on the state. As an excepted benefit plan, it does not provide comprehensive/major medical expenses coverage, minimum essential coverage, or essential health benefits. You cannot receive a subsidy (premium tax credit and/or cost-sharing reduction) under the ACA in connection with your purchase of such an excepted benefit fixed indemnity insurance plan. Also, the termination or loss of this policy does not entitle you to a special enrollment period to purchase a health benefit plan that qualifies as minimum essential coverage outside of an open enrollment period. Coverage and plan options may vary or may not be available in all states.

  • Kaiser Permanente Health Insurance
    Best For:
    Access to Kaiser medical specialists

Stay Healthy While Studying Abroad

You want to remain focused on your education and not be distracted by things like purchasing health insurance. However, now that you understand how important the insurance mandate is and how much you need it, it pays to take the time to research and compare your options to find your best health insurance option as an international student. The key is finding an affordable plan that still offers comprehensive medical coverage. 

Frequently Asked Questions


Can foreign students get health insurance?


Yes. Most colleges require it, and many schools offer plans. However, that is not always the case, and prices vary widely. The policy must be domestic and cannot be a foreign health insurance policy. Private insurance plans are available to foreign students, including short-term health insurance plans.


What are the most important considerations?


Once you’ve decided you need to purchase health insurance as an international student, you have a few things you’ll need to consider. Find out whether the plan covers both accidents and illnesses. You’ll also want to check into out-of-pocket expenses such as copays and deductibles. Are you able to use any doctor you choose? One of the most important things to look at is the policy exclusions (things that are not covered by the plan).


Can international students use Medicaid?


Yes, if you are considered a “qualified noncitizen,” you can receive coverage through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Medicaid, but you would need to meet the state’s income and residency requirements. However, as a foreign student, you may find it difficult to obtain Medicaid or CHIP coverage because of long wait periods (up to 5 years with a few exceptions).

About Janet Hunt, Insurance Agent

Janet has been working in, and writing about, the insurance industry for over 20 years.