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Lizzy Millar, a British expatriate living in Dubai, was surprised when she discovered she no longer qualified for NHS cover back home.
Lizzy Millar, a British expatriate living in Dubai, was surprised when she discovered she no longer qualified for NHS cover back home.

Health for homesick

Heading back to the UK? Your insurance cover might have expired while abroad. For your holiday, buying the right policy is the sensible approach.

Nothing cures homesickness better than a visit home. But every year, many British expatriates travel home uninsured, assuming they still qualify for treatment from the National Health Service (NHS) should things go wrong. Without the right insurance, however, these travellers can be vulnerable to hefty medical bills after three months of being away from the UK. Rhiannon Davies, the founder and director of expat guide ShelterOffshore.com, said: "If an expat is travelling outside their new nation of residence they will need to consider having travel insurance in place, as they will not automatically be insured for their journey, their luggage or even their health without such a policy." Travel insurance is essential wherever you live in the world, covering you for mishaps including health emergencies, flight delays, cancellations and lost baggage. In the case of an emergency, Ms Davies said medical treatment is always free in the UK, regardless of who you are, how long you have been in the UK or where you are a resident for tax purposes. But she said follow-up treatment was where the real costs were incurred. "If an expat is admitted through a hospital's accident and emergency department and goes on to need further treatment as an inpatient or outpatient, for example, this ongoing treatment may not be free," Ms Davies said. Maxine Baker, the travel insurance manager at price comparison site moneysupermarket.com, said: "When planning a trip abroad, whether it is a long-haul holiday or a mini-break, it is always important to purchase appropriate cover for your chosen destination and holiday type. "And for UK expats domiciled outside the UK wanting insurance to travel back to the UK, it's equally important." Steve Williams, the head of travel insurance at the comparison site confused.com, said: "UK medical treatment for expats is littered with inconsistencies and exceptions, so any expat travelling to the UK should contact the Department of Health website for more information." Lizzy Millar, a British expat who has been living in Dubai for the last five years, said she was shocked to learn that she no longer qualified for the NHS on trips back home. "I had no idea I needed travel insurance for trips to the UK at all," Ms Millar said. "I guess you take the NHS for granted when you grow up in the UK. It is definitely something I need to consider." The general advice is that anyone who has resided outside of the EU for more than three months is no longer entitled to NHS cover. In the event of a mishap, they would be required to produce documentation showing legal entitlement to NHS treatment, such as proof of your current address. For holiday makers who choose to have insurance, shopping around for a competitive price is important. But keep in mind that even more important than cost is the level of cover the policy offers, and the country where you choose to buy it is crucial. Mr Williams said expats need to purchase the cover from the country in which they were residing. "The vast majority of UK travel insurance providers insist that the start and end of a holiday takes place in the UK, preventing expats who are living in Dubai from qualifying," he said. Mr Williams said that finding travel insurance specifically for expatriates was sometimes difficult and usually costly. Peter Smith (who asked that his name be changed for this story) has a policy through his employer that provides global travel insurance. "I go home about every five months and it hadn't occurred to me that I would not get treatment on the NHS if something happened to me when I was home," Mr Smith said. "Fortunately I have insurance through work, or else I would have been unprotected for all the trips I made in the past. "I suspect many Brits living here have no idea about this. It certainly surprised me." Ms Baker said that some providers, such as PJ Hayman, offer a private medical health policy for people living and working outside the UK. Travel insurance cover varies from insurer to insurer and policy to policy, and purchasing a policy that meets your needs is key. Most travel insurance is sold on a "non-advised" basis, putting the onus on the consumer to make the correct decision. Policy documentation and fine print are dense and complex, so look for the policy summary, or "key facts", to help you identify the significant limits and exclusions, which are often numerous and confusing. "In some cases, further proof of residency may be required, such as being registered with a UK general practitioner," Ms Baker said. "So it is essential that expats check the small print with an individual insurance provider to establish their criteria, and if in any doubt give them a call." If you are planning to travel more than once during the next 12 months, annual cover will probably save you money in the long run. You should always make sure you think about what you are going to do while home for a visit. Make sure your policy covers you for activities such as surfing, scuba diving or walking at high altitude, if that is what you intend to do. Ask for a list of the activities that are either automatically covered or see if you can pay an additional premium if necessary. Motorised activities, such as jet-skiing or riding a moped, will often be excluded, so make sure you get it in writing. It's crucial that you declare all pre-existing medical conditions. It's fairly common for policies to exclude claims arising from such conditions, so it is always worth reading the policy carefully if you take any medication, have been admitted to hospital in the past 12 months or are awaiting any treatment or test results. These exclusions normally relate to you and anyone your trip depends upon, so you also need to tell the insurance company about any medical conditions suffered by relatives. Most people only think about their own health when buying travel insurance and forget that the exclusions also relate to family members who are staying at home.

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