What is the Global Health Insurance Card and how do you get one for free?

In addition to a travel insurance policy, a Global Health Insurance Card can give you peace of mind when travelling abroad this summer - here’s how

laughing mother and son playing in pool at tropical resort
(Image credit: Getty images)

If you’re keen to get abroad on holiday this summer, make sure you have a Global Health Insurance Card, or GHIC, in your possession. If you don’t have one, add it to your list, along with finding cheap airport parking, finding the best holiday car hire deal and securing travel insurance, before you embark on your trip. 

Sarah Coles (opens in new tab), personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, says that this crucial card ensures that when UK citizens are travelling in Europe, they’ll have access to healthcare in an emergency. “All the countries covered by the card have agreed to provide the same medical services to cardholders, under the same conditions and at the same cost as they do for people that live in that country,” she explains.

Find out more about what global health insurance cards are, how they work, what they cover and where you can get one.

What is a Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC)?

A GHIC will basically provide you with state supplied healthcare when you’re travelling in Europe, on the same terms and at the same price as residents of the country you’re in. For most holidaymakers and business travellers that means if you have an accident or fall ill while you’re away and need emergency medical treatment, you’ll get it.

However, the GHIC will also cover treatment for any pre-existing medical conditions you might have, oxygen therapy, chemotherapy and kidney dialysis. Maternity care is included too, as long as you haven’t made your trip with the express purpose of giving birth.

Sarah Smith (opens in new tab), head of travel at LV= general insurance, comments: “A Global Health Insurance Card is a good idea to have when you travel, as it provides access to medically necessary treatment under the UK's reciprocal health care agreement with the EU.”

What’s the difference between an EHIC and a GHIC?

The GHIC is simply the government’s replacement for the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). The EHIC is gradually being phased out following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The cover provided by either of these cards isn’t new. Depending on your age, you might even remember trips to the Post Office to fill out your E111 form, before you went on holiday.

The GHIC essentially provides UK citizens with the same cover as the EHIC or old E111. However, there are some small differences; how important they are will depend on where you are planning to travel.

Confusingly, the GHIC doesn’t provide cover around the world as its name might suggest. Both the EHIC and GHIC are focused on Europe but there are some minor differences in terms of the countries that they cover (see below for more).

EHICs are valid for five years, so there’s a good chance you still have a valid one. If this is the case you don’t have to rush to replace it and can carry on using it up until the expiry date printed on the card.

What countries does a GHIC cover?

You can use your GHIC card in the 27 countries in the European Union and Switzerland. Neither your GHIC or an older EHIC can be used outside Europe.

The EU includes:

  • Austria 
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden

The UK EHIC can also be used in:

  • Norway
  • Iceland
  • Liechtenstein

It’s also important to note that UK citizens are automatically entitled to medical treatment in the Republic of Ireland.

How long is the GHIC valid for?

The GHIC is valid for five years, just like the EHIC – you can find the expiry date printed near the bottom right corner of the card. It’s a good idea to be aware of this date to avoid a last-minute panic – you could perhaps set a reminder on your phone.

You can apply to renew either a EHIC or a GHIC up to six months before it runs out.

If you have a valid EHIC, it’s fine to carry on using it until it expires.

Can I get a GHIC?

Sarah Smith at LV= says: “There are a number of criteria to apply, but GHICs are mainly available to UK residents but each member of your family needs to have their own card.”

These criteria are:

  • You legally live in the UK and don’t have cover provided by any EU country or Switzerland
  • You live in the EU or Switzerland with a registered S1, E121, E106, E109 or an A1 document that has been issued in the UK
  • You are a dependent or family member of somebody that is entitled

Family walking on a beach at sunset

(Image credit: Getty images)

How to apply for a GHIC

The GHIC card is available free of charge and you can apply online via the NHS (opens in new tab). In addition to basic details like your name, address and date of birth, you will also need your National Insurance number. You can also apply for other family members like a spouse, partner or dependent children. If they are over 16 make sure you have their National Insurance number too.

Your GHIC cards should normally arrive within 10 days of your application. However, the post-pandemic rush means you may have to wait a bit longer, so it’s always a good idea to apply a few weeks before you need it, or as soon as your current card runs out.

Personal finance expert Sarah Coles warns, it’s important you only apply through the official NHS channels to avoid GHIC scams: “You may come across unofficial websites that apply for GHICs on your behalf in return for a fee. However you should never have to pay for a GHIC – the official NHS application process is quick and easy and, most importantly, free.”

If you have used one of these websites, you can report it to the NHS here (opens in new tab).

Do I still need travel insurance if I have a GHIC?

If you’ve got a GHIC you might think you don’t need travel insurance. But the GHIC is not a replacement for travel insurance, and experts advise to have both for your peace of mind. 

Ceri McMillan (opens in new tab), travel insurance spokesperson for GoCompare, says: “Travel insurance should be included on everyone’s holiday – regardless of whether you have a Global Healthcare Card (GHIC). 

“If the worst should happen and you need medical care while on holiday, travel insurance will cover your costs. Without it, your bill could run into £1000s. If you’re thinking of relying on your Global Healthcare Card (GHIC) to cover any medical costs and not looking into insurance, you may want to reconsider. Your GHIC card won’t cover you for any private healthcare or getting back to the UK if you need to be flown home. As many countries don’t have a free healthcare service like we do in the UK, private healthcare can be your only option in some locations, in which case the GHIC will not cover the costs.

“And it’s not just medical expenses, travel insurance (opens in new tab) also covers for a range of other issues such as cancellations, disruptions, if your holiday is unexpectedly cut short, and if anything happens to your luggage or personal belongings.”

At the other end of the spectrum, you shouldn’t assume that you don’t need a GHIC or EHIC if you have a comprehensive travel insurance policy. So it’s best to have both, especially seeing as the GHIC is free. 

In some circumstances, your insurance company may also not charge you an excess for any medical claim, if you’ve been able to reduce the cost to them by using your GHIC or EHIC card.

What if I don’t have my GHIC or it doesn’t arrive in time?

If you lose your GHIC and you need to use it while you’re away, you can apply for a Provisional Replacement Certificate (PRC) here (opens in new tab), or by calling +44 191 283 3909. This will do exactly the same job as your GHIC. You can also use a PRC if you apply for a GHIC and you don’t receive it before you travel.

Rachel Lacey is a freelance journalist with more than 20 years' experience writing about all areas of personal finance and retirement planning. After 17 years at Moneywise magazine as both writer and editor, Rachel now writes for a variety of websites and newspapers as well as corporate clients. She is passionate about financial education and simplifying money matters for all.