The Great Insurance Hunt Part 1 | Expatriate Insurance vs. Travel Insurance: Which is Better for Long-Term Travelers?

This is the first of a two-post series describing my foray into the incredibly complex world of international insurance, and how I found the policies that seemed to best suit my needs.

I recently quit my job to write and travel full-time. When I started looking for a good long-term travel insurance provider I learned quickly one thing: comparing insurance policies is about as simple as reorganizing the library of congress. The terms are vague and complex, the options are numerous, and the payouts are large abstract numbers that apply to services whose prices I don’t know.

As a freelance writer on the road I’m not covered by Canadian national health insurance, so when I left my job in Taiwan (which provided health care) I needed to find insurance that would cover me both at home and abroad. As an adventure travel writer I tend to take part in activities where the risk of injury is higher than normal, so I wanted to find an insurance plan that would cover me when I do silly things like drive a motorcycle up Mount Kinabalu at night with no lights so that wouldn’t have to worry about how I would pay for my hospital bills should something go wrong.

I wanted a long-term plan. I began to wonder if expatriate insurance would be better suited for me than travel insurance.  After all, expatriate insurance is made specifically for people living abroad long-term. So, I looked into it.

I have to say, there are more than a few activities I would rather partake in than compare insurance policies. Slip-and-sliding naked down a giant cheese grater lubricated with vinegar comes to mind.

First, I looked at various expatriate and international travel insurance plans and tried to figure out the main differences. The plans, however, were too complicated. Because there were so many variables and options, it would have taken more than an hour to compare just two plans to figure out what was different about them. I quickly decided that it would be easier to go and ask an insurance agent.

I visited a nearby insurance company that specialized in expatriate insurance. The gentleman who I spoke with looked about 22 years old. He was polite and helpful and seemed to know even less about insurance than I. His job, it seemed, consisted entirely of reading insurance brochures to customers. He looked distraught as his head swung rapidly back and forth between his travel and expatriate insurance brochures trying to discern the differences between them.

The insurance agent was no help. If I was going to make any kind of meaningful comparison between travel and expatriate insurance, I would have to create a spreadsheet with numerous categories of coverage, and then sift through the various plans to find out what kind of coverage they offered for each category, and enter the data for each plan. Then I would have to figure out how each category of coverage should affect the overall price, and compare premiums and deductibles. It would be a tedious and time-consuming task. I did not want to do it. I looked online desperately for a website that clearly explained the differences between the two.

Then I found the e-book, The Insider’s Guide To Buying The Perfect International Health Insurance Policy, on, an expatriate insurance broker website for comparing insurance prices (similar to the way Expedia allows you to compare flight prices). It was almost exactly what I had been looking for. Although the book is written by an insurance broker, and therefore encourages you to buy through a broker, it is very informative. It explains how insurance companies calculate their prices, discusses the things that are commonly not covered by insurance, lists benefits that are usually offered, explains a number of obscure health insurance terms, offers tips on how to keep your health insurance premiums down, and, best of all, summarizes of the main differences between expatriate, travel, and local insurance policies (you can download the book here).

To explain the main differences between expatriate, local, and travel insurance the book includes this table:

International PoliciesLocal PoliciesTravel Policies
Designed forExpatsLocalsHoliday Makers
Level of coverHighMediumLow
Maximum benefit limitsHighMediumLow
Premium costsHighMediumLow
Area of coverWorldwideLimitedTrip specific
Benefit optionsManyFewFew
Hospital accommodationPrivatePublic / PrivateSemi-private
Full In-Patient TreatmentYesLimitedYes
RenewabilityLifePer YearPer Trip
Premium cost on renewalStandardStandardStandard
Hospital networkWorldwideCountry specificWorldwide
Pre-existing conditionsSomeExcludedSome
Language SupportMultilingualLocalMultilingual

Basically, expatriate insurance is meant offer coverage similar to that of a local plan, except expatriate insurance can cover you worldwide. It is also tailored to cover problems that may arise from being outside of your home country. This means that, unlike travel insurance, most expatriate insurance offers and option for covering regular checkups with the doctor or dentist, vaccinations, and other routine preventative procedures.  Travel insurance, on the other hand is only meant to cover you in case of an emergency. It will cover your immediate hospital bills when they are absolutely necessary, but little else.

There is also one other big difference between the two kinds of insurance: travel insurance covers theft of belongings, while most expatriate insurance plans do not. As a traveling writer I carry several thousand dollars worth of electronics with me everywhere I go. I need theft insurance.

Now that I had learned the differences between the two, it was time to look at some prices, and figure out if I could get more benefits from cheap travel insurance or a budget expatriate insurance plan.

To find out what insurance I decided was best for long-term travel, be sure to check back for my next post: The Great Insurance Hunt Part 2: Practical Plans

Picture courtesy of Marion Doss on Flickr.



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5 thoughts on “The Great Insurance Hunt Part 1 | Expatriate Insurance vs. Travel Insurance: Which is Better for Long-Term Travelers?”

  1. Mount Kinabalu is an experience! Last December the heavy raining caused a landslide and blocked the road in front of our bus. Luckily we could get through but the cars behind us weren’t so lucky. It was scary to see the rocks and soil coming towards the queuing cars.

  2. Hello,

    I was wondering if you had wrote the second half of this article?

    I am also in the same situation and curious what you choose for your insurance.


    • Hi John. I have not written the second part yet, but it’s on the way, so stay tuned (you can sign up for email updates on the top right of the page).

      I haven’t quite figured out my situation yet, but I think I’ve almost got it. I’ll be sure to let you know.


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