Getting Medical Care in Europe (2024)

By Rick Steves

Most of Europe offers high-quality medical care that's as competent as what you'll find at home. The majority of Europe's doctors and pharmacists speak at least some English, so communication generally isn't an issue.

Nearly all European countries have a universal health care system. Though some people refer to it as Europe's "free health care" system, in reality, it's not really free. While each country has its own variation, the common denominator is that everyone pays for health care as a society — intending to minimize the overall expense and spread around the cost and risk so that an unlucky few are not bankrupted by medical costs. This also ensures that those living in poverty can get the care they might not otherwise be able to afford.

Luckily, I've never been seriously injured while traveling in Europe. But I hear countless tales about travelers needing medical treatment. One person told me about how she sprained her ankle during a visit to Denmark. She was X-rayed, bandaged up, and given a pair of crutches to use. The hospital did not ask her to pay a dime — only to return the crutches when she left Denmark. And a staff member of mine, whose infant son received excellent care after a lung infection in France, came home to declare, "Anyone who says socialized medical care is subpar hasn't seen it in action."

While no system is perfect, Europe's universal health care does mean that everyone is taken care of — including foreigners. So if you get sick or injured while traveling, you will receive treatment, no questions asked.


If an accident or life-threatening medical problem occurs on the road, get to a hospital. In the European Union, for serious conditions (stroke, heart attack, bad car accident), summon an ambulance by calling 112, the universal emergency number for ambulance, fire department, or police. Most countries also have a 911 equivalent that works as well; for instance, in the United Kingdom you'd dial 999. Or you can ask your hotelier, restaurant host, or whoever's around to call an ambulance (or a taxi for less dire situations).

Be aware that you will likely have to pay out of pocket for any medical treatment, even if your insurance company provides international health care coverage. A visit to the emergency room can be free or cost only a nominal fee, or it can be expensive, depending on where you are and what treatment you need. Make sure you get a copy of your bill so that, when you return home, you can file a claim to be reimbursed. If you purchased travel insurance to serve as your primary medical coverage, call the company as soon as possible to report the illness or injury. They can usually work directly with the hospital to get your bills paid.

Minor Ailments

If you get sick on your trip, don't wait it out. Find help to get on the road to recovery as soon as possible. Here are your options if you have a nonemergency situation:


Throughout Europe, people with a health problem go first to the pharmacy, not to their doctor. European pharmacists can diagnose and prescribe remedies for many simple problems, such as sore throats, fevers, stomach issues, sinus problems, insomnia, blisters, rashes, urinary tract infections, or muscle, joint, and back pain. Most cities have at least a few 24-hour pharmacies.

When it comes to medication, expect some differences between the way things are done in Europe and at home. Certain drugs that you need a prescription for in the US are available over the counter in Europe. Some drugs go by different names. And some European medications can be stronger than their counterparts in the US, so follow directions and dosages carefully. Also, topical remedies are common in Europe; if you're suffering from body aches and pains, or any swelling, don't be surprised if a pharmacist prescribes a cream to apply to the problem area. If you need to fill a prescription — even one from home — a pharmacy can generally take care of it promptly. If a pharmacist can't help you, he or she will send you to a doctor or a health clinic.


A trip to a foreign clinic is actually an interesting travel experience. Every few years I end up in a European clinic for one reason or another, and every time I'm impressed by its efficiency and effectiveness.

A clinic is useful if you need to be checked for a nonemergency medical issue, get some tests done, or if your problem is beyond a pharmacist's scope. Clinics in Europe operate just like those in the US: You'll sign in with the receptionist, answer a few questions, then take a seat and wait for a nurse or doctor.

A trip to a clinic may be free or a small fee. Expect to pay this fee up front, whether you're covered through your health insurance company or a special travel policy. Make sure you get a copy of the bill so you can file a claim when you return home.

House Calls

If you're holed up sick in your hotel room and would rather not go out, the hotel receptionist may be able to call a doctor who will come to your room and check you out. This option is generally more expensive than dragging yourself to a pharmacy or clinic.

Finding Medical Help

To locate a doctor, clinic, or hospital, ask at a pharmacy or at places that are accustomed to dealing with Americans on the road — such as tourist offices and large hotels. Most embassies and consulates maintain lists of physicians and hospitals in major cities (on the US embassy's site, select your location, and look under the US Citizens Services section of that embassy's website for medical services information). Travelers in need of assistance can also check with the Travel Doctor Network.

Getting Medical Care in Europe (2024)


Can Americans get medical care in Europe? ›

Publicly Funded Insurance

A lot of countries in Europe offer publicly funded health insurance. Taxation is the primary means to cover cost and everyone has the option for health care no matter what their situation. Depending on the country, social health care can cover part of or all of prescription medication.

Does Europe have good medical care? ›

Europe is a global leader in healthcare, boasting some of the world's best healthcare systems. Countries like Switzerland, France, and Germany consistently secure top positions in healthcare quality rankings by the World Health Organization (WHO).

What happens if an American goes to the hospital in Europe? ›

Be aware that you will likely have to pay out of pocket for any medical treatment, even if your insurance company provides international health care coverage. A visit to the emergency room can be free or cost only a nominal fee, or it can be expensive, depending on where you are and what treatment you need.

What country is #1 in healthcare? ›

What country has the best healthcare, according to this assessment? Singapore comes in at No. 1! Other countries with the best healthcare are listed below.

Will my US health insurance cover me in Europe? ›

U.S. health insurance plans typically do not cover regular and routine medical care required overseas. This means your health insurance won't pay for care if you need to visit a doctor for a prescription medicine, or if you need treatment for a condition that is not considered an emergency.

Does Medicare cover you if you travel abroad? ›

In most situations, Medicare won't pay for health care or supplies you get outside the U.S. The term “outside the U.S.” means anywhere other than the 50 states of the U.S., the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

What happens if an American gets sick in Italy? ›

Medical Escorts and Medical Evacuation

When a U.S. citizen becomes ill in Italy and requires assistance to fly back to the US, he/she could hire a medical escort. Generally, when a medical escort is hired, a physician with basic medical equipment accompanies the patient on board a commercial airline flight.

Who has better healthcare, the US or Europe? ›

In terms of pharmaceutical access, the US healthcare system can be defined as the most advanced in the world, the leader in the application of new and innovative therapies, and more efficient compared with European health systems.

What if an American gets sick in France? ›

Special care if you become ill or injured while traveling

Contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a list of local healthcare providers and medical facilities. If your illness is serious, consular officers can help you find medical assistance. If you want, they can inform your family and friends.

How many Americans go abroad for medical treatment? ›

U.S. outbound medical tourists are thought to make up about 10% of the worldwide total. Data from a U.S. government survey suggest that 150,000 to 320,000 U.S. travelers list healthcare as a reason for traveling abroad each year, or between 0.2% and 0.6% of all outbound U.S. air travelers.

Does ObamaCare cover international travel? ›

Most ObamaCare health plans do not cover foreign emergency care. When traveling abroad and while cruising you'll want to get travel insurance.

What happens if you need to see a doctor in Europe? ›

The European Union's universal emergency number is 112. If you are not experiencing an emergency but would like to see a doctor you can go to a clinic and talk to a receptionist about your issues and why you'd like to see a doctor. You will likely have to wait but will be seen by a doctor or physician.

Why is the US ranked so low in healthcare? ›

People in the US see doctors less often than those in most other countries, which is probably related to the US having a below-average number of practicing physicians, according to the report, and the US is the only country among those studied that doesn't have universal health coverage.

What country has the best doctors? ›

Germany. Germany is known for having top-notch doctors because they receive excellent education and training. The country invests in advanced medical equipment, allowing accurate diagnosis and cutting-edge treatments.

Which country has the best quality of life? ›

20 best places to live in the world in 2023
  1. Sweden. Quality of life: 100/100 (#1 in the world) ...
  2. Canada. Quality of life: 93/100 (#3 in the world) ...
  3. Denmark. Quality of life: 91/100 (#4 in the world) ...
  4. Netherlands. Quality of life: 88/100 (#7 in the world) ...
  5. Australia. ...
  6. Germany. ...
  7. New Zealand. ...
  8. Belgium.
Mar 4, 2024

Can Americans get free healthcare abroad? ›

The U.S. government does not pay overseas medical bills. The patient must pay all hospital and other expenses.

What happens if I get ill in Europe? ›

If you need medical treatment while you're in another EU country, presenting your European Health Insurance card (EHIC) can simplify payment and reimbursem*nt procedures. With your EHIC you can get healthcare - and claim reimbursem*nt for the costs you incur - on the same terms as nationals of the country you are in.

Should I bring my health insurance card to Europe? ›

If you require emergency treatment at a foreign hospital, make sure to bring your passport and your health insurance information with you. Otherwise, you might not be admitted.

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