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International Student Insurance in the USA

health and wellness
advice for students
COVID-19
By Shorelight Team
Last updated on April 12, 2022

If you are planning to attend college in the US, you will need health insurance. Learn about the terms you need to know, which plans you can buy, and how to make the best choice for your health care needs.

A woman has her blood pressure checked by a health worker wearing a white coat.

When you think about everything you need for college in the United States, you would likely consider clothes, books, a laptop, and new sheets for your dorm room bed. But there is another thing you need when you begin college in the US: international student health insurance. For college students, health insurance is not only important, it may also be required before you take your first class.

Let us look at why you need international student insurance, how to sign up for it, and how to use it once you are covered.

But before we begin, it is OK if student insurance plans seem confusing — many people who have lived in the US their whole lives struggle to understand health insurance requirements. That is why our advisors are always here to help.

An Overview of the US Health Insurance System

If you are wondering, can international students get health insurance in the United States? The answer is yes, and in most cases, international students must have insurance before they are allowed to enroll in classes. Every country manages health care and health insurance differently. It can be difficult for international students (and all students) to figure out exactly what they need and how to use it as they transition to campus life in the USA. The US system is complex, with many different options and requirements.

The first thing to remember is that the United States does not have universal health care, which may be a shift from how your home country does things. Universal health care means all people have access to the health services they need, when and where they need them, without financial hardship. The US is known for having some of the best health care in the world; however, a simple doctor’s visit can turn into an insurmountable expense without health insurance.

For instance, what you specifically pay for prescriptions will vary depending on your health insurance plan. Your policy also may require that you only receive coverage at specific hospitals, and certain reasons for going to the doctor may or may not be eligible for coverage. While the government does not require F-1 students to have international student health insurance, almost all USA-based universities require international students to be insured before enrolling in classes. If you are on an F-1 visa as an international student, you will most likely need health insurance.

Health Insurance in the US

While the system is complex, the basic concept of insurance is this: you pay a certain amount each month to get covered, and when you need health care services, the provider will bill your insurance company for the amount. Student travel health insurance will cover some or all of the costs, and you will be responsible for paying for the rest.

Here are some important terms to understand:

Claim

Whether you have a cold or a broken arm, you submit a claim to your insurance company to pay for part or all of your visit. Generally speaking, your insurance company will pay the total cost of your doctor’s visit, minus the deductible and minus the co-insurance.

Premium

What your insurance plan costs each month. You pay this amount to make sure you have coverage.

Deductible

The set amount you will pay before insurance covers most or all of your costs. Plans with higher deductibles often have lower premiums.

Co-insurance

After you’ve paid your deductible, co-insurance accounts for the percentage of covered health care costs you pay. An example of a co-insurance rate is 80/20, where your insurance provider covers 80% of the cost, and you are responsible for paying the remaining 20%.

Co-pay

Co-pays are set amounts that you owe for health care visits, medication, and other services covered by insurance, no matter the outcome. For example, let’s say that last month you went to your doctor for a checkup. This month, you went back with a cough and needed an X-ray. Even though the second visit will cost more because of the X-ray, both visits will have the same co-pay.

Expenses

Expenses, or out-of-pocket expenses, account for the deductible, co-insurance, and co-pay costs you have to pay yourself. In other words, expenses are your total share of the health care costs.

For example, your surgery costs $1,000, and your deductible is $200. You will pay all expenses until you reach your deductible, which is $200. After you get to $200, you will be responsible for your co-pay, which may be $100 for a surgical procedure. Your insurance will cover the remaining $700.

Provider

Your provider is your doctor, hospital, urgent care, or other professional recognized organization that delivers health care, from diagnosis to treatment.

In and Out of Network

In-network providers accept your health insurance, while out-of-network providers do not accept your health insurance plan. If they do not take your insurance, you may be responsible for the total cost of treatment.

Health insurance plans are different from one to the next, so it is essential to know if your plan has co-pays, what the deductible is, and if you will be limited to seeing certain health care providers covered under your plan.

Health Insurance for International Students

Colleges and universities require international student medical insurance (either through the school plan, a private plan, or your parents’ health insurance) to ensure that you will be taken care of if something happens while you are away at school. Having a plan for student health insurance abroad can give you and your family peace of mind, knowing that even though you are far away, you will be able to get help if you need it.

Health insurance covers a range of health care needs, such as:

  • Checkups with your doctor

  • Visits to a doctor or clinic if you are sick

  • Emergency room costs

  • Medications

  • Referrals to specialists, such as physical therapy

  • Counseling and mental health needs

This is not a complete list, and each plan is different — you will need to make sure you understand what your specific plan covers.

Different Visas Have Different Health Insurance Requirements

According to the US government, not all international student health insurance requirements are the same. Some visa insurance requirements may be enforced at the university only, while other visa types require insurance by the government. For example, the university implements F-1 international student health insurance, not the government. Read below to see what rules students studying under each visa type must satisfy.

J-1 & J-2 Visa Health Insurance Requirements

Both J-1 and J-2 visa holders must have health insurance while in the United States. Health insurance plans must also meet the following requirements, according to the US government:

  • Medical benefits of at least $100,000 per accident or illness

  • Repatriation of remains of $25,000

  • Expenses associated with the medical evacuation of the exchange visitor to their home country in the amount of $50,000

  • A deductible not to exceed $500 per accident or illness

F-1 & F-2 Visa Health Insurance Requirements

The U.S. Department of State does not require F-1 or F-2 visa holders to have health insurance; however, the international student’s university generally does. Even if you are enrolled in a program that does not require health insurance, medical care in the United States is very expensive. Paying for care out-of-pocket may seriously affect your ability to study abroad.

Other Visa Health Insurance Requirements

If you are traveling with family members, they may be subject to health insurance requirements by the U.S. Department of State. For instance, J-2 dependents of J-1 visa holders are subject to the same insurance requirements. Be sure to check with your university in the United States to ensure you are following the insurance requirements for international students. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Shorelight for further information or other visa assistance services, such as help preparing for your F-1 visa interview.

Where to Find High-Quality Insurance Providers

The best health insurance for international students in USA-based university programs is the insurance that gives you peace of mind, has the right level of care and options for you, and fits within your budget. From COVID-19 coverage to illness and medical expense coverage and protection, your health insurance policy needs to deliver the services you require and must also be rated and considered reputable by AM Best or Standard & Poor’s, the insurance industry rating standards.

The health insurance marketplace in the United States is packed with many available options. Some of the most common or best insurance for students abroad are listed below:

Aetna

Aetna is a well-known and established subsidiary of CVS Health, which operates the largest pharmacy network in the United States (in other words, has the most branches). As a result, students on Aetna’s international student health insurance plans have access to technology and services that may not be available through smaller insurance carriers. Because Aetna works with many universities across the United States, your school may have an Aetna representative available on campus.

If you are looking for dental insurance for international students, vision care, or even health coaching, Aetna can also customize a plan.

Compass Student Insurance

Compass Student Insurance has four different options for international students, ranging in price and coverage. If you are looking for cheap health insurance for students that still covers your needs, the Savings Plan, Compass’s most economical option, carries the following features:

  • Maximum benefit $150,000 per injury/illness

  • Deductible $100 per injury/illness (SHC $45)

  • United Healthcare PPO network

  • Premier Virtual Healthcare Plan (telemedicine, unlimited mental health, 24/7/365 on-demand crisis care)

Compass offers easy online enrollment and immediate confirmation upon completion. Other features at Compass include unlimited virtual mental health and COVID-19 coverage, and the other plans – Care, Care Plus, and Benchmark – scale up the services for reasonable costs.

ISO

International Student Insurance (ISO) is the world’s largest insurance manager for international students, insuring more than one million students at more than 2,500 universities and colleges. As with all carriers, ISO prices fluctuate depending on where you are studying, how old you are, what type of visa you have, and how much coverage you require.

An international student on an F-1 visa enrolled at Louisiana State University, for example, has an option of three plans ranging in price from $31-$75 per month. In contrast, a similar student enrolled at the University of the Pacific has only one plan available for $98 per month.

Other Providers

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of international student health insurance companies, ranging from giant global insurance enterprises to smaller, more regionally based operations. There are several tools available to help you pick the right one for you, but don’t hesitate to contact Shorelight if you are having trouble finding the proper research and resources.

Additional considerations when selecting your insurance include whether or not you plan on pursuing Optional Practical Training (OPT) after graduation. Separate health insurance plans for OPT students may be necessary, as the coverage you had while enrolled may end with graduation.

For example, ISO’s ACA-compliant plan for the University of the Pacific does not offer OPT coverage while still in the United States on your F-1 visa after you receive your degree. Students considering Curricular Practical Training (CPT) probably don’t have to worry, as CPT generally occurs before graduation.

Learn more about how to apply for OPT and CPT status in the United States >

Depending on the work, industry, and company, many professional roles may provide insurance to international students on OPT status. If you plan to work in the US, be sure to research what jobs for F-1 visa students and career development programs are available and whether insurance provisions are standard.

How to Choose a Health Insurance Plan

Before choosing a health insurance plan, you need to understand your own health care needs. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you only go to the doctor for your annual checkup?

  • Do you have severe or chronic health conditions that require frequent monitoring, such as diabetes or asthma?

  • Do you play sports or do activities where you could be injured?

  • Do you rely on prescription medications, such as inhalers, antidepressants, or insulin?

Once you know how often you will use your health insurance, you and your family can decide on the right plan. There are several different types of health insurance for college students, and each type will have many options. These types are:

Private

Private health insurance is typically the most expensive option. You and your family can research and sign up directly through the health insurance company and don’t have to go through the university. It’s worth noting that some schools, such as American University and Gonzaga University, have hard waiver/no waiver policies that don’t allow international students from purchasing a health insurance plan outside of the school policy or enforce stringent requirements before making an exception. It’s critical you know your university policy before buying a private plan.

School

Most colleges and universities offer a health insurance plan for students. This plan will generally have basic levels of coverage and may limit your options for where you can receive health care.

For example, you might only be covered at the university health center or a specific hospital if you become sick. Contact your school or search for health insurance on your school’s website. Some schools will automatically enroll you in their health insurance plan unless you provide proof of outside insurance.

Family

Students can remain on their parents’ health insurance plan in the US until they turn 26 years old. International students should check if they qualify to remain covered under their parents’ plan and if that plan will still cover them while in school in the US. It will also be important to make sure the plan will be accepted in the US for this option.

Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

These programs provide low-cost or no-cost health insurance for those with low income. International students qualify for these programs as long as they have the required documentation. Many students qualify for this coverage since they cannot work enough to pay for their insurance while in school.

How to Budget for Health Insurance while Studying in the US

Books, food, room and board, and living expenses are just a few of the many costs of going to college, and insurance should be treated the same. Once you know the policy you need, you can start budgeting your plan’s monthly costs. It’s also good to have funds set aside in case of an emergency visit. Remember, you will be responsible for your co-insurance and co-pay costs, and depending on your level of coverage, those costs can add up quickly.

With any luck, you will only have to worry about your monthly payment and maybe a small co-pay for the occasional checkup or relief from a minor cold or flu, but being prepared with an emergency fund is the best approach.

Using Health Insurance on Campus

Once you have health insurance coverage, you can feel comfortable seeking out health care for your needs, knowing that a portion of the costs will be covered. Each school will have its process for using health insurance for on-campus services.

For example, your health insurance plan may require you to choose from a list of doctors for a checkup, but may cover the cost of getting a flu shot at the campus health center. Some health insurance plans will cover a certain amount of counseling sessions on campus, while others may require a doctor’s referral to an outside counselor.

Check your school’s website for the health services offered on campus, and find out who you can contact to ask questions about health insurance plans and any specific services you may need.

Going Off Campus for Health Care

If you decide or need to go off-campus for your health care, you should keep a couple of things in mind. Going to a hospital or emergency room away from your university may incur more costs, as these options are typically the most expensive. Other options include urgent care facilities, which are similar to the on-campus care options available to you. Depending on your insurance, there are generally cheaper options than going to the hospital, but these options are designed for colds, minor injuries, and other non-life-threatening or non-serious reasons.

If you are in an emergency, you can call an ambulance by dialing 911 and reporting your emergency to the police. The ambulance will take you to a local hospital emergency room (ER), where you will receive care. You can also go to the emergency room of a hospital yourself if you are able to do so. ER visits are expensive and reserved for serious visits only.

Need More Help Understanding Your Options?

Finding the best health insurance for college students can be overwhelming at first. With so many options and plans, it is helpful to work with an advisor to help navigate the system. No matter which plan you and your family choose, having health insurance before you begin studying in the US will allow you to focus on your schoolwork without worrying about how you will get health care when you need it.

Shorelight advisors can help you transition to life in the US >