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All About International College Student Health Insurance

health and wellness
By Dianna Sawyer
Last updated on July 30, 2021

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, 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: 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 insurance, how to sign up for it, and how to use it once you are covered. 

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

Health Insurance in the US

Every country manages health care and health insurance differently. This is why it can be difficult for international students (and all students) to figure out exactly what they need and how to use it. 

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. Insurance will cover some or all of the costs, and you will be responsible to pay for the rest. 

Here are some important terms to understand:

  • Premium: This is what your insurance plan costs each month. You pay this amount to make sure you have coverage.

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

  • Co-pay: Co-pays are set amounts that you owe for health care visits, no matter what the outcome. For example, 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.

Health insurance plans are different from one to the next, so it is important 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 health insurance (either through the school plan, a private plan, or your parents’ health insurance) to make sure that you will be taken care of if something happens while you are away at school. Having health insurance 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 exactly what your specific plan covers. 

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 chronic or serious 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 any prescription medications, such as inhalers, antidepressants, or insulin?

Once you have an idea of 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: you can become insured through a private health insurance company. Typically, this will be the most expensive option. You and your family can research and sign up directly through the health insurance company.

  • 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, if you become sick you might only be covered at the university health center or a specific hospital. 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: in the US, students can remain on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn twenty-six years old. International students should check to see if they qualify to remain covered under their parents’ plan, and if that plan will still cover them while in school in the US. For this option, it will also be important to make sure the plan will be accepted in the US.

  • 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 are not able to work enough to pay for their own insurance while in school.

Using Health Insurance on Campus

Once you have health insurance coverage, you can feel comfortable seeking out health care for your needs, knowing that at least a portion of the costs will be covered. Each school will have its own 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.

It can be confusing to find the best health insurance for college students. 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 student services can help you transition to campus life in the USA >