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HEALTH INSURANCE

Do foreign students in Switzerland need to get a Swiss health insurance policy?

With the academic year starting at Switzerland's universities in September, many students from abroad may not know what the rules are about Swiss health insurance.

Do foreign students in Switzerland need to get a Swiss health insurance policy?
Depending on where they come from, foreign students might have to buy healthcare insurance. Photo: Pixabay

Once you have been accepted to a Swiss university, having already had to obtain and provide a myriad of various documents, there is still one important step: health insurance.

Everyone in Switzerland is required to have a basic healthcare coverage (KVG / LaMal) — whether you are a permanent resident or a foreign student. The difference is whether you have to take out a Swiss policy or can continue to use the one you have from your own country.

According to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), “students from an EU/EFTA country are not required to take out Swiss health insurance, provided that they are not working and remain insured under the social security system of their country of residence. They are entitled to receive medical treatment in Switzerland upon presentation of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)”. 

Students from EU / EFTA who have private insurance can apply for exemption if their cover is equivalent to that offered by EHIC.

However, if you are from outside Europe, that is from a third nation like the UK or the United States, you have two options, according to FOPH: if you a have private insurance offering coverage equivalent to that of a Swiss health insurer, you can be exempted from buying a policy here for three years; this period can then be extended for another three years if your own insurance is still in place. Afterwards, and provided you are still in Switzerland, you will have to purchase a Swiss insurance.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How can foreigners get into a Swiss university?

How do you go about purchasing a Swiss health insurance?

Like any new arrival in Switzerland — student or a ‘regular’ foreigner’ — you must take out insurance within three months of your arrival.

If you think you don’t have to do this as you never get sick or visit a doctor, then you are wrong — everyone in Switzerland must be insured.

And if you believe that you can stay under the radar and authorities won’t even know you have no policy, then this too is wrong.

The Swiss are very well organised when it comes to administrative matters, and sooner or later (probably sooner) they will find you and send you a gentle reminder of your duty to be insured. If you still refuse to comply, they will buy a policy for you and (not so gently) send you a bill.

As a foreign student and basically a guest in Switzerland, you don’t want that to happen. This is true not only from the legal point of view, but the medical one as well: if you get ill, you will receive only emergency treatment but will not be eligible for follow-up treatments without an insurance.

Which company should you choose?

There are dozens of carriers in Switzerland, providing more or less the same basic coverage (they are not allowed to compete on obligatory insurance rates; only on supplemental policies).

A recent report by RTS public broadcaster also mentioned that some smaller carriers like Advisor, Evasane, Scorestudies, Swica and Swisscare, offer cheaper than standard premiums, which could be attractive to foreign students.  

However, before you purchase one of these plans consider that while their rates may be lower, varying between 60 and 140 francs per month (as opposed to between 250 and 400, depending on your age, canton, and co-pay deductible), they also have stricter reimbursement conditions, RTS reported.

This means that you may have to pay more out of pocket for medications and other costs than under more mainstream policies.

There are, however, ways to purchase a cheaper insurance. They are outlined here:

How to save money by changing your Swiss health policy

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For members

HEALTH INSURANCE

EXPLAINED: How the Swiss health insurance system is based on solidarity

Much has been said about Switzerland’s compulsory health insurance, most of it pertaining to its high — and continually growing — costs. But there is also another aspect of the scheme many people may not know about.

EXPLAINED: How the Swiss health insurance system is based on solidarity

For many people in Switzerland, the obligatory medical insurance is a sore point.

Premiums will likely rise by an average of 5 percent in the fall, and many people could even see their rates soar by more than 10 percent in 2023 — the sharpest hike in premiums in 20 years.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut soaring healthcare costs

While there are some ways to save money on a health plan, overall these policies are expensive, and you will hear many people grumble about this cost — even though Swiss healthcare system is known for its excellent level of care.

What you may have not known is that the whole scheme is based on the principle of solidarity, the extent of which is rare in other nations’ health insurance systems.

What exactly does this mean?

Rather than applying an individual approach to healthcare insurance, Switzerland’s system is based on the idea that all insured people form a group.

You can think of this system in terms of a huge pot to which each resident of Switzerland makes a contribution (that is, premium payments), so that in an emergency there are enough resources available to give someone the help they need when they need it.

This kind of ‘one for all’ approach takes precedence over the ‘to each his own’ attitude prevalent in many other countries.

“This means that even those who are in perfect health and never need to see a doctor pay their monthly premiums and thus indirectly provide for those who are ill and need more medical support”, according to a report by the WIRE research think tank.

In other words, all the people of the same age group living in the same canton pay the same premium, rather than different rates based on their income or other personal circumstances.

This applies only to the obligatory basic insurance (KVG / LaMal); supplemental insurances have a different rate base.

Under this system, “it is the task of the federal government, cantons, municipalities and health insurance companies to keep this group balanced<2, the report says. “That’s why decisions in the Swiss healthcare system are always taken in the interest of the group as a whole».

How did this system originate?

This principle of solidarity between the healthy and the sick has a long tradition in Switzerland and is even enshrined in the health insurance law.

“In practice, this also results in solidarity between young and old, because young people on average have little need of medical care, but the risk of illness increases with age”, the WIRE report points out.

“Uniform premiums also mean that there is solidarity between men and women, as the latter generally claim more medical benefits due to pregnancies and births and longer life expectancy,” it added.

How does this system compare with health policies in other countries?

According to the report, in an international comparison, the Swiss health system “displays greater solidarity than the US health system”, where anyone who is not insured has to pay for medical treatment out of their own pocket, “which is why many people get into debt”.

Switzerland’s approach is “also more liberal than Germany’s where health insurance premiums depend on a person’s income”.

Likewise, it is also more liberal than the health systems in France and the UK, “which rely more on fiscal contributions from the state”.

As for the question whether those countries’ health system are superior to Switzerland’s, the report notes that “this is doubtful because state healthcare systems financed by taxes are also forced to compensate for dwindling tax revenues, for example by increasing deductibles, which reduced the solidarity between the insured in different income bracket”.

READ MORE: How is Swiss healthcare system different from the rest of Europe?

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