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  • Cortney Dowdle

How International Student Insurance Works in the USA

Updated: Apr 6

Hi everyone!

I have walked many international students through how health insurance works, and I thought it would be a great blog to share. Note that I didn't say, "the most exciting blog you've ever read in your life". I would use words like "useful" and "applicable" to describe this blog. Insurance is, I always say, one of those things that you don't need until you need it, and then you really really need it.


As I was thinking about how best to explain it, I realized this blog might be helpful to any teenagers out there getting insurance on their own for the first time. What I want to do here is break down how insurance works in the USA, and then offer a couple of options that you can purchase that should work to fulfill the insurance requirement no matter which university you attend.


Since this blog is a place to be honest, I’m going to give it to you straight. Insurance is a pain in the butt. I don’t care if you are a citizen, non citizen, resident, visa holder, etc. Insurance is complicated and hard to figure out in the USA. This applies to health insurance, auto insurance, and as a new homeowner I’ll go ahead and add home insurance. I think having traveled so extensively and seeing how other countries operate, it’s just a different system than you might have at home. Or it might be way easier, I have no idea. Either way, let’s take a look at student insurance specifically for the F1 or J1 visa for student or exchange visitors.


So here’s the deal - it’s a requirement to have health insurance while studying in the USA. Any university rep will tell you how important your safety is while studying abroad. Of course it is. You can’t very well be an all star student, involved all over campus, and volunteering in the local community if you are constantly fighting one illness or another. In addition to that, accidents happen. They just do. You need to be able to go to the hospital or emergency room for treatment if needed. Another point is that even if your parents have insurance coverage in your home country, often times it does not cover you abroad.




TIP #1 – Check with your current insurance provider, whether individual or through your parents’ plan, to see if you already have international coverage.


So once we’ve determined that you need insurance while studying in the USA, the next question is - How do you get it? Depending on the school, they may add the insurance cost into your mandatory student fees, and then they can just enroll all students in the same insurance plan and provide you with an insurance card and additional information. Another way might be for schools to ask you if you need the insurance first, then charge you a separate amount for one year (or one semester) of insurance. Either way, it’s worth asking your school office how they charge you for the student insurance plan and if it's an option.


TIP #2 – Ask for a copy of the insurance coverage before you arrive to school so you can familiarize yourself and know what to expect.

*Every insurance company will have a super long document that lists the insurance coverage and specifics. They should also have a one to three page summary of the insurance policies. Ask for this. It’s usually much simpler and easy to understand.


In the USA, there are a few terms you should know to understand the insurance policy:

  • Deductible – what you have to pay out of pocket in addition to the cost of the insurance before the coverage will start

  • Example – the sample plan below has a $150 deductible, meaning you have to pay $150 for medical costs up front, and then the in-network coverage starts covering 80% of qualifying costs.

  • In/Out of network – a service provider can be “in” or “out” of network depending on the insurance plan. Just note that in-network services are usually cheaper than out of network.

  • Premium - what you have to pay for the insurance plan up front for coverage

  • Example – the sample plan below costs $39 per month

  • Copaywhat you pay for standard or routine visits

  • Example – If you have to go to an urgent care, with the sample plan below you would pay only $40, whereas most urgent cares charge approximately $100 for a visit without any medical insurance

Okay, so now that you’ve got those terms down, what does international insurance usually cover? For most plans, they will have a benefits summary that looks something like this:

  • Lifetime maximum: No maximum

  • Annual maximum: No annual maximum

  • Per injury/sickness maximum: $250,000 USD

  • Annual maximum deductible: $150 USD in-network / $500 USD out-of-network

  • Co-pay SHC: $25 USD

  • Co-pay primary care and specialist: $40 USD

  • Co-pay urgent care: $40 USD

  • Emergency room co-pay: $300 USD

  • Co-insurance in-network: 80% of first $20,000 USD; 100% thereafter

  • Co-insurance out-of-network: 70% of Usual & Customary

  • Medical evacuation: $120,000 USD

  • Repatriation of remains: $60,000 USD

  • Pre-existing conditions: 6 months waiting period

  • Hospitalization co-pay: $350 USD


*Plans like this one offered by ISO will always include medical evacuation and repatriation of remains for international plans. This is important to note when searching for an international insurance plan.


Tip #3 - recommendations for using insurance:

  • File a claim if needed – this just means you document the injury or illness and may be required by the insurance company depending on the type of accident or occurrence.

  • Purchase insurance before you arrive to the USA.

  • Print your insurance identification (ID) cards and carry with you at all times.

  • Present your insurance card before you are treated at any hospital or office.


Tip #4 – international insurance plans do not always include coverage for things like dentists, optometrists (eye doctors), or orthodontists.

These can usually be added, or the provider will offer a separate plan for coverage on these services. I have had many students in the past who took care of these types of annual appointments during summer break because the cost was significantly cheaper in their home country. It’s worth checking the costs to go with the budget friendly option.


Alright, savvy internationals. That’s insurance for F1 or J1 visas in a nutshell. That’s as quick of a summary as I can put together while still giving you some valuable information. Hope you didn't fall asleep!

Check out the student resource page for more recommendations - https://www.thesavvyinternational.com/health-insurance-1.

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