Most employers offer a basic health insurance plan, but you can also buy an insurance policy individually. China has no uniform system of private health insurance, so prices can vary widely (from ¥3,000 to as much as ¥30,000 per year), depending on factors such as age and previous medical history, but also on the types of treatments covered by the policy. Adding on extras such as dental and optical cover will normally raise the rates.
For many expatriate workers, health insurance will be offered through your company. Though expatriate insurance plans are often costly, they also offer an extended safety net, which is well worth the price (see below).
For those who aren’t covered through their workplace, we strongly recommend to get a private insurance. Basic coverage will include in-patient care and emergencies. Make sure you understand both the excess (or ‘deductible’ – the portion you pay before insurance kicks in) and the cost of the insurance plan. A plan with higher excess will only cover larger emergencies, but it will cost less per year for the plan itself. For more on health care, health insurance and other expat health issues related to China, check out our expat health blog at ExpatHealth.org.
Health insurance cover for foreigners
As a foreigner, it is worth to consider an insurance policy that covers emergency medical evacuation, since without this could cost well over US$ 50,000 if needed.
You might also want to consider a provider that includes the services of SOS international. SOS international operates a 24-hour emergency hotline and maintains relationships with more than 150 hospitals in China, which they have approved for treatment of foreigners and military and commercial airlines to arrange a medical evacuation if you need it. If your insurance policy does not include SOS services, you can also buy a personal SOS membership yourself.
Insurance plans do not usually cover cosmetic surgery or alternative medicines, infertility issues, or pre-existing conditions. Also, injuries from extreme sports or activities are not normally covered. When buying a plan, make sure you read the fine print, ask questions, and ensure you understand when and how to pay.
One final word of warning
Given that many medical treatments can be obtained at a bargain price in China (at least in the public hospitals), some people decide to ‘save’ money by not buying an insurance policy and instead paying for the treatments themselves if and when necessary. If you decide to go down that route, here’s what you can expect: If you only have some minor ailments in China and are happy with the treatment in a public clinic, you will save a pile of cash. However if you find yourself in a serious medical situation (i.e. you are injured by one of the many traffic accidents) and need specialist treatment or even medical evacuation, you will not get the treatment you need unless you have a large quantity of available cash. It’s up to you to decide.
(UPDATE, 2012: The Chinese government recently imposed a new social insurance tax on expats and their employers. Under the new rules, both expats and employers must contribute to China's public health, unemployment and pension schemes. Depending on the province, employers must pay between 8-11% of their salaries and employers the equivalent of 31-37% of their foreign employees' salaries.)