The expat guide to staying healthy while living overseas

The expat guide to staying healthy while living overseas

14 September 2022
Two women head to the beach for downtime

Moving to and living in another country can be one of the most rewarding life experiences. However, living abroad does have a specific set of challenges for health and well-being.

Although every country is different, this guide brings together a set of tips and advice to help expats everywhere live healthier and happier lives abroad.

Before you go

  • Go to your doctor for a check-up and make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccinations like Tetanus and Diphtheria.
  • Check what additional vaccinations you might need for the country you are going to. Bear in mind some vaccinations require shots over a period of months, so if you have not completed the course in advance you will need to organise to do so after your arrival.
  • If you are going to be a longer-term resident, also consider getting vaccinations which may only be described in tourist advice as ‘optional’ or ‘for certain areas’.
  • Get a copy of your medical history. It is a good idea to scan and store it electronically, as well as having a copy on paper.

As moving can be a stressful process, consider the following to avoid extra things on the to-do list in your first months in a new country:

  • Visit your dentist.
  • If you wear glasses, get a spare pair.
  • If you wear contact lenses, get an extra supply.
  • If you take regular medication, get an extra supply and take a copy of your current prescription (you may need this at customs or airport security). Finding out the generic name for the medicine is also useful, as it may be marketed under a different brand in another country.
  • If possible, take the contents of your home medicine cabinet with you. If not, take medicines you regularly use for common complaints.

Make sure you have appropriate health cover

In many cases, you will not necessarily have the right to healthcare in the country you are moving to. This can mean that if you do not have cover in an emergency situation you may be required to immediately pay for doctors/hospitals for public or private treatment.

It is highly recommended that you always have health insurance cover to avoid a situation where you may not be able to access the medical assistance you require. Even in some countries where you are eligible for treatment in the public system, you may find the quality of care does not meet the standards you are used to: plan accordingly.

Some countries (such as those which are members of the Schengen Area, the UAE and the US for some visa types) require proof of health insurance before a visa will be issued.

If you are moving from one EU country to another, get the EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) - this will cover emergency treatment for the period until you can get cover in the local health system.

Mother and young child at a doctor visit

It’s not just about physical health

Often, in the rush to get everything organised for a big move, people don’t pay enough attention to getting prepared psychologically. Here are some ideas:

  • Make sure you, your partner and family are ready for the move, and all are committed to make it a success. Talk about worries and concerns. If necessary agree what will happen if it doesn’t go well and how you will measure success or failure.
  • Make sure you dedicate time to spend with friends and family before you go, especially those you do not see as often as you would like.
  • Get some background, start learning the language (if applicable), watch films and documentaries about the country, read its books and learn about its culture and history.

When you arrive

  • Make sure you learn the number to call the emergency services.
  • Find out where the nearest hospital(s) with an emergency unit is/are located and check that your health cover will provide you access to treatment there.
  • Try to learn some basic words in the local language for emergencies, eg: help, call an ambulance/doctor, it is an emergency, etc.
  • If you are eligible for cover from the local healthcare system, start the paperwork as soon as possible. In many places, getting through the administrative steps can be complicated, so the sooner you start, the better.
  • If you do not speak the local language, consider finding a doctor who can speak your language or a language you are comfortable in.

Get acclimatized

Stress, jet-lag, plane journeys and a change of climate are a perfect recipe for getting ill. If possible, try to allow yourself some extra spare time at the start so you can get adjusted - without getting exhausted.

If going to a climate hotter than you are used to, it can take some time to get used to it. Use common sense; keep hydrated, limit exposure to direct sun/heat, wear appropriate clothing and be careful not to physically over-exert yourself. It helps to talk to locals and pay attention to local customs to get a better idea about how they deal with the climate.

Take the time to get used to the new surroundings and people. Walking around and experiencing day-to-day life is a really important part of becoming comfortable in a new environment.

Eat and drink safely

The level of risk from food and water depends a lot on where you going to be living. It is normal to be a little paranoid about risk when moving to a new country, especially if you have young children.

As you adjust and talk to locals and other expats, you will get a better idea of what to do and what to avoid. Never eating salad or missing out on amazing street-food has to be balanced against the real risks. Pretty much anyone who has travelled to different countries will have experienced ‘traveller’s tummy’ and this is very normal when moving to a new country. Over time you will build up resistance to local bacteria.


Is it OK to drink the tap water? It might have an unpleasant taste or not as clear as at home, but safe to drink, so not much of a worry. Or, it may contain pathogens and be a real risk. It’s important to find out so you can change behaviours accordingly. Bear in mind that water quality can vary greatly from place to place in less-developed countries, so, if travelling around, it is worth asking.

If the tap water is potentially dangerous, you and your family may need to change personal hygiene (tooth brushing, showering/bathing, etc.) and cooking habits. You will also need to be aware that food or drinks may be contaminated in different ways, such as ice made with tap water or salads/other raw foods being washed in it.

Where there is a water risk, drink bottled water/commercially produced drinks from bottles which are served to you sealed. Hot drinks tend to be safe if the water has been boiled, but it is possible that the water has only been heated.


The level of risk from food varies both by country as well as the context in the country. In even the least-developed countries, high-end hotels, restaurants and supermarkets are available in cities where the food is likely to only be as risky as at home.

Some foods are naturally more risky than others, such as:

  • Prepared dishes served at room temperature.
  • Those containing raw or partially cooked eggs or unpasteurised milk.
  • Raw, rare or undercooked meat or fish.
  • Unwashed or unpeeled fruit or vegetables.

Discover more about Cigna International Health Plans

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