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Comprehensive Sickness Insurance: what is it, and who needs it?

If you are an EEA/EU citizen or their family member and you would wish to qualify for a right of residence then eventually a right of permanent residence you have to meet certain requirements. Following the Brexit vote to leave the EU, it is more important than ever to make sure that you do currently meet the requirements. We fully expect that EEA citizens with the right of residence or permanent residence will benefit from transitional arrangements and be “passported” to a new immigration status, but we are not so sure about the position of those who are living in the UK without a right of residence.

Confusingly, EEA citizens and their family members are allowed to use the NHS in the UK, but according to the Home Office the NHS does not count as comprehensive sickness insurance. In the one case that has been decided in the higher courts on this point, the Home Office won their argument. For an EEA citizen or family member who needs comprehensive sickness insurance, therefore, they need to show something more than merely that they can use the NHS if or when they need it.

Who needs comprehensive sickness insurance?

EU law gives a right of entry to the UK to any EEA citizen. However, only certain EEA citizens qualify for a right of residence, which brings with it the right to be accompanied by family members, the right to claim certain benefits, protection from removal from the UK and the right to acquire permanent residence after five years of a qualifying activity.

The main categories of EEA citizen who qualify for a right of residence are:

  • Workers
  • Self employed persons
  • Self sufficient persons with comprehensive sickness insurance
  • Students with comprehensive sickness insurance

As you can see, two of these categories require the EU citizen to hold comprehensive sickness insurance.

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The family members of self sufficient persons and students will also need comprehensive sickness insurance to qualify for their own right of residence. See further below.

There are LOTS of self sufficient EEA nationals currently living in the UK. For example, they may be married to a British citizen and not currently be working or self employed. Unless they have already acquired permanent residence through five historic continuous years of work or self employment (and be able to provide it), they will need to show they have comprehensive sickness insurance to show that they have a current right of residence in the UK.


Danielle is a French citizen. She is married to Edgar, a British citizen, and has lived in the UK married to Edgar since 1982. She has never worked in the UK because Edgar has a full time job and his income is more than sufficient for them both to live on.

Danielle could potentially qualify for a right of residence as a self sufficient person. However, she would need to show that she has comprehensive sickness insurance. Without that, she has no current right to reside in the UK.

Before Brexit, that was not a problem as nobody was likely to try and remove her and she had a right of entry. When the UK leaves the EU and assuming EU free movement laws come to an end, Danielle will no longer freely be able to enter the UK, will have no EU right of residence as an existing resident and unless the UK Government makes provision for her she will be residing illegally in the UK.

Family members of EEA citizens who need comprehensive sickness insurance

The UK’s implementation of EU law has always required the family members of self sufficient EEA citizens to possess comprehensive sickness insurance as well as the EEA citizen in order for them to have a right of residence. From 6 April 2015 the same rule has also been applied to the family members of EEA students. For further information on the changes, please see this guidance note on the changes.

What counts as comprehensive sickness insurance?

This is not an easy question to answer. The rest of the EU uses a system of health insurance to provide the public with health care. In the UK, uniquely, we have the National Health Service instead, which is not insurance based but instead simply provides free health care at the point of need. The EU rules on the need for comprehensive sickness insurance for self sufficient persons and students were not really written with the UK’s unusual situation in mind.

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The purpose of the rules is that self-sufficient persons and students should not become unreasonable burdens on state resources – or, as the Supreme Court put it in the very recent case of Mirga v SSWP, “economically inactive Union citizens using the host member state’s welfare system to fund their means of subsistence”.

Access to the NHS is not enough

An EEA national living in the UK is allowed to use the UK’s National Health Service. The Home Office has long argued that this does not count for the purposes of EU law as having comprehensive sickness insurance, though.

The Home Office view was upheld by the Court of Appeal in the case of Ahmad v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2014] EWCA Civ 988:

70. I would dismiss this appeal. If an EEA national enters the UK and is not involved in an economically active activity, for example because she is a student, her residence and that of her family members will not be lawful unless she has CSIC [Comprehensive Sickness Insurance Cover] while she is a student in the five years following her arrival. Accordingly her family members will not be able to qualify for permanent residency in the UK.

71. So Mrs Ahmad had to have CSIC while she was a student. This condition must be strictly complied with. The fact that she would be entitled to treatment under the NHS, and was thus at all times in substantially the same position as she would have been had she had CSIC, is nothing to the point. Her failure to take out CSIC put the host state at risk of having to pay for healthcare at a time when the Ahmads had not then achieved the status of permanent resident and she was not economically active.

So, we know from Ahmad that access to the NHS does not count. What might qualify as comprehensive sickness insurance, then? There are three potential ways to meet the requirement.

1. Buy comprehensive private health insurance

One way forward is to purchase private health insurance from a private company. This is relatively cheap if you are young and healthy. It may be prohibitively expensive or even impossible if you are older or already ill.

This will need to be “comprehensive”. Both lawyers and non-lawyers have found the level at which sickness insurance becomes “comprehensive” to be something of a mystery. The Government says it means “full health insurance”, which raises the question of what “full” is to mean. So this is of little help.

The Guide to Supporting Documents on the EEA (QP) form is a helpful place to start because it sets out the Home Office view (which is not necessarily the right view always). It suggests that the insurance should

“cover you (and your family members if applicable) for the majority of risks while you are in the UK”.

This suggests that there may be gaps in cover allowed; after all, it does not say “all risks”.

There are broadly two schools of thought on the level of health insurance one should get: the first suggests that no insurance is comprehensive unless it covers everything; if it misses something out, however small or inconsequential, it cannot be comprehensive. This approach relies on the strict linguistic meaning of the word ‘comprehensive’. The second approach is to say that ‘comprehensive’ indicates a level of insurance that is consistent with some of the highest available levels of cover available, but not necessarily the highest possible level available. That is to say, it should cover everything that one would expect a reasonably complete policy to cover, but not absolutely everything one can think of.

It will be a question of fact whether this bar in an individual case has been met. For instance, in the case of Baumbast a lack of cover for emergency treatment given in the UK meant that his health insurance was not comprehensive. Note however that because Mr Baumbast and his family had never relied on state resources, the slight shortfall in his health insurance could not undermine his right to reside, as this would be disproportionate in the context of Mr Baumbast’s and his family’s individual circumstances.

This does not mean everyone will agree. In at least one case the Home Office successfully argued at First-tier Tribunal level that ‘comprehensive’ referred to so high a level of cover that no provider in the UK offers it, and so no-one could possibly satisfy such a criterion. While this surely cannot be correct, it is a view that has some traction – so take risks on the completeness of your health insurance at your peril.

2. Use a European Health Insurance Card

The EEA(QP) form states that you can use a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) as evidence of comprehensive sickness insurance, but only if you make a declaration that you do not intend to stay in the UK permanently.

This may be helpful for some, but many would rather the flexibility to stay permanently if opportunities in the UK come their way. The declaration is not legally binding in any way, though, and it is questionable whether the Home Office view on this is correct. There are no decided cases about the issue so it is not possible to say for sure in what circumstances a EHIC will count.

You can find more information about applying for a EHIC here.

3. Prove you are protected by reciprocal arrangements with your home EEA country

The EHIC exists because of multilateral and reciprocal agreements between EU countries which mean that the cost of medical care in the host state can be recovered from the state of origin so long as that person is entitled to healthcare in that state.

In Ahmad v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2014] EWCA Civ 988, the leading Court of Appeal case on the issue, it was common ground that if Mrs Ahmad could prove that there were reciprocal arrangements between the UK and Denmark enabling the UK to reclaim from Denmark the costs of providing Mrs Ahmad with care in the UK then she would be considered to have comprehensive sickness insurance. Rather unfortunately, though, there was no evidence put to the court that this was so in her case:

53. The appellant seeks to rely on the fact (as he contends) that Mrs Ahmad would have a right to obtain healthcare here and the Secretary of State could recover the costs in Denmark. It is common ground that if there were reciprocal arrangements with the EEA national’s own state that would be sufficient to constitute comprehensive insurance cover.

54. However, there is no evidence that Mrs Ahmad, who has been in the UK since 2006 and who is therefore no longer habitually resident in Denmark, is still entitled to healthcare in Denmark.

The court also held that the Home Office was under no obligation to find out what the position was; that was up to Mrs Ahmad as it was her case to prove.

The way to prove that you have comprehensive sickness insurance that covers you in the UK without a EHIC is to use forms S1, S2 or S3. These are specifically mentioned by the Home Office in the guidance notes.

For more information about the forms, click here. It is thought that the forms can be obtained retrospectively from the health provider in your country of nationality, i.e. that you can apply now for a form that provides cover for previous residence in the UK. Once obtained the form needs to be translated into English and sent to the following address:

Overseas Healthcare Team
Department for Work & Pensions
Durham House
Tyne and Wear
NE38 7SF

This information is accurate to the best of my knowledge but it is also untested, in that I have not myself seen a successful application for a student or self employed person based on this method. If you have more information, please get in touch with me or leave a comment.


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One alternative is to wait and see what happens with the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU. It may be that some arrangement is made for EEA nationals who happen to be living in the UK at a certain date but do not have a right of residence or permanent residence. We simply do not know. This does not seem at the moment like a very safe way of approaching the issue, and it also risks wasting time that might otherwise be spent building up a right of residence to acquire permanent residence further down the line.

Another option is to become a worker or self employed person. Neither requires comprehensive sickness insurance.


This post is an updated and expanded version of a blog post originally written by Paul Erdunast.

Colin Yeo
A barrister specialising in UK immigration law at Garden Court Chambers in London, I have been practising in immigration law for 15 years. I am passionate about immigration law and founded and edit the Free Movement immigration law blog.

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