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EHIC renewals drop 23% in the Brexit run-up – even though travellers DO still need one

EHIC renewals drop 23% in the Brexit run-up – even though travellers DO still need one

The number of people with a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) has dropped by more than 450,000 since last year, with renewals plummeting in the first quarter of 2019 as the UK prepares to leave the EU, MoneySavingExpert.com can reveal.

EHICs are free and give Brits access to free or discounted medical care in all 28 EU countries, plus some others. But amid massive uncertainty over Brexit and whether EHICs will continue to be valid after the UK leaves the EU, new figures show fewer travellers are bothering to renew their cards when they expire.

Stats we've obtained from the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) show EHIC renewals in the three months before Britain was supposed to leave the EU on 29 March were the lowest in at least nine years and 23% down on the same period in 2018, falling from 346,303 to 267,624.

Yet as Brexit's now been delayed, it's almost certain EHICs will continue to work this summer at least – so if you're planning to travel to Europe in the foreseeable future, you do still need one. If you have one already, it's important to check it's still valid, as 5.4 million are due to expire this year.

See our Free EHICs guide for full help.

How have EHIC renewals dropped?

We've obtained two sets of stats from the NHS showing how the number of EHIC cards has changed in the run-up to Brexit.

EHIC cards are free, but only valid for up to five years, so need to be renewed regularly. Yet official figures show the number of renewals in the first three months of this year was at its lowest since 2011 – the first year the NHSBSA could provide us with data for – and roughly half the figure between January and March 2016, just ahead of the Brexit referendum.

EHIC renewals in January to March each year

Period Renewals
January 2011 - March 2011 727,003
January 2012 - March 2012 383,228
January 2013 - March 2013 283,088
January 2014 - March 2014 316,562
January 2015 - March 2015 319,122
January 2016 - March 2016 529,695
January 2017 - March 2017 396,485
January 2018 - March 2018 346,303
January 2019 - March 2019 267,624

The total number of valid EHICs in circulation has also fallen, with the figure on 31 March 2019 around 450,000 less than in 2018, and roughly 750,000 down on 2016's figure:

Number of valid EHICs on 31 March each year

Date Number
31 March 2011 23,367,585
31 March 2012 23,199,768
31 March 2013 24,496,669
31 March 2014 25,888,533
31 March 2015 27,104,584
31 March 2016 27,299,221
31 March 2017 26,756,403
31 March 2018 26,995,948
31 March 2019 26,544,419

Why have the figures changed?

It's not clear exactly how much of the drop in renewals is due to Brexit, and what could be linked to other factors. An NHSBSA spokesperson declined to comment on whether uncertainty over Brexit had contributed to the decline.

There may be some other causes too. The NHSBSA says as there's a five-year renewal cycle for EHICs and 2018/19 is year five, it would "expect this to be one of the lower years for renewal". However, this doesn't explain why there doesn't appear to have been a similar drop five years ago. Given the huge uncertainty over Brexit, it seems likely that's a factor too.

'Don't let Brexit uncertainty put you off renewing now'

Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "While it's impossible to say for sure what's behind the drop of renewals, it seems very likely Brexit uncertainty is a significant factor.

"In the run-up to our supposed departure date of 29 March, it was widely reported that EHICs would become invalid if we leave the EU without a deal – so many may have simply not bothered to check or renew their cards.

"Yet it's vital to understand that with Brexit delayed, EHICs almost certainly WILL give you protection if travelling to Europe this summer, and may do so beyond too. So the usual tip for travellers still very much applies – check now if your EHIC is still valid, and if not, renew it for free. For now, it remains an essential piece of documentation for European travel."

How do EHICs work?

If you're in Europe and you've got an EHIC, you're entitled to the same treatment that local citizens are entitled to – extremely useful in emergencies.

Getting one is free. Full eligibility criteria for the EHIC can be found on the NHS website, but ordinarily if you are a resident of the UK you'll be entitled to a UK-issued EHIC.

It's also worth noting the EHIC covers all EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Some (but not all) overseas territories are also included – for example, Portugal's cover includes the Azores and Madeira. See our Country-by-country EHIC guide for full info.

What's happening to the EHIC after Brexit?

Originally the UK was set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, but that's now been delayed – we could now leave as late as 31 October 2019, and that's assuming there's no further delay or changes given the current political uncertainty.

EHICs will definitely continue to be valid until the UK leaves the EU. After that, it depends on whether we leave with or without a deal:

  • If we leave with a deal, you'll continue to get state-provided healthcare in the EU if you have a free EHIC card at least until the end of a transition period – likely the end of 2020.

  • If we leave with no deal, EHICs may stop working. The UK Government says it's working with EU member states to maintain the same level of cover as provided by the EHIC, but your card may not be valid after exit day.

Because of this, if you're travelling to an EU country or Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland before 31 October, it's worth making sure you have a valid EHIC. They're totally free, so there's no downside in making sure you're covered.

How to check if your EHIC is valid and how to renew it

You can check the expiry date on your EHIC on the bottom right of the card. If it's already expired, or is about to, renew it now (see How to apply).

Though you must be over 16 to apply, it's also worth noting that every family member requires a card. To apply on behalf of a child, just include them as a dependent in the relevant section of the application and you'll each receive a separate EHIC.

As you can apply for a new card up to six months before the current one ends, it's worth doing this in advance so you don't forget.

There are several ways to register for a card. Generally, it'll take about seven to 10 days for it to come through (longer for posted applications), though it's worth applying early so you get your EHIC in good time for your holiday.

You can get an EHIC the following ways (only do it in these ways and avoiding Googling 'EHIC' as you may be shown sites that charge you):

  • Apply on the EHIC website, or find more info on the NHS website.
  • Call 0300 330 1350.
  • Print the application form on the NHS website, fill it in and post it to: NHS Business Services Authority, European Health Insurance Card, EHIC Applications, Bridge House, 152 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6SN.