Health Care Tips for Travelers to France

pharmacy in Paris

I recently spoke at Bloom Where You’re Planted, a program intended to introduce newcomers to the sometimes perplexing differences of life abroad. I stayed after my talk for a seminar on French health care. While I was familiar with some of the information, some of you might not be, especially those who are traveling to Paris.

This post includes numbers to call and places to go if you need medical attention. Of course, nothing here is meant to be construed as medical advice and you should always speak to your personal health care provider, who can advise you on the most appropriate actions in the event of an emergency or if you have a health-related question.

France has excellent health care and it is open to all. Care is not rationed out and you are guaranteed care regardless of your ability to pay or pre-existing condition.


If you have to have medical care and don’t speak French, ask the provider who is treating you if they speak English. Many doctors and pharmacists do, although mostly in larger cities.

Be sure to check with your provider at home before your trip to ascertain coverage abroad. If necessary, consider purchasing travelers health insurance as primary or secondary coverage. Note that most travel insurance covers incidents like trip cancellation and lost luggage, not necessarily health care costs.

Write down vital information and keep it in your wallet during your trip. That should include your name, address, address where you’re staying during your trip, emergency contacts, and any important medical conditions or prescription drugs that you’re taking that health care providers might need to be aware of if treating you.

All the numbers listed will work from any phone in France. If using a pay phone, you don’t need a phone card to dial them. If you can’t find a functioning pay phone, go into a pharmacy and they’ll call emergency services for you.

Lastly, French medical care providers don’t provide a lot in the way of bedside manner. There’s not a lot of hand-holding so don’t be too concerned if the health care provider isn’t showing a lot of compassion. It can be off-putting for those who aren’t used to it, but it’s a different health care model. Patients are expected to be pro-active, so don’t be shy about asking questions and getting detailed explanation, if necessary.

samu

SOS Médecins

If you are traveling and have a medical issue, you can call SOS Médecins. They will come to your hotel or apartment 24 hours a day and their vehicles are equipped with what they call “sophisticated medical material”. This is not emergency services but they will treat you for many other ailments.

To reach them, day or night, call 3624. You will need to tell them which départment you are in. Paris is 75.

SOS Médicins is composed of doctors who are on-call, and the price is around €50-70 for the visit. You will have to pay in cash or by check (in euros) at the time of the visit. The doctors are French but when you call, you can ask if they have an English-speaking doctor. It’s not guaranteed, but many French doctors do speak varying degrees of English.

Pharmacies

There are thousands of pharmacies in Paris and their staff is trained to attend to a variety of minor medical needs. In France, pharmacists can can also evaluate your situation, treat some illnesses, and make the appropriate calls (such as calling an ambulance). And you’ll get a better response if you show up in a medical care if they call for you rather than if you just showed up.

If the pharmacy is closed, they usually list on the door another pharmacy in the neighborhood that’s open.

Emergency Numbers

SAMU provides ambulances and emergency medical care. That number is 15.

If you have an emergency or need other medical assistance, you can also call 18, which is the fire department. (Les pompiers). They are trained to treat a variety of emergencies and can coordinate medical care and ambulance service.

There is also an EU-wide emergency service number, which can be reached by dialing 112 from anywhere in Europe. Because it is an international organization, you will almost certainly reach someone who speaks English.

Hospitals

If you have to go to the hospital, the ambulance will take you to the closest facility, or to one that specializes in what ails you. The centrally-located Hotel Dieu, located adjacent to Notre Dame, is well-regarded.

Contrary to widespread belief, health care is not free in France and you will be presented with a bill at the end of your treatment, which you’ll be expected to pay before you leave. (French residents get reimbursed by the system for a variable percentage of the fees.) If you come from the United States, the payment will likely be much less than you’d pay back in the states. If you are not in the French system, they should give you a feuille de soin, a amber-colored receipt noting the treatment, the attending physician, and the charges.

On the far western edge of Paris, in Neuilly, is The American Hospital, which is a private facility and you will need to pay for the services at the time of treatment. They advertise bi-lingual staff, but in my one experience there, not all personnel speak English. They also have a dental clinic as well.

If you are paying out-of-pocket, your bill will likely be quite a bit higher here than in a French public hospital. However they do understand American-style health insurance procedures and reimbursements, and you may feel more comfortable here.

Related Links

Protection Civile Paris (List of French emergency services, in French)

SOS 112 Europe (EU-wide emergency service number)

SOS Help (English-speaking listening & counseling line)

Squaremouth (Travel & health insurance comparison site)

World Nomads (Travel & health insurance)

French Emergency Terms (About.com)

Note: None of these are affiliate links and I have no relation to any of the insurance or health care websites listed. They are listed for informational purposes only.

40 comments

  • Very nice post, David – and very useful for your readers! Can I just add one small note for your expat readers? Dr. Lovejoy at the American hospital periodically conducts (free!) short first aid courses that are extremely useful. Thanks to him, I finally understand the difference between Pompiers and Samu! (As you say, Samu have more extensive medical equipment and expertise, but Pompiers have a defibrillator and can be with you in minutes – so for a life-and-death situation, call 18 first!)

    http://www.dr-lovejoy.medem.com/

  • I’ll also add that the US embassy website has a list of english speaking doctors listed by specialty.

  • Can I just say that if you are travelling, travel insurance is a MUST. I had a friend who needed serious work in France, travel insurance paid it all as it was not an existing condition.
    A travel agent I know sent a chap to the US, he got hit by a car and racked up $125,000 in medical expenses. Travel insurance paid it all.

  • Does the American Hospital really have a dental clinic? I can’t seem to find anything about it on their website. Don’t suppose you have a link for it?

  • Lore: Yes, that’s good to know about. Folks can find it on the US Embassy website as a downloadable PDF: English-speaking doctors in Paris.)

    Meg: J’adore the firemen, who are indeed, well-trained to handle emergency services as well, and can coordinate their services with SAMU. And thanks for the tip & link to Dr. Lovejoy.

    Andrea: There’s a list of dentists at the American Hospital, but I have seen a clinic there as well. I do not know if they provide emergency dental services or if it’s just for routine appointments.

    For more information I would telephone the hospital direct. The list the US Embassy provides (above) has some dentists on it as well.

    LB: I’ll say. I knew someone British that had to be hospitalized in the states and even though he had a policy that covered him up to $100k, the bill exceeded that by about $80k. So I although it’s not something most people want to think about, it is worth investigating.

  • What a great, unexpected entry. The french medical system can be very helpful and even cheap, depending where you go and what is ailing you, but it is good to have some pointers like these. Very helpful for non-French citoyens in Paris.

    PS- I finally got my hands on a Kalouga bar chez Denise Acabo yesterday (they were always sold out). I am trying to make it last as long as possible…
    Thanks again!!

  • What a great post – wish I had that when I was living in Paris – took me about a year to figure all that out!

  • A wonderful, informative post. One of the things I like most about your blog is that it is not all about the food, all the time. It’s about LIFE and all the practicalities therein, and it makes for well-rounded reading. There was some information I did not know about before in this post & I am thankful to have it.

    And here’s a little bit of a “funny” to help your readers remember the emergency phone numbers in France. My boyfriend thought this up & it makes me giggle, but I can remember the numbers this way.

    18 is HOT. (Fire)
    17 is illegal. (Police)
    15 is SICK. (Ambulance)

    LOL. Yeah, he’s got a warped sense of humor, but it works for me!

  • The American Hosp. was 3 blocks from my apartment so used it whenever over some 9 years….it is a mixed bag as to English speakers, but there is always one available sooner or later and very competent. There are many embassy officials living in Neuilly, especially from the old French colonial empire, and as a result you will find a great mix of nationalities there. Wondered into one of the maternity wards by mistake and was amazed at the array of national dress, like a field of flowers…the nurse explained that some of her patients fly to Paris for care there. In those days they took my Blue Cross card and I never saw a bill…or heard from the States. One *Heads Up* note: over the counter sleeping pills carry a real kick. Took one, instead of the recommended 2, and was a zombie for two days. Hate to think what 2 would have done.

  • I really do find the Pharmacies helpful, and so easy to find with their green cross, everytime I’ve been to France and gotten sick, the pharmacists were happy to help, and even in a tiny town like Trets, they still tried to help me with his Anglais.

  • Great post. I’ve found pharmacists in Italy and England also to be very helpful.

    I was glad to see you mentioned about taking important medical information WITH you during your trip. You can go to myphr.com and they have a wonderful form for these purposes. It lists all your doctors and contact info, medical history, medications, past surgeries etc. It is good to have all your health information kept in one place – whether you are travelling or not.

  • The American Hospital is more famous, but there is also the Hertford British Hospital in Levallois-Perret. This says of itself: “As a private establishment participating in the French Public Hospital system, the Hertford charges in accordance with French Social Security rates for those who are entitled, while welcoming patients from elsewhere.”

  • David – I appreciated your medical info but I am wondering about chirorpractic care in France? Have you had need for one and what was your experience? It is as easy to get chiro care as it is medical care?

  • Great post David. As expat American living in France and covered by the French health care system I was wondering what sort of insurance people use when they go back to the states for a visit?
    Thanks!

  • Karin: Because so many travelers to Paris often check in at the blog, I do like to pass along information in post like this since it can be scary being in a foreign country and having to deal with the system. It’s also interesting for see the differences between the way things are dealt with in France versus the system in the United States.

    Mrs. Redboots: Thanks for that link. I haven’t been to that hospital but it’s great to know there is an English-speaking medical facility that falls within the French health care system.

    CindyB: I’ve not had chiropractic service here. I don’t see it offered (although I haven’t looked), but there are a lot of kinetherapists who have clinic all around the city.

    Camille: I get a regular regular health insurance plan for travelers. In most cases, if something goes wrong, my ex-doctor in the states told me they’ll likely get you on the next plane back to France rather than pay for you to spend ten days in an American hospital.

    But if you do get one of these policies, read the policy carefully and ask about the difference between primary and secondary coverage. Secondary covers you after your health insurance plan pays out the maximum. I don’t know what the French system pays for outside of France or the EU. No one’s been able to tell me. So I don’t think it’s much, if anything at all.

    (Some credit card have emergency coverage or evacuation, so it might be worth it to check. Still, even if offered, I think if you send in a bill for $187,645.98 for a stay in an American hospital, you might have a little trouble getting reimbursed in full.)

  • Thank you, David. The last time I was in Paris I worried a bit about this, especially after I fell down a flight of slippery, 17th-century stairs (I was pregnant at the time, but I didn’t know it – everything turned out fine).

    When we come back, I’ll have a toddler in tow, so knowing this is very, very helpful.

  • This is very useful for the readers. You really have to have travel insurance when you are planning to travel.

  • Fiona, When you are in Paris with a toddler, be aware that they don’t treat children at the regular emergency rooms but only at one of the 4 childrens’ hospitals. I know this from first hand experience after taking my then 6 year old to the Hotel Dieu. They triaged her cut scalp, gave me a photocopied paper with the list of the childrens’ hospitals and sent me out to the taxi rank.

  • Pharmacies keep a list of doctors AND dentists at your disposal. JUst ask.
    Never let your fear of the French language guide you into choosing the hideously expensive American hospital needless to say they need clients.
    Never ever hesitate turning to the public hospitals in Paris, they are ALL university hospitals and level of care perfect.The ambulance automatically takes you to the nearest.
    Doctors and staff usually do understand English even if badly spoken at times.
    When and if hospital says there is a bed only at one of two military hospitals in Paris do accept they are utterly wonderful and find yourself pampered by doctors being colonels and generals.
    It is no fun to be ill but if it happens there is no better place than a university hospital in Paris for care and competence. Smile you´re in France.

  • Thank you so much for this informative post. I know that you wrote positively about the French health care system in your book, The Sweet Life. I’m a bit surprised that you have written such a comprehensive post on how to access it as a traveler. This is very useful, but it sort of makes me curious – do you receive that many questions about this topic? If so, I’m also curious, are French people as worried about health care when they travel to the states as we are when we go to France?

  • David – My wife is French but we have lived in the US for over 35 years. We go to France every year and always buy travel insurance. If we decided to move to France, we’ll need more than travel insurance. What do expats do? Do you have French insurance? What is the approximate cost? Thanks.

  • May I take this opportunity to advise everyone to get health travel insurance before travelling, wherever they are going! You may, for example, think that health care in UK is free – but the taxpayer has to pay dearly for it. It is not fair to expect the health care at your holiday destination to fund your illness or accident, if you can afford the travel you should be able to afford the insurance.

  • Good that you have written such a positive piece on French Health care – especially in view of the tumult currently going on in the US. I’m surprised, however, that you assume your readers are all American. As a British based reader who has experienced French health care several times – always excellent – I note that you have not mentioned one unique element of French medicine – injections. My son broke his ankle and the Cahor hospital insisted on daily blood thinning shots, including a supply to be used on our return to London. Here, the doctors scratched their heads. Forget it, they said, which left us with the problem of disposing of several boxes of unused syringes.

  • Christine: I don’t know if French people worry when they travel. I am under the impression that if you show up in America at a hospital, they are required to treat you, but I could be wrong. Any foreigners, French or otherwise, are welcome to chime in with your thoughts.

    Sandra: In France, one pays for their treatment at the end of their visit. So people should pay for services rendered. (I think it’s different in other countries, but am not sure.) For Americans, they would use the receipt to apply for reimbursement from their insurance company, which usually covers emergencies. But folks should check coverage before any trip and buy insurance, if they deem it appropriate.

    Jo-an: I don’t assume that all readers are American. (In fact, one-third of my readers aren’t.) But since I can’t cover every base, and I’m not familiar with how other countries handle their health care, I wrote this from an American perspective since I’m American. However the emergency care numbers and actions that are mentioned in the post are applicable to all; French, British, American, or otherwise.

    In my book, The Sweet Life in Paris, there’s a whole chapter about my experiences with the French health care system, and giving myself shots. You can bring syringes to pharmacies and now they have drop-off points on the streets in Paris for them as well.

    Doug: There are policies that you can get that cover you in your adopted country. Many Americans who live here get them. (For example, the AARO policy.) There are other policies that cost less, and provide other benefits. The one I had for many years before getting into the French health care system cost me less than $1000 annually in premiums.

  • Thanks for giving Bloom a plug! It’s a worthy program and your participation was much appreciated – you’re an excellent speaker with a great sense of humor. Very charming American :-). Your “survival list” is essential! Can you post it? Hope to see you around Paris sometime.

  • David – loved the post – so much useful info. I am Scottish, living in Paris with my American husband who is a British permanent resident. I have a British Passport and have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Does anyone have experience using the EHIC card for health care purposes (Doctor/dentist or any emergency health care services)? The EHIC card (issued in the UK) website advises that there is the possibility that health care will be rendered reciprocally for UK residents living in France (or words to that effect) but also says that if we were to incur any health charges in France, the EHIC card would make it 1) easier for us to get treatment and 2) that we would be eligible, if charged in France, to have at least a portion, if not all, of the charges re-imbursed by the British National Health Service. btw, we are also both retired (60+). In any case, the EHIC website advises all Brits to carry an EHIC card as a means to identify eligibility to receive medical care in France as British/EU citizens/residents, even if they have taken out health care insurance coverage. Apparently, it helps eliminate a lot of red tape and allows treatment to be administered more quickly, esp. in an emergency. Thanks for advice from anyone with experience using the EHIC card. And thanks for such a wonderful blogsite – I adore it!

  • Our employer provided HMO health care policy will cover us abroad for approved necessary medical expenses, but before an international trip I always call to ask for the name and direct contact number for the person who handles overseas claims so it is easy to make contact if necessary. I also double check our coverage just to be sure it hadn’t changed from the previous year.

    Medical repatriation costs are not usually covered by most US health care group policies like ours, so I take out an additional policy that covers medical repatriation expenses in case special arrangements are needed to return home due to medical circumstances. The “plan C” policy does NOT cover medical care (our health insurance covers that), but it does cover the cost and necessary arrangements for travel for medical necessity, etc., whether that is a nurse to accompany the patient on a commercial airline or hiring a helicoptor or jet to get the patient out of a remote area for medical care. The cost for a policy that covers the whole family is quite low (I think it was about $250 the last time I renewed it) and it covers any trip that is more than 100 miles from our home (so that includes domestic travel, too). Luckily so far we haven’t had to make a claim. I think this is their brochure (I have no connection other than having taken out policies). http://www.travelassistance.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=JJOl3Ac6Noc%3D&tabid=85

  • Just following up on JanetM’s comment on October 11, 2009 11:32 AM about bringing copies of your health information with you.

    A person I spoke to at our HMO health insurance company told me to also make sure someone responsible and trusted at home has copies, too. That way, should there be the need to make arrangements for medical care and coverage, there is someone in a home time zone who can check in with the insurance company and be a liaison.

    I always send an updated copy of our travel plans, our medical coverage details, , contact info, etc. to two family members, just in case. Knock on wood.

  • When I worked for a health insurance company, we did cover emergency treatment abroad but asked that claims/receipts be submitted in English as we did not have translators on staff at the claims office.

  • This was so useful, I have had feared that if in need some treatment in France, it could be quite difficult. But, that British hospital info was so good, because I’m applying my Vital, so i know at least one place where I won’t be ripped.

    But for EU healthcard/insurance, if I remember right, if you need to be in hospital, that will cover it, and they will charge you same amount than with Vital card (French health insurance card). Hospital day cost between 10-35 euros. As seeing doctor without a Vital card and with EU health card, is about 30 euros. Seeing dentist is little more expensive, 35-70 euros. I have needed these services (except hospital days), and I must say that i have got help easily and without any problem. Only thing is that you have to check in pharmacy that they do print on your the amount y have bought the medicins (doctors) and keep the bill. You need to send those in your country to health care system and they will deal with it. Only thing is, that if y are staying long period in France, your own country probably will ask (If you needed doctor more often and send all the bills at the same time), are you staying there permanently or over 4 months. Which can lead in of denial of paying your bill. This was procedure in EU for me, when i stayed few months in France before deciding that i will move permanently.

    Oh, and home/hotel visit from doc isn’t that expensive, 45-100 euro and http://paris.angloinfo.com/ has good list of services in health and pharmacy subjects, doctors speaking english and pharmacies too. And which ones sells American/British medics. And surprising long list of Psychiatrists, Psychologists & Psychotherapists, when it gets to you to live as foreigner in France.

  • Oh Gawd I was just thinking about this yesterday as I was crossing the street and a biker going the wrong way wizzed by me screaming REGARDE!!!
    Yeah surement! Oh Mama! not a nice thought – being loaded into an ambulance here or anywhere for that matter. MUST check my name and address are on my person VITE VITE!!!
    Merci David

  • I took a nasty fall in Paris about a year ago (bridge of nose crashing to curbstone), and experienced the French healthcare system firsthand. Passers by stood in the street to stop traffic, offer me kleenex, and call an ambulance. A pharmacist came running down the street with antiseptic spray and gauze. The ambulance driver joked with us all the way to the hospital (he had to wear a seatbelt, but because I was already injured, I didn’t– it didn’t matter if I was hurt in an accident). The hospital was adjacent to Notre Dame, and folks there were efficient– info, x-rays, stitches. When I was done, they just let us go. The first amazement was that they didn’t ask for money. The second, even more amazing, is that I DIDN’T HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING! Afterward? A coupe de champagne at Legrand, bien sur. Imagine the nightmare that would have befallen a European tourist who had the bad luck to fall in New York!

  • This is really informative and helpful article for people traveling to Paris. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work here.

  • On our recent trip to Paris my sister’s cold ended up being bronchitis and in order to make sure she could handle the train ride to Amsterdam and long flight back to Canada, we had her seen by a doctor. Probably SOS; the hotel staff contacted someone English speaking for us. He came within a couple of hours. While waiting, we contacted our travel insurance to open up a file, which is usually necessary. The doctor prescribed medication, wrote a note that my sister was fit for travel and didn’t have H1N1 which was one of my concerns, and wrote a note in English for the travel insurance people. It all went very smoothly. We paid 80 euros which we expect to get reimbursed. Living in Canada, we are used to not having to pay for a physician visit but this cost was manageable and it will be reimbused anyway.

  • Love your blog and what a great topic! As one who has needed medical attention more than once while traveling in France, I offer the following advice:

    1. Medications have different names in different countries. Even the “generic” name can be different. If you take medication, carry a list (as you say above, David) and in addition to the generic name, include the pharmacological formula. You can get this at http://www.rxlist.com Pharmacists and physicians with even very limited or no English can understand this.

    2. For US travelers, buy as much travel insurance as you can AND be sure that your insurance offers a 24 hour medical hotline which is available in a toll-free direct phone call. This is invaluable for locating English-speaking doctors in France and for coordinating with your own US medical team. (This may sound like overkill but me, I need a whole team!)

    3. Be prepared to insist on medical care. Surprised? I sure was. After hearing the French medical system held up as a paradigm to emulate, medical treatment, particularly outside Paris, can be hit or miss. On one trip, I had a serious fall, with broken ribs and a closed-head injury with loss of consciousness in the South west of France. A doctor listened to my breathing and confirmed, by my screams, that my ribs were broken. Long story short: no trip to the hospital (“You are fine to see the local doctor.”) no x-rays, no neurological exam (“You have no blood on your head so you are fine.”) despite the fact that I had a wicked headache and could not understand where I was and (quite scary) I could no longer speak French, a language I know very well. Several days later, when I had finally returned to Paris from the provinces, after a conference with my lead doctor in the US and my travel insurance hotline folks, I spent Thanksgiving Day in the ER at the American Hospital in Paris. By then, the head injury had caused partial loss of vision which later resolved and what turned out to be permanent memory damage.

    4. Accept that medical practices and attitudes are different in different places. Here’s the text from a sign in the ER at the American Hospital: “The nursing care center is unable to provide nursing care between 12 – 2pm. Emergency Department” As I believe you would say, David, WTF!

  • I forgot to second your salute to pharmacies!

    On a different trip from the one above, also in a small village in the South west of France, I became very ill with a violent headache, dehydration, etc. and headed off to the pharmacy for some suggestions for coping with this. They looked at the list I always have with me which includes my medicine and my medical conditions (in French as well as English, with the pharmacological formulas as I mentioned above) and immediately said I should see a doctor.

    The pharmacist rang a doctor, made an appointment for me, and then instructed me to return to the pharmacy 15 minutes before my appointment so that someone could walk me over to the doctor. That doctor did a quick assessment to decide if I needed to be hospitalized (I didn’t) before passing me on to an English-speaking doctor in a larger town where I was to stay with friends. She coordinated with my US medical team and managed my care. And it all started with a visit to the pharmacy!

  • Just to emphasize how competent the French medical staff are; you need have no concerns if there is a problem.

    If you have medicines prescribed elsewhere many (all?) pharmacies are able to translate the names to their French equivalents or, if the medicine is not available in France, they have sufficient details that an alternative can be found.
    The system is all-embracing. For example a friend (English) had periodic injections prescribed by the doctor – when he got home he found at the door the nurse to arrange her injection visits plus social security to assess what help he needed by way of cooking, dressing of sores, even looking after his partner who had Parkinsons.

    My own doctor was dismayed to admit that the specialist she referred me to was seriously overworked; the delay was all of 15 days and all the tests he would require were carried out even before he saw me. UK equivalent is 4 to 5 months for the same complaint.

    A & E (Urgences); my wife was seen within 4 minutes of arrival with apparently a long shallow cut; there was discussion whether to use stitches or butterfly closures – they decided to use stitches because the resulting scar on her face would not show(X-rays also showed a minor fracture); she was out in 20 minutes.
    UK residents should sent the receipts to the Pensions people in Newcastle who will arrange reimbursement of a large part of the costs; some travel insurance companies will pay out 100% of the amount not so reimbursed.

  • Very helpful post David…to a pair of Kiwi seniors having a 9 week holiday in France (3 weeks in Paris…3 in Charente…1 near Toulouse…1 near Nimes and the rest in Normandy …all in self catering apartment/gites) next year to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. While we hope we don’t need to make use of the medical system it was great to find up to date “this is what it’s all about” information. I’ve bookmarked your site and will be a regular visitor.
    Keep up the good work.
    Laurie
    PS We have been to France before…in 1967 with 2 small children…that was part of a 3 month self catering towing a caravan saga.

  • What a comfort to read information on your website, David!

    I’ve just got married with my husband living in Paris and I live in London. Have been spending about one week per month in Paris for the past 18 months. Never took it seriously to learn about the life of a Parisian, but you’ve given me positive views and reassurances.

    Noted that you haven’t posted any articles for a while. Just wondering if you might still living in Paris.

  • It would be good if you edited your original post to note that pharmacies are marked by a green cross. Americans wouldn’t otherwise be aware of that.