Healthcare in France: a beginner’s guide

Félicitations! You’ve chosen a life in France – or perhaps life in France has chosen you. Either way, there’s plenty to learn about life in the land of baguettes, cheese and fine wine.

Healthcare in France: a beginner’s guide
Photo: gioiak2/Depositphotos
And at the top of any new expat’s list is sorting out healthcare in their adopted country. Figuring out who to call for what – especially in a foreign language – can take longer than expected.
To help get you started, we’ve put together a quick introduction guide to some of the basics to think about when trying to navigate healthcare in France.
Finding a doctor
Finding a doctor in France when you’ve first arrived can be a bit tricky – given that doctors aren’t allowed to advertise. Most do, however, list their services in the online yellow pages (Pages Jaunes). In the keyword field on the left (“Quoi, Qui”), enter “médécin” and then enter your location in the field on the right.
Of course, it’s very hard to know from the yellow pages if a doctor speaks English. So another option is to stroll into a local pharmacy and ask for recommendations (most will be staffed with someone who understands basic English). Friends, colleagues, and neighbours can also provide guidance, and some embassies also publish lists of English-speaking doctors.
Most doctors in France practice on their own, or in small groups of practitioners. It doesn’t usually take very long to book an appointment – but keep in mind that fees are normally paid upfront and many doctors don’t accept credit cards.
To participate in the French state healthcare system, residents are required to register with a general practitioner, or médecin traitant – who then becomes your first port of call for medical matters.
However, participating in a private health insurance programme like Cigna Global gives you added flexibility to choose whatever doctor you want at no extra cost.
Emergency care
It’s usually best to go straight to the nearest hospital in an emergency (look for les urgences). Most towns have a Hôpital or Centre hospitalier where emergency care is available. In larger cities, you may find a regional hospitals (centre hospitalier regional – CHR) or university hospitals (centre hospitalier universitaire – CHU).
Urgent emergency care is run centrally by a public health body known SAMU (Service d'Aide Médicale Urgente), which operates under the philosophy of giving a high-level of care at the scene of the emergency. You can call SAMU by dialing 15.
Each Département runs its own emergency care services, which range from private medical transport services to full-blown mobile intensive care units (Service Mobile d'Urgence et de Réanimation – SMUR).
If you need to call for an ambulance or on-site help, you can always use 112, the pan-European emergency number. Other options include 15 for SAMU, 17 for the police, or 18 for the fire brigade.
Operators may speak English, but there is no guarantee. SAMU is staffed with qualified doctors who are trained to determine the best response, including whether it’s serious enough to send a SMUR unit.
In a few regions of France there is also a new 24-hour GP hotline being tested – find out more here.
Specialist care
In general, your French general practitioner (médecin traitant) is able to refer you to a specialist if you need particular treatment. Getting a referral allows you to be reimbursed for up to 70 percent of the associated costs according to the French health insurance scheme. Of course if you have a private health insurance plan like Cigna Global, you may be able to go straight to a specialist covered under your plan.
You don’t need a referral for visits to a paediatrician, gynaecologist, psychiatrist or ophthalmologist.
Either way, your médecin traitant will keep track of your medical records and help manage any additional treatments.
In France, both over-the- counter and non-prescription drugs are sold in shops known as pharmacie – identified by an iconic green cross. They feature highly-trained staff, many of whom may have a passable command of English. They are knowledgeable and friendly, and can be a good place to start if you have questions about different conditions and treatments.
When buying prescription medication at a pharmacy, you’ll receive a brown form known as feuille de soin that needs to be filled out by both you and the pharmacist. There is also a small sticker (a vignette) that must be peeled off the box of any medication and placed on the feuille de soin. This is then sent to your health insurance provider for reimbursement.
Generally, pharmacies are open from 9:30am to 7:00pm, Monday through Saturday, remaining close on Sundays and bank holidays (and during lunch). However, there is always a local pharmacie de garde that provides off-hours services.
Paying for it (insurance)
Generally speaking, choosing a médecin traitant is key to getting reimbursed through the French healthcare system. Doing things correctly means you can receive reimbursement of up to 70 percent of your medical expenses (compared to only up to 30 percent otherwise). While it’s possible to change doctors, there is a degree of administrative hassle involved.
Many expats find it’s less stressful to have private health insurance from an international company.
Cigna Global specializes in healthcare for foreigners abroad, ensuring you are covered at every level with maximum flexibility. After all, of all the things to worry about when moving abroad, healthcare should not be one of them. Let Cigna Global worry about your health, so you can get to know the local boulangerie instead!
This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Cigna Global.


France brings in free contraception for all women aged 18-25

Free birth control for all women under 25 will be available in France from Saturday, expanding a scheme targeting under-18s to ensure young women don't stop taking contraception because they cannot afford it.

France brings in free contraception for all women aged 18-25
A doctor holds an interuterine contraceptive device (IUD) before inserting it in a patient. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

The scheme, which could benefit three million women, covers the pill, IUDs, contraceptive patches and other methods composed of steroid hormones. Contraception for minors was already free in France.

Several European countries, including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, make contraception free for teens. Britain makes several forms of contraception free to all.

France announced the extension to women under 25 in September, saying surveys showed a decline in the use of contraception mainly for financial reasons.

The move is part of a series of measures taken by President Emmanuel Macron’s government to boost women’s rights and alleviate youth poverty. The free provision is supported by women’s groups including the association En Avant Tous.

“Between 18 and 25-years-old, women are very vulnerable because they lose a lot of rights compared to when they were minors and are very precarious economically,” spokeswoman Louise Delavier told AFP.

Leslie Fonquerne, an expert in gender issues, said there was more to be done.

“This measure in no way resolves the imbalance in the contraceptive burden between women and men,” the sociologist said.

In some developed countries, the free contraception won by women after decades of campaigning is coming under attack again from the religious right.

In the United States, former president Barack Obama’s signature health reform, known as Obamacare, gave most people with health insurance free access to birth control.

But his successor Donald Trump scrapped the measure, allowing employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage on religious grounds — a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020.

Poland’s conservative government has also heavily restricted access to emergency contraception as part of its war on birth control.