What’s the reality of expat life in Europe today?

Many of Europe’s 33 million international residents have hit something of a jackpot - at least if recent research is anything to go by.

What’s the reality of expat life in Europe today?
Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

From longer parental leave and better educational opportunities to bigger paychecks and career boosters, expats in Europe seem to be enjoying the many perks of living abroad.

One of the greatest appeals of relocating to Europe in particular seems to be the promise of a higher quality of life. A recent survey conducted by Vitreous World on behalf of AXA – Global Healthcare* suggests that expats in Europe are more likely to have packed their bags for better pay and more benefits than for the chance to embark on a new adventure. In France, for example, 31 percent of foreigners say that the French lifestyle is by far the best thing about living there – and about 44 percent benefit from things such as improved pay and learning a new language.

Find out more about AXA’s health insurance packages for expats

Fresh statistics from the world’s longest-running survey of expats* found that, among other things, many European expat hotspots seem to be hitting the high notes on a wide variety of criteria. In Spain, for example, more expats than in any other expat community report that more sun and a slower pace of life has led to significant improvements in both their physical and mental health.** In Switzerland, too, international residents are enthusiastic about their lifestyle upgrade, which includes reaping the benefits of the strong economy (by way of higher-than-global-average salaries) and taking care of their families without having to worry about political instability.*

Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

Despite digital technologies alleviating some of the problems once experienced by expats, living and working abroad does, like most things, have a flipside – or, at any rate, its own set of hurdles. As AXA – Global Healthcare’s survey indicates, these can include language barriers, making new friends, seasonal depression, and adapting to a change in climate. But if you’re aware of these challenges before you move, downloading a language app or joining an online expat community can help you to prepare yourself.

Learn more about how you can benefit from AXA’s global healthcare plans

Moreover, expats often face bureaucratic obstacles as they navigate everything from banking services to local healthcare systems. According to AXA – Global Healthcare’s survey, almost four out of five expats had concerns when seeking healthcare in their current country, with 63 percent saying they would travel back to their home country if they needed medical treatment. Fortunately, you can make use of services such as the Virtual Doctor Service – which is offered with some of AXA’s global health plans with out-patient cover. This provides a handy solution for healthcare challenges if they do arise, allowing you to speak to a doctor at short notice, in a range of languages, at any time and from anywhere in the world.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

On the whole, it does appear that for international dwellers in Europe, expat life comes with many benefits. Although over half of the expats surveyed did report that being away from friends and family made it harder to integrate, and 43 percent said that making new friends was tough, AXA – Global Healthcare’s research indicates that, overall, the majority of both European and global expats believe that their experience of living abroad has been a positive one. For example, close to a majority of expats globally attest to having a better work-life balance than in their home country, citing better leisure opportunities, an easier commute, more disposable income, and more time to spend with family as main reasons.

With AXA’s global health cover, you and your family are covered at every stage of expat life. Find out more about how AXA’s international health insurance can help you to get the most out of life abroad.

*Research conducted in February 2019 by Vitreous World on behalf of AXA. A total of 1,352 expats were surveyed (250 in the UK, France, UAE, Canada and China, and 100 in Hong Kong).

**HSBC Expat Explorer Survey 2019

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and presented by AXA.

AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited. Registered in Ireland number 630468. Registered Office: Wolfe Tone House, Wolfe Tone Street, Dublin 1. AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.

AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited. Registered in England (No. 03039521). Registered Office: 20 Gracechurch Street, London, EC3V 0BG, United Kingdom. AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited is authorised and regulated in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority.


For members


Urgent care: How to access non-emergency medical care in France

Whether you're a resident, tourist or second-home owner, here's what to do if you need non-emergency medical care while you are in France.

Urgent care: How to access non-emergency medical care in France

You might be curious what to do in France if you’ve ever suffered from a stomach virus that hangs around a little too long, wondered if you’ve came down with a case of strep throat, or worried about a minor allergic reaction.

Obviously if you have a major medical event you should either visit a hospital urgences (Emergency Room) or call an ambulance (more on how to do that below) – but if your problem is not quite an emergency but still something that you need help with, there are several options.

Here are the services available and how they can be accessed by French residents, tourists and second-home owners.

SOS Médecins

This is the ’emergency doctor’ service and will connect you with a general practitioner, available 24/7. You can use it if you’re a visitor to France, you’re on holiday in a different part of France, you’re not yet registered with a doctor or simply if your own doctor is not available (either because it’s out of normal hours or your doctor is on holiday).

SOS Médecins is most known for their house-calls, as they will come directly to your home to give you a consultation. However you can also visit their local office or request a téléconsultation (online appointment). In either case, the person you see is a doctor and they will be able to diagnose you and prescribe medication, as needed. 

The SOS Médecins website gives three options: make an appointment by calling (the number is 3624), make an appointment online, or walk-in for a consultation (hours will vary for this depending on the location).

When making your appointment, you can request an English speaking doctor, but it is not guaranteed you will get one. 

When calling to make the appointment, you will need to know your département number, your phone number, the patient’s first and last name, the exact address (including the building code, floor, and any other relevant apartment-specific information), the reason for the call, and the age of the patient.

Cost – SOS Médecins varies in price depending on the time of day and location (whether the consultation is at the centre or at your home). For a house-call on holidays, weekends, and nights you can expect the fee to range between €50 to 80, which may be in part reimbursable by Assurance Maladie if you are registered in the French medical system.

Maisons Médicales de Gardes

These are community health centres that are intended to stay open after working hours and on the weekends. They are intended to ease the burden on emergency room by offering a place for people with non-life threatening emergencies to go outside of normal operating hours.

You can look online to see the closest Maison Médicale to you, or you can call your regular doctor and listen to their voice machine – usually they will list your after-hours options. For more information, you can visit this website.

Before walking up to the centre, you can call to allow the operator to assess your situation and give you a recommendation regarding whether you need emergency treatment or whether you can be treated at the Maison Médicale.

Cost – you can expect to pay between €40 to €60.


Pharmacists in France are highly qualified (it takes between five and seven years to complete the training) and by law all pharmacies must have at least one qualified pharmacist on the premises.

Although they cannot prescribe medication, you can go to a pharmacy with a minor medical problem, to ask advice or for treatment for less serious injuries, or to get over-the-counter medication such as cough syrup or painkillers. You can visit on a walk-in basis and there is no need for an appointment.

If the pharmacist cannot treat you, they will tell you whether you need further assistance from a doctor or whether your medical issue is urgent enough to warrant an ambulance or trip to the hospital.

If you suspect you have Covid-19, you can get a test at a pharmacy. For strep throat or tonsilitis (une angine), you can ask for a rapid test (TROD or Test Rapide d’Orientation Diagnostique) at any pharmacy. If it is a positive result for bacterial strep, then you’ll be referred back to a primary care doctor in order to get a prescription for antibiotics. This test is covered by Assurance Maladie if you are registered in the French system.

READ MORE: How to get the flu vaccine in France

You can find a ‘pharmacie de gard‘ (a 24-hour pharmacy) by also going on the SOS Médecins website and using their locator tool.

Cost – Seeking the assistance of a pharmacist is free, but if they recommend medication or treatment, you will likely have to pay, although some treatment types are reimbursed if you are registered in the French health system. 

Make a doctor appointment

Oftentimes, foreigners or tourists do not think they can make an appointment with a general practitioner in France if they do not have a carte vitale or are not registered in the French healthcare system.

In fact, anyone can make an appointment to see a French doctor, there is no need to be registered with them. One of the easiest ways to do this is by going to the website Doctolib and signing up for an appointment.

On Doctolib, you can see the medical professional’s qualifications and languages spoken, so you can filter based on the doctor’s English abilities. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt because not every medical professional with English listed on their Doctolib page speaks fluent English. 

On the Doctolib website, you can set a preference for Aujourd’hui (today) or Dans les prochains trois jours (In the next three days), and you can also set your motif de consultation (type of consultation) to an online appointment, if you are not looking to make the trip to the doctor’s office (not all doctors offer these).

Cost – Everyone who visits a doctor in France is expected to pay, the standard rate is €25. If you are registered in the French medical system part of the cost will be reimbursed through your carte vitale.

If you are a tourist or second-home owner you may be able to claim the cost back on your health or travel insurance, depending on the policy.

If you are still in the process of registering for your carte vitale be sure to ask for a feuille de soins – this is basically a receipt, and when you get the card you can claim back medical costs incurred while you waited using the feuille de soins.

When booking the appointment, check to see whether the physician is ‘Secteur 1’ or ‘Secteur 2’ – this will determine if they are allowed to charge additional fees. A sectuer 1 doctor must apply the basic rate set out by the medication convention. For a GP, the fixed price is €25.

For an emergency 

If your situation is a life-threatening emergency, you should seek immediate assistance.

READ MORE: Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Call 15: You will be put in contact SAMU who provides ambulances and emergency medical care. 

Call 18: You will be put in contact with the fire department (les pompiers) who are trained to provide emergency medical assistance.

Call 112 (or 114 for people with hearing and speaking difficulties): This is the EU-wide emergency phone number. You might be more likely to reach someone who speaks fluent English on this line. 

Cost – emergency medical treatment is open to everyone including visitors. If you go to the hospital and receive treatment without being admitted, you will be charged a one-off fee of €18.

If you are admitted to hospital you may have to pay, depending on the treatment you receive and the nature of the problem – more details here.

Although hospitals will ask for your carte vitale as standard, you can still receive treatment if you don’t have the card.