When most people imagine moving to Italy, they dream of the astounding culture and legendary food. They probably don’t fantasize about signing up for a healthcare plan. Even though foreigners would rather focus on the fun reasons for relocating abroad, reality will hit hard the first time they need to see a doctor. Know how the system works so you don’t have to miss a single ristorante.

The Basics

Americans moving to Italy will be relieved to learn about their National Health Service (or SSN Servizio Sanitario Nazionale. National income taxes provide high-quality care for every citizen. This also applies to expats with a permit to stay. It’s not automatic though, as healthcare in Italy for foreigners entails signing up for their SSN (at the local health authority, or ASL Azienda Sanitaria Locale). You will need to have a job in Italy since one of the required documents is a letter for your employer. Other documents include your permit, ID and tax code. You’ll receive a number and health card just like in the United States.

Those unsatisfied with the SSN may seek out private insurance. You will have a wider selection when choosing your doctor, and receive help finding one who speaks your language.

Doctors are abundant but you might have trouble locating a medici who speaks a specific language other than Italian. For English-speaking doctors, foreigners can try their embassy or the Medici Generici section in the yellow pages.

Italy Healthcare System

Emergencies, Specialists and Medicine

Since Italians view healthcare as a right, anyone who goes to an emergency room can receive care. They don’t even need to belong to the SSN. The key Italian terms to know for this situation are pronto soccorso for emergency room and ospedale for hospital. As in the U.S., cases are taken in order of emergency, so prepare to wait if others are worse off than you. If you need an ambulanza (or ambulance), dial 118 instead of 911. Hopefully you won’t need surgery, but in the event that you have one, consult your doctor first. He or she will most likely schedule you during the week since the majority of practices operate Monday through Friday. As always you will need your health card.

While specialists are included in the SSN, you will have to provide a co-pay for examinations. Your first step will be seeing a general practitioner who can give you a referral. In Italy all healthcare specialists operate in public hospitals.

Look for the green cross sign whenever you need a farmacia, or pharmacy. The hours are mainly the same nation-wide, 8:30am to 7:30pm with the typical (for Italians) three-hour lunch break in between. There’s also an emergency chemist in every town. You might be able to get some life-saving medications for free, but even with SSN, you’ll probably have to pay a small fee for prescriptions. All over-the-counter medicines and vitamins are full-price. If you want advance information about prescription co-pays, call your nearest ASL.

Healthcare in Italy for foreigners may seem daunting, but if you take the right steps, you’ll have peace of mind while you adjust to a new way of life.