The Complete Guide to Mexico’s Healthcare System for Expats

The Complete Guide to Healthcare System in Mexico for Expats

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When you move to Mexico it is important to get a handle on healthcare.

Even if you are in perfect health at the moment, you never know what may happen. Accidents occur, and even if you don’t take a tumble down the stairs, you will inevitably need to visit a doctor or a dentist for a checkup at some point.

Mexico has an impressive healthcare system, consisting of both public and private sectors.

Having said that, this guide covers the public healthcare system in Mexico so that you can make an informed decision on whether to use it or opt for private insurance.

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Does Mexico Have Free Public Healthcare?

The Instituto de Salud para el Bienestar (INSABI), is Mexico’s free public healthcare system.

There is no need to sign up for this service, you are automatically enrolled to receive medical services at no cost.

It’s a great service, especially for those who can’t afford to pay for healthcare out of pocket.

The other main types of public health insurance available in Mexico are the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS) and the Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores (ISSSTE).

If you are employed in Mexico, you are eligible for IMSS coverage. However, if you are self-employed, you can enroll into the scheme by paying the system directly.

On the other hand, ISSSTE assists federal workers with old age, disability, and death.

Having two levels of public healthcare means that if you lose your job, even if you lose IMSS privileges, you are still covered under the INSABI scheme.

Who is Covered by Mexican Public Healthcare?

Of course, Mexican natives are covered by both INSABI and IMSS, depending on their employment status. But what about expats?

people with mask
Depending on your visa status, you might be covered for public healthcare in Mexico.

Your immigration status determines what options, if any, are available to you as an expat in Mexico.

If you are in Mexico on a tourist visa, then you won’t qualify for public healthcare. In this case, you should get travel insurance to cover any potential accidents.

On the other hand, if you are on a temporary or permanent resident visa, you are eligible to receive free healthcare.

INSABI

Any Mexicans nationals as well as temporary and permanent residents in Mexico are eligible for INSABI. There is no enrollment necessary.

In order to take advantage of this service, you simply need your (Clave Única de Registro de Población) and your visa.

A CURP is a code to identify Mexican citizens and residents and is unique to each individual. It basically functions like a social security number.

IMSS

If you are formally employed in Mexico, you should already be signed up for IMSS. Your employer completes all of the paperwork and makes the salary deductions for you.

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To receive IMSS benefits you need to be enrolled and contribute to the scheme for at least four weeks. After this period, you are covered for any medical expenses the scheme covers.

For surgeries, there is a waiting period of one year.

If you are a legal resident of Mexico and not employed in the country, you can still sign up for IMSS by making voluntary contributions to the program.

You can do this by visiting your local IMSS office and filling out a few forms. If you don’t speak Spanish, having a translator come with you to the appointment is helpful.

But remember, even if you choose not to opt for IMSS, you are still covered by INSABI.

What Does Public Healthcare Cover in Mexico?

Free healthcare sounds like a dream, but it doesn’t come without its restrictions.

People often assume that INSABI hospitals cover all medical treatments, but the reality is that these hospitals often do not fully cover certain cancers, heart attacks, diabetes, major surgeries, and other long-term treatments.

Unfortunately, there is no complete list of what INSABI covers and doesn’t cover as it depends on each individual case. However, in most cases, many end up paying around 50 percent of the cost for major treatments.

INSABI, in particular, is a new service that only came into effect in January 2020. So there are some kinks that are still being straightened out as the government tries to provide this service to those in need.

The INSABI service is advertised to cover the following (although it may not cover all of the fees):

  • primary care (general practitioner)
  • secondary care (specialists)
  • tertiary care (specialized treatments)
  • prescribed medication and supplies for treatment
  • all conditions are covered with no exceptions, including cancer and HIV

With IMSS, on the other hand, users get access to slightly more healthcare, but it still does not cover eye care, dental, infertility treatments, medical evacuation from Mexico, or any elective surgeries such as plastic surgery.

Another thing to note is that IMSS does not cover pre-existing conditions such as cancer, addictions, mental illness, or HIV.

If you have any pre-existing conditions, you either need to rely on INSABI or opt for private healthcare.

IMSS covers the following (it may not cover all fees):

  • accidents and emergencies
  • surgeries
  • prescribed medicine
  • a part of your salary if you can’t work

The free healthcare that comes in the form of INSABI and IMSS provides wonderful coverage and great benefits.

But for expats, it is generally recommended to invest in private healthcare so that you aren’t fully relying on the public system, which is not without its faults.

How Does Healthcare Work in Mexico?

Even though Mexico has its own healthcare system, it’s also important to know exactly what this means for individuals.

For example, tourists usually have a completely different experience when dealing with Mexican healthcare than residents.

So exactly how does Mexican healthcare work for these different circumstances? Let’s look at how it works for tourists, for people having a medical emergency, for expats who work in Mexico, and for residents.

Healthcare as a Tourist

Tourists coming to Mexico should buy insurance before crossing the border.

Even if you are not coming into Mexico specifically to be seen by a doctor, it is much cheaper to buy insurance in the unfortunate event that something happens.

If you find yourself at the doctor’s office in Mexico, expect to be asked for proof of insurance and a credit card before you are seen.

You may even be asked to pay before you are seen. In order to avoid being overcharged, it is recommended to have health insurance that lasts the duration of your trip in Mexico.

That said, Mexican healthcare is much cheaper in general than many other places around the world.

For example, for Americans, even if you pay out-of-pocket, you can save up to 75 percent on medical costs than if you were to get treated in the United States.

Medical Emergency

Even if you are careful, you never know what health emergencies may pop up.

It’s not uncommon for someone to break a leg or get a concussion. In these cases, you need to go to the emergency room in Mexico.

More often than not, you are asked to pay upfront or to hand over credit card details to leave on hold before you can be seen.

If you are not fluent in Spanish, bring a Spanish-speaking friend with you if possible in order to avoid any potential language barriers.

If you need an ambulance, call 911.

Healthcare Through Work

If you are employed by a Mexican company, they are legally required to enroll you in the IMSS healthcare program.

get cold
If you work in Mexico, chances are that you can access public healthcare through IMSS.

There is nothing you need to do. As long as you are employed, you are part of the program. A portion of your salary is automatically deducted for IMSS coverage.

However, you can’t enroll if you have any pre-existing health conditions. There is also a lengthy waiting period of one year for most surgeries. However, almost everything else is covered by IMSS.

It is worth noting that individuals who are enrolled in IMSS through an employer get priority treatment over those who enroll voluntarily by paying a monthly fee.

For this reason, if you are a retiree or working for yourself, it is probably a better idea to opt for private insurance if you can afford it.

Healthcare as a Resident

Residents are fully covered by public healthcare in Mexico.

If you are working, you are covered by IMSS, and if you are not, you are covered by INSABI. But due to the higher quality of staff and equipment, many expats choose to get private health insurance in Mexico.

Do Expats Need Health Insurance in Mexico?

Although it is generally recommended for expats to invest in health insurance in Mexico, there are both advantages and disadvantages to public healthcare.

By weighing these pros and cons, you can see whether it is necessary for you to get private health insurance in Mexico.

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Pros and Cons of Public Healthcare in Mexico

There are both positives and negatives that come with the public healthcare system in Mexico. We’ll cover them below.

Pros

First, it’s affordable. In fact, for many, it’s free. If you go for INSABI, you don’t have to pay at all. On the other hand, you pay a small fee, depending on your age, if you opt for IMSS. But regardless of whether you pay or not, the cost is minuscule.

Second, there are many English-speaking doctors. Many Mexican doctors undertake some of their training in the U.S., so if you don’t speak Spanish, it won’t normally be too difficult to communicate with them.

Cons

First, the quality of care you get depends on which hospital you go to, so it’s not very balanced. You can find the best care in the big cities.

Second, although they are advertised as free, the reality is that those who go with INSABI and IMSS often need to pay for medicine and supplies out of pocket.

Third, it is a public healthcare, so be prepared to wait in long lines when you go to INSABI or IMSS hospitals.

Expats that have access to INSABI or IMSS services don’t necessarily need to get health insurance in Mexico. However, if you would prefer to have access to better facilities, with no wait times, and your choice of doctor, private health insurance may be for you.

Read our in-depth guide to health insurance in Mexico to find out more information. 

Wait Times for Public and Private Healthcare

One of the main differences between public and private healthcare in Mexico is the wait time. Public healthcare is notorious for having long wait times. So for this reason, many expats pay for private insurance.

According to research published in the Salud Publica de Mexico, the average wait time for public healthcare for a surgical procedure lay between 12 to 15 weeks. The average waiting time for diagnostic procedures lies around 11 weeks.

Wait times for the public sector depend on the area and the type of care needed. When it comes to urgent care, some patients can wait for much of the day and may even be asked to come back another day. Appointment times for surgeries can take weeks and even months in some instances.

On the other hand, general practitioner appointments are done on a drop-in scheduling system much like urgent care. Therefore, in order to see a general practitioner, some patients line up from early in the morning and may be asked to come back another day if the hospital is busy. 

Wait times with private healthcare are minuscule compared to the public system. However, even with the private system, you still have to wait a day or two to see a doctor.

And if you need to see a specialist, most patients get in within a week. For surgical procedures, expect wait times of a couple of weeks or even days after the initial consultation.

Some private insurance even offers urgent same-day appointments.

How to Find an English-Speaking Doctor in Mexico

You can easily find doctors all over Mexico, but if you don’t speak Spanish, your options may be a bit more limited.

talking with a doctor
Ask your expat friends in Mexico for references to good English-speaking doctors.

Of course, you can always go to a Spanish-speaking doctor with a translator, but most people feel more comfortable making sure nothing gets lost in translation.

If you are looking for an English-speaking doctor in Mexico, there are a few options.

The first is to find one through a referral. Ask your friends or family in Mexico if they have any recommendations.

Chances are, if they have been in Mexico longer than you, they already have an English-speaking doctor they visit

The second option is to ask on an expat forum or Facebook group. There are many groups online that expats use to make friends and ask questions that other expats can answer.

You can create a new post asking about English-speaking doctors where you are staying. But if you don’t feel like creating a new post, there are usually similar questions asked that you can search for in the group.

The third option is to do some research. You can either search Google for “English-speaking doctors in my area” or use a resource like Doctoralia, which many in Mexico use to find doctors. If using the latter, you can easily filter for doctors that speak English.

Mexico’s Healthcare Costs 

If you are a Mexican resident, even if you choose not to pay for private health insurance, you are covered by INSABI or IMSS. These programs are touted to provide free healthcare to Mexican residents, but the reality is that it may not fully cover the costs.

But whether your public or private insurance covers the costs of your healthcare or not, it is good to have an idea about what each of the most popular medical services cost in Mexico. If you find yourself in Mexico with no insurance as a tourist, this is all the more important to know.

Doctor’s Visits

Whether you have run out of your prescription or find yourself worrying about a new mole, general practitioners are normally the go-to for most ailments.

A doctor’s visit in Mexico costs around MXN400, which is around US$20.

Emergency Room Visits

The cost for emergency room visits depend on what services you need. But for basic services, expect to pay around MXN400 US$20. This can reach up to thousands of pesos if you need more care.

Hospitals in Mexico ask for deposits before you are actually seen by the doctor. Also, they keep your credit card on hold and may charge a deposit of up to MXN25,000 or US$1,220.

A good rule of thumb for emergency rooms if you are not covered by insurance is to have around US$3,000 on hand.

Ambulances

Although there are free, public ambulances run by the Red Cross in Mexico, there are unfortunately not enough of them.

When you call 911, you normally have a couple different private ambulances arrive to compete for your business.

As expected, these ambulances are not free and ask for payment on arrival. Expect to pay around MXN4,000 or US$195 for private ambulances.

Medication

The cost of medicine in Mexico depends on what you get.

For example, it costs around US$15.87 for 30 tablets of Lipitor in Mexico, whereas it costs around US$452.80 in the U.S.

It is worth noting that although you may need a prescription for some medicines in Mexico, you can buy many items over the counter.

Physical Therapy

For a physical therapy session in Mexico, most therapists charge around MXN500 or US$25 per session.

Lab Work

Getting labs done in Mexico costs around MXN400 to MXN2,000, depending on what you need. That’s around US$20 to US$98.

Giving Birth

The cost of giving birth in Mexico depends on the hospital. It also depends on whether it is a natural birth or C-section and whether it is an easy or difficult birth.

Costs are variable, but giving birth ranges from MXN15,000 to MXN50,000, or US$730 to US$2,430. 

Surgeries

Surgeries can be as simple as getting stitches to as complicated as a gastric bypass. Costs vary according to what you get.

A gastric bypass in Mexico costs around MXN100,000 (US$4,867). In the U.S., the surgery would set you back around US$20,000 to US$25,000.

Dentistry

Many expats and tourists choose to get dental work done in Mexico due to the fairer prices. The actual cost depends on what you get done. 

As an example, a teeth cleaning costs around MXN500 to MXN1,200 (US$24 to US$58) and getting a crown fitted costs between MXN3,500 to MXN10,000 (US$170 to US$485).

Dental implants in Mexico also costs two times less than in the U.S. 

Medical Evacuation

In some instances, a medical evacuation may be necessary. If not already covered by your insurance, expect to pay US$25,000 and up to US$60,000 to be flown back to the U.S. or Canada for treatment.

Now, on to You

Healthcare is a basic necessity that is important to figure out in any country you move to.

Mexico has an extensive public healthcare network through the INSABI and IMSS programs. Despite this, many expats choose to pay for private insurance to cut down on wait times. 

Whether you choose to go the public or private route is completely up to your own personal preferences.

However, whatever you choose, you can rest assured that Mexico has a myriad of amazing doctors and great facilities. They can take care of you when you most need it.

Lev is a writer passionate about inspiring more people to travel and explore the world. He left his Texas home in 2016 to see the world. He has been to over 30 countries and has now immigrated to New Zealand permanently. Lev enjoys summer weather, outdoor activities, and good food.

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