Health insurance

Going to the doctor or hospital can cost a lot of money in the USA. This is why it is important to have health insurance. Here you will learn about what is health insurance, how to get health insurance, the different kinds of government programs (Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, and WIC), health insurance at your workplace, paying for insurance on your own, the Affordable Care Act, and insurance for college students.

man in white shirt in medical room

What is health insurance?

Health insurance, or medical insurance, is a contract between you and a health insurer company that requires the health insurer to pay some or all of your health care costs in exchange for a monthly payment you pay to them. The monthly cost of the insurance is called the premium.

Healthcare for immigrants is not very different from healthcare for native-born Americans, but it can be confusing.

The simplest way to explain it is that when you have insurance and you get a medical expense, the insurance company helps pay for the expense. 

A medical emergency or surgery can cost many thousands of dollars.  It is better to pay the premium every month than suddenly get a huge bill from a hospital.

In general, health insurance for immigrants and refugees is the same as for native-born Americans. The differences in health insurance are based on age, employment, any health problems you currently have, how much you can pay for the monthly premium, and if you get it from your employer or you get it on your own.

How do I get health insurance?

In the United States, you can:

  • get covered through government (public health) insurance programs, or
  • get insurance through your job with help from your employer, or
  • buy insurance yourself.

Being covered is the same as being insured. They both mean you are protected from having to pay large medical bills.

Government health insurance programs

Are you eligible?

Being eligible for something means you can get something or qualify for something. The government will decide if you and your family are eligible for government programs.

To decide if you are eligible, the government looks at how much money you make, how many children you have, and how old you are.

Healthcare for immigrants and refugees may be cheap or free, since you may not be making much money at first. You may be able to qualify for healthcare through a government program.


Medicaid is a public health program run by the state you live in. The program provides insurance to elderly and disabled individuals, children, pregnant women, and some families that are low-income. Some refugee families will get Medicaid when they first arrive in the United States.

If you are undocumented and your children are U.S. citizens, they may be eligible for Medicaid. 

The eligibility for Medicaid varies by state. Learn more about Medicaid.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In March 2021, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement that it will not consider the use of Medicaid (except for Medicaid for long-term institutionalization), public housing, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as public charge in immigration petitions. Learn more about the public charge rule.


Medicare is a public health program run by the U.S. government. Medicare insurance is available to all adults age 65 and older and to disabled citizens of all ages. Medicare offers a plan to assist with the costs of prescription drugs.

Learn more about Medicare.


The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) pays for healthcare for low-to middle-income families with young children. CHIP is a good program because it pays for your children’s doctor appointments and medical care.

It is important for immigrant and refugee families to take their children to the doctor for yearly check-ups and for immunizations.

If you are undocumented and your children are U.S. citizens, they may be eligible for CHIP.

Search for your state’s CHIP program.


Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a state-by-state managed healthcare program that specifically helps children younger than five years of age, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers. The program focuses on nutrition, food supply, and improving access to healthcare and social welfare services.

If you are low-income and have a baby, this is a good program. Learn more about WIC and search for your state’s WIC program.

Private health insurance

Many Americans have private insurance and do not use public programs. This is because companies often pay for private health insurance for their workers.

Workplace health insurance

When you look for a job, you should try to find a job that offers health insurance. This will help your family. The employer pays most of the cost and the employee pays a small amount. For an extra amount, employees can usually choose to include their husband or wife and any children they have on the same insurance plan.

If you leave your job, you may be allowed to keep your insurance coverage for a while, through a government plan called COBRA. COBRA is only for a short period, and you may have to pay the whole premium yourself, but it will keep you covered between jobs.

Paying for insurance without an employer

If you do not have an employer offering health coverage, and if you are not eligible for a government program, you will have to buy private health insurance. This can be expensive. You may be eligible for help with your premiums through the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act (ACA),  also called “ObamaCare,” requires most US citizens and legal residents to have health insurance.  But it also allows you to buy health insurance for a lower cost with help from the government.

See if you can get coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

College medical insurance plans

Students are often able to purchase healthcare insurance through their colleges. To be eligible you must be enrolled in a certain number of credits.

College students can talk to their college or university about what options they have.