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What exactly is “Social Security”?

Social Security includes all schemes designed to protect people against the consequences of life’s risks:

  • Health,
  • Industrial accidents and occupational diseases,
  • Old age,
  • Family benefits,
  • Unemployment,
  • Welfare.

Often equated with health insurance, Social Security actually refers to a much broader reality and includes family benefits, top-up pensions, welfare etc.

Social Security abroad covers very different systems depending on the country you are in, both in terms of organisation and the range of services available.  In some countries where some risks are inadequately covered, or not covered at all, the purchase of private international insurance is essential to cope with the challenges that life can bring.  Similarly, some countries have a Social Security scheme which covers health insurance and others do not.

When going abroad, you should compare the Social Security systems of your home and destination countries to work out how to "recreate" the cover you had at home.

What are the main components of Social Security?

A country’s public Social Security system includes all or part of the following six areas:

Health Insurance

Covers costs related to illness, maternity, disability, death (not work-related).

Industrial accidents and occupational diseases

Covers illness, disability and work-related death.

Retirement benefits

Covers retired people who were previously employed.

Family benefits

Covers family expenses: children, housing etc.

Unemployment benefit

Covers loss of income during periods of unemployment


Welfare assistance for persons whose resources are too low to meet the needs generated by disability, age, illness and social or economic difficulties when other forms of support (social or family support) are insufficient or non-existent.

To supplement the various services offered by the state in a given country, it is possible to take out private insurance allowing the insured to adjust their cover to the desired level.

Can you keep your national Social Security cover during periods abroad?

In some cases, you can keep your national Social Security cover during periods of time spent abroad. This option is of real interest when the Social Security system in the destination country is less efficient than the one at home.  It also makes the return home easier after a period of living abroad.

However, this option depends on a number of factors:

1. Your employment status

Whether you are:

- seconded by your company,

- sent abroad by your company with expatriate status or employed by a local company under a local contract.

2. The existence of a bilateral Social Security agreement between your home country and your host country

Some countries have signed international Social Security agreements which make provision for, facilitate and arrange the preservation of entitlement to the benefits provided in the home country during periods of residence in the host country.

3. Your destination

Some countries have formed a Union which authorises the free movement of citizens from the various member countries. Within the European Union there is no European Social Security system common to all Member States but there is an agreement to harmonise the various national regulations.

4. The choice made by your employer and their location

Your employer’s geographical location may affect whether or not you can keep the Social Security cover provided in your home country. This will depend whether your employer is located in your home country, the host country or another country.

Similarly, it is sometimes up to your employer to decide whether to maintain the Social Security cover from your home country. This decision may have a significant financial impact on them depending on the length of your stay abroad and the type of contract you have signed.

In the absence of a bilateral agreement between the home and host countries, it is not always possible to avoid membership of the host country’s Social Security system.  In this case, you may need to pay two lots of contributions if you also want to remain covered by your home country’s scheme.

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