Before deciding to relocate to New Zealand it is vital that you understand how the healthcare system works and what steps you will need to take in order to join it on your arrival.

There is a basic level of public healthcare in New Zealand that offers taxpayer-funded free or subsidised care for hospital stays and emergency treatment. When being treated by a hospital either as an inpatient or an outpatient, you will benefit from free prescriptions and treatments, free x-rays and free lab tests. GP visits and referrals are also subsidised, as are medications and treatments for those suffering with chronic conditions.

Certain aspects of women’s care is also taken care of by the state, including treatment and monitoring throughout pregnancy and free breast screening for the over-50s. Children in New Zealand are entitled to free dental care when they are of school age and subsidised prescriptions until the age of six.

You are entitled to join the public healthcare system if you are legally resident in New Zealand. If you are entering on a work permit, you will be required to have been resident in the country for a minimum of 24 months before you may claim your entitlement. You can still access the same services during this time but you will be required to pay for them yourself. A paid visit to a GP costs in the region of $40 – $60 depending on the practice and location. Whether you are eligible for free GP consultations or not, with a shortage of GPs countrywide it is a good idea to find one who will accept you onto their register as soon as you arrive rather than waiting until your need is urgent.

If you are visiting New Zealand, for example you are staying temporarily in the country prior to making your permanent move, you may be eligible for emergency healthcare under a reciprocity agreement. This applies to certain Commonwealth nationals, for example those from Australia and the UK, but nonetheless your cover will be limited and will not include the cost of a GP visit, non-urgent service or rehabilitation so it is well worth ensuring you have sufficient cover for all eventualities before you travel.

How do I join the system?

When you apply for a work permit or residency in New Zealand you will be required to undertake a health test before being accepted into the public healthcare system. As a rule of thumb, the test aims to assess whether or not you are likely to cost the system more than $25,000 over four years. If so, you may be refused. Certain conditions may preclude you from registering, such as HIV infection, Hepatitis B and C, current or previous cancer, transplants or renal failure, cardiac disease, COPD, genetic and congenital disorders, severe autoimmune diseases, severe vision or hearing impairment, motor neurone disease or chronic osteoarthritis. Obesity may also result in you being turned down if your BMI is over 35.

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Your medical exam will involve you completing an in-depth questionnaire about your medical history and undergoing routine tests and a chest x-ray to check for the presence of TB. The medical exam will usually be carried out prior to your departure for New Zealand and the x-ray and report must be no more than three months old when submitted as part of your application. It should be carried out by a designated panel doctor in your home country, and if your case is borderline it will be referred to an official immigration service assessor who will weigh up the severity and possible implications of your condition. In the event that you fail, it is possible that you may be granted a medical waiver if it is judged that the likelihood of you making a significant contribution to the country outweighs the potential impact on its health system.

The private health care system

While state medical care in New Zealand is of a good standard, it can be subject to significant delays, especially when it comes to specialist referrals. For this reason, many New Zealanders and expats alike choose to register with a private healthcare provider. The cost of private healthcare in New Zealand is relatively low compared to many other developed countries and there are different levels of cover available.

With dental care fully paid for the over 18s, many adults choose to include dental cover on their healthcare schemes while others opt for medical cover only. If you want to keep your costs to a minimum without falling foul of long waiting lists, you may wish to opt for cover that applies only if and when you are referred by your usual GP for treatment by a specialist.

There is a range of health insurers in operation in New Zealand from international names such as Bupa, Aviva and Axa PPP to domestic specialists such as Southern Cross. Prices vary considerably, so it is well worth shopping around to find the most competitive quotes for your individual situation.

When you are choosing your plan it is worth considering whether or not you would like it to include the cost of medication and prescriptions. The cost of medicines in New Zealand is relatively high and if you are likely to need regular prescriptions this can have quite an impact on your expenditure. You will also find pharmacies take a strict line on dispensing products that have not been prescribed by a GP or other health practitioner.

Finally, do give some consideration to healthcare when choosing where to live in New Zealand. It is a good-sized country with a small population, and most of the major healthcare services are located in and around its main urban areas. If you are thinking of relocating somewhere that is more off the beaten track, access to healthcare is a serious consideration if you don’t want to find yourself driving long distances in search of even the most basic medical assistance.