French landscape

An introduction to the French healthcare system

PUBLISHED: 27 August 2018 | LAST UPDATED: 12 May 2022

The French are good at many things – food, drink, fashion – but they’re also known for an excellent health system. The French health system is consistently ranked as one of the best in the world.¹ Medical care is generally easy to access, and you don’t need to wait long for appointments. However, if you haven’t lived in France before, you may find that the system is a little complicated. That’s why we’ve created this guide.

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Registering with the health system

Health cover – either from the state or from a private insurer – is a legal requirement for people living in France².

If you’re planning to stay in France for more than three months and want to get state health cover, you’ll need to register with French social security. 

Anyone can apply for state health cover, although you may have to prove that you live in France, and how much you earn. There are several different branches of social security (caisses). The one you register with will depend on your employment status.

Once you’re registered, you’ll get a certificate, which will confirm you can have state healthcare in France. After that, you’ll get a green plastic card, called Carte Vitale. This usually arrives in a few weeks, but some expats wait much longer. You may need to show this card whenever you visit a doctor, dentist or optician, or if you get a prescription from a pharmacy. 

Choosing a family doctor

You will need to choose a family doctor – you could use our online provider finder tool to search for a doctor by name, location or specialty. Or you may find it useful to join local expat online forums and ask for personal recommendations. Once you have registered with a doctor, you can still see a different one – for example, if you are away from home. 

For most doctors, you will need to book an appointment rather than ‘arrive and wait’. It’s usually easy to get an appointment quickly – though it can vary a little depending on where you live. You can often book appointments online. 

Seeing a specialist

If you need to see a specialist, you’ll usually need to see your medecin traitant (doctor) first. There are a few exceptions: if you want to see a gynaecologist, paediatrician or an optician, you can book directly. 

For most specialists, your doctor will write you a referral letter, but you’ll need to choose the specialist you’d like to see and book the appointment yourself. Doctors are usually happy to recommend a specialist.


There are several emergency numbers in France, but 112 is the best number to call in most emergencies. You can use this number throughout Europe. There are translators available in 40 languages.³ If you’re hearing impaired, you can send a text message to 114 instead.

In France, emergency calls are often attended by pompiers (firefighters) who can act as paramedics and take you to hospital.

Many (but not all) hospitals in France have an accident and emergency department. If you’re not registered for state health cover, you’ll usually need to show proof of your private health insurance. This will mean the hospital can claim your treatment cost back from your private health insurer directly. If you can’t show proof of state or private insurance, you may need to pay for your treatment upfront and claim the money back later. 

Depending on what you need, paying for your treatment upfront can be expensive. So it’s a good idea to have health insurance in France to cover you for unexpected trips to the hospital.

Paying for healthcare

Even after you’ve registered with the French state health system, you’ll need to pay for most appointments with a doctor, dentist or optician upfront yourself. You will also need to pay for prescriptions from a pharmacy upfront. The state will usually give you some of the money back a few days later via your Carte Vitale.  

If you don’t have a Carte Vitale, you’ll need to get a feuille de soins (healthcare form) from the doctor, dentist, optician or pharmacy. Fill it in and send it to your health insurer. 

If you need more expensive treatment, such as a stay in hospital, your state health cover or your private health insurer will usually pay for this directly. However, you will still need the right paperwork to show when you go into hospital.

Getting prescriptions 

If your doctor thinks you need medicine, they’ll write a prescription – une ordonnance. Prescriptions are only valid for a certain amount of time. The amount of time depends on the medicine prescribed. 

If you need a repeat prescription, your doctor may write one that lasts several months. The pharmacy will stamp it each time you collect your medicines. After this period, you’ll usually have to see your doctor again for a new prescription.

You may be able to have your repeat prescriptions delivered to your home address. You can also collect prescriptions on behalf of another person: you’ll need their forename, surname, and the name of the doctor who wrote the prescription. 

Pharmacies and over-the-counter drugs

Over-the-counter medicines are widely available in France, but you can only buy them at pharmacies. Don’t expect to find painkillers at the supermarket, for example. 

  • There are plenty of pharmacies in France, and staff can help you with many common illnesses. Pharmacies open during shopping hours, but there will generally be one pharmacy in any area that is open out of hours. You can hand in medicine and medical equipment, such as crutches, at any pharmacy too.

Here are some words you might find useful:

  • scissors – les ciseaux
  • plasters -  les pansements
  • bandage – le bandage
  • gauze – la gaze
  • antiseptic – l’antiseptique
  • painkillers – les analgésiques 

(Note: painkillers are often called by their brand names, for example Doliprane for paracetamol or Advil for ibuprofen)


You don’t need to register with a dentist – you can see one whenever you need one. However, there are sometimes longer waiting lists – up to several weeks – if your case isn’t an emergency.

Don’t be surprised if……

  • your doctor gives you a prescription for a vaccination to collect from the pharmacy yourself (and keep in your fridge if necessary). You’ll need to take the medicine to the doctor to be administered or, in some cases, a nurse will come to your home.
  • you’re prescribed several physio sessions for a fairly minor injury
  • your doctor suggests a three-week spa break 
  • your doctor prescribes medical transport for certain hospital appointments
  • medicines are prescribed as suppositories, especially for children
  • your doctor arranges for a nurse to come to your house to give you anticoagulant injections each day following certain operations.
The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.