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It may not be top of your to do list as you leave for your overseas assignment, but making sure you have the right insurance cover is vitally important.

If you already had cover in place in your home country it may be invalid in your new location. This could have important consequences for your health, your family's wellbeing and the safety of any property you have back home. If you're lucky, your employer will already have cover available for internationally mobile employees. But you should still check that it's suitable.

If you have to find your own cover, you may be bewildered by the array of insurances available to expatriates, and you need to be sure you select those that fit your circumstances. Here's a brief guide to the main types of cover and how to choose between them.

Medical expenses

Put simply, an international medical expenses insurance policy aims to provide money to pay all or some medical expenses if you fall ill or have an accident. Premiums vary a lot and much depends on how comprehensive the policy is. If you are a Briton abroad you may well find that NHS treatment is no longer available to you on return trips to the United Kingdom. So you may want to look at a policy that covers you at home and abroad.

Medical care is expensive, particularly if you want to have the option of returning home for treatment. According to specialist health insurer Medibroker, the cost of a fully supported emergency evacuation to Europe from Saudi Arabia can be at least £25,000. A simple hernia operation costs about £1,500 in the UK today (probably two or three times more in the US), with a hip replacement costing anywhere from £5,000 to £50,000 depending on how complicated the surgery is. Heart surgery or multiple pinning of bones following an accident can cost many thousands of pounds in treatment and aftercare. Claims totaling £100,000 are no longer unusual.

If you think you couldn't cover these costs from your own pocket then you should think about having medical expenses insurance in place.

Income protection

This type of cover is designed to pay you a monthly income if you are unable to work due to sickness, accident or disability. Note that it doesn't pay out if you resign or are made redundant.

Peter Bellwood of specialist expat insurance broker Bellwood Prestbury International says that you should take out this cover until you reach your anticipated retirement age. "Include inflationary increases to make sure the payout from a claim will rise in line with the cost of living and maintain its buying power," advises Bellwood.

Life assurance

Life assurance is a must if you have dependants; a lump sum is paid out to them if you die while you have cover in place. Term insurance provides cover for a pre-specified term, while a whole-of-life plan has no cut-off point.

Insurers take a number of factors into account when calculating how much your premiums should be. These include the level of payout you would like, how long you want the cover to last, where you live (is it a dangerous area?), your age, occupation, medical history, current health, as well as whether you smoke or take part in dangerous sports. "It's generally cheaper to take out a plan when you're young and your health is good," says Peter Bellwood. "Do your research before deciding on the best plan for you; find one that will travel with you on an expat assignment. That way, you save time and money by not having to keep cancelling the old cover and start a new plan every time you move."

Critical illness

This policy will pay out, as it says, if you contract a critical illness. Before you buy it, check exactly which illnesses are included and which not. This insurance can be a lot more expensive to buy than life assurance because, as Bellwood points out, "you are far more likely to contract a serious illness than die before the age of 65".

Note that your British insurer will almost certainly not cover you overseas and you will have to seek out an international plan.

Kidnap and ransom

Kidnap, ransom and extortion are a very real and growing threat. As many as 12,500 kidnappings are reported each year in over 40 countries, mainly in Latin America, Africa, Russia and Asia, with the average ransom payment doubling in the last four years. Those most at risk are the obviously wealthy in poor countries. But workers in the energy and charity fields also face threats in some countries.

Insurance that pays out to meet the costs of kidnap and ransom cases is expensive, as it generally pays out up to £50m in ransom demands. So the premiums – up to £4,000 a year per person – are beyond all but the wealthiest.

If you are sent on assignment to a dangerous part of the world, you should try to ensure that your employer has this cover, to protect their interests as well as your own. As Bellwood says: "It is important that employers have cover in place if they are sending people into situations where they may be vulnerable. It may be crucial for staff morale to know that their employer does not abandon them."

House and contents

Expats with a property back home should contact their house and contents insurer to find out if they are still covered when they are out of the country for long periods. The policy may become invalid if the house is not occupied. It may be that you have to arrange for someone to visit your property regularly and check on it. Or you may need a specialist insurer to cover the property if it is being left vacant. Note that you may break the terms of your mortgage if you do not have valid property insurance in place.

I already spoke Italian fluently and had lived in six European cities. Moving to Milan on my own was going to be a breeze, wasn't it? Well, it wasn't. And judging by other people's experiences, I'm not the only one so blinded by the thrills of being paid to go abroad that I failed to read the small print.

Expat discussion forums are a popular meeting point for young workers abroad who clearly aren't enjoying themselves as much as they thought they would be. "Help, I'm bored to death," writes a 24-year-old in Rotterdam. "I moved to Rotterdam in October and all the expats I've been meeting so far are older than me."

International work is no longer the province of a few select senior managers, but has become everyday enough to cross the desk of juniors, too. More and more graduates are increasingly opting to study, live and work outside of their home countries in pursuit of professional success and adventure along the way.

"On the surface, they know lots of people, are sociable and have great jobs," says author Margaret Malewski about the people she calls GenXpat. "But on a deeper level, it's really, really hard. They make acquaintances but not really friends and end up living a lonely life out of suitcases and five-star hotels."

Margaret knows only too well what expat assignments involve. She has just written GenXpat: The Young Professional's Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad which will be published this spring by Intercultural Press. In 1992 she left her native Montreal to study at the University of Warsaw before joining Proctor & Gamble in 1998. Margaret worked in Geneva and Tel Aviv before repatriating back to Vancouver in 2002 where she lives today.

But beware. Margaret, now 29, makes the challenge of perennial city hopping in search of spirit and adventure seem easy. However, unless you are well-prepared and have a good expat package, it can turn into little more than misery and a constant longing for friends, family and fried breakfasts. When I moved to Milan, I thought I had the basics covered but now that I am a corporate relocation consultant I realise my support package was non-existent. Never having sent anyone on international assignment before, my bosses had no idea just how difficult it is to get things done in Italy.

No relocation agency was used and I was left to sort out everything, from looking for a place to rent and contacting the utility providers, to finding a hire car all the while making contacts and interviewing fashion and textile personalities for the magazines who had hired me. Jon Perry, a GenXpat originally from Wimborne, Dorset, works for a City law firm. A few months after joining he was sent to Singapore on a short-term assignment but he admits he never really integrated. Now, three years on, the former Oxford student has just been relocated to Hong Kong and is conscious he needs to make this experience work. "My career is at a more important stage," says Jon, 27. "I no longer feel I'm going on an extended holiday and three years is definitely long enough to miss home. At the same time, the security of having a 'gang' isn't there so I was worried the first months might have been a bit lonely. Being single, I can see that the experience would probably be less daunting if I had moved out to Hong Kong with a partner."

Overseas postings can be lonely for everyone but for young single professionals especially. As happened to me, often the only thing set up for GenXpats when they go abroad is their work: they get a desk, a boss and a new job to prove themselves at. Meeting people in a foreign setting and in a foreign language is a challenge for everyone and even the most outgoing types often suffer from chronic shyness and inhibition.

When you don't know anyone, you have three choices: go out to a restaurant or bar by yourself, stay in your flat watching an incomprehensible foreign language TV channel, or work overtime to avoid going home to an empty house. But the more you work, the less of a life you have, so the more you work ... suddenly you are trapped in a vicious circle.

Last month, Shell had 7,400 employees on international assignments, 400 of whom were in the 21-30 age bracket. The oil giant takes very seriously the challenges that their GenXpats face. "Younger expats commonly are not married and take the assignments as singles," a company spokesperson says. "In some locations this results in different challenges as many of the social networks tend to revolve around partners and children."

It seems that young expats who work for Shell in the Netherlands may well be luckier than most for, in addition to its briefings prior to departure and again in the host country, the company sponsors the 'Outpost' network which assists expatriates with day-to-day living. But for Margaret Malewski even this strategy doesn't go far enough: "In an ideal world, employers should make an effort to recognise the challenges of expat life and continue to adapt their packages to reflect the changing profile of their expat populations."

She does stress, though, that the onus is also on employees to find out about the destination before they get there, making the employer aware that they'd be happy to have a cheap studio flat in the city centre and use public transport but in return they want a monthly flight home.

The key to weathering the rollercoaster of emotions you will experience while abroad is accepting that culture shock is unavoidable, explains Caroline Pover who runs Being Abroad, an online and in-person support and information network for women living in Japan. "It's important to stay open-minded and find support groups of people who have been there and done that," advises the former primary school teacher who left her home town of Plymouth for Tokyo eight years ago, aged 25. "Be patient with yourself and congratulate yourself often. It may not sound much but when you first arrive even buying the right milk in the supermarket is an achievement. "I haven't had a 'I-hate-Japan' day for three years now. The trick is to work out what you want from being abroad and to realise that you don't have to adopt the country's entire culture. Nor should you hang on to your old culture. Pick and choose and create a new culture, one that is right for you."

emma@weaveaweb.it

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