As a student, your budget might be tight. But most colleges require you to show proof of health insurance to attend, so the best student health insurance companies have cheap rates. Nationally, 21-year-olds on their own pay an average of $344 per month for a Bronze-level health insurance plan, which is one of the most affordable plan levels available.
Best health insurance for college students
The best student health insurance comes from Blue Cross Blue Shield, but UnitedHealthcare, Everest and Compass are all good options for more specialized needs.
Unless you have health insurance from your parents or employer, you'll need to buy individual health insurance. You can get a policy either from a marketplace or directly from a health insurance company.
Best overall health insurance for college students
AM BestA ?
NAIC Complaint Index0.27
Better Business BureauA
Pros and cons
What makes Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) so appealing is that over 90% of doctors, specialists and hospitals in the U.S. accept its coverage. Busy college students might find it easier to get covered medical care with BCBS than another company.
For college students who need their own health insurance, BCBS has ACA plans in all but three states: Mississippi, Nebraska and South Dakota. This means nearly every college student has access to a BCBS plan. And if you transfer to a new school, you'll likely be able to find BCBS coverage in your new area. Just keep in mind that your experience with BCBS may vary because each subsidiary company is independently owned and operated.
Depending on your location, you can choose coverage tiers starting with Catastrophic up to a Platinum plan. Some "metal" plans — Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum — include optional dental and vision insurance. Catastrophic plans are a specific ACA coverage type. They offer a lower monthly rate, but coverage doesn't start until after you pay the deductible, which is $9,100 in 2023. You may pay more for Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum plans, but you'll have a lower deductible, and the premium can be offset with tax credits.
A Bronze plan from BCBS costs an average of $348 per month for a 21-year-old.
Along with affordable rates, Blue Cross Blue Shield offers benefits and tools that students may find useful.
- A 24/7 nurse line
- Blue365, which offers discounts on gyms, weight loss programs and other wellness purchases
- A mobile app and a separate member website
- International coverage for those who travel, work or live abroad
Best cheap health insurance for college students
AM BestA+ ?
NAIC Complaint Index0.52
Better Business BureauD
Pros and cons
If your budget is tight as a student, finding cheap health insurance may be a bigger priority for you than it is for other age groups. Bronze plans from UnitedHealthcare (UHC) are cheaper than average in about 60% of states where the company operates. Nationally, UHC saves college students about $1,200 per year compared to the average cost of health insurance for a 21-year-old.
UnitedHealthcare has an average monthly rate of $331 for a 21-year-old buying a Bronze plan.
UHC is accepted by over 1.3 million doctors and 6,500 offices, hospitals and other medical facilities across the nation, which makes it easy to find covered health care near your campus. UHC sells Bronze, Silver and Gold plans, but isn't currently offering a Platinum option. But UHC still offers some perks that college students might enjoy.
- A mobile app
- An extensive website
- Wellness programs
- Rewards programs
- Mental health programs
- Virtual doctor visits
Best short-term insurance
Everest short-term health insurance might be a good option if you only need care for a limited period of time. There's no provider network, which means you can see any doctor you'd like, although using facilities within the Private Healthcare System (PCPS) network may be cheaper.
You can choose your deductible level and coinsurance to fit your needs. You'll also have to choose your maximum limit, which is the most that Everest will pay for your health care during your policy. The limits range from $250,000 to $1.5 million. Everest advertises that plans can cost as little as $85 per month.
If you are considering a short-term plan, make sure it will cover your health needs. For example, short-term student health insurance from Everest doesn't cover self-inflicted injuries, vision or dental care, or any health issue that arises if you aren't in the U.S. There's also a six-month waiting period for some care, including tonsil removal and any type of sinus surgery. Short-term health insurance also doesn't have to cover the ACA essential health benefits, such as maternity care and prescription drugs.
Short-term medical plans are also not required to cover preexisting conditions. This means that Everest and other short-term health companies can deny or adjust your coverage based on any health conditions you currently have. Because of this, Everest plans are best for college students in good health without ongoing medical needs.
Because Everest plans are short term, there aren't a lot of additional perks, but a few features stand out.
- Coverage can last up to 12 months
- Next-day plans are available
- $50 doctor visit copay
Best health insurance for international students
Compass and Global Benefits Group (GBG Insurance Limited) together offer health insurance for international students studying in the U.S. Plans start at $43 per month for students up to age 24. The coverage uses the UnitedHealthcare network of over 1 million doctors and 6,500 facilities.
Compass plans are a good option for students on a budget. The basic Savings plan starts at just $43 per month for a student between the ages of 16 and 24. More comprehensive coverage is available, though. The company's Care Ultimate package, for example, starts at $178 per month for a 16- to 24-year-old student and includes check-ups and immunizations.
Some Compass plans include waiting periods of up to 12 months for preexisting conditions. If you select one of these plans, you must wait 12 months before Compass will pay toward a medical condition you had before the start date of your policy. Other Compass plans have no waiting period, meaning you are covered right away for preexisting conditions. For plans that include a preexisting clause, you may be able to reduce your waiting period by providing proof of continuous prior coverage.
Compass may be the best insurance for international students, but it doesn't offer many additional benefits. The perks it does offer are geared toward students, though.
- Some plans have unlimited virtual mental health visits
- Phone and online chat service options
- Mobile app
Best insurance for college students — a quick look
Other health insurance options for students
You may not need to buy your own health insurance plan to attend college. There are several alternatives to individual health plans or short-term insurance policies.
Parents' insurance coverage
You can remain on your parents' health insurance plan until age 26. Before you commit to using your parents' plan, check to be sure it covers the area where you're attending school. If not, or if you have aged out of your parents' plan, you'll want to consider your options, such as an individual ACA plan, Medicaid or short-term medical insurance.
School-sponsored student health plans
Student health plans are sold by schools and can be an easy and affordable way to get basic insurance coverage. The rate is usually part of your tuition and fees, so you'll likely need to pay it at the same time you pay your other college costs. Or you may see it included in your student loan amount. To qualify, you must be a full-time student and use campus health providers.
Be aware that not all student health plans are required to cover the 10 essential health benefits mandated by the ACA. Some student health plans are underwritten by actual health insurance companies. These are called "fully insured" plans, and they include the ACA-required essential health benefits.
- Emergency services
- Laboratory services
- Mental health and substance use disorder services
- Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
- Ambulatory patient services
- Prescription drugs
- Pregnancy, maternity and newborn care
- Pediatric services, including oral and vision care
- Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices
Some colleges offer "self-insured" student health plans. With these plans, the school acts as the health insurance company and pays the claims for its students. Self-insured student health plans do not have to be ACA-compliant and do not necessarily cover these essential health benefits. Each state regulates self-insured student health plans. The best way to know what is covered is to talk to your university.
Employer health insurance plans generally provide robust coverage at affordable rates, so they are a good option for working students. You'll likely have to be a full-time employee to be eligible, and it can be difficult to work full time while attending school. But your employer might offer coverage to part-time employees as well.
Medicaid: an option for low-income students
Medicaid may provide low-income health insurance for students. If you file your own tax returns and your income doesn’t exceed a specific threshold ($18,754 per year in many states), you may qualify for Medicaid. Medicaid programs are regulated at the state level, which means eligibility requirements vary.
More information about enrolling in an ACA plan
If you've reviewed your other options and need to enroll in an ACA plan, there are some additional things you need to know:
- If going to college involves moving, you qualify for a special enrollment period (SEP), which allows you to enroll in a plan midyear without having to wait for open enrollment.
- Students with low incomes may be able to lower the cost of their ACA plans with tax credits called subsidies.You must enroll through a state or federal insurance marketplace to qualify. You may want to check if you qualify before deciding to buy ACA coverage.
- If you file your own tax returns, your premium subsidy is based on your income. But if your parents claim you on their return, the combined income is used to calculate your eligibility.
ACA Catastrophic plans
Catastrophic health plans are another marketplace option. These programs have low prices, but the annual deductible — $9,100 in 2023 — is high. To enroll in a Catastrophic plan, you must be either under the age of 30 or qualify for a hardship exemption.
Although Catastrophic plans usually cost less, you can’t use a tax credit to further reduce your cost. Before you choose a Catastrophic plan, check to see if you qualify for a premium tax credit based on your income. If so, a Bronze or Silver plan might be a better value. For example:
A 21-year-old college student in Texas would pay an average of $275 per month for a Catastrophic health insurance plan, or $323 per month for a Bronze plan. However, those who qualify for premium tax credits could have the cost of the same Bronze plan reduced to $65 per month. This means you could get better benefits and a cheaper rate with the Bronze plan. Be sure to shop and compare to get the plan that best fits your needs.
Short-term medical insurance
Short-term medical insurance could work well for generally healthy young adults with tight budgets. Short-term plans don't have to comply with ACA regulations, however, and don't have the same level of coverage as marketplace plans. You also could be denied coverage or pay higher rates if you have preexisting conditions, such as diabetes.
Short-term health insurance is regulated by each state. Eleven states do not allow short-term plans, while others regulate short-term medical term lengths and renewals. Check to see if short-term medical insurance is available where you live and how long you can be covered.
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
Frequently asked questions
How much does health insurance cost for college students?
The cost of health insurance in college varies based on your situation. If you have coverage through your parents' health insurance, your parents might ask you to pay part of their health insurance premium, and you may still pay for appointments and procedures, depending on the coverage they have. Rates for school-sponsored plans vary based on the plan. If you buy individual coverage, a Bronze plan costs an average of $344 per month for a 21-year-old student, although you could lower your rate with marketplace subsidies.
What's the easiest way to get health insurance in college?
Staying on a parent's health insurance plan is an easy way to continue your existing health insurance coverage when you go to college. However, if you are going away to school, check that the plan covers doctors near campus. You might be able to get health insurance through your school or purchase an individual health insurance policy from an ACA marketplace or directly from a health insurance company.
Is there free health insurance for college students?
No, college students don't automatically have access to free health insurance. You might get free health insurance if you are able to enroll in Medicaid. You might also significantly lower your rate with government subsidies on ACA plans. Perhaps the best health insurance option for college students with no income is to stay on a parents' plan until age 26.
Average health insurance rates were calculated using data from the public use files (PUFs) on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) government website and from state-run marketplace sites. We calculated national average rates for 21-year-olds based on the age curve variations published by CMS. Plans and providers for which county-level data was included in the CMS Crosswalk file were used in our analysis; those excluded from this data set may not appear.
Comparisons are based on plan coverage levels, policy details, third-party rankings and sample cost data. Sources include HealthCare.gov, Blue Cross Blue Shield, UnitedHealthcare, Everest Reinsurance Co., Compass, Global Benefits Group, AM Best, the Better Business Bureau and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC).
The sources referenced in this article use multiple factors to determine overall ratings, including a company's financial health or servicing history.
AM Best: AM Best is a credit rating agency that scores insurance companies based on their financial health and ability to meet financial obligations. AM Best is a nationally recognized statistical rating organization.
NAIC: The NAIC Complaint Index measures an insurer’s complaints weighted against its market share. A score of 1.00 indicates that the company has an average number of complaints relative to its size. A lower NAIC number means fewer complaints were filed to regulators.
Better Business Bureau: In calculating ratings, the Better Business Bureau considers the number of complaints and how promptly they are addressed, along with a company’s size relative to complaint totals and its time in business.