Tunisia Expat Health Insurance Guide
Located in the north of Africa, and sandwiched between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is ideally located half way along the Mediterranean Sea within easy reach of mainland Europe. This has made Tunisia an essential trading post for centuries, leading to colonization from successive invaders. These have included the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Ottomans and more recently the Spanish and the French.
Gaining independence in 1956, it was only in 2014 that the country received its first democratically-elected President, making this a very exciting time in the country’s history.
As a result of all this colonization, today Tunisia is one of the most ethically and culturally diverse countries in Northern Africa. This makes it a fascinating country for visitors thanks to the wealth of history that may be experienced here, not to mention the enviable year-round climate and the stunning natural beauty.
Tunisia is also famed for its friendly and polite population, who openly welcome expats and travellers to their midst. A trip to Tunisia is likely one that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
While Tunisia is located in northern Africa, its narrow shape and north/south alignment makes for an interesting diversity in climate. In the north, the climate is best-described as “Mediterranean” benefitting as it does from hot, long, dry summers and short, damp winters. In the warmer months the air temperature may reach 40’C, something that could be considered mild in comparison to more southern areas.
Down south Tunisia is crossed by the Sahara desert which, while providing a stunning red-sand vista, makes for far hotter weather.
For this reason most of the larger cities are located in the north of the country, where many expats find the climate to be very liveable and to enable almost year-round beach weather.
Tunisia is an Islamic nation, a fact which can affect many aspects of life here. However in comparison to many of their neighbours, Tunisia is considered far more moderate in its outlook to Western culture.
Visitors are often surprised to find, for example, that alcohol can be freely bought here, that gender equality is largely supported and that Sharia law courts have been abolished altogether.
As a result, while we would still caution respect for Muslim culture during your time in Tunisia, it often does not offer quite the same “culture shock” that some expats experience in more extreme Muslim nations.
Note that the culture can change significantly during Ramadan. Here dedicated Muslims are expected to pray multiple times per day. In such cases shops and other services may operate rather more erratically as the emphasis is shifted to religious activities.
You may find businesses closed for short periods of time throughout the day to facilitate these religious activities. Alternatively they may remain shut all day long. If you will be present during Ramadan it is wise to do your research in advance so as to avoid any complications.
Generally speaking the Tunisian people, while a diverse group, are characterised as warm and welcoming. The family group is upheld above all else, and respect for others is a national trait. It is therefore not unreasonable for the Tunisian population to expect similar deference from visitors. The simple act of greeting native Tunisians enthusiastically and politely can go a long way to ingratiating yourself, especially in a business environment.
The official language in Tunisia is Arabic. More accurately, the locally-spoken “dialect” is known as “Derja”. The long-term French colonization (1881-1956) of Tunisia means that French is unofficially spoken as a second language by 64% of the population. Many signs encountered in Tunisia are also bi-lingual (Arabic and French). English is far less commonly experienced except in the tourist resorts of the north. As a result visitors are encouraged to revise their French before visiting in order to make their experience as seamless as possible.
When it comes to getting around Tunisia there are a range of options.
For long distances TunisAir operates a number of internal flights. These planes travel regularly between Djerba, Monastir, Sfax, Tozeur and Tunis.
The rail network, while clean and reliable, is far from extensive. That said, no trip to Tunisia would be complete without a journey on the Lezard Rouge. With its restored cabins from the early 1900’s and the taste of imperial grandeur, a trip on this historic railway is certainly an experience to remember.
For shorter distances you may opt to drive. Generally speaking the roads in Tunisia are well-maintained, though pot-holes may suddenly open up after heavy winter rainfall. Expats may drive here on any EU-issued driving license, though for eases sake it is generally recommended to bring an international driving license. These are more commonly experienced by local police, so will be more recognisable should an officer ask to see your license.
Note that many travellers report that Tunisian drivers are prone to ignoring driving laws and may, for example, fail to give way or to stop at traffic lights. Drivers are therefore cautioned to pay careful attention when driving in towns and cities. Pedestrians, too, are urged to take special care when crossing roads as a result.
Alternatively, taxis may be caught within most major towns and cities. These are generally safe and reasonably priced. Note that in Tunisia there are two forms of taxi’s; there are those which carry one passenger at a time, and those who may drop off and pick up multiple passengers on a journey. The latter are typically much cheaper, though of course it will take you longer to reach your destination.
For an even cheaper option consider utilizing one of the so-called “louages” – small mini-buses that transport groups of passengers around. These vehicles are invariably painted white, with a red stripe. They can be both faster and cheaper than catching a taxi if you don’t mind sharing the vehicle with other passengers.
Lastly Tunisia offers an excellent bus service. A network of well-maintained, air-conditioned vehicles criss-crosses the country making it easy to get about. This is preferable to hitch-hiking, which is generally considered unsafe in Tunisia and so is recommended against by the Foreign Office.
Generally speaking healthcare in Tunisia does not measure up favourably to the standards offered in Western hospitals. Here, medical centres may be few and far between, and those that do exist are often under-staffed and offer only very basic facilities. Waiting times can also be considerable.
Visitors to Tunisia should be aware that there is no free healthcare for foreign visitors. Instead you will be expected to pay for all medical care on the spot, and for serious problems these costs can rapidly spiral out of control. Health insurance should therefore be considered essential, not only to avoid any unpleasant financial surprises, but also to help you gain access to the few private clinics which may be found here. Typically while the cost of care is much higher, the facilities on offer and short waiting times are far more preferable for Western visitors.
The official currency in Tunisia is the Dinar. ATM’s abound here though are less reliable than in many other countries and it may be necessary visit a number of machines before successfully accessing your account.
Note that while credit cards are accepted across most of the country, there have been reports of fraud and, as a result, even some legitimate transactions get declined. Mastercard seems to be having the greatest problems at present, so even if you opt to pay using a credit card it can be wise to still carry enough cash to cover the bill should a problem arise. Visitors should also be certain to advise their bank before departure that they can expect transactions from within Tunisia.
Note that all non-resident foreigners are obliged to pay an “exit tax” when leaving the country, which must be bought in Dinars. As it is illegal to leave the country with any Tunisian currency, most travellers aim to spend out of Tunisian Dinars or exchange them for their local currency before the end of their trips. Unsurprisingly this can make the sudden need to pay an exit tax in Dinars rather inconvenient. As a result, visitors are advised to buy their stamp early so as to avoid the risk of running out of currency toward the end of their trip.
Sadly the educational establishment in Tunisia can leave a lot to be desired for expat visitors. While schooling is compulsory in Tunisia between the ages of 6 and 16, almost all schools teach in Arabic. This can make it very difficult for expat children who do not speak the language to keep up with their studies.
Alternatively there are a very small number of International Schools present in the larger cities like Tunis, though in reality there can be significant waiting times for places. The costs are also considered high. This results in an unfortunate situation where some expat parents find themselves at a loss as to how to educate their children to a suitable level.
Sadly it seems that many expats here opt to send their children away to boarding schools in other countries where they can be assured of the highest educational standards. Tunisia is perhaps not the most family-friendly expat destination as a result.
Food & Drink
Tunisia’s typical diet is a fascinating mixture of African and Mediterranean origin. On the one hand Tunisians enjoy large volumes of seafood, tomatoes and olive oil. Indeed, Tunisia is considered one of the very best olive growing regions in the world.
On the other hand, couscous, spices and freshly-reared lamb are also commonplace ingredients. Popular, too, is Harissa – a hot chilli paste typically applied to meat or vegetables.
In many cases these disparate ingredients are combined into an intriguing local cuisine that is both unique and healthy, and can prove very popular with visitors.
Like so many countries in Africa, Tunisia experiences its fair share of petty crime such as pick –pocketing and bag thefts, though an awareness of these factors means your chances of becoming a victim are minimal. Sadly, a degree of assault towards foreign women has been reported over recent years, and for this reason lone female visitors may find themselves better treated if accompanied by a male partner.
Rather more worrying are the issues felt at the borders of the country. Tension with Libya, for example, has led to a heavy military presence. Fighting, too, is not uncommon. For this reason visitors are encouraged to avoid the borderlands for their own safety. Check the latest details with your Foreign Office before leaving home so you can be certain of which areas are best avoided at your time of travel.
Lastly as mentioned earlier, both drivers and pedestrians should take care on the roads, which are characteristically dangerous in Tunisia. Be certain to look both ways and, if in doubt, assume the worst of Tunisian drivers. While this isn’t always the case, it is generally safer to avoid “chancing it” and risking being involved in an accident.
Places to Visit
The long history of colonization in Tunisia has helped to make the country an international hotspot for cultural history. The dry desert air from the south has also helped to preserve the ancient architecture that seems to lie around every corner. As a result of its history, nobody could claim that Tunisia was lacking in sites worth investigating…
Lying just outside the capital city of Tunis, Carthage represents the home of the once-great Carthaginian people. Considered one of the few great ancient nations, at its height Carthage threatened to overthrow the Roman Empire and become the dominant power in the Mediterranean. This is an area that simply oozes history and culture and there is much to learn and experience here for history-buffs.
El Djem Amphitheatre
Dating from the 3rd century, Al Djem offers the largest Roman amphitheatre in all of North Africa. This UNESCO site is built on a jaw-dropping scale; it was designed to seat an audience of 35,000. Sitting here peering down into the central atrium one can almost feel the gladiatorial battles that must have gone on below for generations.
Tozeur is a desert oasis located in the west of the country. Surrounded by dry, dusty desert with a temperature up to 53’C, the running water and palm trees make for a truly mesmerizing juxtaposition. For movie fans, Tozeur also represents a key filming location for the Star Wars movies. It is here that Tatooine is based, and many parts of the original film set can still be investigated. For sci-fi buffs there can be fewer more appealing destinations in Tunisia.
When you need a break from all the historical site-seeing, this town in the north east of the country has much to offer. Hammamet is considered Tunisia’s premier beach-side resort, with warm water, beautiful beaches and numerous eateries. Come here to relax and unwind in style.