Home Healthcare Healthcare Basics Healthcare in the UK: a guide to the UK healthcare system
Last update on September 21, 2019

Public healthcare in the UK is available through the National Health Service (NHS), covering everything from a doctor’s appointment to emergency surgery.

If you’re permanently living in the UK, you’ll be entitled to free healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS). There is also the option to take out private health insurance in the UK, which can offer quicker access to specialists, better facilities and shorter waiting times.

This guide explains how healthcare in the UK works, with sections on:

  • The UK healthcare system
  • Healthcare costs in the UK
  • Health insurance in the UK
  • How to register for healthcare in the UK as an expat
  • Private healthcare in the UK
  • Doctors and specialists in the UK
  • Women’s healthcare in the UK
  • Children’s healthcare in the UK
  • Dentists in the UK
  • Hospitals in the UK
  • Health centers and clinics in the UK
  • Pharmacies in the UK
  • Mental healthcare in the UK
  • Other forms of healthcare available in the UK
  • What to do in an emergency
  • Useful resources

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Overview of healthcare in the UK

The UK healthcare system

People moving to the UK from a European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland get free NHS care through their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). You won’t need to do anything to claim this benefit; you just need to show your EHIC when you require medical assistance.

The system works slightly differently for people moving from outside of the EEA. To be able to access the NHS for free on the same basis as a British citizen, you’ll need to be considered an ‘ordinary resident’, which means you’ll need to be given the immigration status of ‘indefinite leave to remain’.

If you don’t have indefinite leave to remain, you should take out a personal health insurance policy. If you don’t have health insurance and need medical treatment, you’ll be charged at 150% of the standard NHS tariff for any care you receive in a hospital. This can be a costly business and you’ll usually need to pay these fees in advance.

These charges can also sting for British retirees returning to the country, as the government attempts to crack down on ‘health tourism’, where expats return to the UK to take advantage of free healthcare.

NHS and health insurance in the UK

Surcharges for temporary visitors

Non-EEA citizens coming to the UK longer than six months must pay an immigration health surcharge when applying for their visa. For students and their dependents, this charge is £150 per person per year; this figure increases to £200 per person per year for everyone else. If you’ve paid the charge and your visa lasts for more than six months, you’ll be able to access National Health Service treatment on the same basis as everyone else.

Healthcare costs in the UK

Health insurance in the UK

The NHS covers medical advice from GPs and GP services such as blood tests, as well as medical treatment in an NHS hospital (both emergency and non-emergency). For a full range of treatments covered by the NHS, you can check out the Q&A section of the NHS website.

You may need to pay a contribution for some other NHS treatments, such as travel vaccinations, eye tests, dental treatment and prescriptions.

How to register for healthcare in the UK as an expat

Private healthcare in the UK

A relatively low number of UK citizens opt to pay for private health insurance compared to other European countries. This is due in part to the quality of care offered on the National Health Service.

There are several benefits of private health insurance, however, especially if you have an urgent illness or injury. Private patients can access specialists more quickly, avoid long waiting times, and use better facilities. Private healthcare patients often enjoy private en-suite rooms rather than sharing wards with other patients.

Some of the largest health insurance companies in the UK include:

Healthcare is generally available on both a personal and family basis. Premiums depend on your level of cover, lifestyle, age, and pre-existing medical conditions.

Healthcare plans usually operate on an excess basis, meaning you’ll need to pay a proportion of the cost when you need to use your insurance. Many UK employers include subsidized or tax-only healthcare cover in their benefits packages.

It’s also possible to pay for private healthcare on a one-off basis, should you need a specific type of treatment or an operation that has a very long waiting time on the NHS. Be careful though, as this option could cost you thousands of pounds depending on the treatment you require.

Students and health insurance in the UK

NHS and health insurance in the UK

If you’re a student moving from an EEA country (or Switzerland), you’ll be entitled to NHS care. You won’t need to do anything special to register, either; you can simply present the EHIC card issued by your home country whenever you need medical care in the UK.

If you’re from a non-EEA country and you haven’t been granted permanent residence in the UK, you might need to pay an immigration health surcharge, in order to see NHS doctors, as mentioned earlier in this guide.

NHS registration and sick pay in the UK

If you fall ill, you might be entitled to contractual sick pay from your employer. The amount paid varies on a company-by-company basis. The government, however, pays statutory sick pay to UK employees in contracted work; this amounts to £88.45 per week for up to 28 weeks. There are several exceptions to this rule, full details of which are available on the Citizens Advice website.

Doctors and specialists in the UK

Your local general practitioner (GP) is your first point of contact for most medical queries aside from emergencies. You’ll need to register with a GP at a practice of your choice, although some will be oversubscribed and may not accept new patients. If you move or have a problem with your GP, you can change practices at a later date.

To register with a practice, you’ll need to fill out a GMS1 form. Once completed, the NHS will transfer your records and confirm your registration. If you need medical care, you’ll need to make an appointment to see a doctor, and many GPs now offer online booking services in addition to their standard phone services. GPs usually open between Monday-Friday, and if you need more urgent care you can call an out of hours number, or 111 for urgent but non-emergency advice.

GP appointments in the UK are short, usually lasting between 8-10 minutes; as a result, it’s important to be concise about your problems. If you need a referral f0r a specialist at a hospital, your GP will provide a referral letter. Waiting times vary significantly from practice to practice.

Women’s healthcare in the UK

Children’s healthcare in the UK

Dentists in the UK

Dental care is available either through the NHS or privately, but in both instances you’ll usually need to pay. Free dental care is available for those aged under 18 (or under 19 if in full-time education), pregnant women and people who have had a baby in the last 12 months.

How much you’ll need to pay for your dental care depends on the band of care you require. In England, the structure works like this:

  • First band (£19.70): Dental examinations, scale and polish if required
  • Second band (£53.90): Also covers fillings, root canal work and removal of teeth
  • Third band (£233.70): Also covers crowns, dentures, bridges and lab work
  • Emergency treatment (£19.70): Covers emergency care such as pain relief or temporary fillings

Prices for NHS dental care vary significantly in Scotland (£4.72-£148.60), Wales (£13.50-£185.00) and Northern Ireland (£6.68 to £105.87). You can find out full details by clicking on the link for each country.

To cover themselves against future dental issues, some people choose to take out dental insurance plans. These aren’t usually included in private healthcare policies, and are instead taken out through your dentist or a private insurer. Many dentists in the UK deal with both NHS and private patients; it’s possible you could end up with the same dentist if you move to a private plan.

Hospitals in the UK

Health centers and health clinics in the UK

Pharmacies in the UK

Pharmacies in the UK are usually quite easy to find; they’ll often be in town centers or even next to your GP surgery. In addition to independent pharmacies, large retail stores and supermarkets such as Boots and Tesco sometimes have their own pharmacies.

For some types of medicine, you’ll need a prescription from your NHS doctor. You’ll usually have to pay a flat charge for your prescriptions. In England, NHS prescriptions cost £8.40 per item; however, people who are under 16, over 60, in full-time education or pregnant can get free NHS prescriptions. For the full list of exemptions, visit the NHS UK website.

These fees apply only to England, as prescription fees have been abolished in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mental healthcare in the UK

Other forms of healthcare in the UK

What to do in an emergency

Emergency services are free of charge under health insurance in the UK. To report an emergency, you can call 999 and have an ambulance dispatched if necessary. If you can make it to the hospital yourself, you can visit an Accident and Emergency (A&E) department, which will be open 24-hours a day.

When you’re admitted to an NHS hospital, you’ll usually be placed on a specialist ward (an area of a hospital where people with similar illnesses are treated). There are various types of wards in UK hospitals, from maternity wards to orthopaedics; you’ll usually be placed in a shared room with members of the same sex.

Useful resources