Home Healthcare Healthcare Basics The National Health Service and health insurance in the UK
Last update on July 15, 2019

The UK’s National Health Service (HNS) offers medical treatment to all residents, covering everything from a NHS doctor’s appointment to emergency surgery.

If you’re permanently living in the UK, there’s a good chance you’ll be entitled to free healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS). While the NHS offers good quality healthcare, resources can be stretched and waiting lists are often long. Because of this, some people choose to take out private health insurance schemes, which can offer quicker access to specialists, better facilities and shorter waiting times.

This guide explains how to access free healthcare when moving to the UK and the benefits and drawbacks of taking out a private healthcare insurance policy on top of National Health Service cover.

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How does the National Health Service and NHS registration work?

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 – instead 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 haven’t been given 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.

Health insurance UK

Surcharges for temporary visitors

Non-EEA citizens coming to the UK on a temporary stay that lasts longer than six months will need to pay an immigration health surcharge when applying for their visa. For students and their dependants, this charge is £150 per person per year, while 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.

What does NHS health insurance cover?

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.

What are the benefits of private health insurance in the UK?

A relatively low number of UK citizens opt to pay for private health insurance compared to other European countries, largely because of the quality and breadth 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, avoiding long waiting times, and you’re also more likely to enjoy better facilities, with private healthcare patients often enjoying 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, with premiums depending on your level of cover, lifestyle, age and any pre-existing medical conditions you might have.

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 subsidised 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 medical insurance, UK

NHS hospital

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, as 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 of which varies on a company-by-company basis. The government, however, will pay statutory sick pay to UK employees in contracted work, at the amount of £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.

UK dental care

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:

  • Band one (£19.70): Dental examinations, scale and polish if required
  • Band two (£53.90): Also covers fillings, root canal work and removal of teeth
  • Band three (£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, so it’s possible you could end up with the same dentist if you move to a private plan.

Visiting NHS doctors

Your local general practitioner (GP) will be your first point of contact for almost all medical queries, with emergencies being the exception. 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 area or have a problem with your GP practice, you have the right to 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, so it’s important to be concise about your problems. If you need to be referred to a specialist at a hospital, your GP will deal with this process and provide a letter of referral. Waiting times vary significantly from practice to practice.

The National Health Service and emergencies

Emergency services are free of charge 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, and you’ll usually be placed in a shared room with members of the same sex.


Pharmacies in the UK are usually quite easy to find, be it in town centres or sometimes 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, and you’ll usually have to pay a flat charge. In England, NHS prescriptions are charged at £8.40 per item, although 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.

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