Whether you go private or find an NHS dentist in the UK, here is everything you need to know about looking after your pearly whites in the country.
Fortunately for expats living in the UK, the country’s dental care is among the best in the world. It is also easy to access and, thanks to the National Health Service (NHS) which subsidizes treatments, is affordable for all who need it. Whether you go private or are able to find an NHS dentist who can add you to their list, you are likely to have a satisfying experience in the treatment chair.
This comprehensive guide to dentists in the UK explains how to care for your pearly whites. It includes information on the following:
- The UK healthcare system
- Dental care in the UK
- NHS dental care
- Private dental care
- Dental insurance in the UK
- Accessing dental care in the UK
- Finding a dentist in the UK
- Visiting a dentist
- Children’s dental care
- Emergency dental care in the UK
- Useful resources
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COVID-19 in the UK
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone. Many expats find themselves separated from family and loved ones in their home countries. As a foreigner, it is also sometimes difficult to find critical information regarding coronavirus infection rates, local measures, and restrictions, and now, thankfully, vaccinations. For general coronavirus health information in the UK, including vaccination schedules and locations, visit the NHS Coronavirus (COVID-19) website.
For official COVID-19 measures, rules, and restrictions in the UK, consult our guide on the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK.
The UK healthcare system
Public healthcare in the UK is available through the National Health Service (NHS) and covers everything from a routine check-up by a doctor to emergency surgery. The NHS also provides dental care. However, the system is currently overloaded and many dental practices have no available NHS lists. Therefore, it is often easier to get dental insurance and see a private dentist, which we will discuss later in this guide.
If you are permanently living in the UK, you are eligible for free healthcare through the 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.
The NHS entitlements: migrant health guide explains who can claim what post-Brexit. Essentially, short-term visitors from the EU can continue to access medically necessary healthcare through the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) scheme or planned healthcare through the S2 funding route.
Short-term visitors from the EU (including former UK residents) who are not covered by the new UK-EU agreement on reciprocal healthcare may need to pay for NHS treatment. Notably, there are no changes to the healthcare entitlements of short-term visitors who are covered by bilateral healthcare agreements between the UK and countries outside the EU; this includes Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.
Citizens of the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland who moved to the UK from 1 January 2021 will need to pay the immigration health surcharge as part of any visa application.
Dental care in the UK
A variety of studies suggest that UK dental health is among the best in the world. In recognition of World Oral Health Day 2020, Qunomedical created a Healthiest Teeth Index to determine the countries with the best dental health in Europe. The study of 26 nations analyzed seven factors; these included consumption of sugar and alcohol, government investments, dental facilities, and fluoridation measures.
The study placed the UK sixth overall, despite the country having a relatively low number of dentists per capita. Indeed, the Index shows that there were only 54 dentists per 100,000 people; compared to 77 in Italy, 82 in Germany, and 125 in Greece. The UK’s ranking is also impressive, considering that the number of dental practitioners in the country has decreased in recent years; from roughly 46,000 in 2015 to 41,300 in 2020.
In theory, everyone in the UK is eligible for dental care provided by the NHS. But despite this, attendance is fairly low. In fact, NHS Dental Statistics for England 2020-21 show that only 44.5% of the adult population in the UK visited a dentist in the 24 months leading up to 31 December 2020. Furthermore, less than a third (29.8%) of the child population visited one in the preceding 12 months.
That said, there was a general reduction in attendance at dental surgeries influenced by COVID-19 restrictions. During this time, some practices effectively closed down or provided only emergency care.
The majority of dentists in the UK provide a mix of NHS and private services. However, many have closed their NHS lists to new patients and, therefore, charge commercial rates for treatments such as check-ups, extractions, and fillings. With this in mind, it is wise to ask for a table of charges before deciding which dentist to visit.
NHS dental care
Expats living permanently in the UK are able to access NHS dental care. You will, however, need to find a dental practice with vacancies on its NHS list. If you cannot contact your dentist or you don’t have one, though, you should get help from NHS 111 online. Notably, you shouldn’t contact a GP as they cannot provide urgent or emergency dental care.
You can search for your nearest NHS dentist. However, if you are unable to find one that accepts new NHS patients, you can contact your local NHS England area team, call the NHS England Customer Contact Centre on 0300 311 2233, or contact your local Healthwatch to get information about services in your area. Similar services are available in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Who is eligible for free NHS dental care?
It is important to remember that NHS dental care is only cost-free for certain people. Most have to make a contribution to the cost of the treatment they receive. However, the costs are capped to make them affordable for those who require considerable and lengthy treatment.
NHS dental care is free for all those under 18, students under 19 if they are in full-time education, pregnant women, and women who have had a baby in the last 12 months. Treatment is also free for those who claim certain benefits. However, you must show proof of benefits to the dental practice. You can check if you are eligible for free NHS dental care and whether you are exempt from NHS charges online.
What does NHS dental care cover?
NHS dental care includes the following check-ups and treatments:
- regular check-ups (usually twice a year)
- root canal treatment
- crowns and bridges
- preventive treatment (such as fluoride varnish, fissure sealants, and a scale and polish; if deemed clinically necessary)
- orthodontic (teeth straightening) treatment for children under 18
Notably, NHS dental care does not cover cosmetic treatment, such as teeth whitening, and you will have to pay for this privately. Dentists in the UK normally advise patients to attend a check-up every six months. However, COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 have created backlogs and localized delays to schedules.
Costs of NHS dental care
If you normally pay for NHS dental treatment, the amount you spend will naturally depend on the treatment you need. Aside from emergency dental treatment, there are three NHS charge bands which are outlined below.
- Emergency dental treatment: £23.80 – This covers emergency care in a primary care NHS dental practice such as pain relief or a temporary filling
- NHS charge band 1: £23.80 – This covers an examination, diagnosis (including X-rays), advice on how to prevent future problems, a scale and polish if clinically needed, and preventative care such as the application of fluoride varnish or fissure sealant if appropriate
- Charge band 2: £65.20 – This covers everything listed above in Band 1, plus any further treatment such as fillings, root canal work, or removal of teeth but not more complex items covered by Band 3
- Band 3: £282.80 – This covers everything listed in Bands 1 and 2 above, plus crowns, dentures, bridges, and other laboratory work
Note: You will not be charged for individual items within an NHS course of treatment. Also, prices for NHS dental care vary significantly in Scotland (£5.00 to £157.60), Wales (£14.30 to £199.10), and Northern Ireland (£3.44 to £152.98).
Private dental care
The UK consumer guide Which? estimates that about a quarter of all dentists in the country work exclusively in the private sector. The rest provide a mix of NHS and private treatment, although many have closed their NHS lists to new patients.
Costs for private dental care
The cost of private dental treatment in the UK is unregulated and can vary widely from practice to practice. For instance, research released by Which? in 2020 found that patients were paying anything from £25 to £85 for a scale and polish; £40 to £250 for a white filling; and £45 to £970 for root canal work. The same research discovered variances of £50 to £370 for extractions; £250 to £1,180 for crowns; and £355 to £2,520 for dentures or bridges. Therefore, the best advice is to shop around to find the best option for you.
Dental insurance in the UK
If you prefer the convenience of having private dental treatment, then you might want to check out private medical insurance costs alongside the price of treatment advised by the dentist. Most practices will provide a price list for simple treatments and will quote for any work that is more complex.
One of the main advantages of having private dental care is that routine private appointments will generally be allocated more time than those on the NHS. Moreover, appointments may be offered out of hours, including evenings and weekends. This means that you don’t have to take time off work and can be seen quickly. Fortunately, many insurance companies in the UK provide specialist cover for dental treatment. This may be your best option; depending on where you live and how long you can expect to wait to see an NHS dentist.
The independent consumer advice guide Which? published a comprehensive price comparison chart that features major providers in the UK. It found that premiums typically varied from £84.00 to £168 for specialist dental cover. Some comprehensive health insurance policies cover dental costs, and some employers provide coverage for their staff.
Some of the health insurance providers that offer dental coverage include:
There are also a number of ways to pay for private treatment including a capitation scheme. This allows you to make fixed monthly payments depending on your oral health and your expected level of treatment. Some UK employers also provide private health insurance to workers as part of their remuneration package; so this is worth asking about.
Accessing dental care in the UK
Although you don’t have to be registered with the NHS to access public dental care in the UK, most expats want to ensure that they have full access to all the healthcare that the NHS provides. You can simply register through a general practitioner (GP) who you can choose yourself. However, it is important to bear in mind that some practices may refuse patients if they don’t live in the local area or if the practice is too full.
Registration is done at the surgery by completing the GMS1 form, and you will usually need to provide some valid ID, such as a passport and proof of address, like a UK utility bill. Upon registering, you should receive a medical card that can be used to make appointments. You can find more information about how to register on the NHS website, including how to register as a temporary resident.
The Dental health: migrant health guide states that dentists are not required to ask for proof of identity; such as proof of address or immigration status from individuals applying to become an NHS patient. Furthermore, dental practices cannot turn down an applicant for NHS treatment on the grounds of dental condition or any protected characteristics including the following:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
When language barriers are present, professional interpreting in a patient’s preferred language should always be offered. Further information about interpreting and translation can be found in the Language interpreting and translation section of the migrant health guide.
Finding a dentist in the UK
If you enter “find a dentist near me” into any search engine, it will quickly become obvious that there are plenty of practices throughout the country. Furthermore, you will be spoilt for choice in the major towns and cities. That said, you might prefer to search via the NHS website or the British Dental Association (BDA), which has thousands of registered dentists in the UK.
However, if you decide to choose an NHS dentist, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, you should never be asked to pay a deposit prior to your appointment. And secondly, there is no need to register. You can simply find a practice that is convenient for you and see if they have any appointments available.
If you are having any trouble finding a dentist that is accepting NHS patients, you can call 0300 311 2233; the NHS England’s Customer Contact Centre. You can also try your local Healthwatch, as they may be able to give you information about the dental services in your area.
Visiting a dentist
Notably, you don’t have to register with a dentist in the UK in the same way that you do with a GP in order to receive NHS treatment. Moreover, you shouldn’t be asked to have an examination or pay for any private work before being accepted by an NHS dentist.
That said, waiting times for NHS dentistry have unfortunately grown to become a major problem in recent years. As a result, many dentists are refusing to accept any more NHS patients. In fact, in May 2021, The Guardian newspaper reported on Healthwatch England’s concerns that some patients were having to wait three years to see an NHS dentist. As a result, some patients felt pressured into paying for private treatment in order to avoid unacceptable waits.
Once you have found a dentist that you like, they should be able to advise you about when they have an available appointment. If they can’t see you within a reasonable time, though, it might be best to shop around.
Having a check-up
When you see your dentist for a check-up, they will first carry out an examination or assessment. This is the first part of each course of NHS treatment and is included in the Band 1 (£23.80) charge. They will assess your mouth, teeth, and gums and advise you on how to look after them.
Patients can also expect to be asked about their medical history and any medicines they are taking. The dentist will also ask them about any problems they have had with their teeth, mouth, or gums. The dentist will explain the cost of all the recommended treatments and make future appointments for your next visit. At the end of the course of treatment, they will discuss when you should return for a routine check-up.
If your dentist recommends a Band 2 or Band 3 dental treatment, you’ll be given an NHS Personal Dental Treatment Plan (PDF) in advance. This outlines all the treatments you are having on the NHS and how much they will cost. If your dentist says that you need a particular type of treatment, you shouldn’t be asked to pay for it privately. If you have discussed alternative private options with the dentist, then these should be listed on your treatment plan.
Private treatment and costs
Notably, separate details of any private treatment and associated costs should always be discussed with you first. This should be provided in writing before you commit to it. Upon agreement, the details will then be documented in your NHS Personal Dental Treatment Plan. If this is not done, you should query this immediately with the surgery or make an official complaint. Similarly, any changes to treatment should be discussed with you and agreed upon first. Therefore, if your dentist tries to change the course of treatment without your agreement, you should query this or make an official complaint.
You can read more about what to expect when visiting an NHS dentist on the NHS website.
Children’s dental care
In the UK, dental care is free for children up to the age of 18, and for those in full-time education up to the age of 19. Again, there is no need to register with a dentist in the same way as you do with a GP. This is because patients are not bound to a catchment area.
The NHS advises parents to take children to the dentist as soon as their first milk teeth appear and to arrange check-ups for them at regular intervals as advised by the dentist, or at least once a year.
However, despite dental care being free for children in the UK, the NHS concedes that only around 29.8% of children visited an NHS dentist in the 12 months leading up to 31 December 2020. That said, this is partly due to the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent restrictions on movement.
A YouGov survey in 2019 also highlighted the lack of education that UK children receive about their oral health. The study showed how far UK schools were falling behind and found that only 29% of British children aged five to 16 were given lessons in school on how to look after their teeth.
Emergency dental care
If you require emergency dental care, you should contact NHS 111. However, do not contact a GP as they cannot provide urgent or emergency dental care. Alternatively, you can call any dentist close by and explain your situation. Thankfully, many make provisions to deal with urgent cases and should be able to suggest the best solution.
If you have a dental problem and you can’t wait until normal practice hours, NHS 111 will provide self-care advice and information about the out-of-hours dental services in your area. Most dentists will have an answerphone message that explains what you need to do if you need out-of-hours assistance. If you have a trauma to your face, teeth, or mouth, you are bleeding a lot, or you are in severe pain and painkillers aren’t helping, then head to the accident and emergency department (A&E) at your local hospital.
Most urgent treatments can be done in one appointment, and you will only ever need to pay one Band 1 charge of £23.80 if you seek urgent care from an NHS dentist. If you require more than one session of urgent treatment, you should still only pay the Band 1 charge, so long as you see the same dentist. However, if the dentist recommends a separate course of non-urgent treatment, the relevant Band charges apply.
Of course, if you see a private dentist, the charge will depend on the treatment and whether they enforce a fee for emergency care. Private health insurance, or a specific dental insurance policy, should cover all – or a proportion of all – the costs incurred for private emergency treatment.
- NHS UK – provides information about NHS dental services, how to find an NHS dentist, and how much treatment costs
- Gov.UK – the Dental health: migrant health guide which provides advice and guidance on the health needs of migrant patients for healthcare practitioners
- NHS UK – information about what happens when you visit an NHS dentist
- NHS UK – provides a ‘Find a dentist’ search portal