If you’re looking for a medical help in the UK, here’s a guide to finding and registering with one of the doctors in the UK and what to do if you need specialist help from one of the UK doctors.
This guide looks at the conditions for seeing doctors in the UK, how to find one, and the costs. You’ll also learn how to fill your prescriptions.
There is also a further information section at the end of the guide with links to the National Health Service.
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.
Conditions for seeing a general practice doctor in the UK
Doctors in the UK are known as general practitioners (GP). They work in local practices with other doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, practice managers, and administrative staff. They also work closely with other health professionals and community services towards improving healthcare.
The services of doctors in the UK are available free of charge on the National Health Service (NHS) to all residents. There are also private doctors in the UK who charge patients for their services.
Doctors in the UK deal with most health complaints. As part of primary care, they are the first point of call if you have a medical complaint. They also provide health education, offer advice on smoking and diet, run clinics, give vaccinations, and carry out minor surgery. If a UK doctor feels you need further treatment, they refer you to a specialist or hospital.
You may choose your own GP practice or change practice at any time. A practice can refuse to register you if they are full or if you live outside of its boundary. You register with the surgery rather than an individual doctor in the UK; it’s not unusual to see different doctors within the surgery. However, you can request a particular doctor if you prefer.
When you register with a GP practice, you need to fill out a registration form. You can also register a baby at a practice by filling out this form. When you register with a doctor in the UK, your medical records transfer to that practice. You normally then get an appointment for a basic check-up with a practice nurse.
Most surgeries operate by appointment but also have a walk-in session, usually in the morning. With most practices, you don’t need to be registered to visit an open-door session. However, the doctor or nurse seeing you won’t have your medical records, which may prolong the appointment.
Information for non-residents and temporary residents who’d like to register with UK doctors
As the NHS is a residence-based system, all UK residents can access NHS doctor’s services for free. Non-residents and visitors from outside the EU, European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland will only be able to access certain services for emergencies or serious health issues free of charge. They must arrange personal medical or travel insurance to avoid charges for most services unless they are from a country that has a reciprocal healthcare agreement with the UK or they qualify for an exemption.
Visitors from the EU, EEA, and Switzerland need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to access services without charges.
Non-residents and visitors to the UK will not be able to register with a doctor in the UK but will be able to visit a surgery during ‘open hours’ for most illnesses free of charge if they have the required insurance. Non-residents can receive emergency treatment from doctors for up to 14 days. After this, they will need to register as a temporary resident with a practice for up to 3 months.
Conditions for seeing specialist doctors in the UK
There are a number of medical specialists in the UK, also known as consultants. To see a specialist in the UK on the NHS, you will need a referral from your GP. Self-referrals are only possible for sexual health services and accident and emergency (A&E) treatment.
If you want to see a private specialist in the UK, you can do so without a GP referral but need to pay the full costs. It is still advisable to get a referral letter from your GP if possible.
Most specialists in the UK will be based within hospitals. If you receive a referral to a specialist in the UK, you are free to choose your consultant and the hospital where you are seen. Make the appointment online through the NHS e-referral service.
More information on specialists in the UK available here.
How to find doctors in the UK
You can find a doctor in the UK through personal recommendation or through running a location-based search in a directory such as Yellow Pages which will have a list of doctors in the UK based by area. You can also search GP services by location on the NHS website. The NHS search enables you to compare surgeries in your area by user rating, number of registered patients, recommendation score and whether it offers online services such as electronic prescriptions and online appointment booking.
You can also assess performance ratings of doctors in the UK on the Care Quality Commission (CQC) website.
What to do when seeing a UK doctors
If you don’t want to face the likelihood of a long wait at the ‘open hours’ walk-in sessions, you will need to book a doctor’s appointment in the UK. You can do this over the phone or by visiting the surgery. Most surgeries in the UK now also offer an online booking service.
Depending on how busy the surgery is, you may be able to book an appointment for the same day or you may have to wait up to a few days. You won’t necessarily see the same doctor each time but you have a legal right to ask to see a particular doctor or nurse.
When you attend a doctor’s appointment in the UK, go to the reception to let them know you’ve arrived. If you receive an appointment card, present it to the receptionist. You may also need to confirm your address. It is common for doctors’ appointments in the UK to run over time. If things are running late and you need to leave, make sure that you inform reception and they will offer you another appointment.
Doctors’ appointments in the UK usually last 8-10 minutes. The doctor will make any necessary diagnoses and offer advice, make prescriptions, make referrals if necessary and tell you if you need a follow-up appointment. You will need to confirm any of this with the receptionist before leaving.
Most GP practices throughout the UK now offer a range of online services for patients. These include:
- online appointment bookings and cancellations
- repeat prescription ordering online
- accessing parts of your GP health record
You will need to register to access online GP services. You can find out how to do this by enquiring at your local practice. More information here.
There is also a growing number of online-only medical services operating in the United Kingdom. These platforms can offer shorter waiting times than traditional GP surgeries, and offer many of the services you can expect from in-person treatment. This includes video consultations and prescriptions delivered straight to your door. Online medical services in the UK include:
Costs of seeing a doctor or medical specialist in the UK
If you see a doctor or specialist in the UK on the NHS, the service is free for UK residents. The only services that charge are opticians and dentists. See our guide to healthcare in the UK for more information on dentist fees.
The government will pick up costs for all other NHS services, paid for out of the annual health budget through direct taxation. The British Medical Association (BMA) has agreed fee rates to charge the government for GPs and specialist consultants. Doctors’ costs in the UK will be passed onto patients (or private insurers) where work is not performed on the NHS, e.g., if the patient chooses to go private, is not eligible for NHS treatment or wants treatment (e.g., cosmetic treatment) not available on the NHS.
Insurance for private medical treatment in the UK
For those that want to opt for private healthcare in the UK, there are plenty of private health insurance companies which provide different coverage packages. Expat-friendly international firms operating in the UK include:
Getting a prescription from UK doctors
If you are given a prescription, you can take it to your local pharmacy, or chemist, to collect. Most chemists open out-of-hours until 10pm or 11pm.
There is a charge for prescriptions of £8.60 per item. Repeat prescriptions are charged at £29.10 for 3 months and £104 for 12 months unless you are eligible for an exemption. See our guide to healthcare in the UK for more information.
Out of hours surgery and home visits with UK doctors
Most GP surgeries are open from 8am until early evening on weekdays, with many closed at weekends, but there is some availability of emergency doctors in the UK. If you need urgent treatment outside of normal opening hours, you can do one of the following:
- call 111 for NHS medical help or advice if the situation is urgent but not life-threatening
- call 999 for emergency services if you need an ambulance, the police or the fire service
- visit the A&E department of your local hospital if your situation is urgent and potentially life-threatening
- go to an NHS walk-in center, minor injuries unit, or urgent care center
- visit an out-of-hours pharmacist for advice on common or minor illnesses
- call 116 123 to speak to the Samaritans if you need urgent mental health support. You can also contact your local crisis support service which can be found here.
If you are too unwell to attend a GP appointment, you can request a home visit. You will need to contact your local practice to see whether this is possible.
Complaining about your doctor in the UK
If you want to complain about the service of a doctor or specialist in the UK, you can do so via the NHS feedback and complaints procedure here. You can also leave feedback about your local practice here.
You can also contact Healthwatch, which is the national consumer voice for health and social care.
Note: Each region of the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has its own NHS body. The information here is regarding NHS England. You can find out more about the NHS in other regions on the websites for NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and NHS Northern Ireland.