In the guide below, we will discuss whether healthcare in the UK is free for all to use. Continue reading if you’re curious about which healthcare services are free or if all are free. We’ll also discuss everything you need to know about health insurance coverage and obtaining certain services.
Who can access free healthcare in the UK?
Anyone born in and who resides in the UK can get free healthcare services from the National Health Service or NHS. To be more specific, you must be an “ordinarily resident” to receive healthcare. In short, you should live in the country on a lawful and settled basis.
Immigrants with a status of indefinite leave to remain also receive free healthcare. You can even be an ex-pat or newly registered UK resident, and you’d still receive free NHS care.
While you can get free healthcare at the point of contact, you may need to pay a surcharge first. This surcharge is required of immigrants before they move to the UK. Short-term visitors or people entering the UK for less than six months need to pay when using most NHS services.
NHS care is technically free
The UK has a publicly-funded healthcare system called the National Health System or NHS. Other countries or governments offer health insurance to their citizens. In contrast, the funding from UK’s healthcare system comes from taxation.
This system allows the NHS to provide “free” healthcare to UK residents. In short, healthcare services are free at the point of contact. However, residents still technically pay for them via taxation.
The UK uses a national insurance system. Each resident pays an amount that goes towards healthcare funding based on their income. These payments are deducted automatically from their salaries and paid on their behalf by their employer.
You can also buy private health insurance if you don’t want to depend on NHS care. You can find private healthcare by going to private hospitals or UK health insurance companies online. Private health insurance can cover services adjacent to healthcare.
Also, remember that only certain healthcare services are free for non-UK residents. The free services provided by the NHS universally, including to migrants and visitors, are the following:
- Accident and emergency services, not including follow-up treatment or in-patient admission
- Treatment of most infectious diseases
- Maternity care
- Family planning services, not including infertility treatment or abortions
- Treatment for physical or mental conditions caused by torture, domestic violence, sexual violence, or FGM
- Physician services
- Preventative services, including immunizations, vaccination programs, and screenings
- Palliative care
- Some health services or care provided long term
- Home visits by community-based nurses
- Rehabilitation, including physiotherapy for stroke patients
- Mental health services
Later, we will discuss which NHS services aren’t freely available and the exempted demographics or populations.
The NHS also covers some holistic therapy services. These may cover acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, osteopathy, reiki, and herbal medicine. Note that the NHS has minimal coverage for holistic therapies.
The next question most people have is when they can receive free healthcare. You can receive NHS services after you’ve registered with the NHS. To do this, you must visit a General Practitioner or GP and complete a Family Doctor Services Registration Form.
Which NHS services do patients need to pay for?
Not all NHS services are available for free. Some areas of healthcare in the UK will charge you. You may need to pay as a patient who uses the services below:
- Dental care
- Wigs and fabric supports
- Travel costs to or from NHS facilities
Note that certain patients can get exemptions from paying for these services. For example, people under 16 or over 60 can get free prescriptions from the NHS. Otherwise, you’d have to pay around £9.35 for a prescription, which is the average charge in the UK.
Another example is that those with partial blindness are also eligible for free eye care in the UK. They may also receive optical vouchers designed to reduce the cost of eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Here you will find information about the specific NHS healthcare services you need to pay for.
The cost of healthcare when visiting the UK temporarily
What about UK visitors’ healthcare costs? Visitors who are coming to the UK need to pay a fee when they access most NHS services.
For example, the typical cost of hospital treatment is 150% of the standard NHS rate. In some cases, or if an exemption category applies to you, the treatment price may be lower.
The best way to ensure you get hospital and health care at affordable costs is to have health insurance. It should cover the cost of any treatment you’ll need when you go to the UK. You can choose a health insurance provider who can give back what you spent on the cost of NHS care.
Do you already have health insurance from your country? Your health insurance might not cover your health treatments abroad unless you have an international plan. Check if your healthcare insurance plan is international or buy a local UK health insurance policy instead.
Is healthcare free in the UK for foreigners?
Healthcare in the UK will be free at the point of service after you pay an immigration health surcharge fee. This covers you if you are a student or a migrant and are staying in the UK for over six months. You will pay this surcharge while applying for your visa.
The standard surcharge fee today is:
- £470 per person per year for students or those on the youth mobility scheme, or those under the age of 18
- £624 per person per year for everyone else
The only people who need to pay the health surcharge are those applying for a visa or immigration. It includes those applying inside (for any period) and outside the UK (for more than six months). Note that you still need to pay the fee even if you already have private health insurance.
Those applying for permanent leave to stay in the UK don’t need to pay the surcharge. Children under 18 and taken into care by a local authority don’t need to pay but need an IHS reference number. The same applies to civilians employed at NATO or the Australian Department of Defence in the UK and their dependents.
You don’t need to pay the surcharge or get an IHS reference number in some cases. Visit this link to learn who it covers.
How to access treatment in the UK?
Let’s say you’re not from the UK but need access to primary care or NHS emergency services. Whether you’re immigrating or visiting the UK, it’s still your right as a person to receive healthcare services. Below, we’ll discuss how you can gain access to these services.
You should first make sure you have health insurance to cover the duration of your stay before you visit the UK.
For urgent care, you can contact the nearest Accident and Emergency (A&E) service by calling 999. You can also visit a hospital’s A&E department if you’re near one.
Dial 111 if you require non-urgent medical treatment. They will assist you on where to seek care and how to proceed. You can also go to the nearest walk-in NHS hospital or healthcare centre for immediate care.
If you get a prescription for specific medications, you can discuss it with a pharmacist. They may give you over-the-counter medicines for the health issue. However, not all NHS hospitals have A&E departments, so check first before you go.
Make sure you always carry your health insurance papers when you travel to the UK. If you get into a health emergency, you can give your health insurance details. Note that your health insurance may not cover all the necessary medical services you’ll need on your trip.
Immigrants will pay a health surcharge during the visa application process. This step makes UK healthcare accessible to you for free at the point of delivery. Consider registering at a local General Practice (GP) clinic when you reach the UK.
To get started, you’ll fill out a registration form and provide proof of immigration. Remember that all GP surgeries in the UK can accept or deny service. You can find the next-closest GP surgery if the first GP surgery isn’t taking any more patients.
Note that the best way to ensure excellent healthcare service is to buy extra health insurance.
Why is healthcare free in the UK?
The National Health Service Act of 1946 established the NHS to provide universal health coverage in England. It was part of a wider welfare reform created to cut down on unemployment, poverty, and illness. It also aimed to improve education in the “ordinarily resident” population.
One of the goals of the NHS is to ensure the quality of care. It uses the Care Quality Commission to regulate health and adult social care. The commission requires all providers to register before practicing for better monitoring.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guides healthcare providers in delivering quality standards and following guidelines. It includes setting maximum waiting times for cancer, elective, and emergency treatments. It also collects data on the quality of service at the organization to physician levels.
Health is a human right and not a tradable commodity. Even though healthcare in the UK isn’t technically free, the NHS makes it easily accessible to all who need it. It benefits the whole UK to have a healthy population, after all.
The NHS helps cover healthcare for everyone in the UK and makes it freely accessible at the point of service. However, people in the UK don’t truly receive free healthcare. Instead, they pay for their healthcare through taxation.
Visitors and immigrants coming into the UK must pay a health surcharge fee before entering. You can also pay for hospitalization at a 150% rate when using NHS healthcare services.