Whether you’re visiting for a short period of time, working as a digital nomad, or have long-term residency in the UK, knowing your healthcare options is essential. From emergency treatment and private health insurance, to where and how to pick up your prescriptions, we’ve got you covered.
Note: If you need a COVID test for travel, see our full guide on COVID test centers that provide ‘fit to fly’ certificates.
Disclaimer: We are not an authority on healthcare in the UK and this article is to be considered as a general guide only. Contact the NHS for any specific questions regarding your healthcare, what you may need to pay for treatments or visits, or any other questions. Information is subject to change.
Accessing public healthcare in the UK
The UK has free healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS), publicly funded through taxation. However, there is also a private healthcare sector that some people pay for or may receive as an employment benefit. A relatively small number of people opt for private insurance (roughly 10%); some do because of reduced waiting times and access to a wider range of specialist services, such as osteopathy and acupuncture.
NHS services vary in structure across the UK. This guide will focus on the service in England, but you can visit the websites for NHS Scotland, NHS Wales, and Northern Ireland Health and Social Care for more information.
How to register for healthcare in the UK
The core principle of the NHS is that it is—and will remain—free at the point of delivery for individuals who are ordinarily resident, regardless of nationality.
Anyone can access primary care such as General Practioner’s (GP) and nurse consultations, and emergency treatment at hospitals, including visitors. If you’re in the country for a short time, you can register as a temporary patient. You just need to be in the area close to the chosen GP practice for more than 24 hours but less than three months.
To register for temporary NHS services, fill in a GMS3 form and take it to your nearest GP surgery. However, if you’re in the UK for less that 14 days, you can get emergency treatment at any local surgery without registering.
If you’re going to be living in the UK and want to register with a GP, you will need to complete a GMS1 form. You’ll also need photo ID such as a passport or driving licence, and a proof of address (usually a utility bill from the last three months).
Primary NHS services that are free to all regardless of residency include:
What to do in an emergency
To report an emergency, call 999 free of charge. This is the same number for all emergency services including the police and fire service. The operator will ask what your emergency is, and if necessary, an ambulance can be sent for you.
However, if you require medical attention, but can make it to the hospital by yourself, then go to your nearest Accident & Emergency (A&E) department. Not all hospitals have an A&E, so find your nearest one here. These are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Once there, you will register at reception by giving your name, address and reason for visiting. Then you’ll be seen by a triage nurse or doctor for assessment (and to prioritise patients with the most serious conditions or injuries), and then you’ll have to wait to be seen by a doctor or nurse for treatment.
The average waiting time from arrival to transfer or discharge is four hours, but it can take longer depending on how busy the department is.
How to get urgent but non-emergency medical help
If you require medical attention, but it’s not a life-threatening situation (for example a sprain, cuts and grazes, fever), there are other places you can go including urgent treatment centres. Urgent treatment centres are GP-led and open for at least 12 hours a day, every day. You can get referred by calling 111, or you can simply turn up like with A&E.
However, it’s worth calling 111 first so that they can ask initial assessment questions and give you the option to speak to a doctor, nurse or paramedic where appropriate. Then you’ll be advised where to go for treatment, which could be an urgent treatment centre, an out-of-hours GP service, a walk-in centre, your local GP (if during surgery hours) or, if necessary, the nearest A&E.
Access to secondary healthcare and charges
Secondary healthcare refers to the kind of services that would require a referral, which includes community services, physiotherapy, and speech and language therapy.
All UK residents, including expats, can access full NHS services for free. For secondary healthcare services, the UK operates on a residence basis. That means it’s free to anyone who is considered ‘ordinarily resident’ in the country. Currently, all non-EEA (European Economic Area) nationals would need to have the immigration status of indefinite leave for access to secondary healthcare without incurring charges.
Figuring out what you’ll need to pay depends on the length and purpose of your stay.
Healthcare charges for overseas visitors (Non EEA)
Non-EEA nationals have to pay a health surcharge which is £470 per year for students or those on Youth Mobility visas, and £624 for other visa types of over 6 months. Some people are exempt, including people seeking asylum or humanitarian protection (or their dependents). The surcharge will cover your healthcare for the duration of your stay, as with a resident.
But, if you’re from a country outside of the EEA, and visiting for less than 6 months, you’ll need to have personal medical or travel insurance in place, even if you’re a former UK resident.
Hospital treatment is usually payable upfront, and typically charged at 150% of the NHS rate. It’s worth noting that even UK residents have to pay for things like prescriptions (England), which is reviewed annually and currently costs £9.35 per item.
Reciprocal UK healthcare arrangements
Although the main reciprocal healthcare agreement is currently between the UK and EEA countries, it has several smaller agreements in place. Visitors from the following countries can access urgent or immediate treatment for a reduced cost, or in some cases for free:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- British Virgin Island
- Isle of Man
- Falkland Islands
- North Macedonia
- New Zealand
- St Helena
- Turks and Caicos Islands
Healthcare for overseas visitors: EU, EEA and Switzerland
The UK currently has a reciprocal healthcare deal in place with the EU.
Note: Visitors from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland who began your visit before 31 December 2020 can continue using the NHS for free. However, starting 1 January 2021, EEA and Swiss citizens will need to have either ‘pre-settled’ or ‘settled’ status to keep using the NHS for free. You can apply for either status under the EU Settlement scheme.
Different healthcare services and clinics
- GP surgeries: Usually open Monday to Friday, appointments by phone or online, some ‘walk-in’ slots. Appointments are usually between 8–10 minutes.
- Urgent and emergency care: A&E, minor injury units, urgent treatment centres, NHS ‘walk-in’ clinics.
- Dentists: Most dental surgeries take on both NHS and private patients, but charges apply for all.
- Pharmacies: For prescriptions, and medical advice
- Mental health services: Including urgent psychiatric assessment, and talking therapies
- Sexual health: For testing and treatment of STIs and contraception
Dentistry costs (NHS and private)
NHS dentistry is primarily dedicated to functional treatment, whereas private dental care also offers cosmetic options. However, even NHS treatment isn’t free. Charges are reviewed each year, usually in April.
Currently they fall into three bands:
Band 1: £23.80 – This covers an examination, diagnosis as well as x-rays, advice on dental care and hygiene, preventive care such as application of fluoride, and a simple scale and polish.
Band 2: £65.20 – All of the above plus fillings, root canal work, and extractions (a blanket charge, so it would cover multiple fillings or extractions in a single treatment).
Band 3: £282.80 – Everything listed in Bands 1 and 2, plus crowns, bridges, and dentures.
Emergency or urgent care also falls under Band 1, though you may be advised on a follow-up course of treatment.
You can access NHS dental treatment for free if you are:
- Under 18, or 19 and in full-time education
- Pregnant, or have had a baby in the previous 12 months
- Being treated in an NHS hospital and the treatment is carried out by the hospital dentist (charges may apply for dentures or bridges)
- Receiving low income benefits, or you’re under 20 and a dependent of someone who is
Unlike a GP surgery, you can register with a dental office that might be close to work, rather than one that is close to your home or where you’re staying. Find a dentist using this NHS search tool.
Private dental care in the UK
Private clinics have a wider range of services, but they come with a premium price tag, which varies depending on the clinic, and where you are in the country.
As a guide, expect to pay £30–£40 for a routine dental check-up, and over £100 for an extraction. You can get cosmetic treatments such as teeth whitening for around £300.
However, you can offset both NHS and private dental costs by taking out private health insurance policies. Large international health insurers that offer dental coverage include Allianz Care, BUPA Global and Cigna Global.
Medical insurance in the UK
A relatively low number of UK residents (roughly 10% of the population) take out private health insurance. However, for expats and visitors who need coverage beyond what is covered by the health surcharge, or want to access more specialist services, then there are plenty of insurance providers.
If you’re living and working between the UK and your home country, then it might be worth looking into international health insurance.
Some of the main global health insurers that operate in the UK include:
Use a price comparison site like comparethemarket.com or gocompare.com for up-to-date quotes. Costs usually depend on how many people you want to cover (you, you and one other person, you and family members), and the level of coverage.
As a rough guide, a healthy, non-smoker can expect to pay around £700–900 a year for private health insurance with a major provider, although international policies will be higher.
Pharmacies and prescriptions
To fill most prescriptions, head to a pharmacy. In England, most people will pay for their prescriptions, but some people are exempt from paying including:
- Over 60s
- Under 16s
- 16 to 18 year olds in full-time education
- Individuals who are pregnant or have had a baby in the previous 12 months
- Individuals with specific disabilities or medical conditions
- Individuals receiving income support/jobseeker’s allowance/ universal credit
Pharmacies range from larger chains like Boots and Superdrug, to smaller independent local ones. Pharmacists are medicine experts who can help you with minor health concerns, so you can walk in and get clinical advice and over-the-counter medicines for coughs, colds, stomachaches, etc. However, if the pharmacist believes it’s something more serious, they will advise you to see a GP instead.
Like GP services and walk-in centres, some pharmacies offer out-of-hours services, so you can pick up medicines up until midnight, and sometimes later. Visit the NHS pharmacy page to find out more.