Is Healthcare Free in The UK?

The UK has one of the most generous healthcare systems in the world, thanks to its National Health Service (NHS). It’s also one of only a few countries that provide free or affordable healthcare to all citizens, regardless of income level.

Nevertheless, you might be surprised to learn that there are some expenses you will have to incur for medical treatment in the UK – including prescriptions, dental services, and eye care.

Healthcare in the UK is free for all its citizens and residents. The medical services are paid for through taxes and administered by the NHS (National Health Service). However, the healthcare is the only free at the point of use basis. This means a patient may be charged for some items such as prescriptions and dental services

While most services are free, not everyone is eligible to receive them. Some people may be charged for accessing NHS care or will not be able to access some services at all. This post will explain what we mean by “free healthcare” and how much it costs to access medical treatment in the UK.

Is healthcare really free in the UK?

This question would be best answered by first understanding what “free healthcare” means in this instance. The UK has a government-funded healthcare system and paid for out of general taxation revenue.

This means there are no upfront costs for medical treatment in the NHS, which is why many people refer to it as being ‘free at point-of-use healthcare – also known as ‘free at the point of care.’

However, there are some expenses you might have to pay for when receiving medical treatment in the UK. In fact, it’s estimated that out-of-pocket costs for health services could cost as much as £500 per year on average in England alone – and even more, if you live elsewhere across the UK. 

If you are a British citizen over 18 years old and not pregnant, you will need to pay for your local GP or pharmacy prescriptions.

This includes dental treatment, which is not an emergency (e.g., fillings); optical treatments like glasses or contact lenses, and wigs if you suffer from hair loss due to chemotherapy treatment. 

The NHS doesn’t cover these services because they’re considered ‘elective’ rather than essential medical care. For example, some people wear glasses instead of contacts when driving or reading – but this doesn’t mean they’re critical for everyone.

On the flipside, UK citizens help fund the NHS, albeit indirectly through taxes and National Insurance contributions.  However, those with low income aren’t obligated to pay in any way, thanks to the NHS Low Income Scheme.

What’s more? There is no limit on how many times you can use the NHS Low Income Scheme in a year.

So, while there are some costs associated with receiving medical treatment in the UK, it’s still one of the most generous healthcare systems in the world and much cheaper than private health care. 

 Is healthcare free in the UK for foreigners? 

If you’re a foreigner living in the UK, it depends on whether or not you have an entitlement to free NHS treatment. 

The rules for foreigners are different across each of the four countries that make up Great Britain – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. However, all UK citizens have access to emergency care from the NHS, regardless of their nationality. 

For general medical treatment, foreigners who are lawfully living in the UK and have a valid visa can access free NHS treatment – although they may be asked to prove their immigration status. 

Foreigners who don’t have a valid visa or residency permit will usually need to pay for any medical treatment received from the NHS. It’s important to note that not all treatments are available for free on the NHS, so it’s best to check with your local GP or medical provider before seeking treatment. 

Generally speaking, foreigners living in the UK will find that they have to pay for some – but not all – of their healthcare costs.

For example, people outside Great Britain may have to pay for prescriptions and dental treatment in England or Wales; but not necessarily Scotland (where some services are free) or Northern Ireland, where all services remain unchanged. 

Visitors from the EU, EEA, and Switzerland can get free medical treatment on the NHS if they’re visiting temporarily. However, they will need to show their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or UK Provider card at any doctor’s appointment for this to apply. 

Yet, the EHIC cannot be used in place of private medical insurance. If you’re visiting from outside European countries, you will need to pay for any treatment received on the NHS.

There may be exceptions in cases where a country has a reciprocal healthcare agreement with the UK– such as Australia or New Zealand.

If you live outside of Europe and want medical care when visiting the UK, you will need to pay for any treatment received from private healthcare providers. 

Even if you’re a British citizen living outside Europe but travel back on holiday or business,  your entitlement to free NHS care may be limited since the EHIC card doesn’t cover some services.

For example, if your trip is less than six months long, you may not get free dental treatment or prescriptions unless there are exceptional circumstances (e.g., pregnancy). 

Alternative to the NHS and public health insurance in the UK

As an expat in the UK, you can sign for private health insurance, which will save you money. With 74,000 employees, 200 years of experience, and more than 100 million customers globally, Cigna is one of the largest international insurance providers in the world.

In the UK, Cigna has been operating since 1983. Their offerings include health insurance, dental insurance, absenteeism management, occupational health services, and well-being programs.

Visit their website to learn more and choose the optimal coverage for your situation.

Do international students in the UK receive free healthcare? 

International students in the UK  are entitled to free NHS treatment if they have a valid visa and immigration status to stay longer than six months. 

This also applies to international students living in the UK with their family members – as long as they’re lawfully residing there (e.g., EU citizens or those who hold permanent residency). 

Suppose you’re an international student who is a citizen of any other country. In that case, your entitlement to free NHS treatment may have limitations depending on which visa category applies to you.

For example, if you live in the UK under Tier Four General Student Visa rules. In that case, this gives access only while they remain enrolled at their institution and for a maximum of four months after the course has finished. 

However, most international students in the UK will be able to access free NHS treatment if they need it – just remember to take your passport or visa with you when you go to see the doctor.

International students may be asked to provide evidence of their Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC) during their visa application. This policy will usually cover you for most medical treatments while you’re in the country, although there may be some exceptions depending on your chosen health plan.

If you’re an EU citizen studying in the UK, you’re entitled to free NHS treatment just like any other British resident.

International students studying full-time will need to pay for the immigration health surcharge during the visa application process.

The student pays £470 per year for full-time study, which covers themselves, their partner, and any dependants. This is a one-off payment that gives you access to the full range of NHS services while you’re in the UK.

There are a few exceptions to this – for example, if you’re an EU national but have retired and live in the UK permanently, you won’t need to pay the surcharge.

However, if you become ill or injured while in the UK, you’ll be able to access NHS care but may need to pay for some services like prescriptions or dental treatments.


Anna is an enthusiastic expatriate with experience of living in Germany, Austria and Greece. She shares her passion for living abroad on this website.

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