Immigrants to the UK can take advantage of the British healthcare system, which emerged in 1948 as one of the world’s first national socialized medical programs. Grounded in the philosophy that healthcare is a right rather than a privilege, the modern British healthcare system was founded with the goal of providing medical care to all Britons regardless of wealth. Today, the British National Health, or NHS, continues to serve the entire population, providing free medical care to children and adults throughout the country. Funded primarily through taxation, the UK healthcare system ensures minimal to non-existent healthcare costs in the UK. While everyone has access to the NHS, the system is also supplanted by private medical care providers, who deliver more specialized and/or personalized services for a fee. The following is an overview of the UK healthcare system.

NHS System

The National Health System, or the NHS, is one of the cornerstones of modern British society. Since it was launched in 1948, the NHS has evolved to fulfill the healthcare needs of the entire U.K. population-over 66 million people. Funded primarily through general taxes, the NHS employs more than 100,000 doctors and over 300,000 nurses. Collectively, the system employs more than 1.5 million people; it is the largest employer in the U.K. and one of the largest employers anywhere in the world.

In the UK, primary care physicians are known as GPs-“General Practitioners,” while doctors’ offices are known as “surgeries.” In general, patients register with a local GP and receive care from them throughout their life so long as they remain in the general area. The UK healthcare system is grounded in patient rights; patients have the right to refuse treatment so long as they are properly informed and not lacking in capacity.

Keep in mind that while the NHS system operates across the UK throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, each government has control over its respective health system. The devolved nature of the UK healthcare system means that all four countries have their own respective NHS’s that are responsible for delivering healthcare to citizens. Different UK countries have different systems, services, terminology, and even pricing. For example, health care in Scotland is coordinated through the Scottish NHS via 14 regional health boards, in contrast to England, where patients receive care throughout 217 NHS trusts. Unlike England, prescriptions are entirely subsidized in Wales, where the system is said to have more in common with the Scottish NHS in terms of organization. The below information is therefore generally relevant to all patients but applies particularly to those in England. Ultimately, despite structural and other differences between UK countries in terms of health care costs and provision, the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish systems are united through their basic function, which is to provide government-funded free health care, including hospitalization, to citizens through the NHS.

NHS: Who is covered?

  • Under the UK healthcare system, anyone who is classified as an “ordinary resident” is entitled to comprehensive free care, including hospital services.
  • The UK government defines an ordinary resident as someone who is “living in the UK on a lawful, voluntary and properly settled basis for the time being.”
  • Additionally, anyone who is in the UK, regardless of their immigration status, is eligible to receive free primacy care services from a GP, so long as they are the country for a period between 24hrs and three months and they register as a temporary patient with a local GP.
  • Under the terms of the British healthcare system, only ordinary residents are entitled to free hospital services.
  • Those who are visiting the UK for more than 6 months (or who are applying for a visa for the UK from within the country, regardless of visa-type) can receive comprehensive coverage, including free hospitalization, by paying the immigration health surcharge fee, which the authorities may request you to pay pre-arrival, during your visa application to the UK.
  • The cost of the immigration surcharge is £300 each year for students (and per each child if they have any) and £400 for non-students.
  • Those who are applying for visitor’s visas and permanent residency/citizenship are exempt from the immigration surcharge fee.
  • Like British residents and citizens, immigrants and temporary residents must pay for dental and vision under the terms of the UK healthcare system.

Healthcare Costs in the UK

  • Healthcare costs in the UK are low due to the country’s socialized medical system.
  • In general, UK residents do not have to pay for medical care, including special surgeries and other treatments.
  • The NHS does not entirely cover prescriptions: NHS prescription costs are the same for all items; £9.15 per medication.
  • The NHS covers ambulance rides for emergency purposes. This means that if you require an ambulance to get to the hospital in the UK you will not have to pay for one.
  • Children’s healthcare in the UK is entirely free, with zero costs for ophthalmologic and dental services or prescriptions.
  • Vision (including prescriptions) and dental care are two areas not entirely covered by the NHS, meaning many adult patients who require those services must pay out of pocket. However, certain types of patients, including those under 18, students, pregnant women, and qualifying low-income applicants may receive free dental care; free vision tests and/or vouchers for prescription glasses are also available to qualifying applicants.
  • While you have the right to choose your physician in the UK, some GPs limit their practice to patients who reside in a particular geographic area, meaning that while you don’t have to see a doctor in your area, you may have trouble finding someone outside your location who will take you on as a patient.
  • The NHS does not generally cover the cost of elective medical procedures, especially cosmetic ones. For example, those who are seeking plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons will likely have to pay out of pocket. Please note that if you do choose to pursue private healthcare, you are still entitled to receive NHS services.

Children’s Healthcare in the UK

  • Children’s healthcare in the UK is even more comprehensive than that of adults in the

British Healthcare System:

  • Unlike adults, children up to the age of 18 and 16 receive free dental and optical care as well as no-cost prescriptions respectively, through the NHS system.
  • Under the British healthcare system, checkups and routine vaccinations for children are completely covered. Your GPs will contact you when it is time for your child to be vaccinated. 
  • Pregnant British women have the option of giving birth in an NHS hospital, midwife center, or even at home-at no cost. Prenatal and post-natal care is also covered by the UK healthcare system.

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