Healthcare in the UK


People wearing blue scrubs and white lab coats with surgical face masks on, in a group photo

Healthcare in the UK


Proper access to healthcare can impact your overall physical, social, and mental health status and quality of life. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) provides a comprehensive service irrespective of gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity or marital or civil partnership status. It is possible to pay for private medical care, however, this option is not covered as part of this practical advice guide.

How the healthcare service works in the UK

  • The National Health Service (NHS) is a government-funded universal healthcare system comprising four regional units; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Check the specific NHS sites for your region.
  • Healthcare is provided on a needs-base not your ability to pay.
  • If you are not an ordinarily resident in the UK*, there may be a charge for NHS services depending on immigration status or type of healthcare.Check NHS entitlements to EU visitors post-Brexit.
  • The NHS is divided into:
    • Primary care – the first point of contact for healthcare, usually provided by general practitioners (GPs), dentists, pharmacists and optometrists.
    • Secondary care – requires a GP referral – such as mental health services or other specialist treatment.
    • Tertiary care – highly specialised treatment – such as organ transplants.
  • Understand NHS entitlements.

General Practitioner (GP)

  • Register with a GP (doctor) for all your primary care healthcare needs, including medical prescriptions and secondary care referrals.
  • Free to register.
  • No need for proof of your address, immigration status, ID or an NHS number, though it is helpful to bring any documentation.
  • Further information on “How to register with a GP surgery” is available.
  • Use “Find a GP” to find a surgery.

111 – Free NHS phone line

  • Free 24-hour NHS telephone number for urgent but non-life-threatening healthcare needs.
  • Following a short assessment, you will be directed to the right service, at the right time and as close to home as possible.
  • Ask for an interpreter in your language by saying, “interpreter, please.”

111 online service


  • Pharmacists are qualified healthcare professionals.
  • Fill prescriptions and offer advice and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for minor illnesses such as coughs, colds, aches and pains.
  • More details on “How your pharmacy can help” and find a pharmacy.
  • Private pharmacies may have different charges to NHS registered pharmacies. Check which type of pharmacy you are using.

999 for Emergency Services 

  • Only call 999 in a life-threatening emergency; severe illness, bleeding, a loss of consciousness, chest pains, breathing difficulties, poisoning or major trauma.
  • The call operator needs to know the following:
    • Emergency location. It is helpful to keep your full address, including the postcode, in an easily accessible place for anyone on the property.
    • Contact number.
    • Type of emergency.
  • An ambulance may be sent, or you may be advised to make your own way to A&E or another healthcare centre.

 Accident and Emergency (A&E) department

  • A&E departments (emergency or casualty) are only for severe injuries and life-threatening emergencies.
  • Open 24 hours a day, every day.
  • Waiting time is based on medical need, not method or time of arrival.

 Dentists and opticians

 Community health services

  • Health services are accessed in the community and not in hospitals.
  • Services include mental health, child health, antenatal services, sexual health and family planning clinics.

 Walk-in or urgent treatment centres

  • Urgent medical care for minor injuries (cuts, sprains and small fractures) or urgent medical advice.
  • Direct access to a walk-in or urgent care centre without an appointment.
  • Centres are usually open during daytime hours.

 Secondary care referrals

  • GP referral typically required.
  • If you are not “ordinarily resident” in the UK, you may have to pay for some NHS services received in hospital or the community.
  • You must keep any medical appointment or rearrange if you cannot attend.
  • Failure to attend/rearrange will result in you being removed from the system, and your GP will need to refer you again.
  • Hospitals aim to see everyone within 18 weeks of a referral.


The following health services are free to everyone:

  • GP advice and treatment.
  • Services provided by the NHS 111.
  • Accident and Emergency services are provided at an A&E department, walk-in centre, minor injuries unit or urgent care centre.
  • Diagnosis and treatment of some infectious and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • NHS services are provided for COVID-19 investigation, diagnosis, treatment, and vaccination.
  • Family planning services (contraception).
  • Treatment for a physical or mental condition caused by torture, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, or sexual violence.

Specialist health services are also free for:

  • Refugees.
  • Asylum seekers.
  • Victims or suspected victims of modern slavery.
  • Their dependants.

Immigration health surcharge (IHS)

  • The surcharge applies to everyone coming to the UK for longer than six months.
  • The IHS is payable during the visa application process and for every renewal.

If your asylum application has been rejected, you may still have access to free NHS services.

Prescription medicines, dental and eye care usually are not free in England. Still, asylum seekers who the Home Office financially supports will be given an HC2 certificate to get full help with these health costs. Anyone can apply for this support.

 Further information and helplines


Additional Information

*A person is ordinarily resident if they are living in the United Kingdom:

  • lawfully
  • voluntarily
  • for settled purposes as part of the regular order of their life for the time being, whether for a long or short duration.

Last updated August 2023