National Health Service

Public healthcare in the UK

National Health Service

Britain's public provider of health care is known as the National Health Services (NHS). Services provided by the NHS include hospitals, family doctors, specialists, dentists, chemists, opticians and the ambulance service.

Not all services provided by the NHS are free of charge. Unless exempt, patients pay (subsidised) fixed costs for prescriptions, sight tests, NHS glasses and dental treatment. Hospital treatment, the ambulance service and medical consultations remain free.

The UK’s NHS was the first state organisation in the world to provide free universal healthcare. Today, it is an organisation with some severe structural problems, which means that waiting lists for treatments even for urgent operations have grown and the standard of treatment in some hospitals has deteriorated. Many Britons in the higher income bracket purchase private health insurance and there is a growing number of employers providing private cover as standard to their employees.

Entitlement to treatment from NHS

The principal groups that the NHS provides free or subsidized medical treatment to are:

  • Those with the right of abode in Britain and who are currently resident in Britain (this excludes British citizens who are resident abroad)
  • Anyone who has been resident in the UK for the previous year
  • EU nationals
  • Students (on courses longer than 6 months)
  • Anyone with a British work permit

Nationals of countries with reciprocal health agreements with Britain are also entitled to treatment from the NHS, although exemption from charges is usually limited to emergency treatment. Countries with reciprocal agreements include: EEA nations, Anguilla, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Channel Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, New Zealand, Romania, Russia, St Helena, Switzerland, Turkey, and the Caicos Islands.

As of April 2017, hospitals are required by law to check whether patients are eligible for free care. Patients need to present their passports and other documents prior to receiving any non-urgent treatment. However, emergency treatment will not be denied to anyone.

Those without correct documentation or foreign residents who are not working in the UK are not eligible for free healthcare on the NHS.


If you are not entitled to free or subsidised treatment from the NHS, you are strongly advised to take out some form of medical insurance to cover yourself against emergency medical treatment which can become extremely expensive.

Further reading

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