Great Britain

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The NHS: UK Public Health Insurance

The National Health Service (NHS) is the public healthcare provider in the UK. Established in 1948, it has been the cornerstone of healthcare in the UK ever since. The largely tax-funded NHS offers universal healthcare coverage to Britons, as well as legally resident foreigners and expats.
The NHS is one of the largest employers in the UK.
  • Although the healthcare system across the UK is known as the NHS, the systems of the four regions do differ slightly from each other.
  • As long as you have registered with a GP and are in the UK legally, you are entitled to a range of free healthcare that covers everything you could possibly need.
  • Recent reforms to the NHS have caused some controversy, however, it is still known as one of the best healthcare systems in the world.

Thus, it is easy to see why the NHS, while still being a popular target of criticism, is more or less unrivaled. While private healthcare providers do exist (we have devoted a separate article to private health insurance), most people buy private insurance to complement the services the NHS offers.

“The” NHS: Not a National Body?

Technically, the NHS is not a “British” institution in the sense that there is only one body in charge of healthcare across the entire UK. England, Scotland, and Wales actually have separate public health bodies – however, they all are called NHS. The equivalent to the NHS in Northern Ireland is the HSC, short for Health and Social Care.

In practice, the differences between the services the respective institutions offer are rather negligible. As a resident of any UK country, you are entitled to NHS healthcare services in any other part of the UK as well. However, there are a number of more notable differences, for example in regard to prescription fees. Our article on the topic has further details.

What Am I Entitled To?

The NHS offers a wide range of services, covering every aspect of healthcare. As per the institution’s core principles, most of the services covered by the NHS are free at the point of use. This means that anyone registered with the NHS can use a wide range of services without paying out of pocket. There are, however, some important exceptions.

  • General Practitioners (GPs) are central to the healthcare needs of the population and your first contact in most issues related to healthcare. Please see our article on GPs for full details.
  • Dental care is among the exceptions mentioned above. Dental treatments are not covered by the NHS, and you will be billed for every time you go see the dentist.
  • Dial 999 or 112 in case you need to be rushed into the accident and emergency department of a hospital. For emergencies that are not life-threatening or immediate, dial 111. The operator will then advise you on the best local service offering treatment.
  • The NHS runs a large number of hospitals all over the UK. If you do not require emergency treatment, your GP is the person to turn to if you think you should be treated in a hospital. They will decide whether or not to refer you to one. Often, you have the right to choose which hospital you want to be treated in. Please be aware that in such cases, you might have to wait for a period of up to 18 weeks from the time of your referral.
  • In the UK, pharmacies are not only your go-to institution for obtaining medicine. Pharmacists can also help you in case of common minor ailments without you having to go and see your GP.
  • Sexual health services are always free of charge and include advice and treatment by GPs, in sexual health clinics, STI clinics, sexual assault referral centers, and contraception clinics.
  • The UK has one of the most comprehensive systems of mental health services in Europe. You can view the full scape of mental health care in the UK on the pages of NHS England.
  • Getting eye care and having your vision checked is obviously important. However, it is up to your optician or ophthalmic practitioner to decide whether a sight test was clinically necessary. If they decide it was not, you are liable to pay for it; otherwise, it is free of charge.

Oftentimes, you can obtain brochures on the different services, as well as consultations, in languages other than English, if you or your family members should be more comfortable with that option.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.