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The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading healthcare systems.
Treatment at public hospitals is generally of a good standard, though expats looking to take advantage of the NHS should be prepared for long waits and hard-to-get appointments. Private hospitals in the UK tend to specialise in a particular type of care. Patients will be seen to much quicker, but the cost of treatment at private hospitals is high, so most people avoid going to them unless they have health insurance.
Health insurance in the UK
The NHS is a residence-based system, meaning that anyone living in the UK legally and on a permanent basis has access to NHS services and funding. Generally speaking, non-EEA citizens must have Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) status to be considered ordinarily resident.
Those who are not considered ordinarily resident but who are in the country for longer than six months are considered 'overseas visitors' and will be liable to pay an NHS surcharge, which will give them access to NHS services.
EEA citizens visiting the UK on a short-term basis may use their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), as was the case prior to Brexit.
Regardless of their immigration status, though, all foreigners in the UK are entitled to free emergency treatment at NHS hospitals.
Public healthcare in the United Kingdom
GPs are the first point of contact for most people and can refer patients to other specialist NHS services. Once in the UK, expats should choose a local GP in their area and book an appointment to register as a patient.
Expats should note that while public healthcare throughout the United Kingdom operates under the umbrella of the NHS, each country within the UK has its own NHS organisation. So while the general process of accessing public healthcare is more or less the same in all of the UK's four countries, there may be slight policy differences, such as whether prescription medication is partly subsidised or fully funded. Expats can find out more by visiting the NHS website of the area they will be moving to.
Dentists in the United Kingdom
UK dentists are world-class, but unlike GPs, they are not free to all residents. NHS dentists are subsidised by UK taxpayers, and do provide check-ups and essential dental treatments for a relatively low fixed charge. Any treatment that is cosmetic will need to be done by a private dentist and, while standards are the same in both the private and NHS dentists, private practices can offer higher quality fillings or crowns. See a full list of treatments covered by the NHS on the NHS website. Expats should register with a local dentist once they have settled in.
Private health insurance in the United Kingdom
Private healthcare and dental care in the UK can be expensive, but it does guarantee preferential treatment and, crucially, no long waiting lists that many NHS patients complain about. Most specialist doctors (consultants) work in both the private and state sector, so once at the front of the queue, the standard of medical care in the NHS is as high as in the private sector. Private hospitals are plentiful and located throughout the country. Some of the UK's best specialists are located on Harley Street in central London.
Health insurance in the United Kingdom
Private health insurance will allow access to the shorter waiting times of the private healthcare sector. Many health insurance providers also offer international coverage for when expats travel back to their home country, or when travelling overseas in general.
Employers in the UK are not obligated by law to provide medical insurance to their employees. While some employers might make contributions towards private healthcare, in most cases, expats will need to pay for their own health insurance. With the range of health insurance products on offer it is best to do a fair amount of research and comparison in order to find the best policy to suit each individual's healthcare needs.
Medicines and pharmacies in the United Kingdom
Pharmacies, or chemists as they are more commonly referred to in the UK, can be found easily on all major high streets and in shopping centres.
Most medicines are easily available. If a certain type of medication is not available, pharmacies in most UK cities can have it ordered in. For certain types of medicine one will need a prescription from a GP, while others are available over the counter.
Expats will often find a pharmacy located close to a GP's surgery or hospital. Independent pharmacies are fast disappearing in the UK and being taken over by chains such as Boots and Superdrug, which sell beauty goods alongside health and medical products.
Pre-travel vaccinations for the United Kingdom
No special vaccinations are required for expats moving to the UK. That said, we recommend that routine vaccinations such as those for Covid-19, polio, chicken pox, mumps, measles and rubella as well as yearly flu shots are kept up to date.
Emergency medical services in the United Kingdom
Emergency calls should be made to 999 or the general European emergency number, 112. The operator will then dispatch an ambulance to the location of the incident. Alternatively, one can call 111 when immediate medical help is needed but it is not a 999 emergency. If the situation is less critical, expats can make their own way to the nearest hospital with an accident and emergency unit for immediate treatment.
►See Banking, Money and Taxes in the United Kingdom for all you need to know on expat money matters
►How expensive is expat life in Britain? Find out on the Cost of Living in the United Kingdom page
"I am fascinated with the National Health Service and am eligible to register for a number and benefit from these services. Since arrival I have had occasion, however, to receive services privately through Wellington Hospital. I would recommend the facility – I was treated well, with compassion and professionalism. Billing and insurance was a different experience than home, but that’s to be expected. It has also been my experience that pharmacies and over-the-counter remedies can have different procedures and formulas respectively…something to consider if you are an expat with a pre-existing condition and prescriptions."
For more insights from Kimberley, an American living in London, read her interview with Expat Arrivals.
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