Understanding the U.K. health care system (2024)

The U.K. sat at number 18 out of 191 countries when the World Health Organization ranked health systems around the world in 2000.

Expats who settle there can rest assured they will be able to receive the health care they need — whether through the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) or the country’s network of excellent private providers.

The National Health Service (NHS)

The NHS was established in 1948, with the goal of providing treatment free at the point of delivery. Originally, it covered a wide range of medical fields — including dentistry and eye care. But, as the cost of providing health care has risen in line with the U.K. population, many of its services are no longer completely free for everyone.

Nevertheless, most foreign nationals who want — or need — to use the NHS can do so.

Anyone visiting the U.K. temporarily can receive emergency treatment for free; but expats looking to access long-term services need an NHS number. To get this, you’ll first need to register and make an appointment with a local General Practitioner (GP), who will be your main point of contact for all non-emergency treatment.

Is the NHS really free?

While it may not charge everyone for medical care, the NHS is not exactly free for all its users. For a start, it’s funded by obligatory National Insurance contributions deducted from eligible people’s wages. On top of this, most users are also required to pay separate charges towards many of its services — including dental care, eye care and prescriptions.

Depending on where they are from, some expats will not be entitled to free health care on the NHS.

Most expats from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland will be entitled to the same level of treatment funding as British nationals — although they will need a valid European Health Insurance Card. Since April 2015, however, expats from outside the EEA have been required to pay a surcharge for health care as part of the visa application process.

It’s important to note that both groups are still subject to the standard charges levied on all eligible NHS users.

If expats are resident in the country on a visa valid for six months or less, the good news is they will not have to pay the surcharge. The bad news is they will be asked to pay the total cost for health care at the point of treatment.

What to expect when using the NHS

Unfortunately, the demographics of the U.K. have changed since the NHS was founded, placing a great deal of pressure on the system. A larger — and increasingly older — population means that many services are at breaking point. The central place the NHS holds within British political discourse also means that funding, standards and systems can fluctuate from one government to the next.

That’s not to say that expats can’t get the health care they need. But they should be prepared for a long wait for consultation appointments and treatment. They should also carefully research the doctors and hospitals in their local area. The NHS system of regional trusts means standards and waiting times can vary greatly depending on where you live.

Private health care

Expats not wanting to negotiate the complexities of the NHS system — or concerned about the standard of care they will receive — will be glad to know that the U.K. has an extensive network of high-quality private health care providers.

Private treatment can seem expensive when compared to the cost of accessing NHS health care. But the many expats and locals who choose this route benefit from significantly shorter waiting times, a greater degree of choice in where — and how — they are treated, and a more personalised service.

Finding health insurance

Of course, one of the best ways expats can make sure they receive excellent care without being overcharged is to have a private health care plan in place – ideally before they move.

Expats often find they benefit greatly from international health care coverage — which covers them when they travel to their home country, or further afield. Having a single plan in place that helps to ensure excellent health care in the U.K. and elsewhere can make life much less stressful if you or your family do require treatment.

Due to the wide availability of subsidised health care on the NHS, only 12% of UK citizens have private medical insurance.This is yet another reason why seeking out the right private health insurance before travelling can help expats stay protected.

Aetna International provides a wide range of international health insurance plans, specially designed to meet the needs of expats all over the world. Contact us for a quote today.

Aetna® is a trademark of Aetna Inc. and is protected throughout the world by trademark registrations and treaties.

Understanding the U.K. health care system (2024)
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