The UK, and in particular London, is one of the most popular expat hotspot​s​ for students, professionals and entrepreneurs in the world. You might be one of those lucky ones who never fall ill - thank gosh, I'm one of them too! - however, it is good to remember that when you travel or move to a new country it is better to be prepared for any inconvenience, including those related to your health. And talking about health in the UK, I am sure you've heard mixed reviews about the NHS. Let's look into it together.

The NHS is a residence-based healthcare system launched in 1948 with the idea that medical services of good quality should be accessible by all the residents of the UK. Since the beginning, the medical service has been available to local and foreign nationals, regardless of their social status and income, as long as they are legal residents, pay taxes and contributions to the national health program.

All in all, the healthcare system in the UK is of a fairly high quality and similar to some of the other developed western nations. While there is a huge difference in their cost and quality, residents have access to both public and private medical care facilities. The former of course, while it comes for free or at a reasonable price, might come with very long waiting lists.

As an expat, you can use the public health service only if you meet certain criteria. Read on to find out more about the system.

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The NHS for expats

In order to be eligible for public healthcare and get subsidized or free treatments in the UK, you should belong to one of these categories:

  • A person with the right of abode in Great Britain
  • A legal resident of the country
  • A student who has signed up for a course that is at least 6 months long
  • A working professional or an entrepreneur or work permit
  • A citizen of a foreign nation that has a reciprocal agreement with the UK

If you belong to one of the categories above, you can use the service as soon as you get your NHS card (more below). You should remember that not every type of medical service that is provided by the NHS will be free of charge. However, if you are eligible for public healthcare, medical consultations, hospital treatment, and ambulance services are free of charge. If you have your NHS card, you can also access subsidized prices for your tests, prescriptions, glasses, and dental treatments.

Every legal foreign resident is entitled to receive emergency treatment at any NHS medical facility for free, regardless of their nationality. Additionally, if you are eligible for free treatment under the NHS program, your dependents (civil partner or spouse and children under the age of 16 who live in the UK with you) will also be entitled to receiving free medical services.

If you do not fall into one of the categories listed above, you will have to bear the cost of your medical treatments on your own. Of course, you'll never be refused treatment in case of a life-threatening emergency.

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How to get an NHS Number

In order to make use of the public healthcare system, you will need to be registered with the NHS and obtain your unique 10-digit code. In order to do this, you need to set up an initial appointment with a general practitioner who accepts NHS patients on the NHS website. After the appointment, you will receive your assigned NHS number by post within a couple of weeks.

How to find your GP

You can only be registered to one GP in the UK and it has to be near your residential address. Once you have registered, you can only go to that clinic. You may change clinics but first, you will need to unregister from the first one. Most clinics are open 8am-6pm, Mon-Fri, and most of them don't accept appointments in advance which means that you'll have to call in first thing in the morning and check their availability.

How do I choose a GP clinic?

A nice thing about the NHS website is that you can check the reviews of other patients before choosing your preferred clinic. Doctors are also ranked by a scoring system that is easily available on the same website.

Walk-In Clinics

If you encounter a minor injury or illness while away from home or during the weekend, you can go to a walk-in clinic. At these centres, you don't need to book an appointment but be prepared to wait a couple of hours.

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Hospital

If something serious comes up instead, you should head to the hospital. Your GP may refer you to see a specialist there and since you are covered by the NHS you won't have to pay anything for a visit or an operation. In fact, hospital treatment is free to people classed as ordinarily resident in the UK which means that if you are legally allowed to be living in London you’re covered.

Emergency

The A&E (Accident & Emergency Services) is the Emergency section of the hospital. If you are ever in real pain or something big is going on, you should head to the A&E. Waiting times depend on your condition and one of the other patients and emergencies.

Dental

Dental care is another matter in the UK. Definitely, an NHS dental clinic will be cheaper than a private clinic (or even free if you qualify for free care), but they tend to be of poorer quality. It is quite common for Londoners to treat their main issues through the NHS but deal privately for their dental health. If you are employed in London and you have private medical insurance, check if dental care is included which means that you can claim some/all of your dental back.

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While I hope you'll never need the NHS during your stay in London, I do hope you found this article useful. If you would like to read more about living in London, check the articles below.