In an ideal world we would never need to see a doctor or visit a hospital. However when the worst happens and we do fall ill, we know that seeking treatment can be daunting, not least when you're living away from home.
Knowing how and where you can access medical care when living or studying abroad can go some way to helping reduce the stress of being ill. If you're moving to, or are already living in the UK as an international student, you can find all the information you need to know about the UK healthcare system in this short guide.
The guide has information on:
- How the UK healthcare system works
- What kind of healthcare you are entitled to as an international student and the cost of treatment
- What you have to do in order to receive medical care
- Who to contact if you get sick
- Whether you need international health insurance
How Does the UK Healthcare System Work?
The National Health Service (NHS) is the provider of public healthcare in the UK.
The first point of contact when seeking medical care in the UK is a General Practitioner (known as a GP). UK residents typically register with a GP surgery close to where they live. Students often choose to register with the university GP, but you can choose any surgery you wish.
Most GP surgeries provide help with day to day medical care and general health inquiries, include assistance in the following areas:
- Family planning and contraception
- Sexual health
- Women's health
GP surgeries in the UK tend to be open every weekday, with limited hours in the evenings and at weekends. You can find more information about your local surgery through the NHS website here.
If you require further medical care your GP will refer you to a specialist consultant or another care provider. This could mean seeking diagnosis with a specialist or receiving treatment in a hospital.
If you need to seek treatment in a hospital, treatment is usually classed in one of the following three categories:
- In-Patient treatment, which means you arrive for an appointment/procedure and stay overnight in the hospital;
- Day-Patient treatment, which means that you arrive for an appointment, stay for a period of time during that day but do not stay overnight in the hospital; or
- Out-Patient treatment, which means you arrive for an appointment and leave within a short period of time (e.g. an hour) on the same day.
Hospitals often have a specific department for treating emergency conditions, known as Accident & Emergency units (A&Es) in the UK. It's important to note that not every UK hospital has an A&E department, so you should check where your nearest one is if your local hospital does not have one. A&Es provide around the clock medical care and are used for accidents and other urgent medical emergencies.
If you require immediate care and attention while in the UK, call 999. You'll be asked what kind of service you need (Police/Fire/Ambulance).
Dental care is also provided by the NHS, however you will need to visit a dental surgery for treatment. These are different from GP surgeries although in some locations will often be found in the same building. The NHS provides cheaper dental care than private providers, although unlike many other aspects of the NHS, most UK residents do need to pay towards their dental treatment unless they are exempt from doing so.
Are International Students Entitled to Free Healthcare?
Certain treatments in the UK are free for everyone, no matter what your immigration status is, including:
- Accident and emergency services, excluding follow-up treatment or admission as an In-Patient
- Family planning services
- Diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections
- Diagnosis and treatment of some infectious diseases
- Treatment in prison or immigration detention
- Compulsory psychiatric treatment or any treatment ordered by the court
- Treatment of conditions caused by torture, FGM, domestic violence or sexual violence provided you're not in the country exclusively and specifically for the purpose of seeking treatment for those reasons
Otherwise, overseas visitors have to pay a fee, either in the form of an upfront surcharge or a payment after receiving care.
International students in the UK with a Tier 4 visa need to pay an immigration health surcharge. The payment should be made when applying for the visa and is £300 per year. If your visa is for a period shorter than six months, you'll pay only £150 for that year.
The surcharge allows international students to access NHS care in the UK at no additional cost. However you might have to pay for dental and optical treatment. You'll also need to pay for any medicine prescribed by the doctor, and there are certain exclusions to particularly expensive discretionary treatments.
If you are studying in the UK for less than six months (for example if you are on a short stay visitor visa) and do not need to pay the surcharge with your visa application, you will be liable for NHS charges for any treatment you receive. In these instances, it's highly advisable to have a health insurance plan to cover the cost of care for the duration of your stay.
What Should International Students Do to Receive Medical Treatment?
In order to receive care in the UK, international students will need to:
- Pay the appropriate healthcare surcharge; and
- Register with a GP
Paying the Surcharge
As mentioned above, the healthcare surcharge will be dealt with during your visa application. You can find out more about the surcharge and how to pay here.
If your visa application is unsuccessful, the surcharge will be automatically refunded to you. You are not eligible for a surcharge refund if you decide to leave the UK before your visa expires. You also won't receive a refund even if you never use the NHS during your stay.
Registering with a GP
Once you arrive in the UK, you should find your local GP and register. Your university's GP is often a good choice, especially if you live on campus.
When you register with a GP, you will need to do the following:
- Fill out an application form, including information about your health
- Provide the clinic with a letter from the university as proof of your status as a student
- In some instances, you will be asked to provide proof of ID, usually with your passport
It's especially important to register with a GP if you have an underlying health condition. Together with your GP, you can create a medical treatment plan for the duration of your studies. It can also be helpful for the healthcare system to have a record of any pre-existing conditions in the event of something happening to you.
What to Do if You Become Sick?
When you fall ill, make an appointment to see your GP by phone or online. As mentioned, in the event of an emergency, such as an accident, you should visit A&E. Remember not to visit A&E unless you have an actual emergency.
If your medical situation isn't urgent but you don't want to wait until the next available appointment with your GP, you can visit a walk-in center. These offer GP services but without an appointment, and are suitable for instances where you want immediate care but your condition doesn't warrant a trip to the A&E.
If you're unsure about your medical needs, you can call a free helpline by dialling 111. The helpline can direct you to the right type of care and the lines are open at all times.
You can find your nearest medical facility from the NHS website.
You can find your closest dentist here. Check whether they provide NHS services and ask for the cost of treatment upfront.
Should You Get Private Health Insurance?
While medical treatment is largely free for international students in the UK, it's a good idea to consider buying private health insurance cover.
The additional cover can ensure you receive the right level of care during your stay, including access to private healthcare providers and cover for specialist treatment or dental care. It's also important to be aware that NHS waiting times can be long, meaning you may be able to access appointments and medical treatments quicker with private health insurance.
Remember that any domestic private health insurance cover you have in your home country will likely not be valid for your time studying in the UK. However if you purchase an international health insurance plan, this will cover you for treatment both while studying in the UK and for treatment when you return home during the holidays.
Private health insurance should not be considered as a replacement for the NHS surcharge. Whether or not you purchase private insurance, you'll likely still need to make this payment as part of the visa application process.