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An introduction to the UK healthcare system

PUBLISHED: 28 August 2018 | LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023

The United Kingdom (UK) is made up of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Well-known for its beautiful countryside, rich history (and bad weather), it’s also home to one the most efficient healthcare systems in the world1 - the NHS (National Health Service). 

Apart from prescriptions, optical services and dental care, the NHS is free for all UK residents. If you’re not a UK resident however, accessing healthcare in the UK can be a bit more complicated –but don’t worry, this guide will explain how it all works.  

Who can use the NHS?

If you’re living in the UK, any emergency treatment for life-threatening conditions will be free - whether you’re a resident or not. But to use the NHS for general healthcare and non- emergency treatment, you’ll need to be a UK citizen or be what’s known as ‘ordinarily resident’. This is explained in more detail on the NHS website but it generally means you legally live and work in the UK. 

Private Healthcare in the UK

The NHS is in very high demand, which means waiting times can be up to 18 weeks for a non-urgent appointment2. If you'd rather avoid this, and have access to a range of private medical facilities, some expats choose to take out private health insurance in the UK. You can also pay to see a private doctor or specialist without using insurance – though this can be expensive.

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Choosing a family doctor & booking appointments

Local doctors in the UK are known as general practitioners (GP) and work in what’s known as a local practice or GP surgery. In the UK you register with your local GP surgery rather than an individual doctor. And it’s not unusual to be seen by different doctors within the surgery. However, you can request to be seen by a specific doctor if you prefer. 

You’re free to choose which GP practice you want to register with. Though sometimes a practice will only take on new patients who live within a certain distance, known as a catchment area, so you’ll have to choose one that is close to where you live.  You can search GP services by location on the NHS website.

To register, you’ll firstly need to book an appointment at your chosen GP practice. At the appointment, you’ll usually be given a basic check-up and be asked to fill out some forms. You’ll then get a letter in the post confirming you’re registered and your medical records will be transferred to that practice. To book an appointment, you’ll need to call the surgery and see when they have availability. It can take a few weeks to be seen but if you need to be seen urgently you can be put on a triage service. This means a doctor or nurse will call you back that day to discuss your issue and decide whether you need to come in for an emergency appointment.    

There’s also a wide range of private medical specialists in the UK from General Practitioners, to Physical Therapists and Cardiologists. You can book an appointment to see a doctor or specialist privately though you’ll be expected to pay the full cost of any consultations or treatments. If you have private medical insurance, you can choose a doctor from your insurer’s list of approved doctors and medical specialists. You can also use our provider finder tool to search for medical providers by name, location or speciality. 

Getting prescriptions 

Your doctor, GP or consultant can prescribe you medicine if they think you need it. This could be as a one off to overcome a short-term illness or as a repeat prescription for longer term illnesses.   

If you’re given a repeat prescription, your pharmacy or GP surgery will sometimes give you access to an online portal where you can re-order the medicine as needed. Or you may have to call the surgery beforehand so they can prepare your prescription. You might want to order your prescription a few days in advance, to make sure it's ready for when you need it.

You can collect prescriptions from the dispensary at your local GP practice or your local pharmacy. Local pharmacies work on a rota to extend their opening hours and provide on-call services. If you need to collect a prescription late in the evening or at a weekend you can search online for the nearest open pharmacy. You can also pick up prescriptions for friends or relatives – you’ll just need to confirm their name and address when you pick it up.  


If you need to see a dentist in the UK, you’ll either pay the full amount of your treatment, or if you’re registered with the NHS, you’ll pay a contribution depending on what you need to have done.

Though you don’t have to register with a dentist like you do a GP in the UK, it’s usually a good idea as waiting times can be long and not all dentist surgeries will see you on a one-off basis – so you might end up on a long waiting list. 

You can also choose to see a private dentist. And this can either be self-funded, which can be expensive. Or you can choose a private health insurance plan that includes dental work.


If you have a medical emergency in the UK, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.  

An ambulance will take you to the most appropriate hospital (not always the closest) and make sure you get the treatment you need.  

If you have a medical emergency and there is someone with you who can take you to a hospital, you would need to go straight the nearest hospital with an Accident and Emergency (A&E) department and sign in at the A&E reception. A&E departments are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Waiting times can vary, depending on how urgent your condition is.

If you're worried about an urgent medical concern but don’t need emergency assistance, call 111 and speak to a fully trained adviser. The NHS 111 service is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Depending on the situation, the NHS 111 team can connect you to a nurse, emergency dentist or even a GP, and can arrange face-to-face appointments if they think you need one. They can also assess if you need an ambulance and send one immediately if needed. 

Don’t be surprised if…

  • It takes a while to get an appointment when using the NHS 
  • You have to register with a doctor who is local to you and within the practice’s ‘catchment area’  
  • People refer to a doctor as a GP and a specialist as a consultant
  • You’re asked to pay for treatment upfront if you’re not registered with the NHS
  • You don’t always see the same doctor when you book an appointment unless you specifically ask to

 The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.