If you’re thinking of moving to the UK, you’ll need to know the basics of navigating the British health system. In this article, we’ll give you the lowdown on how to get health insurance in the UK. That includes understanding the NHS, UK healthcare, medical insurance in the country, and more.
How the healthcare system works in the UK
The UK health system offers free healthcare, funded by taxpayers, to everyone living in the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) through the NHS (the national health service). However, you can also access a private healthcare system – which many people in the UK choose to do.
Public healthcare in the UK is funded by taxpayers, and is considered one of the best, safest, and cheapest healthcare systems around. So you might be wondering why you even need to consider private health insurance on top of what the NHS offers.
While it’s true that lots of NHS services are free and accessible for both UK residents and visitors, there are plenty of services that aren’t covered. In fact, 10.5% of the UK population also carry private health insurance, which hints that the NHS has a few flaws.
Can foreigners access the NHS?
The NHS is based on your residency, rather than insurance. This means all UK residents – including immigrants – can access NHS services for free. Currently, this includes European Economic Area (EEA) residents with a European Health Insurance Card, although this may change post-Brexit.
If you don’t have permanent UK residence, you might need to pay a health surcharge to access NHS services. If you haven’t paid and don’t have any medical insurance, you’ll be charged 150% of the standard NHS tariff for any treatments you need (unless your home country has a reciprocal healthcare agreement with the UK or you have an exemption).
What does the NHS cover?
NHS care provides all kinds of care services for free, as long as you’re considered a resident. This includes a huge range of medical conditions and treatments, like:
- Accident and emergency
- Care services
- Chronic illnesses
- Hospital treatment
- Maternity care
- Mental health services
- Minor injuries
- Specialist treatment
While most medical services provided by the NHS are free, there are a few exemptions that you’ll need to pay for, including:
- Prescriptions for medicine, which cost £9.35 per item
- Dental treatment, ranging from £22.70 for examinations, diagnosis, scaling and polishing, and preventative care through to £282.20 for work like crowns, dentures and bridges
- Eye tests, which range from £20-70 for single vision lenses, or £110+ for other services
- Wigs and fabric supports, which cost ~£30 for a surgical bra through to ~£300 for a full bespoke human hair wig
- GP (general practitioner) services for the provision of certificates for a health insurance policy
Some NHS services are available to everyone, even non-UK residents. These include:
- Emergency treatment (although there are healthcare costs for emergency surgery) in NHS hospitals
- Family planning services (exclusions include abortions or infertility treatment)
- Treatment for infectious diseases
- Treatment for physical or mental conditions caused by torture, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, or sexual violence
How to access public health insurance in the UK
If you’re an NHS patient, the first place to go for most issues is your local doctor, or GP (general practitioner). Once you’re registered with a GP, you can book consultations for free – either online on the NHS website, over the phone or in person. That said, it’s rare to be able to get a same-day appointment, and surgeries that provide walk-in services can get pretty busy. GP appointments tend to last around 10 minutes. They’ll give you a referral if you need specialist treatment. For emergency care, you can go directly to the Accident and Emergency (A&E) department in NHS hospitals.
Do you need private health insurance in the UK?
Travel insurance is generally only suitable for short stays and can often only be used in emergency treatment.
If you’re only planning to move to the UK for more than a holiday, and don’t plan on becoming ‘ordinarily resident,’ then you’ll be considered a ‘foreign visitor’ and charged for all NHS services. Given the cost of hospital healthcare provision, whether through the NHS or private practices, you’ll want to have private medical insurance to cover any potential costs.
A hip replacement, for example, would set you back between £8,500 and £16,500, depending on which hospital you chose. This is probably why 75% of all private healthcare for UK-based patients is funded by private health insurance. Even on the NHS, the average cost of a hip replacement is £11,315. More minor surgery like cataract removal will cost on average £3-4,000 per eye.
If you intend to stay in the UK for longer and register for free NHS healthcare, there are still a few reasons to consider taking out coverage for private treatment:
- Expect to need treatment for a service not covered by the NHS for free, like dental care or specialist medicine
- Want to see doctors or specialists without the long waiting times for most NHS services (currently even longer due to coronavirus)
- Prefer to have a choice in which doctor or hospital you go to for any procedures or treatment or even access to drugs and treatments not routinely available on the NHS
- You’re likely to want second opinions or further testing to ensure you’ve checked every option before receiving treatment
- You want peace of mind knowing that you can receive a private hospital bed and have round-the-clock visiting hours
In short, private health insurance lets immigrants access the UK’s private healthcare and have more control over their medical treatment needs.
Health insurance plans
Comparison websites are a good starting point for sifting through the many healthcare providers and insurance company options. Here are some to check out:
- International Citizens Insurance, which also has more information on the process of choosing private medical insurance and free personalised assistance if you want a quote
- Which?, a popular site in the UK for reviewing products and services
- ActiveQuote, a British company fully authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which powers other comparison websites
- MediBroker, which offers comparisons on international healthcare policies, with over 100 different plans covered from 30 different insurers
Health insurance costs
Health insurance policies vary hugely on price as there are so many individual factors to take into consideration when assessing the risk on someone’s health. However, there are some common factors that will affect your premium, like your age, where you live, your current health, and your lifestyle choices.
Whatever your age, it’s worth shopping around and updating your insurance provider if you move. This can affect your premium—especially if you leave London.
The level of coverage you want will influence how much you pay. Most insurers will initially exclude pre-existing conditions, so you’ll have to pay extra for these. The majority of policies will cover inpatient treatment in full (services that require a hospital bed). It’s the level of outpatient treatment that pushes the cost of your policy up, as this includes appointments for specialist treatment, like physiotherapy.
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