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Immigration and healthcare

a doctor and her patient

In the UK most healthcare is free to people who have the right to remain in the country and some others. If you are a visitor to the UK, or immigrating, you might not be sure what treatment you can get from the NHS at hospitals or through a doctor. HIV treatment is free to everyone, but other healthcare might cost.

Who is entitled to free NHS healthcare?

People who have EEA or UK citizenship are entitled to free healthcare from the NHS. If you are a visitor then the rules about who is entitled to free healthcare are quite complicated.

Find out if you are entitled to free healthcare.

Certain healthcare services (like dentists and prescriptions) cost money even for people who are entitled to free healthcare in the UK – but they won’t have to pay if they are on a low income.

If I’m a visitor what healthcare am I entitled to?

There’s some treatment that you can use for free, whatever your immigration status:

  • HIV treatment. 
  • Treatment in a hospital’s accident and emergency department (although if you are taken into a hospital ward for treatment you can be charged). 
  • Primary care from a GP doctor. 
  • Family planning and sexual health services. 
  • Treatment for certain diseases like : tuberculosis, cholera, food poisoning, malaria, meningitis and pandemic influenza.
  • Compulsory psychiatric treatment.

For other treatment the hospital might ask you for payment before they will treat you. If you cannot pay (or show how you will pay later) they might refuse you treatment.

What about emergency treatment?

Anyone in the NHS cannot refuse you treatment for any `life-threatening condition’ – which is something which might kill you if it is not treated. They might treat you but send you a bill afterwards though.

What about healthcare at a GP doctor?

In the UK everyone has the right to free primary care from a GP doctor (this means a doctor in an NHS general practice surgery). You should be able to join any NHS medical practice unless: 

  • The practice is full. 
  • You do not live in the practice’s catchment area (and this could happen if you have no fixed address).

Even if you can’t join the practice a GP doctor has a duty to give you free treatment for up to 14 days if you need medical care but are not a member of their practice.

If the doctor offers you private treatment you might have to pay for that but you do not have to accept private treatment. You have a right to free care from a doctor somewhere.

You can get help finding a GP or dentist from NHS Direct in England and Wales or from NHS 24 in Scotland.

What if I have a bill I can’t pay?

If you have a bill that you can’t pay the hospital might choose to write it off. This means that they will agree that you don’t have to pay them back. They might try to get the money from you legally over time instead though. Unpaid bills might be counted against you if you are trying to stay in the country.

Some advice if you’re having trouble paying a hospital bill.

Where can I get help?

Get in touch with THT Direct and we’ll put you in touch with a local advice service, or you can look up your local CAB.

  1. Hospital bills
  2. NHS rules

Hospital bills

From 1st October 2012 all charges for HIV treatment for anyone who is resident in the UK, regardless of their residence status, will be abolished.

However non-HIV NHS treatment may still be chargeable, unless it can be directly linked to your HIV. Find out more.

Hospital Bills for non HIV treatment

Although it can be extremely alarming to receive a bill for thousands of pounds of hospital treatment, you may be able to negotiate a realistic solution with the hospital.

It's important that you continue to take your treatment and here are some things you can do in the meantime:

  • Contact the hospital’s Overseas Payments Officer as soon as possible to talk about whether you can pay the bill. 
  • If you have no income at all, many hospitals will decide to cancel the debt. 
  • If you have a very low income, many hospitals will accept a token payment of a few pounds a month. 
  • But if you ignore the bills and don’t contact the hospital, they may ask debt collectors to get involved, and this will be more difficult to deal with.

Mistakes are sometimes made – you may be entitled to free treatment, but are still sent a bill. Get in touch with THT Direct and we’ll put you in touch with a local advice service, or you can look up your local CAB.

Download Will I have to pay? for further details.

NHS rules

There are many different rules concerning entitlement to free NHS hospital treatment. Here are some of the main rules, however if they do not apply to you, it is advisable to contact either THT Direct or NHS Direct for further advice as there are many more.

A person who is not ordinarily resident in the UK is entitled to receive free NHS hospital treatment, including non-emergency treatment and treatment for pre-existing conditions, if s/he:- 

  • has been living lawfully in the UK for at least twelve months when s/he receives treatment. shows to the NHS's satisfaction that s/he is in the UK in order to take up permanent residence. 
  • receives a UK state retirement pension and lives in the UK for at least 182 days a year (in Scotland and Wales, six months a year) and in another European Economic Area (EEA) member state or Switzerland for 182 days or less a year (in Scotland, six months or less a year, and in Wales, for less than six months) and is not registered as a resident of that other state. is pursuing a full-time course of study lasting at least six months, or is pursuing a course of study of any length which is substantially funded by the UK, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland Governments.
  • has come to the UK to work for an employer. is from a European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland and is exercising a right to health treatment in the UK. This applies to someone with a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), although it does not cover coming to the UK for the purpose of getting treatment. It also applies to someone referred to the UK for pre-planned treatment with an E112 or S2 certificate. In England, there is more information about who can exercise these rights in government guidance, which is available on the Department of Health website. In Scotland, there is more information about who can exercise these rights on the Scottish Government website.
  • is engaged in employment abroad and has at any time had at least ten years continuous lawful residence in the UK.

Recent changes to NHS charging

From 1 October 2012 all charges for HIV treatment for anyone who is resident in the UK, regardless of their residence status, will be abolished.

However non-HIV NHS treatment may still be chargeable, unless it can be directly linked to your HIV. Find out more on the Department of Health website.

 

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1 comments

  • Hi I am a Uk citizen wishing to go live in spain.
    I would like to know how i go about getting my medication abroad if i do that.
    I want a new start new life and wont be earning a fortune as only working 3 days and renting a place with a friend.
    Is it illegal to keep popping home to the uk for my medication and how do I get it in spain if it is.
    Thanks for any help david

    Posted 15:56 Wed 22 Aug 2012 by david200

The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 19/2/2014 by T. Kelaart

Date due for the next review: 21/3/2014

Content Author: E. Cotton

Current Owner: Advice & Advocacy

More information:

Seddon, Duran. Immigration, Nationality and Refugee Law Handbook, JCWI, 2006

UK Border Agency

Asylum seekers, Department of Health 

Am I entitled to NHS treatment when I move to England?, NHS 

HIV treatment for overseas visitors, Department of Health

Revised guidance on overseas visitors hospital charging regulations published

Changes to NHS charging rules for HIV from October 2012