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Immigration and healthcare

a doctor and her patient

PLEASE NOTE: the contents of this page were up to date at the time of publication. Contact THT Direct for a referral to an immigration solicitor who will be able to advise you.

In the UK most healthcare is free for people who have the right to remain in the country, plus for some select others, through the NHS (the National Health Service).

HIV treatment is free for everyone, but other healthcare procedures might cost.

Who is entitled to free NHS healthcare?

The NHS is a residence-based healthcare system. You must live in the UK permanently or be an EEA (European Economic Area) or UK citizen to be entitled to free healthcare from the NHS.

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.

The rules are a bit more complicated for visitors to the UK.

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

Some services and treatments are free for everyone, whatever their immigration status:

  • HIV treatment
  • emergency treatment (although if you are taken into a hospital ward for treatment you can be charged) 
  • family planning and sexual health services - this doesn't include terminating a pregnancy or maternity treatment
  • teatment 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?

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 and send you a bill afterwards though.

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.

Where can I get help?

Get in touch with THT Direct at 0808 802 1221 and we’ll put you in touch with a local advice service.

You can also get immigration advice from our Online Advisor.

  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 immigration status, will be abolished.

However non-HIV NHS treatment may still cost you, 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 at 0808 802 1221 and we’ll put you in touch with a local advice service.

NHS rules

There are many different rules concerning entitlement to free NHS hospital treatment.

Here are some of the main rules. If they do not apply to you, contact either THT Direct or NHS 24 for further advice.

If you're not resident in the UK you're still entitled to receive free NHS hospital treatment, including non-emergency treatment and treatment for pre-existing conditions, if you: 

  • Have been living lawfully in the UK for at least 12 months at the moment you receive treatment.
  • Show that you're in the UK in order to take up permanent residence. 
  • Receive a UK state retirement pension and live in the UK for at least 182 days a year (in Scotland and Wales, 6 months a year) and in another European Economic Area (EEA) member state or Switzerland for 182 days or less a year (in Scotland, 6 months or less a year, and in Wales, for less than 6 months) and you're not registered as a resident of that other state.
  • You're a full-time student.
  • You're in the UK on a work visa.
  • You're from an EEA (European Economic Area) country or Switzerland and you have a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), and you did not come to the UK for the purpose of getting treatment.
  • You've been working abroad for less than 5 years but you've had at least 10 years of continuous lawful residence in the UK before moving overseas.

Read the full list of NHS treatment rules.

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 immigration 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.

Next: Seeking asylum ››

‹‹ Back to Immigrants' rights



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  • 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

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