How the UK’s state healthcare system works

Accessing NHS healthcare services

What NHS registration entitles you to and what you will have to pay for

Local doctors (general practitioners) and NHS registration


Accident and emergency

Urgent care centres

Pharmacies and prescriptions

NHS 111 service



Specific issues

Although the services and entitlements described on this page are regularly reviewed for currency and accuracy, it is possible, from time to time, that these services and access to them have been superseded by changes made by the NHS.

How the UK’s state healthcare system works

UK students with families will be familiar in general with how the National Health Service (NHS) works. But for students coming from outside the UK, it might seem complicated if they have not used the system before. The NHS is a publicly funded system which provides health care for residents in the United Kingdom (UK). For the benefit of new users UKCISA has put together a number of web pages to explain how the NHS’s services are structured.

Accessing NHS healthcare services

If you are not a UK-domiciled student, in order to access NHS healthcare services, you will probably need to pay an annual surcharge for yourself and for each member of your family. This is payable as part of your immigration application.

If you are a citizen of an EU member state or from Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein, your liability for payment of the surcharge will be affected by when you take up residence in the UK to study. To access NHS services as a non-UK national, please read carefully the information and guidance available from Government web sources:

Healthcare for EU and EFTA nationals living in the UK – getting healthcare in England
Immigration health surcharge for EU students in the UK
Pay for UK healthcare as part of your immigration application

This can be complicated, depending on your status. If you are unsure of your position, you should contact a University’s international student support team for advice.

What NHS registration entitles you to and what you will have to pay for

Registration with the NHS entitles you to a range of services free of charge. However, charges are normally levied for some services associated with healthcare:

What it entitles you to

  • free consultation with your GP
  • free hospital treatment in Accident and Emergency
  • free hospital treatment if your GP refers you
  • free contraceptive services
  • free maternity care

What you have to pay for

  • any medication your GP prescribes for you
  • any dental treatment within the NHS scheme
  • the cost of eye tests and glasses or contact lenses
  • some vaccinations

Members of your family in the UK as your dependants are entitled to the same NHS healthcare as you.

Local doctors (general practitioners) and NHS registration

general practitioner (usually known as a GP) is a general doctor who has specialised in family health. They are therefore qualified to see anyone, young and old. They are used to seeing patients with all sorts of different health concerns. Whatever health problem you have, the GP is usually the first doctor you consult.

If you have a complicated problem or an illness that requires specialist advice, the GP can refer you to the appropriate doctor or specialist. To make an appointment with a specialist can take time, sometimes months. You may be able to be seen more quickly if you pay for private treatment, but this can be extremely expensive.

GPs work out of local practice centres (or surgeries) in the community, sometimes as a one-person practice, but more often with a number of other GPs.

Registering with a GP (which is the same as NHS registration) is one of the first things you should do – for yourself and all members of your family – when you arrive in the UK to study, ideally in your first week.

For your convenience, register with a GP whose practice is near to where you are going to be living. Click here to search for a GP’s practice near to where you live.

When you go to register with a GP, it is a good idea to take your student ID card and proof of address. Registration will involve filling in a number of forms. It will not cost you anything to register. Please note that you can only be registered with one GP/practice at any one time.

Once you have registered with a GP, you will be sent an NHS card. This is proof of your registration for NHS treatment. You should keep it in a safe place. It is always a good idea to take your NHS card with you to see your GP or dentist or for a hospital visit. It is not unusual to have to wait for a number of weeks for your card. If you have not received it within two months of registering, contact the practice – they will advise what you should do. The card will be sent to the address you provided, so it’s essential that you notify the practice if your address changes. 


Many students in Leeds register with the Leeds Student Medical Practice. Historically, this practice was part of the University of Leeds but is now independent of the institution. It is the closest surgery to the University of Leeds Campus. The University offers its own wellbeing and counselling service to support students, free of charge, in times of emotional, psychological or mental health difficulties.


The University of Bradford does not run its own health service, but does have a multi-disciplinary team of skilled and experienced counsellors and mental health advisers.


The University of Nottingham runs a health service offers NHS primary care and GP services to students, staff and their families. Similarly, Nottingham Trent University has Health Centres at the City and Clifton Campuses.


If they think you have a health issue that warrants it, your GP may refer you for hospital treatment. This normally involves being given an appointment to see a hospital-based consultant. Depending on the issue, you might stay overnight as an in-patient or be dealt with during the course of a day as an out-patient. This is a free service as long as you are entitled to full NHS treatment. Be aware, however, that you may have to wait a long time to receive treatment through a referral.

Accident and emergency and ambulance services

In the event of serious injury or serious illness, go, or get taken to, the nearest Accident & Emergency (A&E) department or phone 999 for an emergency ambulance.

An emergency is a critical or life-threatening situation such as:

  • loss of consciousness
  • heavy blood loss
  • persistent chest pain for 15 minutes or more
  • difficulty breathing
  • overdose, ingestion or poisoning.

Unless you need emergency medical attention, avoid local A&E departments. Doctors and nurses there are equipped to deal with serious cases of injury and illness, not routine and minor ailments. Calling an ambulance won't necessarily mean you are seen any quicker at A&E, as the most serious cases are given priority.

The nearest Accident and Emergency Departments to University Campuses:


Please note: all children’s emergency services are provided from a dedicated Leeds Children’s Emergency Department in the Jubilee Wing at Leeds General Infirmary. This means that there is no emergency department for children under 16 years old at St James's University Hospital.



Urgent Treatment Centre (Also known as Walk In Centres)

The Urgent Treatment Centre provides access to assessment and treatment for health problems that are urgent, but not life-threatening, such as minor burns or scalds, minor head injury with no loss of consciousness, skin infections or animal bites, suspected broken bones, sprains and strains (x-ray service available),eye infections or minor eye injuries. This is a walk-in service, ie no appointment is needed. The Urgent Care Centre is not appropriate for non-urgent treatment that could be treated by your GP.

Use the dedicated NHS search engine to find your nearest Urgent Care/Walk In Centre.

Pharmacies and Prescriptions

If you see a GP who advises that you take medication, they will usually write out and give you an NHS prescription for you to take to a pharmacy (or chemist’s shop), which will dispense the medication to you in accordance with the GP’s prescription.

There are many pharmacies dotted around cities often among local shops in the community. Use the dedicated NHS search engine to find your nearest pharmacy.

Dispensing services are available outside normal opening hours – at night, on Sundays and on public holidays. Find out which pharmacies offer these late-night services.

For prescriptions, there may be a rota of pharmacies that are open all night. Look in pharmacy windows for the late night and weekend rota. (This may also be published in the local paper, or available through your GP or nearest hospital.) There may be a telephone number to ring to find out the rota. But it is useful to remember that, if your local pharmacy is closed and you don’t have access to rota lists, the Midnight Pharmacy is open until midnight every day of the year in Nottingham and Bradford.

For minor problems, pharmacists are able to offer advice on appropriate responses and treatments.

When you visit the pharmacist’s, tell them:

  • what the problem is and what your symptoms are (pain, vomiting, dizziness, etc.)
  • what medicines you are already taking
  • if you are allergic to anything (e.g. penicillin)
  • if you are pregnant or breast feeding your baby
  • if the patient is a child, the child's age.

Services available from pharmacies include:

  • repeat prescriptions
  • deliveries to housebound people
  • pregnancy testing
  • deliveries of oxygen
  • appliances and aids for disabled people
  • incontinence and ostomy products
  • health information such as advice on a balanced diet or how to stop smoking
  • advice on what medicines to take away on holiday

NHS 111 Service

The NHS 111 Service is a round-the-clock confidential helpline, staffed by trained advisers, supported by healthcare professionals to assess symptoms that you describe and to direct you to the best medical care available. Information on translation and British Sign Language interpreting services are available on the NHS Service website.

To use the service, dial 111. Calls are free of charge.

The NHS 111 service is for when you urgently need medical help or advice, but it is not a life-threatening situation.


Some dentists offer NHS treatment; others offer only private treatment. NHS treatment is a lot cheaper than private treatment, but it is not free.

Click here for information on eligibility for NHS dental treatment.

If you are eligible for full NHS treatment, you should register with your doctor first, otherwise you will have to pay the full cost. You should give the dentist your NHS medical number from your medical card. Remember that if you are eligible for free prescriptions, you are also eligible for free dental treatment.

Click here to find dentists in your locality. If there are no NHS dentists near where you live or you would prefer to see a private dentist, you can book an appointment with a private dentist simply by ringing them up.

Please note that NHS dentists tend to have long waiting lists in Nottingham, as elsewhere. An NHS dental health service is available at the Urgent Treatment Centre. Alternatively, for emergency treatment refer to the NHS advice pages or call 111 for the NHS urgent and emergency care services in England.


If you need eye care, glasses or contact lenses, services from opticians are not usually free. Click here for a list of local opticians.

Specific issues

Existing Health Conditions

If, when you come to the UK, you have a pre-existing medical condition, you should bring with you a summary, provided by your doctor, of your medical record (including diagnosis and treatment details), plus contact details for your specialist doctor. Once here, register with a GP immediately, share your medical record summary with them and discuss any medication requirements to avoid any delay in supply.

For students coming from abroad, if you are on regular medication, bring adequate supplies for at least a month, as some medications may not be available in the UK or difficult to get at short notice.


In your first week in the UK, if you haven’t had these done before you arrive, register with a GP and book yourself and your family in for immunisations recommended by the NHS. These include:

  • meningitis (Men ACWY) – particularly important for anyone under 24
  • tetanus
  • diphtheria
  • polio
  • MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)
  • hepatitis B, which is recommended for healthcare students and gay men
  • influenza (flu), which is recommended for anyone with a chronic illness and for pregnant women
  • pneumonia, which is recommended for anyone with respiratory difficulties