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Employment and Support Allowance eligibility

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit for people whose ability to work is limited by ill health or disability. There are two different types of ESA: contributory ESA and income-related ESA.

To claim ESA, you must:

  • be aged between 16 and state pension age (you can calculate this using GOV.UK's state pension age calculator)
  • live in Great Britain (apart from some temporary absences) and not be subject to limitations on your immigration status
  • be assessed as having limited capability for work (find more details about the ESA work capability assessment in ESA claims)

You can qualify for either contributory ESA or income-related ESA, or both. To get contributory ESA, you need to pass some extra eligibility rules (see below).

You can qualify for income-related ESA if your income is low and your capital, such as savings, is under certain limits. For more details about eligibility for income-related ESA, see How much ESA?

Any work and study you do can affect your eligibility for ESA. You can’t usually claim ESA while studying full time, unless you're getting Disability Living Allowance (DLA). It's possible to do some part-time work while you claim ESA. However, there are limits on the work you can do while claiming.

See ESA challenges for details of what to do if you disagree with a decision about your eligibility for ESA.

The government's official online source of information on benefits is GOV.UK.

Click on the bars below for more information on the Employment and Support Allowance eligibility rules.

Age

You can claim ESA from the age of 16 until you reach state pension age.

If you're a man aged 60 to 65, you may be able to claim Pension Credit. You may need advice from Citizens Advice Bureau or a welfare and benefits charity to decide if you'd be better off with ESA or Pension Credit. If you claim ESA when you've reached the qualifying age for Pension Credit, you aren't required to attend work-focused interviews or to do work-related activities.

When you claim ESA, your age can affect the amount of benefit you get at different stages of your claim. If you have a partner, their age can affect this too. For more information, see How much ESA?

Some people who became too ill to work when they were classed as a young person can claim contributory ESA. Click on the bars below for more information.

Eligibility for contributory Employment and Support Allowance

You can get contributory ESA if you meet the general ESA eligibility criteria and one of the following also applies:

  • you have paid enough national insurance contributions
  • you became ill and unable to work while you were classed as a young person

National insurance contributions

To meet the national insurance contribution conditions for contributory ESA, you normally need to:

  • have paid a certain amount of national insurance contributions in one of the last two complete tax years, or
  • have been getting Carer’s Allowance, contributory ESA or a disability element of Working Tax Credit in the last complete tax year, and have paid a certain amount of national insurance contributions in any one tax year (which doesn’t need to be in the last three tax years), and
  • have paid or been credited with a certain amount of national insurance contributions in each of the last two complete tax years

The contribution conditions for ESA are complicated, so it's a good idea to seek advice if you're not sure whether you qualify.

Employment and Support Allowance and young people

To get ESA without having paid national insurance contributions, you must:

  • have become ill and unable to work before the age of 20 
  • have become too ill to work before the age of 25 if you've been in education or training

To claim, you must also have had limited capability for work for the previous 196 days. Although you need to be over 16 when you claim ESA, the 196 days can include time before your 16th birthday.

If you’re under 19, you can’t claim if you’re in full-time education (21 or more hours a week).

How much is contributory ESA? 

The amount of ESA you receive depends on your age and whether your claim is in the assessment phase or the main phase. It may also be affected by some income that you get. For more information, see How much ESA?

What if I'm not entitled to contributory ESA?

If you can't get contributory ESA, you'll still be assessed to see if you qualify for income-related ESA.

If you can't get either type of ESA because of contribution or income-related conditions, it may still be worth making a claim because, if you qualify, you may get national insurance credits. These will possibly entitle you to ESA in the future, and they will also count towards your retirement pension.

Study

If you're in full-time education, you may not be able to claim ESA. However, the rules about studying and claiming ESA are different for the two different types of ESA.

Education includes attendance at an ordinary school or college, a sixth-form college, a special school or training centre designed specifically for people with disabilities, or home tuition arranged by the Local Education Authority. You must be at least 16 and under state pension age to claim ESA.

Contributory Employment and Support Allowance

You won’t be able to receive contributory ESA if both of the following apply:

  • you’ve reached the age of 16 but you’re under 19
  • you’re at school or in other education for more than 21 hours a week

These hours don't include teaching specifically designed for students with disabilities that isn't suitable for other students. What counts and what doesn't depends on teaching methods and the nature of the course. 

If you’re 19 or over, you can still be eligible for contributory ESA even if you’re studying full time.

Income-related Employment and Support Allowance

Studying can affect your eligibility for income-related ESA. However, you can still be eligible if one of the following applies to you:

  • you’re studying part time
  • you’re studying full or part time and you’re getting Disability Living Allowance (DLA)

Whether you’re classed as a part-time or full-time student depends on your course. If your course is government funded and in England or Wales, it counts as full time if you have more than 16 guided learning hours a week. In Scotland, your course is full time if structured learning packages take the hours over 16 a week. Otherwise, whether you're in full-time education depends on how your course is classed by the institution at which you're studying.

The rules about claiming ESA as a student are complex, so seek advice on whether you're entitled to ESA, about other financial help that you may be able to get as a student, and about benefits that a parent or guardian may be able to claim for you. You can get more information and advice from your local Citizens Advice Bureau or welfare rights organisation, which you can find by searching our directory of local carers' services or by calling the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.

Work

There are limits to the work you can do while claiming ESA. If you do work that isn’t permitted, you’re not entitled to ESA during any week in which you work.

Work that you can do while claiming ESA is as follows:

  • If you're in the work-related activity group for ESA, you can work up to 16 hours a week and earn up to £95 a week for up to a year. When a year has passed, you must stop work. If you want to work again, you must wait until either 52 weeks have passed or there has been a break in your ESA claim of more than 12 weeks. 
  • If you're in the support group for ESA, you can work up to 16 hours a week and earn up to £95 a week for any length of time.
  • You can work for an unlimited number of hours a week, without a time limit, as long as you don’t earn more than £20 a week. However, the minimum wage will effectively limit the number of hours you can work in a week.
  • You can do work of any kind without a time limit as long as your earnings don’t exceed £95 a week, if the work is "supported permitted work". This means the work is either supervised by someone employed to help people with disabilities return to work, or the work forms part of a hospital treatment programme.
  • You can do voluntary work, but you must receive no payment other than your reasonable expenses. If you’re paid more than your expenses or Jobcentre Plus thinks that the job should really be paid work, this will affect your ESA claim.

Effect on other benefits

If you get income-related ESA, you can do permitted work earning up to £95 a week and you'll still get extra help such as full Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit.

If you only get contributory ESA, both your ESA and your earned income will be taken into account when your Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit are worked out. You may wish to seek advice to find out how work will affect your other benefit claims. To find organisations who can help you, use our directory of local carers' services or call the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.

If you have a partner who works

If you have a partner and you’re claiming income-related ESA, you’ll lose benefit if they work 24 hours or more a week. 

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Page last reviewed: 19/08/2013

Next review due: 19/08/2015

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