How to access NHS services in England

This information only applies to England. For information about how to access healthcare, including planned treatment, in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, visit the relevant territory's website.

Primary care

Primary care is the first point of contact for most people and is delivered by a wide range of independent contractors, such as general practitioners (GPs), dentists, pharmacists and optometrists, through NHS walk-in centres and the NHS 111 telephone service.

All NHS patients in England (apart from those who are exempt) are required to make a payment toward the cost of prescriptions, dental care, eye care, and wigs and fabric supports. Find out more in paying NHS charges.

Choosing which service is right for you at a given time may not always be easy – often you have more than one option. If you're not sure where to start, use the checklist below to guide you.

  • Call NHS 111 if you urgently need medical help or advice but it's not a life-threatening situation. You can also call NHS 111 if you're not sure which NHS service you need.
  • Call 999 if someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk.
  • Visit a walk-in centre, minor injuries unit or urgent care centre if you have a minor illness or injury (cuts, sprains or rashes) and it cannot wait until your GP surgery is open.
  • Ask your local pharmacist for advice – your pharmacist can give you advice about many common minor illnesses, such as diarrhoea, minor infections, headaches, sore throats, or travel health.
  • Make an appointment with your GP if you're feeling unwell and it is not an emergency.

For information about conditions and treatments, read the Health A-Z guides.

General practitioners (GPs)

GPs are the first point of contact for nearly all NHS patients. They can direct you to other NHS services and are experts in family medicine, preventative care, health education, and treating people with multiple and long-term conditions.

If you are planning to live and work in England, you need to register with a local GP. It is up to the GP practice to decide whether to accept new patients or not, but they can only refuse for non-discriminatory reasons. However, being registered with a GP practice does not in itself mean you will be entitled to free NHS hospital treatment.

If you are in England for a short visit but need to see a GP, you can register as a temporary patient with a local doctor. You need to be in the area for more than 24 hours but less than three months.

Again, it is up to the GP practice to decide whether or not they will accept new patients. Treatment will be free of charge, but please ensure you present your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) if you have one.

Find a GP practice in your area

Tip: Download a copy of It's your practice – a patient guide to GP services (PDF, 1.9Mb), which is produced by the Royal College of General Practitioners to help you choose, and get the most from, GP practices.

Hospital services

Hospital treatment is free to people classed as "ordinarily resident" in the UK. This is not dependent on nationality, payment of UK taxes, National Insurance contributions, being registered with a GP, having an NHS Number or owning property in the UK.

To be considered ordinarily resident, you must be living in the UK on a lawful and properly settled basis for the time being – you may be asked to prove this.

Tip: For a detailed definition about what ordinarily resident means, see guidance on overseas visitors hospital charging regulations, Chapter 3 page 27 on the GOV.UK website.

If you are a visitor from the EEA, you will need to present a valid EHIC or other healthcare documents (such as S2 or S1 forms) or you may be charged for your care.

If you are visiting England from a non-EEA country, you need to ensure you are covered for healthcare through personal medical insurance for the duration of your visit, even if you are a former UK resident.

If you need NHS treatment and have not arranged insurance, you will be charged at 150% of the standard NHS rate, unless an exemption category applies to either you or the treatment. If you are coming for more than six months, you may need to pay the immigration health surcharge.

Some services or treatments carried out in an NHS hospital are exempt from charges, so they are free to all. These include:

Note: if you are a visitor from the EEA, present your EHIC if you have one. A GP referral is required for all non-emergency hospital treatment.

Read more about hospital services in England or find a hospital in your area

Page last reviewed: 08/05/2018
Next review due: 08/05/2021