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Lifestyle

Understanding the UK Healthcare System - An International Student's Guide

By LillyRLA 16 Nov 2023

´╗┐As an international student, it was a bit confusing understanding a new healthcare system in a new country. Here is a little guide breaking down the NHS, starting your healthcare journey, and important numbers to remember.

National Healthcare Service

The UK is well known for its free public healthcare system. The National Healthcare Service (NHS) is funded through taxpayers, allowing for free healthcare services for residences and citizens. For international students, through the visa process, you pay an international health surcharge, allowing you to access these services while you study here. 

What the NHS offers per country

Under the NHS, you receive:

  • GP coverage
  • Hospital treatment in Accident & Emergency (A&E)
  • Minor treatments in clinics
  • GP referrred specialist consultations
  • Contraception and sexual healths services
  • Maternity services

The NHS system varies in ways between UK countries, specifically with medication services. In Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, prescription medications are free of charge. However, in England, prescription medication can cost money.


a close up of a white counter

Private vs Public Healthcare (Pros and Cons)

The NHS is the public healthcare in the UK. However, private healthcare is still accessible for anyone willing to pay for their services. Heres a list of pros and cons for both:

NHS Pros:

  • Free of charge
  • Available to all

NHS Cons:

  • May take a while to access treatment
  • Quality of care varies
  • Limited range of treatment options

Private Healthcare Pros:

  • Wide range of services
  • High quality of care (usually)
  • Quicker treatment timelines

Private Healthcare Cons:

  • Costs can be high

How to begin your health coverage journey

1. Pay your international surcharge fee

The first step to accessing healthcare here will have been to pay the fee to gain access to NHS coverage. You would have already done this through your visa application process, having payed the international surcharge fee.

2. Register with a GP

Next, you will want to register with a general practitioner. The surgery or gp office you register with will be your first point off call if you need to book an non-emergent appointments. It is important to register with a GP early on to begin your access in the healthcare service.

3. Receive NHS number

When you register with a GP, you will receive an NHS number in the mail. This number is personal to you, giving healthcare workers access to your records if you need them in the future.

Important Healthcare Numbers to Remember

111 - Used in non-emergent cases when you need medical advise. This service will not diagnose you, but will direct you to the best services to use in your medical situation

999 - This number is used in emergent cases. In any life-threatening situations, don't hesitate to use this number. 

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