Health systems differ from country to country, and the UK’s National Health Service is no different. Lauded across the globe for its mission to improve lives by free at the point of access healthcare, the NHS can be a complicated system to understand for residents of the UK, never mind people from across the world.
The best place to start is by registering with your local General Practitioner (GP, also known as a family doctor or primary care doctor). You should register with a GP surgery close to where you live, or there may be a practice based on your university campus and tailored for students. They are your first port of call for any health matters, and a valuable source of information about other local health services. You do not necessarily need proof of identity to register with a GP surgery, but some practices request proof of idenity such as a passport or birth certificate, and proof of address such as utility bill. You do not usually need immigration documents, but, again, a practice may request these if they feel it’s needed. Once your GP surgery has registered you for the first time, this will generate your unique NHS number, and will be yours for life. This is a number that allows you to be recognised throughout all of the NHS services and is shared between GPs and hospitals alike. You will receive a letter in the post (to the address you used to register at your GP) confirming your NHS number in due course.
If you are an international student studying a course forsix months or more, or are on a shorter course that is at least 35% UK government-funded, you will be eligible for full free healthcare (although not including dental services and treatments). This will mean that you are eligible to receive free GP consultations, free hospital treatment in an emergency, free hospital treatment routinely if your GP recommends it, free contraceptive and sexual health services and free maternity care too.
There are some things that are paid for, even if they are part-subsidised by the state. Medications that are prescribed by your GP have a fixed cost per item, unless you are exempt. Some services from your GP also require payment, such as travel vaccinations. These costs apply to international and resident students or individuals alike. Depending on your problem and your GP’s assessment, they may need to refer you on the NHS to another service or hospital specialist. This will also be free. If you wish to see a private doctor, you must book an appointment with your GP to provide you with a letter. It's not possible to see a specialist – either on the NHS or privately – without a letter from your GP.
Generally speaking, your spouse and children will have the same healthcare entitlements as you, if you are an international student. Depending on the specific visa type that your partner or children entered on, specific visa rules may take priority over this general statement. Because of this, it would be sensible to check before being referred to hospital for routine care, whether the hospital will charge your family member for any treatment.