Free childcare places

Updated on 24 March 2020


You can get free childcare places in most parts of the UK, although the arrangements are different across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The cost of a certain number of hours of free childcare or early years education is paid for by the government. You do not need to be working to qualify and it is not connected to your income or expenditure. In England, you may qualify for more free childcare hours if you meet certain conditions. 

Who qualifies for free childcare?

The free childcare you qualify for depends on where in the UK you live.

In England, all three and four year olds can get 570 hours of free early education or childcare per year. This is around 15 hours a week over 38 weeks (or fewer hours if you choose to take them over more weeks). In addition, families in paid work may be able to claim 30 hours free childcare.

Some two year olds in England can also qualify for the 15 hours free childcare if:

  • You get income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, guarantee pension credit.
  • You and your partner are on a low income from work and receive universal credit (this usually means combined earnings of less than £15,400 a year after tax).
  • Your family receive tax credits and have a gross income (before tax) for tax credits of no more than £16,190 a year.
  • They have a current statement of Special Educational Needs or an Education, Health and Care plan.
  • They are entitled to disability living allowance.
  • They are looked after by a local authority.
  • They are no longer looked after by the local authority as a result of an adoption order, a special guardianship order or a child arrangements order which specifies with whom the child lives.

In Scotland, all three and four year olds can get 600 hours of free early education or childcare per year. Some two year olds can also qualify for free childcare if you are in receipt of certain benefits.

There are different rules again, in Wales and Northern Ireland.

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How do I claim my free childcare?

You should contact your childcare provider or local authority for more information about how to claim free childcare in your area.

If you want to claim the 30 hours free childcare you can apply on GOV.UK. The application process is shared with tax-free childcare (TFC) – you must be careful to ensure you only apply for 30 hours free childcare if you do not want to claim TFC. If you claim tax credits or universal credit (UC), you should not claim TFC without seeking advice or by mistake, because claiming TFC will cause your tax credits or UC claim to end. 

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How does free childcare affect help from other childcare schemes?

If you get free childcare, you cannot claim help for those childcare costs from other schemes such as tax credits. If you are claiming help with your childcare costs from any scheme, you should inform them when you start receiving free childcare.

You can however use other schemes, in conjunction with the free childcare hours offering – to help pay for any childcare costs over and above the 15/30 free hours for example.

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30 hours free childcare (England)

In England, parents/carers who meet certain work conditions may be able to access an additional 15 hours free childcare – making a total of 30 hours free childcare. To qualify you will each need to expect to earn an average of £131.36 a week over the three month entitlement period if you are aged 25 or over. You can use the scheme whether you are employed or self-employed as long as you meet this earnings level. If you are self-employed you will be exempt from meeting this earnings level in your first 12 months of self-employment and some self-employed claimants will be able to average their earnings over a 12 month period when working out if they meet the minimum earnings level. 

You can still be eligible if one parent is working and the other is not-working because they have a disability or substantial caring responsibilities or they are off work temporarily due to sickness or maternity leave.

If your hours decrease so that you lose eligibility there will be a grace period that allows you to keep your 30 hours for a short period, after which you will return to 15 hours.

You cannot claim the additional 15 free hours if either of you has adjusted net income of over £100,000 a year.

In Scotland and Wales, pilots have started to test 30 hour free childcare offer for three and four year olds in some areas. Full roll out in Scotland is planned by 2020, and in Wales by the end of the current Welsh Assembly term which ends in May 2021.

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Where can I find out more about free childcare?

You can contact your local Family Information Service for more information about free childcare hours and childcare in your area.

See GOV.UK for information on:

You could also outlook at the government’s Childcare Choices website for further information, including a link to the government’s childcare calculator, which helps you work out what support might be available to you.

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