Free childcare places
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, guaranteed element of pension credit.
- You and your partner are on a low income 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.
- You are receiving the Working Tax Credit 4-week run on (the payment you get when stop working enough hours to qualify for Working Tax Credit).
Two-year-olds can also get free childcare if they:
- have a current statement of Special Educational Needs or an Education, Health and Care plan.
- are entitled to disability living allowance.
- are looked after by a local authority.
- 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.
- There are special rules if you’re a non-UK citizen who cannot claim benefits. See the UK website for more information.
In Scotland, all three and four year olds can get 1,140 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.
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 (England). 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 to end automatically. You cannot claim TFC and UC at the same time.
How does free childcare affect help from other childcare schemes?
If you get free childcare hours, you cannot claim help for the cost of those childcare hours 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.
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 at least £2,167.36 over the next three-month entitlement period if you are aged 23 or over (the relevant national minimum wage x 16 hours a week x 13 weeks, but there are exceptions – for example if you are on maternity leave or sick leave).
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.
30 hours free childcare (other parts of the UK)
From August 2021, all 3 and 4 year olds and a quarter of all 2 year olds are able to access 1140 hours of Early Learning and Childcare, funded by the Scottish Government. This works out about 30 hours a week during term time. You can find out more on the parent club website.
A similar scheme has been rolled out in Wales – childcare offer Wales – which provides up to 30 hours a week of early education and childcare. The 30 hours is made up of a minimum of 10 hours of early education a week and a maximum 20 hours a week of childcare and is dependent on how much early education is offered by your local authority. The eligibility conditions can be found on the Welsh Government’s website.
Changes to free childcare
In his Budget on 15 March 2023, the Chancellor announced some changes to the provision of free childcare in England, and other changes may be introduced in the devolved administrations. In England, working parents will be entitled to free childcare for children from 9 months to 3 years, eligibility will match the existing 3 to 4 year olds provision. According to the announcement, the extension of free childcare will be introduced in phases. From April 2024, working parents of 2 year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare per week; from September 2024, working parents with children 9 months to 2 years; and from September 2025, working parents of children aged 9 months to 3 years will be able to access 30 hours of free childcare per week
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:
- free education and childcare for 2 year olds
- 15 hours free childcare for 3 to 4 year olds
- 30 hours free childcare for 3 to 4 year olds
You can also look 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.