Free childcare places

Updated on 12 April 2018

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 you are allowed up to a fixed number of hours, depending on where you live and it is not connected your income or expenditure. In England, you may qualify for more free childcare hours if you meet certain work conditions. 

Who qualifies for free childcare?

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

In England, all 3 and 4 year olds can get 570 hours of free early education or childcare per year. This is around 15 hours a week over 38 weeks. In addition, families in paid work may be able to claim 30 hours free childcare.

Some 2 year olds in England can also qualify for 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 3 and 4 year olds can get 600 hours of free early education or childcare per year. Some 2 year olds can also qualify for free childcare if you are in receipt of certain benefits.

In Wales, 3 and 4 year olds can get 10 hours a week free.

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How do I claim my free childcare?

You should contact your local council or local authority for more information about free childcare in your area.

If you want to claim the new 30 hours free childcare you can apply on the GOV.UK website. The application process is shared with Tax-Free Childcare – you must be careful to ensure you only apply for 30 hours free childcare if you are not claiming TFC. If you claim tax credits or universal credit, you should not claim Tax-Free Childcare without seeking advice because claiming Tax-Free Childcare 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.

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30 hours free childcare (England)

In England, parents/carers who meet certain work conditions may be able to access an addition 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 £125.28 a week over the 3 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.

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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 and childcare in your area.

GOV.UK website

GOV.UK Childcare calculator

Childcare Choices

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