Tax-free childcare

Updated on 7 February 2019


Tax-free childcare (TFC) is a new scheme that has been introduced gradually throughout 2017 and opened to everyone who qualifies from 14 February 2018.

TFC is the Government’s new way of providing childcare support to parents and it will eventually replace directly contracted childcare and childcare vouchers currently offered through employers.

The scheme started as a small pilot in late 2016 and started accepting claims from certain groups on 21 April 2017. It opened to everyone who meets the qualifying conditions from 14 February 2018. 

How does tax-free childcare work?

TFC is a UK wide scheme covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The scheme runs through an online account which you can pay into to cover the cost of childcare with a registered provider. There is an offline option for those who are unable to use the online service (via the childcare helpline – see below).

You will pay money into the online account and the Government will add money (called a top-up) to the account. You can then use the account to pay for your childcare (providing your childcare provider is registered to accept payments from the scheme). You can only pay out for childcare where the main reason of it is to enable you to work. 

Children will be covered by the scheme up until the last day of the week in which the 1st September following their 11th birthday falls. If they are disabled then this is extended to the last day of the week in which the 1st September following their 16th birthday falls.

For some information on TFC, see GOV.UK.

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Who is entitled to support through tax-free childcare?

In order to access the TFC scheme you (and your partner) will need to meet a minimum earnings requirement from paid work. This will mean you will each need to expect to earn an average of £125.38 a week over the 3 month entitlement period if you are aged 25 or over. This doesn’t mean you have to earn that amount every week, as long as you expect to do so on average over the 3 month period. If you are on a zero-hours contract, you may earn far more than this in one week and then not work the following week, but as long as you expect it to average out to at least £125.28 a week over your 3 month entitlement period then you can qualify. This is based on a reasonable expectation and as long as it was reasonable based on information you knew at the time of your declaration then it shouldn’t matter if you find you do not actually meet the earnings threshold (although this may mean you do not qualify in the next period).

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 will generally be treated as in paid work and meeting the earnings level during paid periods of sick leave, maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave.

If you are part of a couple where one of you is in qualifying paid work and your partner is unable to work then you may still be entitled. This exception should apply if your partner is paid or entitled to:

  • Incapacity benefit
  • Severe disablement allowance
  • Carer’s allowance
  • Contributory employment and support allowance
  • National insurance credits on the grounds of incapacity for work or limited capacity for work

Self-employed claimants are also treated as in qualifying paid work during these periods if any of these bullet points would have applied but for the fact that they were self-employed immediately before the period of leave rather than employed.

You cannot claim if either of you have adjusted net income of over £100,000 a year.

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How do I claim tax-free childcare?

Tax-free childcare (TFC) claims are primarily made online via the GOV.UK website. If you do not have online access or find using the online system difficult you should contact the Tax-Free Childcare helpline on 0300 123 4097 (0300 123 9232 – minicom audio impaired).

The online claim process for TFC is a joint application process with 30 hours free childcare. These are two separate government schemes but they share one online application – you can claim one or both of them during the application process. If you are only making a claim for 30 hours free childcare, you should make sure you do not accidentally claim TFC at the same time.

You will need a Government Gateway account before you can apply for TFC. If you already have a Government Gateway account, you can sign in on the first page. If you do not have a Government Gateway account, you should select ‘Don’t have a Government Gateway Account’ and then select that you are an individual.

You will be asked to enter your name, email address and create a password. You will then immediately (on screen) be given your automatically generated Government Gateway User ID. It is important to keep a note or print this as it will not appear again on any of the screens and you will need it when you next sign in. You will then be asked to complete a 2 step verification process – to do this you will need to provide a landline number or mobile phone number. You will then need to answer some security questions based on information HMRC know about you – you are usually offered a choice between answering questions about your passport or information from your payslips or a recent P60.

If you have problems opening or operating your account see our problems section below.

We explain more about the Government Gateway in our digital services guide.

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How much will I get?

For each 80p that you pay into your childcare account, the Government will pay in 20p – up to a maximum of £500 (£1,000 if the child is disabled) per three month entitlement period. This means that you can receive up to £2,000 support per child, per year and £4,000 per child, per year if they are disabled. It is particularly important to understand that there is a cap to the Government top-up if you have variable childcare costs – e.g. you just need childcare for over the summer holidays. To take full advantage of the Government top-up, you might want to pay the money into your account over the course of the year, rather than in one lump sum.

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What about support from other schemes?

You can claim TFC in conjunction with the Government’s free childcare hours offering – to help pay for any childcare costs over and above the 15/30 free hours for example.

You are not entitled to TFC if you claim tax credits (any tax credits, not just childcare support) or universal credit. If you do submit a claim for TFC then your whole tax credits award (both child tax credit and working tax credit) will stop automatically. A similar situation applies with universal credit.

Parents cannot benefit under both TFC and childcare vouchers/directly-contracted childcare at the same time. Anyone currently claiming such support, who has given their employer a ‘Childcare Account Notice’ (explaining their intention to claim TFC instead and leave their scheme) will have their vouchers or directly contracted childcare stopped.

The tax and NIC relief associated with childcare vouchers and directly-contracted childcare was withdrawn from 4 October 2018 for new applicants. Certain people who signed up before that date are eligible to continue receiving the relief. See our Who can claim vouchers? page for more information.

This means that even if you subsequently leave the TFC scheme and meet the conditions for continuing to benefit from the tax and NIC relief on childcare vouchers or directly-contracted childcare, you cannot rejoin such schemes. For a useful overview of childcare vouchers in comparison to TFC, please see this government briefing.

Some people will be better off claiming TFC than tax credits or universal credit. Similarly, some people may be better off claiming TFC than childcare vouchers/directly-contracted childcare. However, some people will be better off staying on the other schemes.

The decision about whether to claim TFC and leave an existing scheme is a complicated and important decision. This is especially the case if you live in certain areas where the universal credit digital service is being rolled out. If you currently claim tax credits in one of those areas and you claim TFC, your tax credits will automatically end, but if you have made the wrong decision you will not be able to reclaim tax credits and instead may have to claim universal credit. This could be better or worse for you depending on your circumstances.

From 17th May 2017, new rules mean that if you accidentally claim TFC and your tax credits award ends as a result, as long as you don’t make any payments out of the TFC account and all of the TFC accounts held by you (or either/both of you in a joint claim) have been closed, you can make a new tax credits claim and it will be backdated up to 31 days. Technically this won’t apply if you live in an area where the universal credit digital service has been introduced because you will have to claim universal credit instead of tax credits – however our understanding is that HMRC may be able to accept a new tax credits claim in these circumstances and you should contact the TFC helpline if you claimed TFC which has resulted in your tax credits stopping unexpectedly. 

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Problems with tax-free childcare

Some people who are using the online service are reporting technical difficulties which has meant they cannot open their account or there have been delays. To resolve any difficulties, you should first contact the TFC helpline on 0300 123 4097 (0300 123 9232 – minicom audio impaired).

If you have been affected by the technical issues and this meant you incurred costs (e.g. nursery late payment fees), you may be entitled to compensation via a one-off top-up payment. HMRC will also consider refunding any reasonable costs directly caused by the service not working as it should, mistakes or unreasonable delays.

You can claim compensation by writing to:

Childcare Service 
HM Revenue and Customs 
BX9 1GR 

You should include the following information in your letter:

  • Your full name
  • Your home address
  • National insurance number
  • A brief description of the issues you have had
  • Any costs you have incurred as a result
  • Bank name, account number and sort code
  • Copies of receipts for payments to your childcare provider (if relevant)

We recommend that you send it by recorded delivery or at the very least ask the Post Office for proof of postage. You should also keep a copy of your letter.

If you are eligible for compensation, HMRC should write to you and make a payment directly into your bank account. 

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Where can I find more information?

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

You could also check out 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.

For more detailed information, see our specialist website aimed at advisers, Revenuebenefits.

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