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Help with Childcare Costs

Read our guide to the help that is available with childcare costs if you are working, studying or starting to work or study.

1. Free Early Education and Childcare

There are different early education schemes for each country of the UK. Click on the links below to find information related to the area of the country you live in.

England

3 and 4 year olds

All 3 and 4 year olds in England are entitled to 570 hours per year of free childcare. Most childcare providers ask families to take this as 15 hours per week over 38 week per year but you might be able to change how you take it.

You can start using your free hours in the term after your child turns 3 and it ends when your child starts school or becomes compulsory school age.

You have to use an approved childcare provider

To claim your free childcare hours, contact your local authority 

Some families can get up to 1,140 hours per year free childcare for their 3 and 4 year olds. This is usually taken as 30 hours per week. To be eligible for this, you need to meet the earnings criteria.

If you’re single:

  • You need to be earning more than 16  x national minimum wage per week (this doesn’t apply if you’re self employed and started your business less than a year ago)
  • You need to be earning less than £100,000 per year.

If you live with a partner:

  • You both need to be earning more than 16 x national minimum wage per week (if one of you is self-employed and started your business less than a year ago this won’t apply to them), or

  • One of you needs to be working and earning more than 16 x national minimum wage and the other needs to be claiming Carer’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance

  • If either of you has an income of more than £100,000 per year you won’t be able to use the scheme.

You can apply online for your 30 hours per week of free childcare.

Foster carers can get 30 hours free childcare for the child they are caring for. However, they can’t apply online and will have to get help from social services to apply.

2 year olds

Some families can get free childcare for children from age 2 for 15 hours per week.

To qualify for free childcare for your 2 year old, you have to be receiving certain benefits or your child needs to fall into one of the special categories.

You might be eligible for 15 hours per week of free childcare for your 2 year old if you are receiving:

  • Universal Credit and your household earns less than £15,400 per year after tax
  • Guarantee Pension Credit
  • Income Support
  • Income related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Income based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Tax credits and your household earns less than £16,190 per year before tax
  • Support through part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act
  • The Working Tax Credit 4-week run on (the payment you get when you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)

You might also be able to get 15 hours per week free childcare for your 2 year old if:

  • The child gets Disability Living Allowance (DLA)
  • The child has a statement of special educational needs or an education health and care plan 
  • The child is in local authority care
  • The child left local authority care under a special guardianship order, a child arrangements order, or an adoption order.

To apply for free childcare for your 2 year old, you should contact your local council.
 

Scotland

3 and 4 year olds

All 3 and 4 year olds living in Scotland are entitled to at least 600 hours per year of free childcare. You can only use these hours for registered childcare. Scotland is gradually increasing the number of hours available, so check with your local council to find out how many hours you can claim. 

2 year olds

Some households living in Scotland can claim free childcare for 2 year olds. You may get at least 600 hours per year of free childcare, or possibly more.

To be eligible, you have to be claiming certain benefits or your child has to fall into certain categories.

You might be able to claim free childcare for your 2 year old if you are receiving:

  • Income Support
  • income related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • income based Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA)
  • Guarantee Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit, with no award of Working Tax Credit, and your income is £16,105 or less 
  • Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit and your income is £6,841 or less
  • Universal Credit and your pay after tax is £610 per month or less.

You might also be able to claim free childcare for your 2 year old if the child:

  • Is in local authority care
  • Is living with you under a guardianship order
  • Is living with you under a kinship care order.

To apply for free childcare for your 2 year old, you will need to contact your local council.
 

Wales

3 and 4 year olds

All 3 and 4 year olds are entitled to free education of 10 hours per week during school terms. This is called the Foundation Phase and is intended to help children get ready for school.

Some 3 and 4 year olds are entitled to 30 hours per week of free education and childcare over 48 weeks per year. The 10 hours provided through the Foundation Phase will be a part of these 30 hours, so someone who qualifies for this scheme will get an extra 20 hours per week of free childcare.

To qualify for this the household has to meet certain earnings criteria.

If you’re single:

  • You need to be earning more than 16  x national minimum wage per week (This doesn’t apply if you’re self employed and started your business less than a year ago. It also doesn’t apply if you’re off work and getting Statutory Sick Pay, or if you’re off work on adoption or maternity/paternity leave)
  • You need to be earning less than £100,000 per year.

If you live with a partner:

  • You both need to be earning more than 16 x national minimum wage per week (if one of you is self-employed and started your business less than a year ago this won’t apply to them), or
  • One of you needs to be working and earning more than 16 x national minimum wage and the other needs to be claiming Carer’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). or
  • One or both of you is temporarily off work on maternity/paternity or adoption leave or Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), and when you’re working you would satisfy the earnings requirements
  • If either of you has an income of more than £100,000 per year, you won’t be able to use the scheme.

2 year olds

In some areas of Wales, 2 years olds are entitled to 12.5 hours per week over 5 days per week of free education. This is based on your postcode area. It is provided through the Flying Start scheme.

For more information about the free childcare schemes available to you, contact the Family Information Service at your local council.
 

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, children aged 2 and 3 may be able to access the Pre-School Education Programme. 

This is usually given as 2.5 hours per day on 5 days per week during school terms. 

Different providers have different eligibility rules. 

For more information about the scheme, contact the Education Authority Admissions Helpdesk

2. Help with Childcare Costs when You are Working

There are several different schemes which provide help with childcare costs.

You can claim free childcare as well as help with childcare costs.

For example, Anais has a 3-year old daughter. Anais is entitled to 30 hours free childcare for her daughter, but Anais needs 40 hours per week childcare to enable her to work. Anais is paying for 10 hours per week extra childcare and she can claim help with the cost of that 10 hours.

You will only be able to get help with the costs for approved childcare.

There are a few different schemes to help pay childcare costs. Some of these schemes are closed to new applicants but if you are already getting help through the scheme you can carry on getting it. 

These schemes are still open to new applications:

  • Childcare element of Universal Credit
  • Tax Free Childcare.

These schemes are closed to new applications:

  • Childcare element of Working Tax Credit
  • Childcare vouchers/Employer provided childcare

Universal Credit

You will only be able to get help with your childcare costs through Universal Credit if you are claiming Universal Credit. Use our Benefits Calculator to find out if you could get Universal Credit.

If you get help with your childcare costs through Universal Credit, you will get up to 85% of your childcare costs, up to a maximum of £646 a month for one child, or £1,108 for two or more.

You can claim help with childcare costs for any children under 17 who you are responsible for. 

To claim help with childcare through Universal Credit, you will need to claim Universal Credit. If you are already getting Universal Credit but aren’t getting help with childcare costs, you should report these costs in your journal.

Help with childcare through Universal Credit is paid to you and not to your childcare provider. It is paid in arrears, which means it will only be paid to you after you have paid your childcare provider. 

You will need to report how much you have paid in childcare costs each assessment period. You will also need to provide evidence of how much you have paid.

If you pay for childcare that covers more than one assessment period, you will only get an amount of childcare costs element in each assessment period that covers the costs for childcare that took place in that assessment period.

For example, Kirsty’s child goes to an after school club for 10 hours per week at £3 per hour. The school asks parents to pay each term. Kirsty therefore needs to pay 15 weeks childcare costs at once, which comes to £450. This falls into three assessment periods and she is paid as if she had £150 of childcare costs in each assessment period. 

If you are going to struggle to pay for childcare costs up front, you can ask your work coach if you can get support from the Flexible Support Fund. Money from the Flexible Support Fund does not have to be paid back. If they refuse, you may be able to get an advance to pay the up front childcare costs. An advance will have to be paid back.


Tax Free Childcare

You can’t get Tax Free Childcare at the same time as Universal Credit or tax credits.

If you claim Tax Free Childcare, this will stop your tax credits. It won’t stop your Universal Credit automatically but you will be asked to close your claim for Universal Credit. You also can’t get it at the same time as childcare vouchers.

Tax Free Childcare means the government will pay £2 for every £8 you spend on childcare, up to a maximum of £2,000 per year per child (or £4,000 for a child with a disability). It is managed through an online account. Your childcare provider will be paid direct from this account.

You can get Tax Free Childcare for children up to the age of 11. If your child has a disability and gets Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP) or Armed Forces Independence Payment (AFIP), or is sight impaired, you can get tax free childcare until the child is 17.

To be able to get tax free childcare, you have to satisfy the earnings rules:

If you’re single:

  • You need to be earning more than 16  x national minimum wage per week (this doesn’t apply if you’re self employed and started your business less than a year ago. It also doesn’t apply if you’re off work and getting Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), or if you’re off work on adoption or maternity/paternity leave )
  • You need to be earning less than £100,000 per year.

If you live with a partner:

  • You both need to be earning more than 16 x national minimum wage per week (if one of you is self-employed and started your business less than a year ago this won’t apply to them), or
  • One of you needs to be working and earning more than 16 x national minimum wage and the other needs to be claiming Carer’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), or
  • One or both of you is temporarily off work on maternity/paternity or adoption leave or Statutory Sick Pay, and when you’re working you would satisfy the earnings requirements
  • If either of you has an income of more than £100,000 per year, you won’t be able to use the scheme.

You can apply for the Tax Free Childcare scheme online.


Which scheme is best for me?

It can be hard to work out which of the government’s schemes you will be better off on. The Gov.UK website has a calculator to help you decide. However, it doesn’t show the help you can get through Universal Credit yet. If you are struggling to make sense of it, you should speak to an adviser.
 

3. Help with Childcare Costs when Starting Work or Looking for Jobs

If you are looking for work, you may be able to get help with some expenses, for example, to enable you to attend interviews, through a discretionary Jobcentre fund called the Flexible Support Fund.

Help with childcare costs through Universal Credit is paid to you, not to your childcare provider, and it is only paid to you after you have had to pay your childcare provider. This can make it hard for people when they start a new job. You should ask your work coach for help with your upfront childcare costs through the Flexible Support Fund. If they aren’t willing to give help through this fund, you may have to ask for an advance.

Ask your local Jobcentre for more information about this and any other schemes they may run to help you into work.

4. Help with Childcare Costs when Studying

If you are in education, you may be able to get help with childcare costs. 

See the Gov.UK website for help with childcare costs when studying to find out about Discretionary Learner Support, Learn to Care payments and Childcare Grants.
 

5. Childcare Costs: Frequently Asked Questions

England

I live in England and I (and my partner) work – which schemes can we use?

If your child is 3 or 4, you will be able to get at least 15 and maybe as much as 30 hours per week free childcare for your child. The 15 hour scheme is run by your local council but the 30 hour scheme is managed through a centralised, online application.

If your child is 2, you might be able to get 15 hours free childcare if your earnings are low.

You might also be able to access help with the childcare costs you do need to pay.

If you are already getting help with childcare costs through Working Tax Credit or childcare vouchers, you can carry on getting it.

If you need to make a new claim, you can use either the Tax Free Childcare scheme or help through Universal Credit. Most people who are entitled to Universal Credit will be better off getting help with their childcare costs through Universal Credit instead of through the Tax Free Childcare scheme. You can compare it by using the Gov.UK help with childcare calculator to see how much help you’d get through the Tax Free Childcare scheme and the Turn2us Benefits Calculator to see how much help you’d get through Universal Credit.

I live in England and I (and my partner) don’t work – which schemes can we use?

If your child is aged 2, 3 or 4, you will be able to get 15 hours per week free childcare. You can apply for this through your local council.

You won’t usually be able to get help with childcare costs through Universal Credit while you’re not working but if you’re getting statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or sick pay, you’ll be treated as if you are working. 

You can’t use the Tax Free Childcare scheme if you’re not working.

If you are looking to move into work and need help paying childcare costs to enable you to do, so you should ask your work coach about accessing support through the flexible Flexible Support Fund.

Scotland

I live in Scotland and I (and my partner) work – which schemes can we use?

If your child is 3 or 4, you will be able to get at least 600 hours per year of free childcare. Some local councils offer more than this. 

If your child is 2, you might be able to get 600 or more hours of free childcare for them if your earnings are low.

If you are already getting help with childcare costs through Working Tax Credit or childcare vouchers, you can carry on getting it.

If you need to make a new claim, you can use either the Tax Free Childcare scheme or help through Universal Credit. Most people who are entitled to Universal Credit will be better off getting help with their childcare costs through Universal Credit instead of through the Tax Free Childcare scheme. You can compare it by using the Gov.UK help with childcare calculator to see how much help you’d get through the Tax Free Childcare scheme and the Turn2us Benefits Calculator to see how much help you’d get through Universal Credit.

I live in Scotland and I (and my partner) don’t work – which schemes can I use?

If your child is 3 or 4 you will be able to get at least 600 hours per year of free childcare. Some local councils offer more than this. 

If your child is 2, you might be able to get 600 or more hours of free childcare for them, depending on which benefits you’re claiming.

You won’t usually be able to get help with childcare costs through Universal Credit while you’re not working but if you’re getting statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or sick pay, you’ll be treated as if you are working. 

You can’t use the Tax Free Childcare scheme if you’re not working.

If you are looking to move into work and need help paying childcare costs to enable you to do so, you should ask your work coach about accessing support through the Flexible Support Fund.

Wales

I live in Wales and I (and my partner) work – which schemes can I use?

If your child is 3 or 4 years old, you will be able to access 10 hours per week of free education. You might be able to access up to a total of 30 hours per week free education and childcare if you (and your partner) each earn more than the equivalent of 16 times the national minimum wage per week and neither of you earns more than £100,000 per year. 

If your child is 2, you might be able to access a Flying Start scheme place. This depends on your postcode. Contact your local council to find out if you’re eligible.

You might also be able to access help with the childcare costs you do need to pay.

If you are already getting help with childcare costs through Working Tax Credit or childcare vouchers, you can carry on getting it.

If you need to make a new claim, you can use either the Tax Free Childcare scheme or help through Universal Credit. Most people who are entitled to Universal Credit will be better off getting help with their childcare costs through Universal Credit instead of through the Tax Free Childcare scheme. You can compare it by using the Gov.UK help with childcare calculator to see how much help you’d get through the Tax Free Childcare scheme and the Turn2us Benefits Calculator to see how much help you’d get through Universal Credit.

I live in Wales and I (and my partner) don’t work – which schemes can I use?

If your child is 3 or 4 years old, you will be able to access 10 hours per week of free education.

If your child is 2, you might be able to access a Flying Start scheme place. This depends on your postcode. Contact your local council to find out if you’re eligible.

You won’t usually be able to get help with childcare costs through Universal Credit while you’re not working but if you’re getting statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or sick pay, you’ll be treated as if you are working. 

You can’t use the Tax Free Childcare scheme if you’re not working.

If you are looking to move into work and need help paying childcare costs to enable you to do so, you should ask your work coach about accessing support through the Flexible Support Fund.

Northern Ireland

I live in Northern Ireland and I (and my partner) work  - which schemes can I use?

If your child is aged 2 or 3, depending on your local provider’s eligibility rules, you might be able to access 10.5 hours per week of Early Education 

You might also be able to access help with the childcare costs you do need to pay.

If you are already getting help with childcare costs through Working Tax Credit or childcare vouchers, you can carry on getting it.

If you need to make a new claim, you can use either the Tax Free Childcare scheme or help through Universal Credit. Most people who are entitled to Universal Credit will be better off getting help with their childcare costs through Universal Credit instead of through the Tax Free Childcare scheme. You can compare it by using the Gov.UK help with childcare calculator to see how much help you’d get through the Tax Free Childcare scheme and the Turn2us Benefits Calculator to see how much help you’d get through Universal Credit.

I live in Northern Ireland and I (and my partner) don’t work  - which schemes can I use?

If your child is aged 2 or 3, depending on your local provider’s eligibility rules, you might be able to access 10.5 hours per week of Early Education 

You won’t usually be able to get help with childcare costs through Universal Credit while you’re not working but if you’re getting statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or sick pay you’ll be treated as if you are working. 

You can’t use the Tax Free Childcare scheme if you’re not working.

If you are looking to move into work and need help paying childcare costs to enable you to do so, you should ask your work coach about accessing support through the Flexible Support Fund.