Paying for childcare

9 mins read

Childcare is expensive, but there may be help available to meet the costs. For example, there are schemes offering free childcare placements to many pre-school children. If you are a working family help may also be available through the tax credit system or via Universal Credit. Sometimes it is even possible to get direct payments to pay for childcare following a social needs assessment.

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Free childcare for pre-school children


In England all three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours of free early education/childcare for 38 weeks of the year. Some two year olds are also eligible, for example any two year old who is in receipt of DLA or who has a statement of special education need or an Education, Health and Care Plan. A two year old also qualifies if their parents are in receipt of certain means-tested benefits.

Free childcare hours can be split between more than one childcare provider. This can include not only nursery classes and private nurseries but also playgroups and childminders. However individual childcare providers are not obliged to offer free places and some have decided not to take part in the scheme.

Working families of three and four year olds are entitled to an extra 15 hours of free childcare. This is on top of the 15 hours of free early education for all parents of three and four year olds, and some two year olds.

Will I be entitled to the extra 15 hours?

You will be eligible if:

  • You (and your partner where applicable) earn or expect to earn the equivalent to 16 hours at National Minimum or Living Wage over the coming three months. This currently equates to £142.56 a week (or around £7,413.12 a year) for each parent over 23 years old. Amounts are lower for younger parents. This applies whether you are in paid employment, self-employed or on zero hours contract.
  • You (and your partner where applicable) are seeking the free childcare to enable you to work.
  • You (or your partner where applicable) are on maternity, paternity, shared parental or adoption leave, or if you are on statutory sick leave.

Where one parent meets the income criteria and the other is unable to work because they are disabled, have caring responsibilities or have been assessed as having limited capability to work, they are assessed as though they are in paid work. This includes where one partner is eligible for Carer’s Allowance (including an underlying entitlement) or the carer element of Universal Credit. 

Where you are in a ‘start-up period’ (you are newly self-employed), you do not need to demonstrate that you meet the income criteria for 12 months.

When will I not meet the criteria?

You will not meet the criteria for the additional 15 hours if one or both parents have an income of more than £100,000.

If you are a person from abroad and because of your immigration status you do not have recourse to public funds, you can still apply for 15 hours free childcare for 3-4 year olds. However you cannot apply for the additional 15 hours for working families. Some low income families with no recourse to public funds can get 15 hours free childcare for a 2 year old. However this will depend on the exact type of immigration status you have. Seek more detailed advice.  

What happens if I lose eligibility?

You will receive a ‘grace period’ – this means you will be able to keep your childcare for a short period.

Once the ‘grace period’ has lapsed, you should be entitled to the universal 15-hour entitlement.

How do I apply for free childcare?

The website allows parents to apply for the government’s childcare offers, as well as providing details of existing government schemes. You can also find out more from Childcare Choices.


In Scotland, all three and four-year-olds are eligible for 1,140 hours of free early education (30 hours a week if term-time only or 22 weeks if spread over the full year). Some two-year-olds are also covered – for example, where a parent is in receipt of certain means tested benefits or where a two-year-old lives with kinship carers.

Depending on your local authority, you may be able to split these hours between more than one childcare provider.

To find out how to claim, visit your local council’s website to find out what is available in your area. Visit the Scottish government’s website for more information.


In Wales, all working parents of three and four-year-olds are entitled to 30 hours of free childcare or early education. You must earn at least the National Minimum Wage or living wage for 16 hours a week on average. You will also have to meet certain other criteria.

In some parts of Wales, the Flying Start scheme offers free part-time childcare for two and three-year-olds.

Contact your local Family Information Service for more information about what childcare schemes are available in your area, and how to apply.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has a programme of free pre-school education aimed at children in the year immediately before they enter primary one. You will need to apply for a place for your child. Check the admissions criteria for each pre-school education setting you are applying for so you can show how your child meets them. Applications close in January. You can find more information on how to apply from the NI Direct website

Challenging childcare decisions

If you’ve encountered barriers that have prevented you from accessing free childcare, visit our refused childcare? page.

Help with childcare costs

Childcare costs and Working Tax Credit

If you are a tax credit claimant and you pay for registered childcare, you can get help with up to 70% of your childcare costs via Working Tax Credit. For childcare costs to be taken into account, you must either be:

  • A lone parent who works at least 16 hours per week.
  • A couple who both work 16 hours or more a week.
  • A couple where one member of the couple works 16 hours or more a week and the other is entitled to Carer’s Allowance, or getting certain disability benefits (or in prison or hospital).

The maximum amount of childcare that can be taken into account is £175 per week for one child and £300 per week for two or more children.

Since 70 per cent of childcare costs can be met, the most that can actually be paid towards childcare costs is £122.50 a week for one child and £210 a week for two or more children. These are the maximum amounts payable and the actual amount you will get depends on your income and family circumstances.

Childcare costs and Universal Credit

Under the Universal Credit system that is being introduced to replace tax credits and other means-tested benefits, you can also get help with any registered childcare costs you pay for in order to work.

You can get up to 85 per cent of your costs met. The maximum amount of costs that will be taken into account is £758.33 a month for one child and £1,300 a month for two or more children.

However, since only 85 per cent of costs are met, this means that maximum amounts payable towards childcare are £646 a month for one child or £1,108 a month for two or more children.

Childcare costs are included in your Universal Credit claim so long as you do some paid work – no matter the number of hours. If you are a couple, you must both work or one of you must work and the other partner must be unable to provide childcare, either because they provide regular and substantial care for a severely disabled person or because have a limited capability to work due to their own health problems.

Tax-free childcare scheme

There is also a tax-free childcare scheme for working families. The scheme helps with childcare costs for children who haven’t yet reached the September after their 11th birthday (September after their 16th birthday if a child is disabled).

To qualify, you must be working and have earnings that are at least equivalent to the national minimum wage x 16 hours. This is currently £142.56 for people aged 25 and above. 

If you are a couple, you must either both be working and have earnings of this level or one of you must have earnings of that level and the other partner be in receipt of certain disability benefits or carer’s benefits such as Carer’s Allowance. 

In looking at whether you earn enough to qualify, the government assess your average earnings over a three-month period. This means someone aged 25 or over should be eligible so long as their earnings over a three-month period are at least £1853.28.

Despite its name, this new system has nothing to do with the tax system. Instead, parents can open an online account, which they will use to pay for registered or approved childcare. For every £8 you pay into your child’s account, the government will add a top up payment of £2.

Normally the maximum that the government will contribute is £2,000 per child per year, assuming you contribute £8,000. However, if a child is disabled, the maximum government contribution increases to £4,000 per year, assuming the parent contributes £16,000.

Warning! – If you access tax-free childcare, you cannot get any tax credits or Universal Credit. This means all of your tax credits/Universal Credit stops, not just any payments you get towards childcare. In most cases you will be better off getting tax credits or Universal Credit, so make sure you get advice before applying for tax-free childcare. 

Employer supported childcare

Some employers offer support with childcare costs by either offering workplace childcare or by offering childcare vouchers so that an employee can buy registered or approved childcare. This is often done via a ‘salary sacrifice scheme’, whereby an employee agrees to accept lower earnings in return for the assistance with their childcare.

However new applications for childcare vouchers via a salary sacrifice scheme have been scrapped and replaced by Tax Free Childcare. If you are already using childcare vouchers and have the same employer, you can either continue to use them, or you can change to Tax Free Childcare. However bear in mind that if you move onto Tax Free Childcare you will also have to give up any tax credits or Universal Credit that you receive. 

Help from social services

You may also wish to approach your local social services (social work in Scotland) department to see if they will offer support to help you juggle work and caring – such as organising alternative childcare or providing direct payments towards additional childcare costs.

When assessing your needs as a carer, they should consider the impact that caring has on your ability to continue in employment or move into work.

What type of childcare can I access?

Read our information about the early years and childcare options your child may be entitled to.