Home Advice for Parents & CarersChildcare Support England – Free childcare for children aged 2, 3 & 4

England – Free childcare for children aged 2, 3 & 4

Last updated: 20 Apr 2022

In England, there are three government-funded early education schemes that offer free childcare for children aged two, three and four:

These schemes are only available to families living in England, although similar schemes are available in Scotland and Wales.

Each of the free childcare schemes has different eligibility rules so it’s important to check which of the schemes is right for you. More information on each scheme is outlined below, followed by frequently asked questions and information on how to apply for each scheme.

15 hours free childcare for 2-year-olds

In order to be eligible for free childcare for your two-year-old, you must either be in receipt of a qualifying benefit or your 2-year-old child must fit into one of the categories of children who have additional needs.

The qualifying benefits are:

  • Income Support
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Universal Credit – if you and your partner are on a low income from work (this usually means a combined income no more than £15,400 a year after tax)
  • Child Tax Credit and your family have an annual income of no more than £16,190 before tax
  • the guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • 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)

Note: If you do not qualify for the benefits above because you are subject to immigration control, you may still qualify for 15 hours free childcare. You must still be on a low income (see FAQ below).

Even if you are not receiving a qualifying benefit your 2-year-old can still get free childcare if any of the following apply:

  • they’re looked after by a local council
  • they have a current statement of special education needs (SEN) or an education, health and care (EHC) plan
  • they get Disability Living Allowance
  • they’ve left care under a special guardianship order, child arrangements order or adoption order
  • you can’t claim benefits because of your asylum seeker status or a no recourse to public funds condition. This only applies in specific circumstances – see FAQ below.

Contact your childcare provider or local council to find out how to apply or if you need further guidance.

15 hours free childcare for 3 and 4-year-olds

This scheme is universal and open to all 3 and 4-year olds. There are no earnings or work requirements.

You should be able to start receiving the childcare from 1 January, 1 April or 1 September following your child’s 3rd birthday.

Contact your childcare provider or local council if you need further guidance.

30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4-year olds

To be eligible for 30 hours free childcare for your 3 or 4-year-old, you and your partner must each expect to earn (on average) the equivalent of working 16 hours a week at your national minimum wage (£152 per week, less if you are under 23).

You will still be treated as meeting the earnings requirement if you or your partner are on maternity, paternity or adoption leave – this applies whether you are single or a couple. The earnings requirement also does not apply if you are self-employed and you started your business less than 12 months ago.

You are not usually able to use the scheme if either you or your partner has a taxable income over £100,000.

To receive 30 hours free childcare you will need to apply online through gov.uk. After registering for an account, you will get a code that you can take to your childcare provider. You need to apply before the term starts or you will have wait until the beginning of the next term.

There is a government helpline if you need help with the application.

Frequently asked questions

Below is a summary of the most frequently asked questions we receive about the free childcare schemes on our helpline.

Eligibility

I am on a visa and have no recourse to public funds. Am I still eligible for free childcare?

Government funded early education and childcare is not a ‘public fund’ for immigration purposes, so can be accessed by a child regardless of their immigration status. However, some schemes have eligibility requirements relating to the immigration status of the parent(s) and so may not be available to all families. 

15 hours for 2-year-olds

If you are on a visa with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), you are likely to be restricted from receiving a qualifying benefit because most of them are considered ‘public funds’.

Parents with certain types of NRPF visas can access 15 hours free childcare for their 2-year-old child. To be eligible, you must have one of the following types of immigration statuses:

  1. Zambrano carer (derivative right to reside in the UK under European law as the primary carer of a British child or dependent adult).
  2. Leave to remain with NRPF granted on family or private life (Article 8) grounds.
  3. You have claimed asylum in the UK, you are waiting for a decision and you are getting support from the Home Office (‘Part 6’ support).
  4. ‘Appeal rights exhausted’ (ARE) asylum seeker receiving asylum support from the Home Office under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

If you meet conditions 1 or 2 above, you must also be on a low income to qualify. This means you and your partner must have a combined income no more than than £15,400 per year after tax.

You can also apply if your child if your child:

15 hours for 3 and 4-year olds

If you are not allowed to receive public funds due to your immigration status, you can still use 15 hours free childcare for 3 and 4-year-olds.

15 hours per week of free childcare is universal for all children aged 3 to 4 years old. Children can benefit regardless of their, or their parent’s, immigration status. 

Contact your childcare provider or local council if you need further guidance.

30 hours for 3 and 4-year olds

You may not be able to apply for 30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds. The parent who applies for 30 free hours will need to meet a residence requirement. In order to meet the requirement, the parent applying must have one of the following:

  • British or Irish citizenship
  • Settled or pre-settled status granted under the EU Settlement Scheme
  • A pending EU Settlement Scheme application
  • Immigration permission that allows access to public funds, such as indefinite leave to remain or refugee leave

A parent who has NRPF will not meet the residence requirement. In two-parent households, at least one parent on the application will need to meet the residence requirement. If a single parent or both parents in a household have NRPF, the family will be unable to access 30 hours childcare.

For more information on eligibility and how to apply, see the government site.

I’m claiming free childcare, but my circumstances have changed. Will it affect my eligibility?

15 hours for 2-year-olds

Once you have been accepted for 15 hours free childcare for 2-year-olds, your child will continue to receive free childcare even if you have a change of circumstances, such as an increase in income or no longer qualifying for benefits.

30 hours for 3 and 4-year olds

A change in circumstances may affect your eligibility for 30 hours free childcare. In order to be eligible, you must apply for a code to give to your childcare provider. Codes expire after three months, so you must reconfirm your eligibility to obtain a new code which means you must continue to earn or expect to earn enough to satisfy the earnings requirement.

If your circumstances change and you are no longer eligible for 30 free hours when it comes time to reconfirm, you will be given a grace period. This is a short period of time for you to be able to get back to eligibility, and your child will retain their 30 hour placement.

If after the end of the grace period, you are still not eligible for 30 free hours, your child will still be entitled to 15 free hours because it is a universal entitlement. You can apply for 30 free hours again in the future if you become eligible.

If you have questions about reconfirmation and grace periods, speak to the government helpline.

My child is turning 5 but isn’t starting school yet. Are we still eligible for 15/30 free hours?

15/30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4-year olds stops when your child reaches the compulsory school age and starts in reception class (not when they turn 5).

According to statutory guidance for local authorities on the free childcare schemes, a child is required to start reception on the 31st March, 31st August or 31st December after their 5th birthday. This will be the same day that they stop being eligible for 15/30 free hours.

Contact your childcare provider or local council if you need further guidance.

I am a student. Am I eligible for free childcare?

You can be, if you meet the eligibility requirements. If you are in receipt of a qualifying benefit, you may be eligible for 15 free hours for 2 year olds. If you work and earn enough to satisfy the earnings requirement, you may be eligible for 30 free hours for 3 and 4 year olds.

You may also be eligible for help through Care to Learn, Childcare Grant, and the Parents’ Learning Allowance. For more information, see our article on pregnancy and maternity for students.

Eligibility – 30 free hours

I’m on maternity or statutory family leave. Am I still eligible for 30 free hours childcare?

Yes, you will still be treated as meeting the earnings requirement for 30 free hours childcare if you or your partner are on maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave, even if you are on unpaid leave. This is because you’re treated as working while on maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave, even if you’re not longer getting any pay. So you should still be entitled to the 30 hours, as long as your partner also meets the conditions.

I’m on sick leave. Am I still eligible for 30 free hours?

You can usually still get 30 hours free childcare if you are on paid sick leave, either paid by your employer or on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Normally, HMRC treat those on sick leave as in work.

If you are not in receipt of SSP or another benefit such as Employment and Support Allowance, you may still be entitled to 30 free hours but you may be asked to submit proof of sickness, such as fit notes from your GP, to HMRC when reconfirming your eligibility.

If you have further questions about reconfirmation and eligibility while on sick leave, speak to the government helpline.

I am unable to work because I’m disabled or a carer. Can I still be eligible for 30 free hours?

If you are in a couple, and one of you meets the earnings requirements but one of you is unable to work because you have a disability or you are a carer, then you will be exempt from the earnings requirement.

In this circumstance, one of you must be working and the other would need to provide evidence that you are unable to work by showing that you are receiving Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, or the carer element or the limited capability for work and work-related activity element of Universal Credit.

My partner is self-employed. Can we still be eligible for 30 free hours?

Yes. To be eligible for 30 hours free childcare, you and your partner must be working (either employed or self-employed) and each expect to earn (on average) the equivalent of working 16 hours a week at the national minimum wage for people over 23 (£1,853.28 every 3 months).

This earnings requirement will not apply if your partner is self-employed and started their business less than 12 months ago.

If your partner is self-employed and does not expect to make enough profit in the next 3 months to meet the earnings threshold, they can use an average of how much they expect to make over the current tax year.

HMRC may penalise you if you are careless or dishonest when you apply for or reconfirm your eligibility for 30 hours free childcare. However, there is no penalty if you genuinely expect to earn the required amount, but are not able to.

Together my partner and I earn over £100,000. Are we still eligible for 30 free hours?

You are not usually able to use the 30 free hours scheme if either you or your partner individually has a taxable income over £100,000.

You will still be eligible for 30 free hours childcare if your combined income is greater than £100,000, as long as individually neither of you earn greater than that amount.

I am an apprentice and work full time. Can I apply for 30 free hours childcare?

Yes, as long as you meet the earnings threshold. To be eligible for 30 hours free childcare for your 3 or 4-year-old, you, and any partner, must each expect to earn (on average) the equivalent of working 16 hours a week at your national minimum wage.

I missed the reconfirmation deadline for 30 free hours. Can I still recieve 30 free hours?

HMRC manages the application process and sends out reminders to parents about the need to reconfirm their eligibility for 30 free hours childcare every three months.

If you miss the reconfirmation deadline, you should receive a message telling you that you are no longer eligible for 30 hours childcare. You should be given a ‘grace period’ so that your child can continue with their free place for a short period of time.

If you are still eligible for 30 free hours, you can make a new application for 30 hours. If your circumstances change and you are no longer eligible for the additional 15 hours of free childcare, you can still access the 15-hour universal entitlement.

If you have questions about reconfirmation and grace periods, speak to the government helpline.

Applying for free hours entitlement

How do I apply?

15 hours for 2-year-olds

How you apply for 15 free hours for 2 year olds depends on your local council and how they run the scheme. You should contact your childcare provider or local council to find out how to apply. You may need to apply through your local council, or you may be able to apply through your childcare provider.

15 hours for 3 and 4-year-olds

You do not need to apply for 15 free hours for 3 and 4-year-olds because it is a universal entitlement. You should speak to your childcare provider who should be able to claim the free hours on your behalf. If you have any further questions, you should speak to your local council who are responsible for ensuring that there are a sufficient number of free entitlement spaces.

30 hours for 3 and 4-year-olds

To receive 30 hours free childcare you will need to apply online through gov.uk. After registering for an account, you will get a code that you can take to your childcare provider. You need to apply before the term starts or you will have wait until the beginning of the next term. There is a government helpline if you need help with this.

When should I apply and when can my child access free entitlement?

15 hours for 2-year-olds

The earliest you can apply is at the start of the term in which your child turns 2. The childcare will not actually start until the beginning of the term after you apply (either 1 January, 1 April or 1 September).

For instance, if your child turns 2 on 15 February, you can apply during the term that begins on on 1 January and your child can start during the term starting on 1 April.

15/30 hours for 3 and 4-year-olds

The earliest you can apply is at the start of the term in which your child turns 3. The childcare will not actually start until the beginning of the term after you apply (either 1 January, 1 April or 1 September).

For instance, if your child turns 3 on 15 June, you can apply during the term that begins on on 1 April and your child can start during the term starting on 1 September.

I am due to start/return to work soon. Do I have to wait until I start work to apply for 30 free hours?

No. If you are due to start work (or return to work) within the next 31 days, you can apply for 30 free hours as long as you expect to earn on average the equivalent of working 16 hours on the national minimum wage.

To receive 30 hours free childcare you will need to apply online through gov.uk. After registering for an account, you will get a code that you can take to your childcare provider. You need to apply before the term starts or you will have wait until the beginning of the next term. There is a government helpline if you need help with this.

Using the free hours entitlement

My childcare provider says I must use the free hours in a particular way. Are they correct?

Each childcare provider has a different approach to the government scheme, and how the free hours are used are typically down to your agreement with them. If you have an issue, you should speak to your childcare provider or your local council.

The 15 hours entitlement is usually taken over 38 weeks of the year. With the agreement of your childcare provider, you can use the hours in term time only or stretch the hours over more than 38 weeks. If you stretch the hours out over 52 weeks, you will be entitled to 11 hours per week.

Similarly with 30 hours entitlement, it can be taken over 38 weeks or stretched to cover the whole year depending on what your childcare provider offers. If you stretch the entitlement, you would receive 22 free hours per week.

The statutory limits say that you can claim a maximum of 10 hours on one day. The minimum is 3 hours in one day.

Some childcare providers are flexible in their approach, and others require you to use the free hours in a particular way (e.g. in a set number of full days or half days). This is typically down to your agreement with them.

Can I use free childcare schemes while claiming Universal Credit/Tax Credits?

Whether you are receiving 15 or 30 hours free childcare you are still free to use other childcare schemes in addition to your free entitlement.

This means that if you use 15 or 30 hours free but still pay for additional childcare you can get help with the extra costs through working tax credits, universal credit, tax-free childcare or employer childcare vouchers.


This advice applies in England, Wales and Scotland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details. If you are in Northern Ireland you can visit the Labour Relations Agency or call their helpline Workplace Information Service on 03300 555 300.

If you have further questions and would like to contact our advice team please use our advice contact form below or call us.

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The information on the law contained on this site is provided free of charge and does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. If you are not a solicitor, you are advised to obtain specific legal advice about your case or matter and not to rely solely on this information. Law and guidance is changing regularly in this area.

We cannot provide advice on employment rights in Northern Ireland as the law is different. You can visit the Labour Relations Agency or call their helpline Workplace Information Service on 03300 555 300.