Foreigners Reveal What Surprised Them About the NHS

"Before coming to the UK, I had to pay around £1,000 NHS fee."
A Dutch person and Hong Konger
Kelvin and Helen. All photos: courtesy of interviewees
We ask non-Brits what they make of an objectively weird country.

After two years of world-changing pandemic, the National Health Service, and its own health, has once again been pushed to the fore of Britain’s social and political conversations. We’ve painted murals, clapped off and on for its staff and endlessly discussed the looming threat of privatisation, but the conversations around the NHS never seem to end. Is there anyone who doesn’t have their unique take on the subject?


Speak to a Polish person – my mum, for starters – and you’ll likely hear that “they try to treat everything with paracetamol” over here. Talk to an American and you will probably be treated to an hour-long faux-TED talk about how crazy it is that you can call an ambulance without being bankrupted. There are many things that make the healthcare experience in the UK special: For me personally, it’s the fact that no matter why or what time I call my GP, the receptionist still shouts at me. To find out how the marvels and oddities of the NHS are seen by those who didn’t grow up with it, I spoke to six individuals who – just like me – made Britain their home. 

Georgia Metcalfe, 26, Australia

I would say that, generally speaking, the NHS is brilliant! I had some really good experiences, like getting my tonsils removed during COVID. Once I did get my appointment together, I received care within five months of the consultation and they also put me in a private hospital. Of course, I need to pay an NHS charge, as I’m on a visa, but I think it’s amazing - the level of care you receive back.

A redhead living in the UK standing in front of a fountain

Where I’m from, you need to pay to see a doctor. There is free healthcare for some people, like university students or people on benefits, but it’s not for everyone. I could tell in hospital that nurses were stretched due to COVID. In Australia, generally speaking, there is one nurse for every three patients. Here, it’s one nurse for eight... The environment here is a little bit rushed, however, they still have a very kind attitude, though you could see that maybe they didn’t have enough resources. I’ve never run into an issue with a doctor here.

A man wearing glasses living in the UK

Bernard Bukala, 27, Poland

British people feel very strongly about the NHS as an institution and it’s also a political thing. Left-leaning people seem to be very protective of it while the right-leaning seem to have more things against it. There is a big emphasis on being patient-focused and providing good service. Compared to a lot of other places, it is very good, even if you need to wait a little bit sometimes.

When compared to Poland, British healthcare is much more focused on mental health and elderly people. The sexual health network in the UK is amazing when compared to Poland, you don’t even need an NHS number to get served. I know of people from the EU coming here just to get a check-up. In Germany, for example, you need a certificate to access some sexual health services. 

A woman with long black and blonde hair

Helen Hui, 19, Hong Kong

In my opinion, based on my experience, the healthcare system here isn’t as good as I would expect. Before coming to the UK, I had to pay around £1,000 NHS fee, to access the services. I don’t find the services helpful. Some time ago, I was experiencing terrible stomach pain but when I called the GP, they told me to wait a week, just to book an appointment. That was a GP centre next to my university.

That experience was awful – especially, when you’re in a lot of pain and you’re really ill, you want the doctor to tell you what’s going on or give you medicine. By the time it’s time for your appointment, you most likely already feel better. My sister came here before COVID and she had a really high fever. My parents had to send her to A&E where she had to wait for hours to be told she ate something bad. I don’t think we are getting the service we deserve for the price we are paying. The government is not funding healthcare enough. 

A man holding a cup of coffee

Kelvin Wiedenhoff, 30, Netherlands

The big difference is that the healthcare here is free. In the Netherlands, people struggle to pay their insurance bills. You have to have insurance to access [healthcare], there’s no other way. Not everyone is able to afford insurance. People are stressing about paying it monthly, and the cost-of-living crisis also affects this. I know of people who have insurance debt. The prices of food [there] are so high these days, and then you have to pay for your insurance too, as well as other bills.On the other hand, waiting times for treatment are much better [in the Netherlands] than over here.

It’s a lovely thing how much people celebrate the NHS. I was a bit frustrated to find out about their tiny pay rise. They got us through a crisis and definitely deserve more.

A man next to a bike

 Mitch Mazur, 26, Canada 

Coming from Canada and having also lived in the US, you experience two completely different systems in those places. I lived in the US for 12 years and the rest was in Canada, before coming here. I’ve lived in the UK for two years now. I recognise this theme of people being united for the sake of healthcare, having a nationalised system that isn’t up for discussion is the way to go.

In Canada, there are 13+ different systems across the provinces, and on top of that, it also varies locally. It’s not a very equal system… There is also a lot of influence coming from the US, when it comes to prescription medications etc. The whole healthcare system is paid through insurance premium, so it’s not funded through taxes. In the UK, you never have to think about that, it’s all integrated into national taxes. Recently, I had a knee injury and I accessed the services incredibly fast. In Canada, I’d probably still be on the waiting list. The speed of the services is quite incredible.

A redhead woman smiling

Hannah Myers, US, 28 

Healthcare here is much better than people make it out to be. I feel like a lot of people who are born and raised in Britain take it for granted and like to moan about its shortcomings. It’s underfunded and doing the best it can. In the US, healthcare is in absolute shambles. Yes, there are delays over here and it is slow sometimes… But I’d rather have healthcare not break my bank and wait a little bit longer instead.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in very good health, I feel very privileged because I don’t have to use the NHS as much as other people. However, all the interactions with my GP were a pleasure, always matching my schedule and providing the best possible service.