Free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds

Find how to get free childcare for your 3 or 4 year old.

1 Overview

Free entitlement to childcare is provided by the government for all 3 and 4 year olds. It allows access to free, good quality, flexible early education and childcare through a pre-school, nursery or childminder that is registered to offer free places.

  • Universal free entitlement - For all 3 and 4 year olds. Children can use up to 570 hours each year, or a maximum of 15 hours over 38 weeks.
  • Extended free entitlement (also known as 30 hours free childcare) - For eligible working parents of 3 and 4 year olds. Children can use an additional 570 hours each year, or a maximum of 30 hours per week over 38 weeks (1140 hours in total). If the funding is spread over a longer period, the amount of hours taken per week would be reduced. Parents must apply online to the government to confirm their eligibility.

A child moving to reside in England from another country is entitled to universal free entitlement on the same basis as any other child, regardless of whether they have British citizenship.

2 When is my child eligible for free entitlement?

All 3 and 4 year olds are eligible the term after they become 3 years of age.

A child born on or between:

  • 1 April and 31 August - will become eligible for a free place from 1 September following their third birthday
  • 1 September and 31 December - will become eligible for a free place from 1 January following their third birthday
  • 1 January and 31 March - will become eligible for a free place from 1 April following their third birthday.

Eligible working parents wishing to access the extended free entitlement can only do so the term after receiving confirmation of their eligibility and should apply for this a term in advance.

3 How to apply for free entitlement

You do not need to apply for the universal free entitlement as it is available to all. See How to use free entitlement for what to do next.

However, you do need to apply for the extended free entitlement, if eligible, before a deadline. You can apply if both parents are working (or the sole parent is working in a lone-parent family) and each parent earns:

  • less than £100,000 per year
  • more than the equivalent of 16 hours at the national living wage or minimum wage per week: for example, £120 per week if you are 25 or older. Apprentices are also eligible as long as they earn the equivalent of 16 hours at the apprentice minimum wage.

You will not have to meet the minimum earnings criteria if:

  • you and your partner are employed but one or both of you is temporarily away from the workplace on parental, maternity or paternity, adoption leave, or on statutory sick pay or
  • you are employed but your partner either has substantial caring responsibilities, or is disabled or incapacitated, or vice versa (in other words, your partner is employed but you have caring responsibilities or are disabled or incapacitated). This is dependent on you or your partner being entitled to specific disability or caring benefits.

This application must be made to the government in advance, who check that you are eligible and provide you with an eligibility code. To access the extended hours at a childcare provider for an age eligible child, you must apply for, and receive, your eligibility code by the applicable deadline below:

  • 31 December, to start accessing in Spring term (1 January)
  • 31 March, to start accessing in Summer term (1 April)
  • 31 August, to start accessing in Autumn term (1 September).

You can apply and check your eligibility on the Childcare Choices website.

When your eligibility is confirmed, give your code to your chosen childcare provider. You must reconfirm your eligibility online every three months. The Government will remind you by SMS or email before the deadline.

If you provide false information you could face a fine of up to £3,000.

If you are self-employed or on a zero hours contract

The criteria applies if you are self-employed or on a zero-hours contract and expect to meet the earning criteria on average over the next three months.

If you are starting up your own business you will not be expected to meet the minimum earning criteria in your first year of trading.

If you are expecting to take up paid work within 14 days

If you are not working but expect to take up paid work within 14 days, you can still apply for 30 hours, as long as you expect to meet the income criteria over the coming three months.

4 How to use free entitlement

To use the entitlement, complete the following steps:

1. Use the searchable database or contact the Family Information Service (FIS) for a list of childcare providers registered to offer free entitlement places.

2. Contact a range of childcare providers to see if they have a vacancy for your child. Arrange to visit as many as you wish and choose the one(s) which best meets you and your child's needs. It is important you fully understand the childcare provider's admissions policy, what services are included and what they may charge for, and any dates by which you need to make a claim.

3. Tell your chosen childcare provider(s) that you wish to access a universal or extended free entitlement place for your child. They will ask you to complete a ‘Parent Declaration’ paper form.

Take the following with you:

  • evidence of your child's date of birth (passport or birth certificate)
  • your eligibility code (extended entitlement only)
  • your National Insurance number.

If you receive Disability Living Allowance for your child, take a copy of their award letter with you, as the provider can claim additional funding for their setting through the Disability Access Fund (DAF).

Your childcare provider will do the rest. They should not charge you, as the entitlements are for a free place rather than a subsidy towards your fees. However, they can set their own rates for any additional time or services that you take. They should let you know in advance what you will be expected to pay.

If you need help, contact us.

Last updated:
9 June 2021
Share this

Also in Childcare options and funding

Share this

Do you have any feedback about this page?

Help us improve this website

Let us know if this page was helpful so we can make improvements. Add a star rating and leave your feedback below to show how useful you found this page.

Rate this page:
Clear star rating...
  • West Sussex County Council will only use this email address to respond to any issues raised.