Free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds

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

1 Overview

Free childcare (also known as Free entitlement) 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 registered to offer free places, along with some holiday playschemes meeting extra criteria.

The activities you do at home enhance your child's all-round development. It is well documented that high quality early education can influence how well a child does at both primary and secondary school. Read more about the benefits of free childcare for you and your child.

There are two types of free childcare for your 3 or 4 year old:

  • Universal free childcare - For all 3 and 4 year olds. Children can use up to 570 hours each year, up to a maximum of 15 hours over 38 weeks. A child moving to reside in England from another country is entitled to universal free childcare on the same basis as any other child, regardless of whether they have British citizenship.
  • Extended free childcare (also known as 30 hours' free childcare) - For eligible working parents of 3 and 4 year olds (see How to apply for free childcare for full eligibility criteria). Children can use an additional 570 hours each year, up to a maximum of 30 hours per week over 38 weeks (1,140 hours each year). Parents must apply online through the Childcare Choices website. If eligible you will receive a 30 hours free childcare code and must re-confirm before the deadline.

Foster parent families may also be eligible for Extended free childcare. You must be employed or self-employed outside of your fostering role and accessing additional hours must be in the best interests of the child. Speak to your foster child’s social worker about whether you meet the eligibility criteria and how to apply.

2 When is my child eligible for free childcare?

All 3 and 4 year olds become 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 the beginning of the term starting in September
  • 1 September and 31 December - will become eligible for a free place from the beginning of the term starting in January
  • 1 January and 31 March - will become eligible for a free place from the beginning of the term starting in April.

Eligible working parents wishing to access the extended free childcare must apply for, and receive a 30 hours code the term before taking up an extended free childcare place.

3 How to apply for free childcare

You do not need to apply for the universal free childcare as it is available to all. For what to do next, see How to use free childcare.

However, you do need to apply for the extended free childcare, 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 may also be eligible 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
  • 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 such as:
    • incapacity benefit
    • carers allowance
    • contribution based employment and support allowance
    • severe disablement allowance
  • 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
  • you are not currently working, but are expecting to take up paid work within 14 days, as long as you expect to meet the income criteria over the coming three months.

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 from the beginning of the term starting in January
  • 31 March, to start accessing from the beginning of the term starting in April
  • 31 August, to start accessing from the beginning of the term starting in September.

Please note: If you do not apply for, and receive, your eligibility code by the deadline, your child may not be able access extended hours for the term.

Check your eligibility and apply on the Childcare Choices website. (external link)

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

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

4 How to use free childcare

To use the entitlement, complete the following steps:

1. Find out about the types of childcare providers that offer funded places for 3 and 4 year olds on Childcare options.

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

3. 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 your and your child's needs. Find additional information about what to consider.

4. Tell your chosen childcare provider(s) that you wish to access a universal or extended free childcare place for your child. Take with you:

  • evidence of your child's date of birth (passport or birth certificate)
  • your 30 hours eligibility code (extended free childcare only)
  • your National Insurance number.

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

You will be asked to complete and sign a ‘parent declaration’ form, where you will specify how many hours you wish to claim, and your child's pattern of attendance (the days and hours they will be there). Your childcare provider must show you our privacy notice when you complete the form.

Your childcare provider will then be able to claim funding for your child’s free childcare place.

5. For Extended free childcare, you must reconfirm your eligibility every three months. If your circumstances change and you no longer meet the eligibility criteria, you will fall into a ‘grace period’.

For a short period your child can continue to access their extended free childcare place at their existing childcare provider, up until the 30-hour code’s grace period end date. Once the grace period has lapsed, your child is still entitled to access the universal free childcare.

5 Additional information

As a parent, you know your child best and should discuss your child’s needs with the childcare provider to help you decide how often your child should attend. A regular pattern of attendance is important to ensure your child’s continued development. You should aim to use your chosen childcare provider for as long as possible, avoiding the need to move your child every few months or term.

Providers that are open all-year round may offer parents the flexibility to stretch the hours across the whole year, reducing the amount of hours available each week so that you do not exceed the yearly maximum. This may result in slightly less hours per year, for example, 11 hours per week for 51 weeks (561 hours per year) instead of 15 hours for 38 weeks (570 hours per year). Check this with your chosen childcare provider.

You can read the terms and conditions that childcare providers must follow in the provider declaration. Ensure you fully understand and agree to any terms and conditions before you accept a place.

Not all childcare providers will be able to deliver your preferred days/hours. However, the flexibility you need may be achieved by using more than one childcare provider, but not on more than two sites in one day. You must let the childcare provider know if you intend to split the funding across more than one childcare provider.

If you are planning to only access your child’s free hours, childcare providers must ensure that no fees or conditions of access are charged, including:

  • no registration/administration fees or non-refundable deposits
  • no requirement for a child to access additional hours on top of the free hours
  • no requirement for the child to access additional weeks on top of the funded weeks.

Your childcare provider should not charge you as the funding is 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. You may be able to get extra help with your childcare place for any additional costs.

It is important you fully understand the childcare provider's admissions policy, which services are included, and what they may charge for.

It is important to know when Headcount Day is, as your child must be in attendance by this date to access the free hours that term. Headcount Days are usually in January, April and September and are when the provider confirms to us the children that are attending. Talk to your chosen provider about Headcount Day.

Legally, all children must start full-time education (usually in school) no later than the term after they become five. Whenever your child starts in a school reception class, whether on a full or part-time basis, they can no longer receive free childcare.

Read our FAQs for more information about using the free hours:

6 Contact us

If you need help or any further information, contact us using the details below.

Last updated:
17 July 2024
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