How to claim 30 hours ‘free’ childcare - step by step guide

Knowing how to claim 30 hours ‘free’ childcare could provide an essential financial lifeline as the cost of living crisis continues to bite.

Two children making mud pies while an adult supervises
(Image credit: Getty images)

Understanding how to claim 30 hours ‘free’ childcare could help to make childcare fees more affordable at a time when higher energy price cap and rising fuel and food bills are putting pressure on household budgets.

Sue Learner (opens in new tab), editor of daynurseries.co.uk (opens in new tab), told us: “We are in the middle of a cost of living crisis, people’s disposable incomes are rapidly shrinking, and once you throw rising childcare costs into the mix, it becomes even more crucial for parents to look at their free childcare options.

“A recent poll by the TUC (opens in new tab) revealed that nearly a third of working parents with pre-school children spend over a third of their wages on childcare. So anything parents can do to alleviate this huge financial burden definitely needs to be explored.”

How to claim 30 hours 'free' childcare - step by step

1. Check you’re eligible

You may be able to get 30 hours free childcare if:

  • You live in England
  • Your child is three or four years old
  • You, and your partner if you have one, are in paid work
  • You, and your partner if you have one, earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours a week at National Living Wage
  • You, and your partner if you have one, each earn less than £100,000 annually
  • You have a National Insurance number.

You can get 30 hours free childcare at the same time as claiming Universal Credit, tax credits, childcare vouchers or tax-free childcare.

If you don’t qualify, all families in England are eligible for 15 hours free childcare per week (or 570 hours a year) for three and four year olds. 

2. Make your application

You can apply from when your child is 2 years and 36 weeks old, as outlined in the table below:

When your child turns 3When they can get the 30 hours fromRecommended time to apply
1 September to 31 DecemberTerm starting on or after 1 January15 October to 30 November
1 January to 31 MarchTerm starting on or after 1 April15 January to 28 February
1 April to 31 AugustTerm starting on or after 1 September15 June to 31 July

You can also apply outside these dates but there’s no guarantee you’ll receive your free childcare code in time. 

Before you make your application, you’ll first need to set up a childcare account on the government’s website. You’ll need to have your National Insurance number to hand and if you’re self-employed, you’ll need your Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR). You’ll also need one or more of the following:

  • Your UK passport
  • Tax credits
  • P60 or recent payslip

You can then complete your application online. 

3. Give your code to your childcare provider

Once your application has been approved, you’ll be given an 11-digit code for 30 hours free childcare and this must be passed on to your childcare provider. You’ll also need to give them your National Insurance number and your child’s birth certificate.

Childcare providers must be registered with local authorities in order for them to be paid via your bank of ‘free’ childcare hours. But keep in mind that they do not have to take part in the 30 hours offer, so always check in advance. 

Lisa Holmes (opens in new tab), childcare expert and community manager at tiney (opens in new tab), says: “What counts as approved childcare does vary geographically.

“In England, the provider will need to be on an Early Years Register with Ofsted (opens in new tab) or with a registered early years childminder agency (opens in new tab).”

Approved childcare can include nurseries, pre-schools, children’s centres, after-school clubs, a childminder or nanny, a school, or home care worker. 

Wales and Scotland have their own Care Inspectorate lists of approved providers, and Northern Ireland has its Early Years Teams.

4. Sign in to your account to reconfirm your details 

To keep getting your 30 hours free childcare and keep your code valid, you will need to sign into your account every three months to reconfirm your eligibility.

You can easily do this online, but it’s important to pay attention to these dates or the reminders you’re sent, so that your code does not expire. 

How does 30 hours 'free' childcare work?

The 30 hours free childcare scheme is for working families with children aged three and four. As part of the scheme you can get 30 hours of childcare for free for a specific number of weeks per year. 

Shannon Pite (opens in new tab), communications and external affairs director at Early Years Alliance (opens in new tab), explains: “The funding is available for 30 hours for 38 weeks of the year but can be stretched across up to 52 weeks (in which case, the funding would be available for around 22 hours a week), and kicks in the term after the child in question turns three” 

"While parents need to apply for this support, funding is given directly to registered early years providers via local councils. Although the offer is often described as 'free childcare', government funding doesn't cover the cost to early years settings of delivering places, so many providers have to charge high fees for non-funded hours or optional extras such as meals, snacks, nappies and trips.”

There are different schemes in Wales (opens in new tab), Scotland (opens in new tab) and Northern Ireland (opens in new tab).

  • In Wales, the Childcare Offer is available to working parents with children aged three or four years. You could get up to 30 hours a week of early education and childcare, up to 48 weeks of the year. The 30 hours is made up of 10 hours of early education a week and a maximum of 20 hours a week of childcare. 
  • In Scotland, all three and four year olds are entitled to up to 1,140 hours of free early learning and childcare a year (around 30 hours a week in term time), funded by the Scottish government and local authorities.
  • In Northern Ireland, all three and four year olds are entitled to 12.5 hours per week (475 hours a year) of free pre-school education which is provided by the Department for Education’s Pre-school Education Programme. Funded hours can only be used for 2.5 hours per day, five days a week during term time.

Babysitter in casual clothes playing with infant children in cozy playroom with colorful educational toys

(Image credit: Getty images)

What is the income threshold for 30 hours free childcare?

To qualify for 30 hours free childcare you and your partner (if you have one) must expect to earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours at the National Minimum or Living Wage. For example, over the next three months, you must expect to earn at least £1,976 (the National Living Wage for those aged 23 or over). 

However, if either you or your partner has a net (after tax) income of more than £100,000, you won’t qualify. 

You must be in work, or on sick or annual leave, or shared parental, maternity, paternity or adoption leave. However, if you are not currently working, you may still be eligible if your partner is in work and you get Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Carer's Allowance, or contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance. 

Can the 30 hours free childcare be backdated? 

No, the 30 hours free childcare cannot be backdated. Lisa Holmes from tiney, explains: “It’s stipulated that you must have a valid code by the end of the month before a new term starts – so it’s wise to be aware of these dates in advance as if you do not have a valid code by the deadline you may need to wait to the start of the next term to start claiming your hours.”

Other ways to save on childcare costs

Below are five further ways parents can save on childcare costs. 

1. Start claiming Child Benefit

Most parents can claim child benefit - although you may have to pay back some of this in tax if you or your partner’s individual income is more than £50,000 a year.

Child benefit is provided by the UK government and you’ll be eligible to claim if you’re responsible for one child or more. Your child/ren must be under the age of 16, or under the age of 20 if they are in education or training. You’ll receive £21.80 a week for your eldest or only child and £14.45 for each additional child. 

2. Choose a childminder over a nursery

Childminders offer smaller settings and can be more flexible in their hours than nurseries. They can also be much cheaper.

Tiney’s Lisa Holmes says: “Childminding is by far the best value form of childcare and at least 12% cheaper than nursery (opens in new tab), on average.” 

“For children under the age of two, the average cost of a childminder in the UK is £124 per week for 25 hours of care. By comparison, the average cost for a part-time nursery placement for children under two is £138 per week. Nannies can cost up to £400 per week, meaning parents could save around £275 per week by opting for a childminder instead.”

3. Discuss flexible working arrangements with your employer

As a parent, you’re entitled to request a flexible working arrangement from your employer. For example, you could ask for flexitime or reduced working hours so that you can cut back on the amount of childcare required. 

4. Look into tax-free childcare

Many families can also apply for tax-free childcare. Parents can get up to £500 every three months, up to £2,000 a year, for each of their children aged 11 or under. This goes up to £1,000 every three months if a child is disabled (up to £4,000 a year). 

Parents can set up an online account for their child and for every £8 you pay in, the government will add £2 to use to pay your provider. 

5. Ask for help from grandparents or friends

Finally, if possible, you could ask a grandparent or close friend if they are able to help. Your child might be able to go to their grandparents one day a week for example, or a friend might be able to have your child two mornings a week.

This will reduce the amount of paid-for childcare you require. But be aware that if your friend receives payment or reward for looking after your child for more than three hours a day, they need to register with Ofsted.

Rachel is a freelance personal finance journalist who has been writing about everything from mortgages to car insurance for over a decade. Having previously worked at Shares Magazine, where she specialised in small-cap stocks, Rachel developed a passion for consumer finance and saving money when she moved to lovemoney.com (opens in new tab). She later spent more than 8 years as an editor at price comparison site MoneySuperMarket where she helped support the CRM programme, as well as the SEO and PR teams, often acting as spokesperson. Rachel went freelance in 2020, just as the pandemic hit, and has since written for numerous websites and national newspapers, including The Mail on Sunday, The Observer, The Sun and Forbes. She is passionate about helping consumers become more confident with their finances, giving them the tools they need to take control of their money and make savings. In her spare time, Rachel is a keen traveller and baker.