universal credit

Universal Credit

Who can get it, how much you can get and how to apply

Universal credit is a monthly benefit to support those on low incomes (or no income) with living and housing costs. It replaces six benefits – including housing benefit and working tax credit. With millions of people struggling financially due to coronavirus, many will now be able to claim this benefit for the first time. See our Universal Credit and Benefits Calculator to see how much you could get.

This guide covers England, Wales and Scotland. Universal credit follows the same guidelines in England and Wales and there are some small differences for recipients in Scotland, which we outline. However the system works differently in Northern Ireland.  

What is universal credit?

Universal credit is a monthly payment, paid in arrears for people who are out of work or on low incomes. It replaces six means-tested benefits, often referred to as 'legacy benefits'. If you're making a first-time claim you'll go straight onto universal credit, and eventually everyone currently in the old system will be switched over to universal credit. Right now though, this process has been temporarily suspended due to the coronavirus crisis. 

Universal credit replaces these six benefits: 

  • Income support. This is paid to people who are not expected to look for work – for example, carers or lone parents with children under the age of five.

  • Income-based jobseeker's allowance (JSA). You can get this if you're looking for work and your household is on a low income. It's paid for as long as you show you are trying to find a job. (Note that this is a separate benefit to contribution-based or "new style" jobseeker's allowance.)

  • Income-related employment and support allowance (ESA). This is paid if you are sick/disabled, your household is on a low income and you are unable to work, or have limited capacity to work. You will need to pass a 'capability for work' assessment.

  • Housing benefit. Housing benefit is help for those on a low income who struggle to pay their rent and can't be used to help with mortgage costs.

  • Child tax credit. This is paid to anyone with children aged 16 or under (under 20 if in education or training) and anyone, whether working or not, can apply.

  • Working tax credit. This is paid to anyone with children aged 16 or under (under 20 if in education or training) and anyone, whether working or not, can apply.

Can I get universal credit?

If you're unemployed, have been made redundant, are off work due to sickness, or are on a low income, you could be entitled to universal credit to help you meet your basic living costs. You could work for an employer, be self-employed and still apply. 

You might be able to claim universal credit if all of the following applies:

  • You're out of work or on a low income or have been made redundant.
  • You're aged 18 or over (there are some exceptions if you're 16 or 17).
  • You or your partner are under state pension age.
  • You have less than £16,000 in savings – if you have a partner, their savings count too (if you're self-employed, some savings may not count if they're for business purposes, eg, tax. For full info on what counts, see below).
  • You live in the UK.
  • You currently receive any of the benefits that universal credit is replacing – eg, working tax credits, child tax credit, income support, housing benefit – and your circumstances change.

Is it the same in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? 

England, Wales and Scotland follow the same guidelines. Scotland has some extra flexibility when it comes to receiving the payments, known as 'Scottish choices'. This means you can choose to be paid monthly or fortnightly, and if you get an extra housing payment you can choose to get it in your bank account or paid directly to your landlord.

In Northern Ireland, it's a slightly different system and it's normally paid twice a month, though you can choose to be paid monthly. Find out more on the NIdirect website.

Quick questions on who's eligible
  • You can still claim, but only if you have savings up to £16,000. Universal credit's a means-tested benefit. This means that the amount of income and savings you have will affect your eligibility and how much you might be entitled to, eg, you'll get less universal credit if you have savings over £6,000 or earn enough money to cover your basic living costs. If you've savings of £16,000 or over, you won't be eligible for universal credit.

    If you live with your partner, you must make a joint claim. Your partner's income and savings will be taken into account, even if they aren't eligible for universal credit.

  • If you are or become self-employed, you may be eligible for universal credit. You will need to meet the general universal credit eligibility criteria.

    Being "gainfully self-employed" means being self-employed in a way where you'll be able to become financially independent. You will need to show that:

    • Your self-employment is your main job or source of income
    • You're getting regular work from self-employment
    • Your work is "organised and developed"
    • You expect to make a profit

    If you pass the test of being considered as gainfully self-employed, you'll be supported towards the goal of becoming financially independent. You won't have to look for other work. You will have to report your earnings to the DWP every month.

  • Yes. But you have to make the choice to move. Eventually everyone will move over to universal credit, but the process of "managed migration" has been suspended due to coronavirus. This means that right now nobody is switched over unless they actively choose to be, or has a change in their circumstances that triggers a switch.

    Managed migration will eventually see everyone moved over to universal credit – not just those who make new claims or have a change in circumstance.

    You won't lose out if you're moved over in the managed migration – if you have any drop in benefit payments, you'll get a 'transitional top-up payment'. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told us these payments will continue until you've a change in circumstances – eg, if a partner moves out and you have to reapply as a single claimant.

    You will ONLY get the transitional top-up payment if you are part of the managed migration – not if you were moved on to universal credit before July 2019 due to a change in circumstance.

    If you're claiming a legacy benefit and have a change in circumstances – eg, you've moved in with a partner – you may get migrated over to universal credit.

    The Government has a list of examples for what counts as a change of circumstances, and benefits specialist Entitledto has a list of circumstances which also gives an overview of how your benefits will be affected.

    If you don't have a change of circumstance, you will stay on the legacy benefit until you're moved over as part of the migration. Do NOT try to beat the system – you have to report changes straightaway or you risk losing your benefits altogether.

     

  • Universal credit was designed to behave just like a paying salaried job, which means instead of getting the benefit weekly, or fortnightly, it is paid in monthly arrears, with the first payment coming after five weeks. This has meant that many people have struggled in those initial weeks. If this is you, there's help you can get .
     
    Unlike other means-tested benefits in the past, there is no "set amount" you can earn before you stop getting the benefit. The government first looks at what you need to live on, given your circumstances, then it looks at what you have (income, assets, other benefits etc) and then it awards you the difference. 
     

    So while it allows you to work and still receive support, the amount you get is adjusted in line with your (and your partner's, if you have one) earnings.

    Another big difference is you can't get it if you – or your partner – have savings or capital over £16,000. See more about the effect of savings here

    Other difficulties are: 
    • Childcare paid in arrears which forces claimants to pay £100s upfront. The Government has promised to give more help to claimants starting work.
    • Lower payments for some compared with legacy benefits. To see if you'll be better off switching, use our Universal Credit and Benefits Calculator.
    • Monthly payments cause budgeting headaches for some.  As a result the Government is piloting more frequent payments
    • The housing element does not go directly to landlords, meaning many people are struggling to manage their finances. The Government promises to pay landlords direct.
  • Yes. The amount you get is based on your income (and your partner's income, if you have one) and the 'minimum income floor', a minimum amount which the Government assumes you'll earn. It's calculated on the national minimum wage for someone in your age group multiplied by the number of hours you're expected to be available for work. 

    If you earn less than the minimum income floor, usually you'd have to find additional work to top up your income, as universal credit won't make up the difference. But currently, the minimum income floor has been suspended due to coronavirus, so you can earn less than this, and the amount of universal credit you get will be boosted.  

    If you earn more than the minimum income floor, your universal credit payments will be based on your actual earnings.

    The minimum income floor doesn't apply to everybody. You're exempt from it if:

    • You look after a child under the age of three
    • You're pregnant or gave birth in the past 15 weeks
    • You're caring for a severely disabled person
    • You've been assessed as having limited capacity for work, or limited capacity for work-related activity
    • You're in full-time education
    • You're temporarily too sick to work

    How is the minmum income floor calculated? 

    Your expected working hours are multiplied by the hourly national minimum wage for your age group, and then calculated as a monthly salary. For example, if you're aged 25 or over and in employment, you must be paid a legal minimum of £8.72 an hour – though it'll be less than this if you're younger.

    This weekly wage is then multiplied by 52 and divided by 12 to get an equivalent monthly salary. So someone who was expected to work a full 35-hour week would be expected to earn:

    £1,322.53 a month if aged 25 or over. This is based on a minimum hourly salary of £8.72.
    £1,243.67 a month if aged 21-24. Based on a minimum hourly salary of £8.20.
    £978.25 a month if aged 18-20. Based on a minimum hourly salary of £6.45.
    £690.08 a month if under 18. Based on a minimum hourly salary of £4.55.

    The DWP then deducts tax and national insurance to work out your minimum income floor. This is deducted at an amount "the Secretary of State deems appropriate", so can differ from case to case. 

    While the tax and national insurance make it hard to state exact minimum income floors, the monthly wages above can be taken as a good approximation of the level of minimum income floor that will apply to you in your age group (assuming you'd be expected to work full time). 

I'm on working tax credit - would I be better off switching to universal credit? 

Before you think of switching, you must know that if you switch from a legacy benefit to universal credit you CAN'T switch back.

Your personal mix of legacy benefits may very well be worth less than the amount available via universal credit, however there are different rules around savings, earnings, eligibility and capital that makes generalisations about who is better off difficult. 

As rough guidelines, those who are better off are typically those who pay private rents in expensive cities. Those who might be worse off are those with disabilities. 

It's quick and free to get a good idea of if you'll be better off. Our Universal Credit and Benefits Calculator has an inbuilt comparison tool that clearly shows what you're currently getting and what you might get if you made the switch. 

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How much could I get?  

One of the underlying principles of universal credit is that it's a payment based on need. It helps if you think about universal credit like a set of scales: on one side, you get your standard payment along with extra payments based on what you need to meet your basic costs; and on the other side, these payments are reduced if you have increased savings, earnings, or get other benefits (more on reductions in the chapter below). 

As a result, two people the same age and earning similar amounts could easily be entitled to vastly different amounts based on extra help the Government thinks each needs.

But as a starting point there's a standard allowance, based on age and whether you're single or in a couple. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Government increased the universal credit standard allowance by around £20 a week, but this uplift is set to expire in September 2021.

Here's a table showing what the current standard allowance is and what it will change to:

Universal Credit Standard Allowance

 

Your circumstances Current monthly allowance - including the £20/wk uplift  Monthly allowance from 1 October  2021 

Single and under 25

£342.72

£257.33

Single and 25 or over

£409.89

£324.84

In a couple and both under 25

£488.59 per couple

£403.93

In a couple and either of you is 25 or over

£594.04 per couple

£509.91

What extra payments could I get? 

In addition, universal credit offers some people extra help. This is for:

  • Housing costs – for rent, but mortgage-holders can apply for a 'support for mortgage interest' loan
  • If you care for children
  • If you have a sickness or disability that prevents you from working
  • If you have other caring responsibilities

Housing element for rent 

There is not standard amount for housing. Instead, the amount you get is set by your age, circumstances and the 'local housing allowance' rate in your area. For the full ins and outs of the local housing allowance, see What is the local housing allowance? 

For example, the amount for two-bedroom accommodation in the London borough of Ealing is £339.49/week or about £1,360/month. The amount for a two-bedroom accommodation in the Isle of Scilly is £143.84/week or about £575/month. Want to see what you could get, check your area's rates here.

Help with mortgage interest payments

If you qualify for universal credit, after nine months you can apply for support for mortgage interest (SMI) on up to £200,000 of your mortgage, based on a standard rate of interest – currently 1.3%. The money is paid directly to your lender. This is a loan and not a benefit – this means it must be repaid when you die or sell your home. For more information, see the Gov.uk.

If you are having difficulty meeting your mortgage payments, you should speak to your lender and see whether a 'mortgage holiday'  could be an option for you. The payment holiday won't affect your credit rating and it could save you from going into arrears. 

Help towards caring for children

If you're looking after a child under the age of 16, you can apply for an extra amount to help with the costs. If you have two children, you'll get extra for your second child. If you have three children you might get an extra payment, but it depends when they were born.

For your first child:

  • £282.50/month (born before 6 April 2017)
  • £237.08/month (born on or after 6 April 2017)

For your second child (and any other eligible children):

  • £237.08/month per child

If you have three or more children, you only get an extra amount for third or subsequent children if any of the following are true:

  • If your children were born before 6 April 2017, and 
  • You were already claiming for three or more children before 6 April 2017

If you have a disabled or severely disabled child:

  • £128.89/month or £402.41/month (for severely disabled child)

Help for a disability or health condition

If you can't work because of sickness or disability, you may be able to claim the 'limited capability for work and work-related activity' element of universal credit.

If you have limited capability for work and work-related activity:

  • £343.63/month

If you have limited capability for work and you started your health-related universal credit claim before 3 April 2017:

  • £128.89/month

Did you know? If you have paid enough national insurance contributions, you may also be able to claim new-style employment and support allowance (ESA) of up to about £446/month. See our Universal Credit and Benefits Calculator to see how much you could get.

Help for caring for a severely disabled person

If you're a carer for someone in your household for at least 35 hours a week who is severely disabled, you may be able to get the 'carer's element' as part of your monthly universal credit payment.

The carer's element is:

  • £163.73/month

Important: If you and someone else in your household care for the same person, you can't both get the carer's element. You'll have to decide which of you will claim it. If you're getting the separate carer's allowance benefit you can continue to get it, if you continue to be eligible.

Help with council tax

If you qualify for universal credit it doesn't always mean you can get help with your council tax, but you can apply to your council for a "council tax reduction". This is a long-standing discount of up to 100% off bills for those on benefits or a low income. It doesn't matter if you own your own home or rent, or whether you're employed or not. All can apply. Yet what you get depends on:

  • Where you live (each council runs its own scheme)
  • Your circumstances (eg, income, number of children, benefits, residency status)
  • Your income, including savings, pensions and your partner's income
  • If children live with you
  • If other adults live with you
For more information see our Coronavirus Finance & Bills Help guide. 

 

Quick questions on getting extra payments 
  • When you apply for universal credit, you must fill in whether you've a disability, illness or health condition which means you can't work. This includes physical and mental health issues. If you say yes, you will most likely need to attend a 'work capability assessment' (WCA). 

    Mostly, this will happen around the 29th day of your claim, but there are certain instances where you may be referred to one on the first day – for example, if you're terminally ill or you're not legally allowed to work.

    At the WCA, you'll be asked questions about your condition and how it affects your daily life, and how it might vary over time.

    Once you've had your assessment, a report will be sent to the DWP and used by a case worker (along with other evidence you've provided) to make a decision on whether you're:

    • Fit to work
    • Have limited capacity for work
    • Have limited capacity for work and work-related activity

    If you're deemed fit enough, you'll need to look for work that's suitable for your condition, and be prepared to work to keep getting universal credit.

    If you've limited capacity for work, you won't have to look for it straightaway, but you'll need to prepare for working in future, for example by writing a CV. If this is you, you can get an extra £128.89 a month in some circumstances.

    If you're considered to have limited capacity for work and work-related activity, you'll not be expected to look for or prepare for work. If this is you, you could get an extra £343.63 a month.

    Need to know

    Due to the coronavirus pandemic, these face-to-face assessments have been suspended until further notice. This means anyone who makes a new claim or is due an assessment will be contacted, if necessary, to discuss next steps, which could involve telephone or paper-based assessments. 

  • You can use childcare vouchers and universal credit together but you CAN'T get universal credit at the same time as claiming under the tax-free childcare scheme.

    Universal credit can help by paying back up to 85% of your childcare costs (to a maximum of £646 for one child, and £1,108 for two or more children). You can make a claim through your account, but be aware you need to provide receipts and will only be reimbursed after your childcare has taken place.

    You can use universal credit with childcare vouchers, but as you'll only be able to claim on the costs not covered by the vouchers, you may be better off not using the vouchers at all, as universal credit will likely contribute more to your costs. 

    For example, if you've monthly childcare costs of £1,000 and you pay £500 with vouchers, you can only claim back up to 85% of the remaining £500 through universal credit: £425.

    In contrast, if you had childcare costs of £1,000 and only used universal credit to pay for it, you could claim back up to £850, so twice as much.

    If you were claiming childcare vouchers before they were stopped, you can continue to claim them even if you're claiming universal credit.

    Tax-free childcare is a Government-backed scheme, launched in 2017. You can switch between tax-free childcare and universal credit if one is better for your circumstances. 

    The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group offers more guidance on how this could work for you.

  • The local housing allowance (LHA) is how the government determines how much housing support you're entitled to.

    There will be a LHA rate set based on rental prices in your area and the number of rooms you need based on who lives in your household. 

    If you are single, don't have any dependent children and are aged under 35, you will only be able to get the "shared Accommodation rate" (SAR) of LHA. This won't apply and you will be entitled to the one bedroom rate if:

    • You are under 22 and are a care leaver; or
    • You are receiving the daily living component of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the middle or high care rate of Disability Living Allowance, or Armed Forces Independence Payment (AFIP); or
    • You are over 25 and have been living in a hostel for people who are homeless for three months or more.

    Otherwise, you will be entitled to one bedroom for each of the following:

    • You (and your partner if you have one)
    • Any other person over 16, as long as they aren't living with you as your tenant
    • Two children under 16 of the same gender
    • Two children under 10
    • Any other child under 16.

    For both the "shared accommodation rate" and regular rate, you can find your LHA for your area using the Government tool. 

Why your amount might be reduced 

Just as you can get awarded extra payments depending on your extra needs, your payments can also be reduced if you have extra savings, earnings or payments from other benefits. Here's what can reduce your payments:  

Income can affect the amount you'll get 

One of the principles of universal credit is the more you have, the less you're likely to get. So earnings from a job can affect the amount you can get.

This may be from a job or self-employed work. If you have children or are disabled, you can earn up to a particular amount before your payment starts to be reduced.

This work allowance is £293 a month if you get help towards paying your housing costs, or £515 a month if you don't. And for every £1 you earn (above your work allowance if you have one), your universal credit will be reduced by 63p.

More than £6,000 in savings, you'll get less, more than £16,000 you'll get nowt

  • Less than £6,000 and it's disregarded. If you have less than £6,000 in savings you'll have to declare it, but it won't affect your universal credit entitlement.

  • Having between £6,001 and £16,000 will affect your universal credit amount. It is treated as if it gives you a monthly income of £4.35 for each £250, or part of £250, regardless of whether it does or not. So if you have £6,300 in a savings account, £6,000 of it will be ignored and the other £300 will be treated as giving you a monthly income of £8.70. 

  • More than £16,000 and you will not be eligible. Any savings more than £16,000, you'll stop you getting universal credit.

Redundancy payouts are treated as savings. So if you have a lump sum, and it takes you over the £6,000 mark it can impact how much your monthly payment is. And if it's over £16,000, like those with regular savings, you will be ineligible. 

For every £1 you get from other benefits (or a pension) your amount will reduce 

For every £1 of other income you receive from other benefits or a private pension, your universal credit payment will reduce by £1. Some benefits are protected such as child benefit, disability living allowance, personal independence payment and war pensions.

If you get more than £20,000 in total in benefits

If your household gets more than £20,000 in benefits and you live outside of London, you might be subject to the benefits cap. This is the total amount of benefits (some are excluded) your household can receive in a year. So while it technically doesn't reduce your amount, it's a ceiling amount that you can't exceed.

In London, this is up to £23,000 for couples and families (£15,410 for single people without children), while outside of London, it's up to £20,000 (£13,400 for single people without children). Of course, the easiest way to work out how much you'll get is to use our Universal Credit and Benefits Calculator, which will also inform you what other benefits you may be eligible for.

It's like a set of scales: on one side, you get awarded an amount based on what you need, while on the other, this amount can go down depending on what you have 

Quick questions on circumstances that can reduce your payment
  • The following benefits will be taken into account:

    • Bereavement allowance
    • Carer's allowance
    • Employment and support allowance (new style)
    • Incapacity benefit
    • Industrial injuries disablement benefit
    • Jobseeker's allowance (new style)
    • Maternity allowance

    What doesn't count?

    • Child benefit
    • Disability living allowance
    • Income from boarders and lodgers
    • Maintenance payments
    • Personal independence payment
  • These will count as savings or capital...

    • Regular savings in your bank account
    • Fixed-term savings
    • ISAs – including LISAs, stocks & shares ISAs
    • If you've taken your private pension as a lump sum before state pension age
    • Redundancy pay 
    • Stocks or shares
    • Property you don't live in

    These won't count as savings or capital...

    • A pension pot that hasn't yet been drawn down
    • Pension income – this counts as income
    • Junior ISAs – money you have already given to your children

     

  • If you or your partner have savings or capital of between £6,000 and £16,000, the first £6,000 is ignored. The rest is treated as if it gives you a monthly income of £4.35 for each £250, or part of £250.

    Example:

    You and your partner each have £4,000 in separate savings accounts, so combined savings of £8,000. The first £6,000 is ignored. The remaining £2,000 is counted as giving you a monthly income of £34.80

    £2,000 ÷ £250 = 8

    8 × £4.35 = £34.80

    £34.80 will be taken off your monthly universal credit payment.

  • No. The Department for Work and Pensions only counts two people as being in a couple if they live in the same household and are:

    • Married

    • Civil partners

    • Living together as if married

      If you are in a couple and you meet the criteria above, you and your partner will need to make a joint claim for universal credit. This means the government will assess what you need as a couple against what you have as a couple and award you accordingly.

  • If you switch to universal credit from any of the following, your current benefit will stop and you will NOT be able to switch back:

    • Child tax credit
    • Housing benefit
    • Income-based jobseeker's allowance
    • Income-related employment and support allowance
    • Income support
    • Working tax credit

    However, at the end of July 2020, the Department for Work and Pensions introduced an extra payment for people claiming income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance or income support who choose to move over to universal credit. 

    If you currently claim any of these benefits and switch over to universal credit, you will now receive a new, additional payment, worth up to two weeks of your old benefit. 

    The one-time 'run-on' payment does not need to be paid back, and will be paid automatically to eligible claimants when they claim universal credit for the first time. It will not affect the amount of universal credit you receive.

    Housing benefit claimants already receive a run-on payment. 

    Important: If you currently receive working tax credit or child tax credit, and you switch to universal credit, you will NOT receive a run-on payment. 

    Not sure whether you'll be better off switching? Use our free Benefits Calculator to work out what you're entitled to – that way you can see if you're going to be better or worse off.

  • Claiming universal credit due to coronavirus but now going back to work? Tell the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

    If you or your partner are now returning to work or have found new employment, you need to tell the DWP. You can do so by updating the details in your online universal credit journal. Bear in mind the following:

    • As your income increases, your universal credit payment will reduce.
    • It will keep reducing until you're earning enough to no longer claim universal credit.
    • Tell the DWP that you're now working but don't just cancel your claim. If you just cancel, you risk missing out on your final payment. For more, see 'When should I cancel my claim?' below.
    • If your earnings decrease again, you can claim universal credit again.
    • Remember it's not just YOUR income that's taken into account, it's your household income. If your partner is going back to work (and it doesn't matter if you're married or not, as long as you live together), this will affect your universal credit claim.

    Here's an example to help.

    Imagine your assessment period runs from 5 August to 4 September and you're paid your universal credit on 11 September. You've just got a new job and started work on 20 August, BUT you won't actually get paid until 30 September.

    If you contact the DWP and cancel your universal credit claim on 20 August (instead of just telling it that you're now working), you won't get universal credit for ANY of the period from 5 August to 4 September. The DWP doesn't make part-month payments.

    As you've no earnings in that period up to 4 September, you will still be entitled to your usual universal credit, paid to you on 11 September. It isn't until you've been paid by your employer on 30 September that your universal credit for 5 September to 4 October will be reduced or stopped.

Self-employed and have savings put aside to pay tax? It needn't decrease the universal credit you get

Saving around a third of your profits to pay tax is normally sensible. But if you're now looking at claiming universal credit, you might think that any business savings in your personal account will affect your eligibility for this support. We've checked with the Department for Work and Pensions, which confirmed that while it'd expect business savings to be in a business account, nevertheless "if someone has money in their personal account to be used for business purposes, it won't be counted towards their capital".

However, it did warn that you may need to prove the cash is for business purposes. So if this applies to you, make it clear in your application that the savings are business savings, and put a note of it in your online universal credit 'journal', where you record any changes to your circumstances. It should then be discounted from the calculations.

How do I apply? 

There is a two-step process to getting your payments:

1. First you need to claim

The quickest way to claim universal credit is online

If you are part of a couple and living in the same household, you will need to make a joint claim for Universal Credit. You will receive a single monthly payment for your whole household.

If you have no access to digital services or have accessibility issues, you can call the free universal credit helpline on: 0800 328 5644. 

You can also contact the helpline on 0800 328 5644 if you run into difficulties, or if you need to make a claim in an alternative format such as Braille, large print or audio CD. For Welsh language applications, call 0800 012 1888.

You'll be asked a few questions to ensure you meet the basic criteria before being taken to the main claim page. Need help? Citizens Advice also assists universal credit applicants.

What information will I need? 

As you have to make your claim in one online session (you can't save and come back to it), you should ensure you have all the information you'll need before starting. At the very least, this will include your:

  • Contact details
  • Bank account details
  • National insurance number

Depending on what's relevant to you, you may also need details of your:

  • Current employment
  • Monthly earnings (have a copy of your payslip to hand)
  • Housing costs
  • Tenancy agreement
  • Other income, savings and any other benefits you or your partner receive

Although it goes without saying, make sure you only give correct information as you'll have to provide proof of anything you say in your application. Once you've entered all the information, you'll be shown an estimate of the amount of universal credit you'll get each month. You'll also have to complete a declaration that all the information you've provided is correct.

2. Then you need to attend an interview 

After a successful online claim, you'd ordinarily have to visit the Jobcentre and have an interview with your work coach if you want to claim universal credit. However, all face-to-face interviews have been suspended due to coronavirus. Instead, you'll be required to attend a telephone interview. 

You'll be told what information you need to take to the interview, but it'll definitely include physical evidence of details you provided in your claim (eg, your address, how much rent you pay, how much you earn at work).

Citizens Advice has a comprehensive guide on how to prepare for your interview and examples of documents you may need to take with you.

At this interview you'll have to sign a 'claimant commitment'. This is an agreement that you will commit to certain conditions, such as looking for a set amount of work hours.

When will I be paid? 

Your payment date is based on the date you applied, usually five weeks after. For example: Sarah applies for universal credit on 1 September. Her first assessment period will last until 30 September. She's paid on 7 October and will be paid on the 7th of every month after that.

  • England and Wales: You're paid once a month, but in Scotland and Northern Ireland there are some differences.
  • Scotland: Here there are some extra flexibility when it comes to receiving the payments, known as 'Scottish choices'. This means you can choose to be paid monthly or fortnightly, and if you get an extra housing payment you can choose to get it in your bank account or paid directly to your landlord.
  • Northern Ireland: It's a slightly different system and it's normally paid twice a month, though you can choose to be paid monthly. Find out more on the NIdirect website.

Struggling to wait five weeks until your first payment?

You won't get your first payment until about five weeks after making your claim. If you don't have enough money to live on while you wait for your first payment, you can request an advance payment. 

Here's how it works: 

  • You need to make the request via your online universal credit account, or through your work coach. 
  • You can ask to receive all or part of your first payment.
  • It's interest-free but works like a loan, and you'll repay it through your regular universal credit payments, which will be lower until you pay it back. 
  • You can choose over how many months you want to pay it back, but it must be fully repaid within 12 months.
  • You'll usually be told the same day if you'll get an advance, and you'll typically have the money within three working days.

Need to know: 
From April 2021 new claimants will be able to spread universal credit advances repayments over a 24-month period and the maximum rate of deductions from universal credit will be reduced for all to 25%. 

Quick questions on how to apply
  • If you need help to pay your bills or cover other costs while you wait for your first universal credit payment, you can apply to get an advance.

    The most you can get as an advance is the amount of your first estimated payment. It is important here to remember that this is a loan and must be paid back. It will usually be collected by reducing your future universal credit payments. Also, the guidelines say you may not be allowed an advance if you have any final earnings or redundancy payments you can be living on while waiting for your universal credit award.

  • Don't panic. We are hearing this is happening to many frustrated would-be claimants. It will take time; the DWP is overloaded. But it's told us that UC staff will see that your form is incomplete and call you. Expect a 'withheld number' or 0800 number.

    You can also call the helpline (0800 328 5644) – it is VERY busy but persevere, we are hearing of people getting through. You can also make a note in your online universal credit journal. 

  • British Sign Language (BSL) users can now access universal credit using the video relay service on the Gov.uk website. This allows BSL users to contact the Department for Work and Pensions via an interpreter, from a smart phone (excluding Blackberry or Windows phones), computer or tablet.

    The service is available 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and you don't need to book in advance. Simply click this link, turning on your microphone and front-facing camera and you'll be connected to a BSL interpreter via video. Explain what you'd like to discuss and the interpreter will telephone the service you require and relay the conversation between you and the other person.

    The video relay service is provided by SignVideo, which has full instructions on how to use it. You can access it via the Gov.uk link above or download the free SignVideo app on desktop or smartphone (iOS and Android).

  • The Government-funded 'Kickstart Scheme' offering paid six-month work placements to universal credit claimants aged between 16 and 24 is now open for employers to sign up to. Here's how it works: 

    • To get a placement, you'll need to be placed in it by your Jobcentre work coach, so next time you talk to them, tell them you're interested in the scheme.

    • The scheme will offer jobs across England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. The Government has allocated additional funding to Northern Ireland so it can set up a similar scheme. 

    • Any size and type of organisation can offer young people claiming universal credit a six-month work placement, paid for by the Government.

    • The Government will pay employers 100% of the age-relevant national minimum wage, national insurance and pension contributions for 25 hours a week, though employers will be able to top up this wage and pay you more if they want to.

    • The scheme is open for new applications until December 2021, with the option of being extended. 

    Check the Kickstart page on the Government's Job Help site for further details, including options if you don't have a work coach.

What to do if you think your payment is wrong

Whether you think your initial entitlement is wrong, or if your entitlement is changed after you start claiming, firstly, contact the universal credit helpline on 0800 328 5644. If a mistake has been made, it should be rectified while you're on the phone.

If this isn't the case, you can appeal against the decision by asking for a 'mandatory reconsideration'. You must do this within one month of the date of your initial entitlement decision. See more info on making a mandatory reconsideration. If you do decide to appeal, make sure you gather supporting evidence before you do so.

I am still struggling - is there any extra help I can get? 

If you're already receiving universal credit and you're struggling, there's some extra help you can apply for depending on your circumstances. You can apply for a budgeting advance, hardship payments or ask for help if you're at risk of rental arrears. 

Budgeting advance 

You can get a budgeting advance if you need help with emergency household costs, for example if you need to replace a cooker. Like an advance payment, you'll pay it back through your universal credit payments, which will be lower until it's paid off. If you're struggling to buy food, you might be able to get a budgeting advance to pay for food – speak to your work coach or call the universal credit helpline. 

There are certain criteria you need to meet to qualify for a budgeting advance.

  • You must have been receiving universal credit for six months or more – unless you need the money to get a job or stay in work.

  • You must have earned less than £2,600 in the past six months (or £3,600 if you're part of a couple), and have paid off any previous budgeting advances that you've had.

The smallest amount you can borrow is £100. The maximum amount depends on your circumstances:

  • Up to £348 if you're single
  • Up to £464 if you're a couple
  • Up to £812 if you've children

Hardship payments 

If you're in financial hardship because you've been sanctioned, you can request a hardship payment. This is usually a loan that you can only get if you're struggling to meet your basic needs or those of your children (such as accommodation, heating, food and hygiene costs).

You must be 18 or over to apply, and you need to prove that you've tried to get the money from somewhere else, and that you only spend your money on essentials. To apply for this, contact the universal credit helpline on 0800 328 5644.

Help if you're at risk of rental or mortgage arrears 

Falling into rent arrears can lead to your landlord taking you to court and potentially to eviction, so it's not an issue to be taken lightly. If you think you're at risk of arrears, you can ask for:

  • Your universal credit more than once a month, and 
  • For your landlord to be paid directly

If you've a mortgage

If you're at risk of falling behind with your mortgage payments due to universal credit, speak to your lender immediately. It may be that you're able to get a mortgage holiday while you're waiting for your payments, or your lender may be able to give you other help at its discretion.

Need more in-depth advice or practical support? 

If you need extra advice or support or have a specific question that isn't answered here, many other organisations and charities offer detailed guidance and advice. Here are just a few that you may find useful, and please let us know in our forum discussion thread if you find any others that help you.

  • Turn2Us: Help with benefits, searching for grants and accessing support services.
  • Entitledto: As well as providing free benefits calculators, it has tons of guidance on benefits.
  • Citizens Advice: Guidance for all aspects of universal credit.
  • Gingerbread: Primarily aimed at single parent families.
  • Christians Against Poverty: Help with debt, finding work and free courses to get control of your finances.

Cheap broadband and mobile data

There are some cheap broadband and sim plans that are tailored to those receiving universal credit. While some of these may come with limitations, it’s always worth seeing what’s out there to see if you can save money on your current bills.

Free prescriptions, dental treatments and eye tests

If you’re on Universal Credit and your earnings were under £435 in the last assessment period, you’re eligible for free NHS prescriptions, free dental care and free eye tests. This earnings threshold rises to £935 for certain claimants, so check the NHS website for the full eligibility criteria. Recipients of certain other benefits will qualify too.

If you meet any of these criteria and you’ve spent money on any of these things in the last three months, you can claim it back providing you have the necessary receipts.

London travel discount

If you’re on universal credit and you’ve been unemployed for at least 13 weeks, you may be entitled to a Jobcentre Plus Travel Discount card, which gets you 50% off London pay as you go fares on buses, trains, the tube and more. See the TFL website for the full breakdown of the discount and the eligibility criteria.

Free school meals

If you’re on universal credit, your child may be eligible to receive free school meals. Recipients of certain other benefits are also eligible. For the full list, and to check if your child is eligible, enter your postcode at Gov.uk.

Free school uniforms

If you qualify for free school meals, you may be able to get up to £200 per year towards school uniform. For more information including the full criteria, check out Can I get help towards my child's school uniform costs?

This is the latest incarnation of this guide. Please give us feedback, suggest improvements and share your tips in the universal credit forum thread.

Thanks to Wendy Alcock of Entitledto for fact-checking the guide.

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