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Easy ways to get the pill: options beyond the GP surgery

Starting or switching a birth control pill? Now, you may not need to visit your doctor's surgery - or even get a prescription. In recent years, new policies in the UK and US are making it easier than ever before for women to access the pill. These developments are giving women greater choice, improving inequalities of access in some communities, and better supporting the vulnerable and the young. 

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The pill decision - a doctor can help 

Choosing your birth control pill is a big decision. Firstly, there are different types which work in your body in different ways. You can read about the combined oral contraceptive (COC) pill and the progestogen-only pill (POP), sometimes called the mini pill. Then, the choice between brands - and their potential symptoms - can feel huge.  

This is why discussing your options first with a doctor or sexual health specialist can be the best way to make an informed decision. Dr Catherine Hyatt, medical content lead at ZipHealth and MedExpress, says: "a doctor will find out about your medical history and any medications you may be taking to work out the method and brand which will be best suited for you."

Can you buy birth control pills over the counter? 

While a visit to your doctor helps you make an informed choice, there's a growing awareness that visiting a GP surgery or sexual health clinic isn't always easy for everyone. It's a time where people are leading busy lives and doctor's practices can be short on appointments or times that suit you. To help solve this issue, pharmacy services can now offer more women faster, direct access near where they live.

These are called over the counter, or nonprescription, birth control pills. And unlike the prescriptions you collect at your pharmacy, they skip the initial surgery or clinic visit. Instead, a trained pharmacist will talk through your options and find the right pill for you.

What are the UK options?

"Certain pharmacies in England and Wales now offer the option of getting the birth control pill without a prescription,” says Dr Hyatt. Until a new NHS scheme was introduced in 2023, you could only collect birth control pills from pharmacies that had been prescribed by your GP surgery.   

England and Wales 2023: Over the counter birth control pills - in certain pharmacies  

  • Since spring 2023, certain pharmacies have joined the NHS pharmacy contraception service which allows them to offer over the counter birth control pills as a repeat prescription. 

  • As an NHS service, this is free of charge. 

  • Since December 2023, the service also gives you the option of a confidential consultation with your pharmacist to request a prescription of the pill for the first time directly from them, rather than from your GP or sexual health clinic.  

One of the aims of this scheme is to make it easier for vulnerable people to use birth control; including those homeless who have trouble accessing GP surgeries, or teenagers who may feel too embarrassed. This is why this service is available to anyone who has had a period, up until 49 years of age for the COC pill and 54 years for the POP pill. 

All the pharmacists are trained to identify anyone under-age and who may be in abusive or coercive relationships, to ensure you are safe.

Find out if your local pharmacy has this over the counter pill option with this tool.

 Your high street options are different in the rest of the UK:  

Northern Ireland - You can buy certain progesterone only pills from pharmacies without prescription1

Scotland - Pharmacies can provide an initial three month supply of the progestogen-only pill. This is called a bridging pill as it bridges the gap between emergency contraception and long term contraception. This gives you time to find the right contraception for you, while prevent unplanned pregnancy. For a longer prescription or different birth control pill options, you need to visit your GP practice or sexual health clinic2.  

What are the US options?  

According to pharmacist Navin Khosla, 26 US states allow pharmacies to prescribe over the counter birth control pills, as well as doctors. "Make sure you discuss any queries or concerns with your pharmacist, so that you're choosing the most suitable contraceptive for your needs," she advises.  

"Accessibility does vary state by state, with some having more restrictions than others regarding age and form of contraception - in many cases, you must be 18 years or older to receive contraception from a pharmacist."

If you're under 18 and planning on having safer, consensual sex, it's important you can still get hold of birth control easily. But your access to the birth control pill, and especially the COC or 'combined' pill, depends on where you live:  

  • In several states you can get a prescription for the pill from your doctor either without your parents' permission, with permission, or when you meet certain criteria.  

  • You can check the rules in your state with this tool.  

  • The pill is also often available in school and university-based health clinics.  

  • Since March 2024, a progestogen-only pill became available in stores without age restriction. It goes by the brand name Opill.

2024: An over the counter mini pill - for all ages 

In March 2024, Opill became the first US over-the-counter birth control pill, available to purchase in pharmacies and some major retailers right off the shelf - without a prescription from a doctor or pharmacist. It's available to anyone, regardless of their age, insurance coverage, or whether they've seen a doctor. This said, Dr Hyatt advises that many pharmacies will still require an initial consultation. 

But is this progestogen only pill (POP) safe? Pharmacist Khosla explains: "This is an FDA-accredited drug, highlighting its safety and jurisdiction in the birth control sector. However, it is important to note that Opill still comes with its risks, as do many contraceptives. You should do thorough research so that you're aware of the possible symptoms and side effects. If you have any concerns, speak to your doctor or local pharmacist."

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Can you buy birth control pills online?

Buying birth control pills online is a convenient and discreet option for the digital age. But it is important you check the seller is legitimate and licensed, to avoid buying counterfeit products that could do you harm. 

Dr Hyatt says: "check that an online pharmacy is fully regulated and registered with the relevant professional bodies before ordering medications through them. This keeps you safe and ensures the pharmacies are operating to the highest standards."

If you're not sure or have any concerns, it's best to visit your local pharmacy, doctors' surgery, or sexual health clinic instead.  

Buying online in the UK  

Across the UK, you can pay for birth control pills online through registered online pharmacies. Many will request you complete an online consultation with a doctor or pharmacist. There are also free online NHS services like Your Sexual Health Matters that provide three-month supplies, although ordering timelines may be longer.  

You can only order the pill online if you are at least 16 years old, and some online services request you're at least 18. This is because as a young person, it's especially important you speak with your doctor or pharmacist to understand exactly how it works and the possible side effects. If you are very young or vulnerable, doctors also like to talk to you about your reasons for choosing birth control, and whether it is consensual, to make sure you are safe.

Buying online in the US  

You have similar online options in the US if you're over 18, or if you're younger you now have the opportunity to order Opill, the first US over the counter pill. Like online services in the UK, you'll first answer questions about your medical history and health for a doctor to review remotely. You may also need to have a video consultation, depending on where you live. Once your chosen pill is prescribed, this can either be sent to your home or local pharmacy for you to collect.  

Further reading 

  1. Sexual Health NI: Contraception.   

  2. NHS Inform Scotland: Bridging (short-term contraception).  

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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