The Basics: Overview

Birth control (also called contraception) can help you prevent pregnancy when you don’t want to have a baby. Condoms are a type of birth control that can also help protect you and your sex partner from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

How do I choose the right birth control?

There isn’t 1 method of birth control that’s right for everyone. Each type of birth control has pros and cons.

Here are some things to think about when choosing a birth control method:

  • Do you want to have children someday? How soon?
  • Do you have any health conditions?
  • How often do you have sex?
  • Do you also need protection from HIV and other STIs?
  • How well does the birth control method work?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • Will you be able to use it correctly every time?

You may also want to think about:

  • How much a birth control method costs — and if your insurance will cover it
  • Whether you need to see a doctor or go to a pharmacy to get the birth control — and how often you’ll have to go

How does birth control work?

It depends on the type of birth control you choose. Different methods of birth control work in different ways. And some methods are better at preventing pregnancy than others. 

Learn more about the effectiveness of different birth control methods.

The Basics: Types of Birth Control

IUDs (intrauterine devices)

An IUD is a small, T-shaped piece of plastic with copper or a hormone that a doctor places inside the uterus.

There are 2 kinds:

  • Copper IUDs release a small amount of copper to prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg. They can last for up to 10 years.
  • Hormonal IUDs release a small amount of a hormone called levonorgestrel to prevent pregnancy. There are 4 different types of hormonal IUDs. Hormonal IUDs last from 3 to 8 years, depending on the type.

IUDs are very effective at preventing pregnancy. You don’t feel the IUD when it’s in place — and there’s nothing to do or remember once it’s there.

IUDs don’t protect you or your sex partner from STIs. But you can use a condom with your IUD to help protect against STIs.

If you have an IUD and you want to get pregnant, a doctor can easily remove it. Read more about IUDs.

Hormonal methods

Most hormonal methods of birth control work by preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg each month. They also cause other changes that make it less likely that you’ll get pregnant.

In addition to hormonal IUDs, hormonal methods include:

  • Implant (a small rod put under the skin) — can last up to 3 years
  • Shot — given by a doctor or nurse every 3 months
  • Patch — worn on the skin and replaced once a week, with 1 week off every month
  • Ring — put in the vagina and replaced once a month
  • Birth control pills — taken every day

These methods don’t protect you or your sex partner from STIs. But you can use condoms to help protect against STIs while using hormonal birth control. 

Keep in mind that some hormonal methods take more effort to use, and this can make it harder to use them correctly. For example, you have to remember to take birth control pills every day — but once an implant is in place, it lasts for up to 3 years.

If you’re interested in a hormonal method of birth control, talk with your doctor or nurse about which kind is best for you. Read more about hormonal birth control options.

Barrier methods

Barrier methods work by preventing the sperm from getting to the egg. Common barrier methods include:

  • External (male) condoms (worn on the penis)
  • Internal (female) condoms (placed inside the vagina)
  • Birth control diaphragm (placed inside the vagina)
  • Birth control cervical cap (placed inside the vagina)
  • Birth control sponge (placed inside the vagina)
  • Spermicide (a gel that stops sperm from reaching the egg), which can be used alone or with an external condom, diaphragm, or cervical cap

External condoms are also very effective at preventing HIV and reducing the risk of other STIs when you use them correctly every time you have sex. Get tips on how to use a condom correctly.

Internal condoms may help prevent HIV and other STIs. Diaphragms, cervical caps, and sponges don’t protect against STIs.

Read more about barrier methods.

Fertility awareness-based methods

Using fertility awareness-based methods (FABMs) is sometimes called natural family planning. With FABMs, you learn which days pregnancy is more likely to happen. If you want to prevent pregnancy, you don’t have sex on those days — or you use another method of birth control.

FABMs work best if you have regular periods. It’s important to know that FABMs are not usually as effective at preventing pregnancy as other forms of birth control, like IUDs or hormonal methods.

You can also use FABMs when you’re trying to get pregnant. Read more about fertility awareness-based methods.

Emergency contraception

Sometimes you may forget to use birth control — for example, you could miss a pill or shot. And sometimes birth control methods can fail, like if a condom breaks.

There are 2 options for emergency contraception:

  • Copper IUD — A doctor will need to place the IUD inside your uterus within 5 days of unprotected sex.
  • Emergency contraception pills (ECPs — sometimes called the morning-after pill) — You’ll need to take ECPs as soon as possible within 5 days of unprotected sex. The sooner you take them, the more effective they are. You can buy some ECPs at a drugstore without a prescription. To get other ECPs, you need a prescription from a doctor.

Taking ECPs won’t harm a pregnancy if you’re already pregnant. ECPs won’t protect you from STIs, so consider getting tested for STIs if you didn’t use a condom — or if the condom broke.

Read more about emergency contraception pills.

Permanent birth control (sterilization)

Sterilization is a permanent method of birth control. This is an option for people who are completely sure they don’t ever want to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy. There are different types of permanent birth control procedures:

  • Vasectomy: This means cutting or blocking the tubes that carry sperm to the outside of the penis.
  • Tubal ligation: This means cutting or blocking the tubes that carry eggs into the uterus. 

Read more about permanent birth control (sterilization).

The Basics: STI Prevention

What types of birth control help prevent STIs?

Abstinence (not having vaginal, anal, or oral sex) is the only sure way to prevent STIs. Using an external condom correctly every time you have sex is a very effective way to prevent many STIs, including HIV. Female condoms may also lower the risk of some STIs.

Birth control pills, IUDs, and other hormonal methods don’t prevent STIs. If you choose one of these types of birth control, it won’t protect you or your sex partner from HIV and other STIs — so you may also want to use condoms for protection.

The Basics: How to Get It

Do I need to see a doctor to get birth control?

It depends on which birth control method you choose. You can buy some birth control methods at a store without a prescription. For other methods, you’ll need to see a doctor.

Birth control methods you can get without a prescription include:
  • Condoms
  • Some ECPs
  • Birth control sponge
Birth control methods you can get only from a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist include:
  • Birth control pills
  • Patch
  • Diaphragm and cervical cap
  • Shot
  • Ring 
You need a medical procedure for:
  • Permanent birth control
  • IUD
  • Implant 

Check out these resources to learn more about the different types of birth control:

Take Action: Get Help

Follow these steps to choose the right birth control for you.

Talk to a nurse, doctor, or family planning educator.

Ask about the types of birth control that are available to you. There are many things to consider, including:

  • Your overall health
  • Whether you want to have children in the future
  • How well the birth control works
  • What side effects the birth control may cause
What about cost?

Under the Affordable Care Act, most insurance plans must cover birth control at no cost to you. Most plans must also cover birth control education and counseling. Check with your insurance company to learn more.

Medicaid also covers the cost of birth control. If you have Medicaid, check with your state’s Medicaid program to learn more.

To learn more, check out these resources about:

Find free or low-cost services near you.

If you don’t have insurance that covers birth control, you may be able to get free or low-cost birth control through a family planning clinic or community health center.

Family planning clinics provide education, counseling, and medical services. No one is turned away for not being able to pay.

Use these resources to find a clinic near you: 

Take Action: Talk About It

Talk to your sex partner.

It’s a good idea to have a conversation with your partner to make sure that both of you are comfortable with the birth control method you choose. Be sure to talk about getting tested for STIs and how you can stay safe.

Make sure you understand the instructions.

Be sure you understand what you need to do to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or protect yourself from STIs. And check that your partner understands, too — when you both know how a birth control method works, it’s easier to use it correctly. If you have questions, talk to a doctor or pharmacist.

Have a backup plan.

It’s important to know what to do if you forget to use birth control or if your birth control method fails. For example, you may want to buy ECPs in advance. That way, you’ll have them if you need them.

Take Action: STI Testing

Get tested for STIs.

Most people who have an STI don’t have any symptoms. Getting tested is the only way to know for sure if you have one.

Have an honest conversation with your doctor or nurse about your sexual activity and ask if you need to get tested for STIs.

To find a place to get tested:

It’s also important to talk with your partner about getting tested. Use these tips to start the conversation.

Get tested for HIV.

Remember, getting tested for HIV is the only way to know for sure if you have it.

You can get tested at a doctor’s office or health center. To find an HIV testing center:

Learn more about HIV testing. You can also take this list of questions about HIV testing with you to your next doctor’s appointment.