First minister Jack McConnell hailed the move as a 'significant' achievement for the Scottish Executive. The legislation came into force this week, creating one of the biggest differences between Scottish and English policy since devolution three years ago.
The elderly are now entitled to help with personal care, such as washing and dressing, instead of just nursing costs, and home care charges have been abolished.
Mr McConnell said: 'Free personal and nursing care is happening today because it is a promise we made to Scotland's older people and because we believe it is the right thing to do.'
A total of£250m has been set aside for councils to pay for the new system.
Maureen O'Neill, director of Age Concern Scotland, said the Executive was to be 'congratulated', but warned the policy must be introduced quickly and efficiently.