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Settlement in the UK

25 Apr 2017

This briefing gives details about how many non-European migrants are granted settlement in the UK every year, their demographic characteristics and the various bases for their grants of settlement.

  1. Key Points
    •  There were 59,009 grants of settlement to non-EEA migrants in 2016. This was a decrease of more than 75% since 2010 and the lowest number recorded since 1998.
    • In 2016, 40% of settlements were granted on the basis of employment and residency (including dependents of labour migrants), 22% were granted on the basis of asylum, and 11% were granted on the basis of family formation and reunification. Declines in grants of settlement between 2013 and 2016 were largely driven by the family category, followed by the work category and to a lesser extent by the asylum category.
    • Grants of settlement on the basis of asylum have grown since 2008, but remain well below their mid-2000s peak and saw a considerable decline from 2015 to 2016. Grants for ‘other discretionary reasons’, which includes grants linked to a backlog of asylum cases, were a major factor behind the peak in overall settlement grants in 2010.
    • Among migrants granted settlement in 2015, the most common countries of citizenship were India (18% of all settlements) and Pakistan (10%).
    • At least 80% of settlements on the basis of marriage in 2015 were granted to spouses of British citizens.
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    A grant of settlement from the British government confers legal permission to live permanently in the UK without being subject to immigration control, although it does not confer full citizenship status. Data on settlement (also known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’, or ILR) come from Home Office administrative sources. They are limited to non-European Economic Area or Swiss nationals. The Home Office counts all grants of settlement issued and publishes data on the total number of grants, the basis of grants (residency and work, family, asylum) and demographic information on the grantees  (age, gender, nationality). Since grants of settlement involve a transaction with the government, trends over time are not purely the product of migrants’ arrivals and subsequent decisions to stay; changes in government policies and capacity for processing applications can also influence trends in settlement data.

    The ‘family’ category is a possible source of confusion in settlement data. Settlement grants on the basis of family go to individuals who are related to a British citizen or previously-settled British resident (usually as the spouse or child of said citizen or resident). People can also qualify for settlement as ‘dependents’, or family members of migrants who are themselves just gaining settlement. (When the “principal” migrant in the family qualifies for settlement, that person’s dependent family members are eligible to be granted settlement at the same time.) Thus, ‘dependents’ are a grey area for statistical categorisation – they qualify for settlement because of their family relationship with the ‘main applicant’, but that main applicant must have some other basis (such as work with residency or asylum) for settlement. Some analyses group dependents with other family settlements; others group dependents with the ‘principal’ settlement applicant. In this briefing dependents are usually classified in the same category as the main applicant in their families.

Overall levels of settlement in 2016 were down more than 75% from the 2010 peak

The highest ever number of recorded settlement grants in the UK since the 1960s was in 2010, at 241,192. The number of grants of settlement decreased between 2010 and 2012 after which it temporarily increased in 2013. The number of settlement grants has been declining since.

As shown in Figure 1, in 2016 there were 59,009 grants of settlement to non-EEA migrants. This was the lowest level since 1998, when there were 69,789 settlement grants. (Note that citizens of countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 were still non-EU citizens before those dates and thus included in settlement grants.) The 2016 level was a 35% decrease from 2015 (when 90,839 people were granted settled status), and a 76% decrease since the 2010 peak.

Prior to the peak in 2010, the trend over the past two decades had been mostly growth. Annual settlements averaged at 54,070 in the five-year period from 1990-1994, and grew in each of the next five-year periods to an average of 68,570 during 1995-1999, 125,760 p.a. (2000-2004), and 156,428 p.a. (2005-2009). There is reason to think that the 2009-2010 peak was an outlier to this trend. Some of this peak was driven by “other discretionary” settlement grants stemming from a programme to clear a backlog of unsuccessful asylum seekers, discussed in more detail below.
The decrease in settlement grants since 2010 is not driven by a single category, however: work, family, and ‘other’ bases for grants of settlement have all declined considerably since that year (except for a smaller, temporary increase of grants of settlement in 2013).

Figure 1

The apparent interruption in the increasing trend between 2006 and 2008 may represent changes in policy and record-keeping, rather than an actual change in patterns of migration and settlement application (see evidence gaps and limitations below). In April 2006, the residency requirement for settlement grants for migrants in work-based categories changed from four years to five years. This temporarily reduced settlement as people waited an additional year for eligibility, but then possibly led to additional pent-up demand once the wait ended.
Settlement grants are also affected by the number of entries in previous years, as this affects the number of people newly eligible for settlement after a period of residence. For example, one reason behind the decline in work-related settlement grants from 2011 to 2014 is the falling numbers of work visas that were issued for people coming to the UK from 2007-2009. See our briefing, ‘Immigration by Category: Workers, Students, Family Members, Asylum Applicants’.Immigration by Category: Workers, Students, Family Members, Asylum Applicants.

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The decrease in settlements from 2013-2016 was driven by declines in the family and work categories

Figure 2 shows considerable fluctuation over time in the most common bases of settlement grants.
In 2016, family based settlement grants were less than half the level of the previous year, less than one quarter of their 2009 peak and accounted for 11% of all settlement grants. This is in line with a general decline in numbers since a peak of 72,239 in 2009, although there was an increase in 2013 to 59,654. This trend is consistent with decreases in the numbers of people receiving entry visas on the basis of family ties between 2010 and 2012. Numbers in 2014-16 may also be affected by a 2012 policy change, which extended the time required before applying for settlement as a spouse or civil partner from 2 years to 5 years. This is expected to lead to a temporary reduction in the number of people newly eligible for family settlement. Overall, family formation and reunion has become a smaller share of settlement over time, remaining very much below its 56% share of settlement grants in 1997.

Grants on the basis of employment and residency (including dependents) peaked at 84,347 in 2010 before falling to 38,712 by 2014 and further down to 23,342 in 2016. The decline from 2010 onwards is consistent with a decrease in the numbers of people coming to the UK for work in the second half of the 2000s. The number of people granted entry visas for work in tiers 1 and 2 of the points-based system (plus their dependants), for example, fell by more than 40,000 between 2006 and 2009.

There has also been a decrease since 2006 in the number of people initially entering for skilled work who can potentially gain settlement within 5 years. According to the sixth report of the Home Office “Migrant Journey” dataset, 25% of people issued skilled work visas in 2009 had gained settlement 5 years later. Declines in settlement on the basis of employment up to 2014 should not be attributed to the £35,000 minimum income threshold, which restricts eligibility for work-based settlement for workers who would otherwise have become eligible for settlement from April 2016.

Employment has remained the most frequent category of settlement grant since 2008, with one exception in 2013 when settlement for family reasons was slightly higher. In 2016, people settling for employment reasons represented 40% of the total, over twice the 17% share in 1997, the first year covered by the data from the Home Office.

Figure 2

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Grants of settlement on the basis of asylum have grown since 2008 but remain well below their mid-2000s peak

As Figure 2 shows, the levels of grants of settlement for asylum (including dependents) have fluctuated since 1997 in both absolute terms and as a share of all settlements. There were 11,780 settlements for asylum (20% of all settlements) in 1997, (a peak of) 67,810 in 2005 and 13,071 in 2016 (about 22% of all settlement of that year). The peak in 2005 came from the Family ILR Exercise (Home Office 2010: 38), which granted settlement to some asylum seekers whose cases had not been decided after three years or more of living in the UK. The decline after 2005 probably stems from two factors: a long-term drop in numbers of asylum seekers, and the temporary effects of another policy change that year. In August, the UK stopped granting immediate settlement to refugees and other asylum applicants. Instead, applicants were granted limited leave to remain with the opportunity to apply for settlement after five more years of UK residence. Thus, new refugees granted leave to remain in 2006 would not be eligible for settlement until 2011, after which the numbers began to increase again.

Former asylum seekers are also represented by settlement grants in the ‘other’ category. This category includes a type called ‘other discretionary grants’ which captures a programme to resolve a backlog of cases involving refused asylum applicants who continued to live in the UK (Home Office 2010: 124, xvii). The Home Office states that the programme began by prioritising candidates for removal, and then progressed to those who ‘may be allowed to stay in the UK’. Since the goal was to resolve cases over a five year period, the decrease in the ‘other’ category is understandable. Available data do not show how much of the increase in other discretionary grants can be attributed to this programme.

But what the data do reveal is that grants of settlement under this ‘other’ category increased more than six times from 2006 to 2010. In 2006, this category comprised 9% of all settlement grants, including 7,720 labelled as ‘other discretionary grants’ in more detailed figures. By 2010, ‘other’ grants had increased to 82,686, or 34% of the total, before falling to 8,746 by 2012 (6.7% of total grants). In 2016, grants in this category stood at 15,948 or 27% of the total settlement grants that year.

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Indian and Pakistani nationals, and young people receive the most grants of settlement

As shown in Figure 3, over half of people settling in 2015 (the most recent data available at the time of writing) came from Asia (54%), followed by Africa (26%) and the Americas (6%). Between 2010 and 2012 settlements by all regions and national origins decreased, followed by a temporary increase in 2013 before starting to decline again. Grants to nationals of non-EEA European countries (such as Russia and Turkey), on the other hand, have declined by 82% since 2004 to 4,823 grants in 2015, as the EU expansion reduced the need for many European nationals to apply for settlement in Britain.

Settlement grants to nationals of all other regions have been declining since 2013 and the number of grants in 2015 was lower than their corresponding 2004 level. Note that the Home Office’s preferred regional categories no longer disaggregate the Indian sub-continent from the rest of Asia, though these can still be calculated from the country-by-country statistics available within the Home Office’s Immigration Statistics.

Figure 3

The most frequent countries of origin for 2015 migrants granted settlement were India (18% of all settlements) and Pakistan (10%), as shown in Table 1. Other nationalities not in the top ten comprised 46% of all settlement grants in 2015, compared with 38% in 2014.

Table 1 – Top 10 countries whose nationals received settlement grants in 2015, by share

RankCountryShare of 2015 settlement grants Number of nationals
8South Africa3%2929
9Sri Lanka2%2456

As Figure 4 shows, the demographics of migrants granted settlement in 2015 leans toward the young: 65% of migrants granted settlement after fulfilling residency requirements in 2015 were under 35 years of age. 50% overall were female, a change from 2010 when 53% were male.

Figure 4

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Most spouses granted settlement have a British partner

As shown above in Figure 2, settlement for family reasons is now the least common basis for settlement grants in 2016.

The vast majority of people granted settlement for family reasons remained spouses and children: 99% in 2016.

The majority of migrants granted settlement as spouses are married to or partners of British citizens, as opposed to settled or settling migrants. As Figure 5 shows, in 2015 about 81% of migrant spouses granted settlement had a British spouse or partner, while about 9% had a spouse who was settled or settling in the UK but not a British citizen. The remaining 10% were classified in categories for which the citizenship of their spouse was not specified, such as ‘common law spouse’ or ‘other spouses’ (see Home Office Immigration Statistics tables for more detail). These proportions have remained largely similar since 2006 when the dataset began to become available.

Figure 5

Note: ‘Ambiguous categories’ include migrants listed in Home Office data under descriptions that do not refer to spouses’ nationality, such as ‘same-sex partner’, ‘common-law spouse,’ and ‘granted settlement due to death of spouse or domestic violence after leave to remain granted as a spouse’.

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Evidence gaps and limitations

Home Office data are actual counts of grants of settlement, rather than estimates. For a small percentage of grants, the basis for the grant is missing and categorised as unknown, but otherwise data are relatively problem-free (Home Office 2016: 29).

However, changes in trends may results from changes in policy or internal record-keeping, rather than actual changes in the numbers of migrants coming to live and settle in the UK. For example, as discussed above, significant changes in the number and bases of settlement grants since 2005 are attributable to changing methods of handling backlogs of asylum applications (Home Office 2010:  38-40). The related rise in ‘other discretionary’ grants creates additional problems for analysis, as we do not have further information on the people granted settlement in this category – for example, how many were main applicants vs. dependents, and what their characteristics are, such as age, gender, and nationality.

In addition, settlement data do not reflect trends in long-term UK residence of EEA/Swiss nationals. People with these nationalities can instead apply for permanent residence cards to demonstrate their residence rights. It is not necessary to do so, although from November 2015 this card is required for citizenship applications for EEA nationals. For the process that is already in place for EEA/Swiss nationals registering as permanent residents in the UK, see the Migration Observatory commentary ‘Here today, gone tomorrow? The status of EU citizens already living in the UK’:


  • Home Office. “Control of Immigration: Statistics United Kingdom 2009.” Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, London, 2010.
  • Home Office. “User Guide to Home Office Immigration Statistics.” Home Office, London, May 2016.
  • Home Office. “Statement of Intent: Family migration.” Home Office, London, June 2012.
  • Home Office. “Settlement.” Home Office, London, 3 March 2016.

Further reading

  • Castles, Stephen. “Guestworkers in Europe: A Resurrection?” International Migration Review 40, no. 4 (2006): 741-766.
  • Castles, Stephen and Mark J. Miller. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World, 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009: 33-43.

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