Europe area of globe

Home / publications / briefings /

EU Migration to and from the UK

01 Dec 2018

This briefing provides an overview of migration to the UK from European Union (EU) member countries. It discusses inflows, new registrations for a National Insurance number (NINos), employment, and other key statistics on EU migrants in the UK.

  1. Key Points
    • The number of EU-born migrants living in the UK stood at 3.7 million in 2017
    • There were 3.8 million EU citizens living in the UK in 2017, including children born here
    • About 45% of the EU born are from ‘EU-14’ countries that joined the EU before 2004. Poland was the largest country of birth for EU-born residents in 2017 (25% of the total), followed by Irish and Romanian-born residents
    • EU citizens are more likely to move to the UK for work than non-EU citizens, and this is particularly the case for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria
    • In 2017, 8.5% of the workforce in the UK was born in an EU country (2.4 million). EU migrants have higher employment rates than the UK born: 81% vs 75% in 2017
    • EU inflows peaked before the referendum but followed a downward trend during 2016 and 2017
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    EU citizens are a key group in UK immigration policy as they currently enjoy free movement within the European Union and the government cannot limit their rights to live and work in the UK in the same way that it does for non-EU nationals. Following the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership, it is likely that there will be policy changes towards EU nationals. For the moment, however, the UK remains a member of the EU and free movement rights remain in place for both new and existing EU citizens until the end of the post-Brexit transition period in December 2020 (although the duration of free movement continuing in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit remains uncertain). By the end of the transition period, EU citizens will need to prove their legal right to reside and work in the UK and thus, they will need to apply for ‘settled status’ – see the Migration Observatory report, Unsettled Status? Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit?

    This briefing follows the ONS classification that distinguishes between 4 different groups of EU countries based on the year joining the EU:

    1. EU-15 countries, which were part of the EU before 2004 (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom)
    2. EU-8 countries, which joined the EU in 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia)
    3. EU-2, which integrated in the EU in 2007 (Bulgaria and Romania)
    4. EU Other (Croatia, Malta and Cyprus), which ONS groups together in its data.

    With the exception of the UK, Ireland and Sweden, all other pre-2004 EU member states decided to temporarily restrict labour market access to migrants from the EU-8 countries upon their accession to the EU in 2004. This was possible because the accession agreements allowed member states of the EU to impose restrictions on the immigration of citizens from the new member countries for a maximum of seven years. The UK imposed restrictions on the access to labour markets of EU-2 citizens in 2007. These restrictions were lifted in January 2014, when citizens of these countries gained the same rights as all other EU citizens to live and work in any country in the union.

    This briefing uses a variety of data sources (see the evidence gaps and limitations section to understand challenges associated with these sources):

    The Annual Population Survey (APS) is a survey of private households providing data on mainly labour market outcomes of foreign-born and foreign nationals living in the UK. For this briefing, APS data refers to the year 2017.

    National Insurance Number (NINo) allocation data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) provide information about the allocations of new NINos to EU workers. NINos are issued once to people who are aged 16 or over and are working, planning to work or claim benefits in the UK, regardless of how long they intend to stay. NINo allocations do not indicate when a worker enters the country and are, therefore, just a rough measure of new registrations of workers and not of the stock of migrants. Nonetheless, this data can provide an idea of the number of EU nationals that enter the UK labour market in a given year. NiNo statistics cannot be directly compared to LTIM statistics, primarily because they include short-term migrants while LTIM only includes people intending to move for at least a year. In addition, not all migrants register for a NINo, as they may be not working.

    Long-Term International Migration (LTIM) estimates of the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) are mainly based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS). LTIM/IPS provide data on immigration, emigration and net migration of EU citizens based on a standard definition of a long-term migrant as a person who moves to a country for at least a year. LTIM/IPS estimates are only used in this briefing for examining the reasons for migration to the UK. APS/LFS are more reliable data sources than the LTIM/IPS for knowing who is living in the UK and understanding the dynamics of work-related migration.

    The APS/LFS ask respondents about their nationality and country of birth, while only the nationality of individuals is available in the LTIM/IPS and NINo data. In general, it is preferable to use the country of birth instead of the nationality when using data on the migrant population. This is because migrants who acquire UK citizenship are excluded from data on the non-UK citizen population, and rates of naturalisation vary significantly depending on migrants’ country of origin. Data on non-UK citizens also include many UK-born children of migrants who have themselves never migrated.

There were 3.7 million EU-born migrants living in the UK in 2017, making up 5.7% of the UK population

The number of UK residents who were born in EU countries has increased steadily over time, and particularly since EU enlargement in 2004 (Figure 1). The EU born made up 5.7% of the total UK population by 2017, while non-EU born people made up 8.7%. The EU born thus made up 39.5% of the foreign-born population in 2017, up from 29% in 2000.

Figure 1

Note: figures for 2000-2003 are for years beginning in March

Return to top

There were 3.8 million EU citizens living in the UK in 2017, including children born here

In 2017, an estimated 3,813,000 EU citizens were living in the UK. The main reason this figure is higher than the number of EU born is that many children born in the UK to EU citizen parents are themselves EU citizens. (Some people born in the UK are automatically UK citizens but this is not always the case and depends on the residence status of the parents at the time the child is born.) EU citizens also have low naturalisation rates compared to non-EU citizens.

Excluding the estimated 350,000 Irish citizens living in the UK in 2017, there were an estimated 3,463,000 non-Irish EU citizens. This is relevant because after Brexit, EU citizens are expected to need to register for ‘settled status’ to continue living here legally, but Irish citizens will not be obliged to do so. See Migration Observatory report, Unsettled Status?

About 45% of the EU born in 2017 were from EU-14 countries

In 2017, 1,686,000 or 45% of the EU born were from EU-14 countries that joined the EU before 2004 (Figure 1). This share has decreased from 84% in 2000.

The population of EU-8 born residents increased from an estimated 167,000 in 2004 to 1,444,000 in 2017. The number of EU-2-born residents—whose countries joined the EU in 2007—increased from 25,000 in 2004 to 474,000 in 2017.

In contrast, the EU-14 migrant population has grown more gradually. The increase in the EU-14-born population after 2012 can be linked to migration inflows from Spain and Italy, where the unemployment rate was particularly high (see our 2016 commentary “Pulling power: Why are EU citizens migrating to the UK?).

Figure 2

Note: ‘Total EU’ includes ‘EU Other’ category

Return to top

Poland was the top country of birth among the EU-born in 2017, followed by Ireland and Romania

Poland was the largest country of origin of EU-born residents in 2017 (Figure 3), comprising 922,000 people or 25% of the total EU-born population in the UK. This was followed by Ireland and Romania (390,000 each), Germany (318,000) and Italy (232,000).

Figure 3

Return to top

About 62% of EU nationals migrated to the UK for work related reasons in 2017

Compared to non-EU citizens, EU citizens are particularly likely to come to the UK for work. In 2017, 62% of EU citizens moving to the UK for at least a year said that work was their main reason for migrating (Figure 4). Most of those workers (74%) reported coming to take up a definite job rather than to look for work. The share of those entering the UK for work-related reasons was similar for EU-14 and EU-8 citizens, but substantially higher for citizens from EU-2 countries (84%). Among EU citizen groups, EU-14 nationals are most likely to come to the UK for formal study.

Figure 4

Note: includes self-reported reason for migration among those moving for at least 12 months; ‘family’ category both includes those joining UK residents and accompanying another migrant to the UK

Return to top

In 2017, 8.5% of the UK workforce was born in an EU country

In 2017, 8.5% of the workforce in the UK was born in an EU country (2.4 million), including both employees and self-employed workers. Among the working-age EU population, 81% were in employment. The percentage of employed workers was slightly higher in the EU-8 (83%) and EU-2 (85%) migrant population than among the EU-14-born (77%) and the UK-born (75%) (Figure 5). EU-2 migrants stood out for their high percentage of self-employed (21%) compared to the other two EU groups.

Figure 5

Note: Workers in Government Schemes and unpaid family workers are excluded from the count

Return to top

EU immigration fell after the 2016 referendum

EU immigration rose sharply in the years leading up to the EU referendum in June 2016, but declined during 2016 and 2017—a pattern supported by both the National Insurance Number (NINo) allocation data (Figure 6) and ONS data on long-term migration flows.

In 2017, 497,000 NINOs were allocated to EU nationals, down 21% from 2015. Long-term arrivals of EU citizens planning to spend at least 12 months in the country fell by 11% over the same period, reaching 239,000 in 2017. Because estimated emigration of EU nationals also increased, EU net migration fell more sharply – by 46% to 100,000 in 2017. (See Migration Observatory briefing, Net migration in the UK).

Figure 6

The downward trend of EU immigration is a recent phenomenon. Inflows from the EU had consistently increased from 2011 to 2015, in large part due to the arrival of Southern-European and Romanian country nationals. For example, Italian and Spanish workers alone represented 22% of new allocations to EU workers in 2013, while 25% of new registrations of EU workers in 2014 were from Romanian citizens.

Return to top

Evidence gaps and limitations

The APS is a survey based on a voluntary sample survey and thus, there is always a fraction of respondents that refuses to answer all or a significant number of questions. In fact, the number of respondents answering the whole questionnaire has been falling in recent years, and it could be the case that recent migrants are overrepresented among those refusing to participate in the survey (Portes, 2018). If that is the case, the APS/LFS would not provide a fully representative picture of migrants in the UK. In addition, certain groups are excluded, such as those who do not live in a “private household” – which would include international students living in halls of residence, or people living in hostels or bed and breakfast accommodation.

It is important to highlight that NINo registrations are not a direct count of new migrants coming to the UK. Some of the people who are allocated new NINos could have been resident in the UK prior to applying as, for example, students or short-term residents, among others. Evidence suggests that some migrants from EU-2 countries either had problems registering for NINos before January 2014, or may have been in the UK not working or working without having applied for a NINo. The ONS has analysed some of these issues in detail (see ONS, 2016). It is also worth noting that being allocated a NINo does not provide any indication of how long a person will remain in the UK.


  • Dustmann, C., M. Casanova, I. Preston, M. Fertig, and C. M. Schmidt. “The Impact of EU Enlargement on Migration Flows.” Home Office Online Report 25/03, Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the UK, Home Office, London, 2003
  • HMRC. ‘Further Statistics on EEA Nationals.’ London, August 2016
  • Office for National Statistics. ‘Methods used to revise the national population estimates for mid-2002 to mid-2010.’ ONS, December 2012
  • Office for National Statistics. ‘Note on the difference between National Insurance number registrations and the estimate of long-term international migration: 2016.’ ONS, 2016
  • Sumption, M. and W. Somerville. “The UK’s New Europeans: Progress and Challenges Five Years after Accession.” Policy Report, Equality and Human Rights Commission, Manchester, 2010
  • Vargas-Silva, C. “Lessons from the EU Eastern Enlargement: Chances and Challenges for Policy Makers.” CESifo DICE Report, Journal for Institutional Comparisons 4 (2011): 3-7
  • Portes, J. 2018 “Misunderstanding migration”, blog post in The UK in a Changing Europe, June 2018

Further reading

  • Blanchflower D. and H. Lawton. “The Impact of the Recent Expansion of the EU on the UK Labour Market.” IZA Discussion Paper 3695, Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn, 2008
  • Coombes M, T. Champion and S. Raybould. “Did the Early A8 In-migrants to England Go to Areas of Labour Shortage?” Local Economy 22 (2007): 335–48
  • Dustmann, C., T. Frattini, and C. Halls. “Assessing the Fiscal Costs and Benefits of A8 Migration to the UK.” Fiscal Studies 31 (2010): 1-41
  • Lemos, S. and J. Portes. “The Impact of Migration from the New European Union Member States on Native Workers.” Working Paper 52, Department for Work and Pensions, London, 2008

Related material

Thanks to Agnieszka Kubal and Will Somerville for helpful comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing.

  1. Media Coverage

Next Update

November 1, 2019


Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva
Mariña Fernández-Reino

Press Contact

If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:

Rob McNeil

+ 44 (0)7500 970081

 Contact Us 


This Migration Observatory is kindly supported by the following organisations.

  • University of Oxford logo
  • COMPAS logo
  • Esmee Fairbairn logo
  • Barrow Cadbury logo
  • Paul Hamlyn Foundation logo