Europe area of globe

Home / publications / briefings /

EU Migration to and from the UK

30 Sep 2019

How many EU migrants are there in the UK? How has migration of EU citizens changed since the referendum? This briefing provides key statistics on EU migrants and migration in the UK.

  1. Key Points
    • An estimated 3.6 million EU-born migrants were living in the UK in 2018
    • There were also 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK in 2018, including children born here
    • About 47% 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 2018 (23% of the total), followed by Romanian and Irish-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
    • EU migrants have high employment rates: 81% compared to 75% for the UK born and 57% for the non-EU born
    • EU immigration peaked before the referendum but fell from mid-2016
  1. Understanding the Policy

    EU law gives EU citizens the right to free movement, which allows them to live and work in any EU member state without requiring permission. Following the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership, policy changes towards EU nationals are expected. The exact policy changes depend on whether the UK leaves the EU with a deal, although in either case it is expected that there will be a transitional period at least until the end of 2020, in which EU citizens continue to be able to take up residence in the UK with few restrictions. By the end of the transitional period, EU citizens will need to prove their legal right to reside and work in the UK. To do this, they will need to have applied for the ‘EU Settlement Scheme’. For more information about the status of EU citizens, – see the Migration Observatory report, Unsettled Status? Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit?

    After the post-Brexit transitional period, a new immigration system is expected to be introduced. In a white paper published in December 2018, the government said that under the new system EU citizens would face the same immigration requirements as non-EU citizens, and that they would need permission to come to the UK for work, family or study. For an overview of how the government has said work-migration policy will change, see the Migration Observatory commentary, Where is UK labour migration heading after Brexit? For a discussion of the points-based system proposed by Boris Johnson, see our briefing, The Australian points-based system: what is it and what would its impact be in the UK?

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    The word ‘migrant’ is used differently in different contexts. In this briefing, we use the term ‘migrant’ to refer to the foreign born, regardless of whether they have become UK citizens. For a discussion of this terminology, see the Migration Observatory briefing Who Counts as a Migrant: Definitions and their Consequences.

    This briefing uses data from the Annual Population Survey (APS), which is a survey of private households in the UK. The APS has some important limitations. Some people are excluded, such as residents of communal establishments like hostels, and other groups may be under-counted due to survey non-response. Its response rate has declined over time, and is now below 50% (ONS, 2016); this means that people who are more likely not to respond to the survey may be under-counted. ONS analysis based on the Census suggests that non-response is a greater problem among people born outside of the UK (Weeks et al, n.d.).

    National Insurance Number (NINo) allocation data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) provide information on people newly entering the labour market. 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. A person who applies for a NINo may already have been living in the UK for some time. NiNo statistics cannot be directly compared to long-term immigration statistics, primarily because they include short-term migrants while LTIM only includes people intending to move into the UK for at least a year.

    Long-Term International Migration (LTIM) estimates of the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) are mainly based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS). This survey provides 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. Note that these figures have been revised on several occasions, most recently in August 2019, following improvements to the ONS methodology; these recent revisions affected immigration from EU-8 countries and other EU immigration has not yet been revised and so may not be directly comparable.

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

    1. EU-14 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.

An estimated 3.6 million EU-born migrants lived in the UK in 2018, making up 5.5% of the UK population

The number of EU-born migrants estimated to be living in the UK increased steadily from 2004 to 2017 (Figure 1). While the estimated EU-born population was slightly lower in 2018 than in 2017, this pattern is not reflected in other ONS data, which suggest that EU net migration remained positive in 2017 and 2018.

The EU born made up 5.5% of the total UK population in 2018, while non-EU born people made up 8.8%. The EU born thus made up 39% of the migrant population in 2018, up from 29% in 2000.

Figure 1

Return to top

There were 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK in 2018, including children born here

In 2018, an estimated 3,640,000 EU citizens were living in the UK. This is similar to the number of EU-born migrants, despite the fact that some EU migrants to the UK have naturalized as UK citizens. The main reason for this 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 naturalization rates compared to non-EU citizens.

Excluding the estimated 331,000 Irish citizens living in the UK in 2018, there were an estimated 3.3m 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?)

Just under half of EU-born migrants in 2018 were from EU-14 countries

In 2018, an estimated 1,691,000 or 47% of the EU born were from EU-14 countries that joined the EU before 2004 (Figure 2). This share has decreased from 84% in 2000.

The population of EU-8 born residents increased from an estimated 167,000 in 2004 to 1,323,000 in 2018. The number of EU-2-born residents—whose countries joined the EU in 2007—increased from 42,000 in 2007 to 495,000 in 2018.

In contrast, the EU-14 migrant population has grown more gradually. The faster increase in the EU-14-born population after 2012 can be linked to immigration 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

Return to top

Poland was the top country of birth among the EU-born in 2018, followed by Romania and Ireland

Poland was the largest country of origin of EU-born residents in 2018 (Figure 3), comprising 832,000 people or 23% of the total EU-born population in the UK. This was followed by Romania (392,000), Ireland (369,000), Germany (309,000) and Italy (253,000).

Figure 3

Return to top

About 56% of EU nationals migrated to the UK for work related reasons in 2018

Compared to non-EU citizens, EU citizens are particularly likely to come to the UK for work. In 2018, 56% 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 (72%) reported coming to take up a definite job rather than to look for work. Among non-EU citizens, by contrast, the most commonly reported reason for moving to the UK is study.

The share of long-term migrants 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 (74%). Among EU citizen groups, EU-14 nationals are most likely to come to the UK for formal study. For more information on work-related migration, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Work Visas and Migrant Workers in the UK.

Figure 4

Return to top

In 2018, 7.5% of all workers in the UK were born in an EU country

In 2018, 7.5% of all workers in the UK were born in an EU country (2.3 million), including both employees and self-employed workers. Among the working-age EU population, 81% were in employment. This compares to 75% among the UK born and 57% among the non-EU born.

The percentage of employed workers was slightly higher in the EU-8 (84%) and EU-2 (82%) migrant population than among the EU-14-born (79%) (Figure 5). EU-2 migrants stood out for their high percentage of self-employed (21%) compared to the other two EU groups.

Figure 5

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 since 2016 —a pattern supported by both the National Insurance Number (NINo) allocation data (Figure 6) and ONS data on long-term migration flows.

In 2018, 419,000 NINos were allocated to EU nationals, down 34% from 2015. Long-term arrivals of EU citizens planning to spend at least 12 months in the country fell by 25% over the same period, reaching 202,000 in 2018. Because estimated emigration of EU nationals also increased, EU net migration fell more sharply – by 59% to 75,000 in 2018. (See the Migration Observatory briefing, Net migration in the UK for more detailed data.)

Figure 6

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

Detailed local-authority level data on national insurance number allocations to EU citizens can be found in the Migration Observatory’s Local Data Guide.

Return to top

Evidence gaps and limitations

The different sources of data on migration and migrants in the UK are not always consistent with each other. For example, from 2017 to 2018, the estimated number of EU-born residents as measured by the Annual Population Survey declined, while the International Passenger Survey (LTIM data) estimated that net migration of EU citizens was still positive. There are various reasons for this, including differences in how data sources define migrants; known uncertainty in the estimates (which come with margins of error); and unknown sources of error, e.g. arising from the fact that not everyone agrees to participate in official surveys. This means that it is often sensible to look at the overall picture across several data sources, rather than focusing on short-term changes in a single dataset. ONS has identified several limitations in current data sources, and is currently developing new approaches to producing migration statistics to address them. This is likely to lead to substantial changes in official migration data between now and 2023.

The foreign born will include some people who are born abroad to UK citizen parents. However, it is usually still the preferred definition when using data on the migrant population, and especially change in the population over time. This is because migrants who acquire UK citizenship/nationality 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.


  • 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
  • Office for National Statistics, Understanding different migration data sources: August 2019 progress report.

Thanks to Agnieszka Kubal and Will Somerville for helpful comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing, and to Jakub Lonsky for research assistance.

  1. Media Coverage

Next Update

September 14, 2020


Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva
Mariña Fernández-Reino

Download Briefing

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