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EU Migration to and from the UK

02 Oct 2020

How many EU migrants are there in the UK? How has the migration of EU citizens changed since the Brexit 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 lived in the UK in 2019, making up 5.5% of the UK population.
    • There were an estimated 3.7 million EU citizens living in the UK in 2019.
    • In 2019, just under half of EU-born migrants living in the UK were from EU-14 countries.
    • Poland was the top country of birth among the EU-born in 2019, followed by Romania and Ireland.
    • In 2019, 48% of EU nationals in the UK said they migrated to the country for work-related reasons.
    • In 2019, around 8% of all workers in the UK were born in an EU country.
    • EU immigration fell substantially after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
  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. ... Click to read more.

    This right will end in the UK at 11pm on 31 December 2020. Thereafter, EU citizens migrating to the UK will be subject to the same immigration rules as citizens from the rest of the world, and any person wishing to move to the UK for longer than six months will require a visa. This means that the estimated 3.7 million EU citizens and their family members currently living in the UK will have to secure pre-settled or settled status if they would like to continue to stay in the country.  For more information about the EU Settlement Scheme, see the Migration Observatory report, Unsettled Status – 2020: Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit?

    On 1 January 2021, a new ‘Australian-style’ points-based immigration system will be introduced. For a discussion of this system, see our commentary, Q&A: The UK’s new points-based immigration system after Brexit.

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    The term ‘migrant’ is used differently in different contexts. In this briefing, we generally use the term ‘migrant’ to refer to the foreign-born. ... Click to read more.

    This has the drawback of including British citizens born abroad, such as the children of parents in the armed forces based overseas. However, defining migrants as the foreign-born has the compensatory benefit of including people who have come to the UK and naturalised.  For further 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 undercounted 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., 2013).

    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 who 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 estimates of long-term international migration (LTIM), primarily because they include short-term migrants, while LTIM statistics include only people intending to move into the UK for at least a year.

    LTIM estimates from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) are based mainly 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 estimates of immigration from EU-8 countries, and other EU immigration has not yet been revised and so may not be directly comparable.

    The most recent data that this briefing presents is for 2019, which does not therefore show the impact of Covid-19 upon EU migration to and from the UK.

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

    1. EU-14. These countries were part of the EU before 2004 and comprise the EU-15 minus the UK: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.
    2. EU-8. These joined the EU in 2004 and comprise: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
    3. EU-2. Bulgaria and Romania, which became a part of the EU in 2007 and to which free movement to the UK was extended in 2014.
    4. EU Other. Three countries – Croatia, Malta and Cyprus – which ONS groups together in its data. Malta and Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, and Croatia joined in 2013.

    Margins of error in the estimates

    Unlike the NINo data, the APS and LTIM are sample surveys, so their estimates come with margins of error. This means that small differences between numbers or percentages may not be statistically significant. However, all the differences between groups that are described in the text of the briefing are statistically significant. A difference between two groups is considered statistically significant when the probability that this difference occurred by chance is small. In that case, we assume that the differences we observe in the data are likely to exist in the population. Note that small differences between estimates for different groups may not be statistically significant, if they are not described in the narrative of the briefing.

An estimated 3.6 million EU-born migrants lived in the UK in 2019, 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 before levelling off (Figure 1). While the estimated EU-born population was slightly lower in 2018 and 2019 than in 2017, this pattern is not reflected in other ONS data, which suggest that EU net migration has been stable in 2018 and 2019, though still positive.

The EU-born made up 5.5% of the total UK population of 66 million in 2019, while non-EU born people made up 8.9% (Office for National Statistics, 2020). The EU-born thus made up 38% of the migrant population in 2019, up from 29% in 2000.

Figure 1

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There were an estimated 3.7 million EU citizens living in the UK in 2019

In 2019, an estimated 3,715,000 EU citizens were living in the UK, including children born in the UK (Figure 2). This number also includes 320,000 Irish citizens. This is similar to the number of EU-born migrants, despite some EU migrants to the UK having naturalised 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 naturalisation rates compared to non-EU citizens.

Figure 2

Excluding the estimated 320,000 Irish citizens living in the UK in 2019, there were an estimated 3.4m non-Irish EU citizens. This is relevant because after Brexit, non-Irish EU citizens and their family members will need to register for settled status to continue living here legally, but Irish citizens will not be obliged to do so (see the Migration Observatory report, Unsettled Status – 2020: Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit?)

The accuracy of these estimates of the UK’s EU-national population has been called into question by applications to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS). As of 30 June 2020, the number of non-Irish EU-citizen applicants to the EU Settlement Scheme was 3.5m, which is more than the 3.4m non-Irish EU citizens that ONS estimated to be resident in the UK in 2019 (Office for National Statistics, 2020). In part, this will be because the overall EUSS figures include (1) people who previously lived in the UK and applied to EUSS but are no longer living here, and (2) applicants who reapplied to update their status from pre-settled status to settled status, who are counted twice. For several nationalities there have been more applicants to the EUSS than the upper limit of ONS’s population estimate (Figure 3).

Figure 3

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In 2019, just under half of EU-born migrants living in the UK were from EU-14 countries

In 2019, an estimated 1,662,000 or 47% of the EU born were from EU-14 countries (Figure 4). This share has decreased from 84% in 2000.

The population of EU-8 born residents increased from an estimated 167,000 in 2004 to 1,686,000 in 2017, and declined in the following two years. The number of EU-2-born residents – whose countries joined the EU in 2007 and gained free movement access to the UK in 2014 – increased from 235,000 in 2014 to 555,000 in 2019.

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 4

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Poland was the top country of birth among the EU-born in 2019, followed by Romania and Ireland

In 2019, Poland was the largest country of origin of EU-born residents (Figure 5), comprising 818,000 people, or 23% of the total EU-born population in the UK. This is down from its peak of 922,000 in 2017 (in the same year, the number of Polish citizens in the UK was estimated at over a million). This was followed by Romania (427,000), the Republic of Ireland (360,000), Germany (289,000), and Italy (233,000).

Figure 5

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In 2019, 48% of EU nationals in the UK said they migrated to the country for work-related reasons

Compared to non-EU citizens, EU citizens are more likely to come to the UK for work. In 2019, 48% of EU citizens moving to the UK for at least a year said that work was their main reason for migrating (Figure 6). Most of those workers (65%) 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 in 2019 was study.

For more information on work-related migration, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Work Visas and Migrant Workers in the UK.

Figure 6

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In 2019, around 8% of all workers in the UK were born in an EU country

In 2019, 7.7% (2.1 million) of all workers in the UK were born in an EU country (7.6% if we restrict it to those under 65), including both employees and self-employed workers. Among the working-age EU population, 83% were in employment (Figure 7). This compares to 76% among the UK-born and 70% among the non-EU born. For more information about the labour market position of EU-born workers, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview.

The percentage of employed workers was slightly higher among workers born in EU-8 and EU-2 countries (84%) than among the EU-14-born (82%) (Figure 7). EU-2 migrants stood out for their high percentage of self-employed (22%) compared to the other two EU groups.

Figure 7

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EU immigration fell substantially after the 2016 Brexit referendum

EU immigration rose sharply in the years leading up to the EU referendum in June 2016, but has declined since 2016 – a pattern reflected in both the National Insurance Number (NINo) allocation data (Figure 8) and ONS data on long-term migration flows.

In 2019, 456,000 NINos were allocated to EU citizens, down 28% from 2015. Long-term arrivals of EU citizens planning to spend at least 12 months in the UK fell by 34% over the same period, reaching 198,000 in 2019. Because the estimated emigration of EU citizens also increased, EU net migration fell more sharply – by 77% to 50,000 in 2019 (for more detailed data, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Net migration to the UK).

Figure 8

The downward trend in 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.

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 2019, the estimated number of EU-born residents as measured by the Annual Population Survey declined, while the International Passenger Survey (LTIM data) estimated that the 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, such as that 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 are excluded from data on the non-UK citizen population, and rates of naturalisation vary significantly depending on migrants’ country of origin. Moreover, data on non-UK citizens also include many UK-born children of migrants who have themselves never migrated.


Thanks to Agnieszka Kubal and Will Somerville for helpful comments on an earlier version of this briefing; and to Mariña Fernandez-Reino for providing valuable feedback on this 2020 version.

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