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EU Migration to and from the UK

15 Feb 2022

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

  1. Key Points
    • EU immigration fell substantially after the Brexit referendum in 2016, but net migration of EU citizens continued to be positive until early 2020.
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    • Covid-19’s impact on EU migration is uncertain, although all the available data suggest that net migration of EU citizens was negative in 2020, i.e. more people left than arrived.
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    • An estimated 5.2 million EU citizens had applied to the EU Settlement Scheme by the end of September 2021, but some of these people will have left the UK.
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    • An estimated 2.1 million people held pre-settled status at the end of September 2021 and would need to reapply to EUSS to remain in the UK permanently.
      More…
    • London is the region of the UK in which EU migrants make up the highest share of the population—an estimated 18% in 2020.
      More…
    • For most of 2021, take-up of the new immigration system among EU citizens was low.
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    • The number of EU citizens stopped at the UK border increased substantially in 2021.
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    • In 2020, roughly 7% of people employed in the UK were EU born.
      More…
  1. Understanding the Policy

    Before Brexit, free movement rules gave EU citizens the right to live and work in the UK without requiring permission. From 1 January 2020, free movement ended and EU citizens migrating to the UK are subject to more restrictive immigration rules, which are the same as those facing citizens from non-EU countries. Any person moving to the UK to live or work now requires a visa. ... Click to read more.

    The new immigration rules do not apply to EU citizens and their family members who were already living in the UK before free movement ended on 31 December 2020 (or eligible family members of EU citizens who can join them at any point after this date). These people instead had to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) and secure pre-settled or settled status (Irish citizens may apply to the EUSS but are not required to). Pre-settled status is designed for people who have been living in the UK for less than 5 years, and settled status for those living in the UK for 5 years or more. Settled status gives holders the right to live and work in the UK permanently, and apply for UK citizenship if eligible. Pre-settled status is temporary and is valid for 5 years. People given this status must reapply to EUSS before their pre-settled status expires, in order to secure settled status, if they want to remain in the UK permanently. Unlike with settled status, some (but not all) people with pre-settled status face restrictions on their access to certain benefits, such as Universal Credit.

    The deadline for those living in the UK by 31 December 2020 to apply to the EUSS was 30 June 2021, although late applications are permitted where evidence is shown of reasonable grounds for missing the deadline. EU citizens with status under EUSS can be joined by family members from EU or non-EU countries if the family relationship began before the end of December 2020. For more information about the EUSS, see the Migration Observatory report, Unsettled Status – 2020: Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit?

    Newly arriving migrants who are not eligible for the EUSS or entering the UK as visitors, must obtain a visa in one of three main categories: work, family, or study. Under the rules for skilled workers, which have been described by the Government as an ‘Australian-style points-based system’, the main long-term work visa option for newly hired employees requires applicants to have a job offer for a role that is classified as middle-skilled or high-skilled occupation. These include roles that require at least A-Level education (RQF3 and above), such as engineering or laboratory technicians, butchers, and chefs. The job must meet salary thresholds, which are usually the higher of £25,600 or the ‘going rate’ for the occupation that the migrant will do (but there are some exceptions, such as for nurses and recent graduates). Workers who do not meet the criteria for long-term skilled work visas may be eligible for other routes, such as temporary work visas (e.g. the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, or youth mobility visas, which have no skill requirements). A more detailed overview of work-related migration policies and data are available in the Migration Observatory briefing, Work visas and migrant workers in the UK.

    Under the new immigration rules, EU citizens joining family members settled in the UK (Appendix FM) must meet a £18,600 income threshold. The same requirement does not apply if the person they are joining has status under the EU Settlement Scheme, provided the relationship existed at the end of the transition period and continues to exist at the time of application, or relates to a child born after the end of the transition period.

    Under free movement, EU students paid the same tuition fees as ‘Home’ students, and were entitled to the same subsidised tuition fee loans. However, following the end of free movement, the academic year 2020/21 was the last year that EU citizens enjoyed these benefits. From 1 August 2021, new EU students must apply for a student visa and have generally been subject to the higher international student tuition fees.

    Citizens of countries that are in the EEA but not the EU (namely Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein), as well as Switzerland, face effectively the same immigration rules as EU citizens (with some small differences for Swiss citizens). We use the term ‘EU citizens’ throughout the briefing for ease of understanding and because some data sources refer specifically to EU citizens. Note, however, that although Ireland is an EU country and included in some EU data, it is part of the Common Travel Area and hence subject to free movement rules, unlike other EU countries.

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    The figures used in this briefing have some important limitations, particularly when looking at data for 2020 which was seriously disrupted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. An accurate picture of EU migration will not be available until ONS starts producing regularly published migration figures using new methodologies currently under development (expected in 2023); in the meantime, we rely on the more limited data currently available. ... Click to read more.

    For estimates of the UK’s resident EU population, this briefing uses data from the Annual Population Survey (APS), which is a survey of private households in the UK. The accuracy of the data is affected by non-response. APS’s overall response rate has declined over time; it was below 50% in 2016 (ONS, 2016), and fell further during the Covid-19 pandemic. This means that migrants who were less likely to respond to the survey may be under-counted. This became a particular challenge in 2020, when migrant non-response to government surveys increased more than that of the UK-born. ONS has adjusted the APS data to try to address this problem, but there continue to be significant uncertainties in the 2020 data. For this reason, the comparison between 2020 data and that for previous years is likely to be unreliable, particularly when looking at smaller subgroups of migrants. Note also that some people are not covered by APS data, such as residents of communal establishments like hostels or student halls of residence.

    Estimates of EU migration flows to and from the UK come from ONS’s new, experimental Registration and Population Interaction Database (RAPID). While experimental and still in development, this data source is likely to be more reliable than the ONS’s long-term international migration (LTIM) estimates, which are based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS). RAPID is based on administrative data on benefits and earnings datasets for anyone with a National Insurance number (NINo). It uses the UN definition of a long-term international migrant: a person who changes their country of usual residence for a period of at least a year. The RAPID figures identify the nationality of the person at the time they registered for a NINo, and thus include EU citizens who have subsequently naturalised as British citizens. They will exclude any EU citizens who did not register for a NINo until after naturalizing – although naturalisation rates have historically been low for EU citizens and remain relatively low despite recent increases (Home Office, Section 4.2). Where equivalent RAPID data are not available, we use IPS estimates. Readers should note that these figures are thought to underestimate EU immigration, however.

    Note that different sources of data on migration often paint a slightly different picture, and there is often some uncertainty about exactly why they differ.

    This briefing provides data on the number of university applicants from the EU from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which is the UK-based organisation responsible for operating the application process for British universities. Its data is for applications for undergraduate study only, excluding applications for graduate courses. It defines EU applicants as those whose declared place of permanent residence is an EU country.

    This briefing follows the ONS classification that distinguishes between 4 different groups of EU countries based on the year they joined the EU: EU-14, EU-8, EU-2 and EU Other. The countries comprising these groups are available here.

    The term ‘migrant’ is used differently in different contexts. In this briefing, we use ‘migrant’ to refer to people who were EU citizens when they moved to the UK. Some data sources provide country of birth, and some provide nationality. Each definition has limitations. Using country of birth 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 benefit of including people who have come to the UK and naturalised – something that the nationality-based definition does not take account of. For further discussion of this terminology, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Who Counts as a Migrant: Definitions and their Consequences.

EU immigration fell substantially after the Brexit referendum in 2016 after several years of growth

EU migration has fluctuated over time (Figure 1). The first major peak in EU immigration occurred shortly after the 2004 EU enlargement and ended following the financial crisis in 2008. In the 2013-15 period before the UK’s EU referendum, the UK saw another increase in net migration from EU citizens—peaking at over 280,000 in the year ending March 2016.

After the June 2016 referendum, long-term EU migration dropped even before any new policies restricting it came into force. Possible explanations for this decline include the fall in the value of the pound, reducing the value of money earned in the UK compared to other EU countries; political uncertainty due to Brexit; and the fact that EU migration had been unusually high in the pre-referendum period and thus might be expected to have fallen anyway. Even during this period, however, net migration continued to be positive, according to ONS estimates. By the year ending 6 April 2020, net migration of EU citizens had fallen to an estimated 119,000. This was down 58% on its 2016 peak (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Declines in EU migration in the post-referendum period particularly affected migrants from new (EU-8) EU member states such as Poland. Net migration from “EU-8” Eastern European countries such as Poland fell by an estimated 126% in the 2016 to 2020 fiscal years, from 58,700 to -15,100. By contrast, net migration from “EU-14” countries such France, Germany, Italy and Spain fell by 42% during the same period.

Figure 2

Compared to non-EU citizens, EU citizens were particularly likely to come to the UK for work during the free movement period. In 2019 (the most recent year for which there are data), 48% of EU citizens moving to the UK for at least a year said that work was their main reason for migrating (ONS, 2020). Most of those work movers (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.

By 2020, the EU-born made up an estimated 5% of the total UK population of 66 million, while non-EU born people made up 9% (Office for National Statistics, 2020). The EU-born thus made up 37% of the migrant population in 2020, up from 28% in 2004 (Figure 3). By 2020, the official estimate of the EU-born population was 3.5 million, although this is likely to be an underestimate, as discussed further below.

Figure 3

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The available data suggest net migration of EU citizens was negative in 2020

Exactly what happened to EU migration during the Covid-19 pandemic remains uncertain. Covid-19 made migration data less reliable, as explained in the ‘Understanding the Evidence’ section above. Initial estimates suggesting that the migrant population could have fallen by as much as 1.3 million in 2020 are now recognised to have overstated the decline, much of which was actually driven by changes in survey response rates. ONS sought to address the problem by adjusting the data, although there is still great uncertainty. Adjusted ONS estimates suggest the EU born population resident in the UK in 2020 was around 3.6m, broadly similar to 2019.

Nonetheless, some data sources suggest that net migration of EU citizens in 2020 was negative—that is, more EU citizens left the UK than arrived. Exploratory analysis from ONS suggested a net out-migration of 94,000 EU citizens in 2020. This estimate required a lot of assumptions and thus is inherently uncertain – and ONS presented a range of –8,000 to –180,000 around that estimate highlighting that uncertainty. All of these figures will be revised in 2022, based on the results of the Census and new data sources being developed at ONS.

Negative net migration of EU citizens in 2020 is in stark contrast to the situation in previous years. Nonetheless, the figures available so far suggest that the decline in EU citizens was relatively small as a share of the total EU migrant population—that is, the large majority of EU migrants did not leave the UK.

Different parts of the UK and employers of EU migrants in different industries will not all be affected in the same way. For example, it is likely that net declines in the EU-born workforce were bigger in some industries than others, but data available at the time of writing did not allow a clear assessment of this.

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An estimated 5.2 million EU citizens had applied to the EU Settlement Scheme by the end of September 2021

Most EU citizens and their family members already living in the UK before the end of free movement were required to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) to continue living in the UK legally after 30 June 2021. (See the ‘Understanding the Policy’ section above for more details.)

One unexpected outcome of this scheme was the high number of people who applied. By the end of September 2021, an estimated 5.65 million people had applied to EUSS. This includes 5.2m EU citizens, 58,000 EEA/Swiss citizens, and 389,000 non-EEA family members. These figures are lower than the 6.2 million applications during the same period, because around 530,000 people had applied more than once. Indeed, people with pre-settled status are eventually required to apply again in order to secure settled status.

The 5.2 million EU citizen applicants by September 2021 is 1.7 million higher than the official estimate of approximately 3.4 million EU citizens living in the UK in 2020. Why the discrepancy? It is likely to be a combination of two main factors: 1) emigration—that is, the fact that some EUSS applicants no longer live in the UK; and 2) official statistics underestimating the EU migrant population. These are briefly explained below.

Emigration: Some EU citizens who applied to the EUSS no longer live in the UK. Anyone who lived in the UK by 31 December 2020, no matter how briefly, was potentially eligible to apply to the EUSS once the scheme opened fully in March 2019. In the year ending March 2020 alone, ONS estimates that more than 200,000 long-term EU migrants emigrated from the UK. This does not include short-term migrants. The estimated number of EU citizens making short-term visits to England or Wales of at least a month but less than a year averaged 370,000 in the most recent two years of data (years ending June 2018 and 2019). Not all of these people will have applied to EUSS, but the figures serve as a reminder that the potential pool of people who recently spent time in the UK and could have applied to EUSS before leaving is quite large. This means that EUSS application numbers are not a useful indicator of the current size of the EU migrant population.

Underestimate of the EU migrant population: It is likely that official population figures understate the EU-born and EU-citizen populations, although the extent of this is not known. Population estimates come from an official survey, and migrants will be undercounted if they are less likely to respond than non-migrants. Evidence from the 2011 Census and from studies in other countries has suggested this is common (Sumption, 2020). For example, the number of EU-born people in the 2011 UK Census was 167,000 or 7% higher than survey-based statistics for that year suggested (Appendix Table 1).

The 2021 Census and ongoing work at ONS to estimate the migrant population using administrative data sources is likely to shed light on this issue during 2022. Note that even if the population of EU citizens in the UK has been underestimated, this does not necessarily mean that EU immigration flows estimates are too low. This is because the two data sources use completely different methodologies.

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An estimated 2.1 million people held pre-settled status at the end of September 2021 and would need to reapply to EUSS to remain in the UK permanently

By the end of September 2021, an estimated 2,133,700 people held pre-settled status (Home Office, 2021), and thus need to reapply to EUSS if they want to remain in the UK permanently. The largest number of people who held pre-settled status at the end of September 2021 were from Romania, followed by Italy and Poland.

By the end of September 2021, approximately 247,000 people had moved from pre-settled to settled status, suggesting that around 10% of those granted pre-settled status had upgraded to settled status by that time (Table in Figure 4). This share varied by nationality, ranging from 4% of Swedish citizens to 15% of Hungarians and Italians.

Note that the share of people with pre-settled status who upgrade to settled status will never reach 100%. This is because some people with pre-settled status have left the country with no plans to return, and others will break their period of continuous residence due to absences from the UK. Without further data to understand who is still living in the UK, it will not be possible to identify what share of pre-settled status holders who need to apply for settled status have done so.

Figure 4

It is not possible to estimate the number of EU citizens who were eligible to apply to EUSS but did not do so and thus may be able to submit a late application. This is because of uncertainty about the number of EU citizens living in the UK, as well as the fact that many of those who applied to EUSS will no longer be in the country. In the first three months after the June 30 2021 EUSS deadline for those living here by 31 December 2020, there were 89,900 applications, which included a mix of late applications, joining family members and repeat applications (Home Office 2021). Most had not yet been processed as of 31 January 2021, although of the 16,400 late applications that had received a decision, 84% were granted pre-settled or settled status, and 16% did not result in a grant of status. For more discussion of the numbers of people who have not applied to EUSS, see What Now? The EU Settlement Scheme After the Deadline.

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London is the region of the UK in which EU migrants make up the highest share of the population—an estimated 18% in 2020

By 2020, an estimated 1,843,000 or around half (52%) of EU-born migrants living in the UK were from EU-14 countries such as Ireland, Italy, France and Portugal. This share had decreased from 84% in 2000, following EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007 and the resulting migration from new member states such as Poland and Romania. The top EU countries of origin for migrants in the UK thus include a range of old and new Member States (Table 1).

Table 1

EU migrants have been less likely to settle in London than non-EU migrants. However, London was nonetheless the part of the UK where the EU-born made up the highest share of the population, because of the scale of overall migration to the capital (Figure 5). Unfortunately, there is not yet reliable data on how migrants’ places of residence have changed during the pandemic, because of problems in data collection discussed above. However, the number of EU national employees declined most in London in 2020, as outlined in more detail in the briefing Work visas and migrant workers in the UK.

Figure 5

In most local authorities, the EU-born are a minority of the migrant population, although there are some exceptions, particularly in the East of England. In 2020, all of the top ten local authorities in which EU migrants made up the highest share of the population were in London, including Kensington and Chelsea (39%), Westminster (29%), and Tower Hamlets (28%). More information is available in the Migration Observatory briefing, Where do migrants live in the UK? and in the Migration Observatory’s Local Data Guide.

EU-born migrants are more likely to be in the 25 to 44-year-old age group, compared to non-EU migrants, but especially compared to the UK-born (Table 2). About 12% of EU-born migrants were children in 2018-2020. However, the number of EU citizen children is much higher. This is because there is a substantial number of UK-born EU citizen children. (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.) For more detail on citizenship and children, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Citizenship and naturalisation for migrants in the UK.

Table 2

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For most of 2021, take-up of the new immigration system among EU citizens was relatively low

In the first nine months after free movement ended, from 1 January to 30 September 2021, EU citizens made up around 6% of visa applications, excluding visitor visas. This included around 49,100 EU citizens applying for visas, around half of whom (25,200) applied for work visas.

These figures include short-term workers and “frontier workers”—a one-off cohort of people who do not live in the UK but conducted some work here before the end of 2020. Long-term immigration levels from EU citizens will thus be substantially lower. If we exclude frontier workers, around 14,100 EU citizens applied for work visas in January-September 2021, making up 8% of the total. This included just under 8,200 EU citizens applying for skilled worker visas (including health and care visas). Numbers increased in each quarter from Q1 to Q3 2021, which may result from employers and individuals adjusting to the new system, or economic recovery as the UK emerged from the Covid-19 lockdown in the first quarter of the year. It is also likely that some workers brought forward moves to the UK that would otherwise have happened in early 2021, in order to avoid facing the new immigration rules; this effect will be temporary.

Figure 6

By contrast, in the year ending March 2019, even after EU migration had already fallen substantially post-referendum, an estimated 410,000 EU citizens made up 58% of non-UK citizens moving long term to the UK (see Figure 1, above). The share of EU citizens is thus substantially down compared to the pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit trend, although the figures are still likely to change over time as people adjust to the new system.

London was the intended destination for a majority of EU citizens on skilled work visas in the first half of the year, as detailed in the Migration Observatory briefing, Which parts of the UK are attracting the most skilled workers from overseas?

There has also been a decline in the number of EU applicants for undergraduate study, with 40% fewer applicants for study in the 2021 academic year (beginning in September) than in the 2020 academic year (Figure 7). This decline took place despite an increase in non-EU international student applications, suggesting that Brexit (which only affected EU citizens and their family members) is likely to play a role and not just the pandemic. This includes factors such as the need to apply for a visa and higher international student tuition fees.

Figure 7

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The number of EU citizens stopped at the UK border increased substantially in 2021

The end of free movement and EU membership greatly increased the circumstances under which border officers could turn EU citizens away at the border. As a result, the number of EU citizens stopped at the border for questioning sharply increased in 2021. In the first nine months of the year, just over 12,500 EU citizens were stopped at the border for further questioning, before being either admitted or refused entry. This compares to around 2,800 in the whole of 2019 (Figure 8). The majority (around 7,400) were Romanian.

A variety of factors affect the number of people refused entry, including overall travel volumes, decision-making by border officers, and travellers’ knowledge and understanding of changes in the rules. EU citizens do not require a visa to enter the UK to visit, but border officers have discretion to turn them away if they believe that they are likely to violate the immigration rules, such as by working without permission.

Figure 8

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In 2020, 7% of people employed in the UK were EU born

In 2020, an estimated 7% (2.3 million) of all workers in the UK under age 65 were EU born, including both employees and the self-employed. Among the working-age EU population, 81% were in employment (Figure 9). This compares to 75% among the UK-born, and 71% 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 (79%). EU-2 migrants stood out for their high percentage of self-employed (20%) compared to the other two EU groups.

Figure 9

EU migrants in the UK labour market work in a wide range of occupations and industries. In 2020, the largest employers of EU-born workers were the retail and manufacturing industries. This share was highest for workers from EU-8 countries such as Poland and EU-2 countries such as Romania (Figure 10). People born in EU-14 countries were most likely to be working in the education or health sectors.

The balance of jobs that EU workers do is expected to shift over time as a result of Brexit and the new immigration system, which—compared to free movement—greatly restricted the options for EU citizens to work in occupations that are not classified as skilled (i.e. not requiring at least A-Level education and meeting salary thresholds). The pandemic has also affected the balance of jobs available. For example, total employment (of people of any nationality) in the retail sector declined sharply in the spring of 2020 and was still well below pre-pandemic levels in October 2021, while the health and social work sector continued to grow throughout the pandemic (ONS, 2021). However, due to data limitations it is not yet possible to pick up how these changes have affected the jobs that EU workers in the UK are doing.

Figure 10

Evidence Gaps and Limitations

The Covid-19 pandemic greatly reduced the quality of migration data, making it challenging to work out exactly what has happened to EU migration and EU migrants since the beginning of 2020. Some sources that exist are not currently published. For example, HMRC holds data on the number of pay rolled employees by industry and nationality at the time of registering for a National Insurance Number—data that would allow a much better overview of how EU citizen employment has shifted during the pandemic and under the new immigration system—but these figures have not been published.

Different sources of data on migration and migrants in the UK are not always consistent with each other. 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 extent to which survey data sources underestimate the foreign-born population may become clearer when the results of the 2021 Census (2022 in Scotland) are known. A recent study examining social media profiles that a Facebook algorithm determines to be ‘expats’, suggested that the Labour Force Survey underestimated the number of EU migrants in the UK by around 20% (Rampazzo et al, 2021). Facebook does not publish information about how expats are defined in its data, however.

Appendix Table 1

 England and WalesScotlandNorthern IrelandTotal UK
Census2,442,976157,86283,1642,684,002
APS2,293,000154,00070,0002,517,000
Source: ONS Population by Nationality and Country of Birth, 2011 (Table 1.1) – first edition before Census-based revisions; and 2011 Census.

 

Acknowledgements

This briefing was produced with the support of Trust for London and the Economic and Social Research Council (EU Right and Brexit Hub, ES/S007385/1). Thanks to Zachary Strain for research assistance, and to staff at the Home Office for helpful comments on a previous draft.

References

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Peter William Walsh

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