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Family Migration to the UK

06 Jul 2021

This briefing examines the migration of family members to the UK. This includes both ‘family unification’, where migrants come to live in the UK with family members who are either British citizens or settled residents; and the migration of ‘dependants’, who are the family members of migrants coming to the UK on temporary visas.

  1. Key Points
    • COVID-19 had a substantial impact on family migration to the UK in 2020.
      More…
    • Long-term family migration to the UK was relatively stable from 2000 to 2019, averaging an estimated 65,000 a year.
      More…
    • In 2019, there were an estimated four million family migrants in the UK, with most born outside the EU.
      More…
    • In 2018, an estimated 96% of non-EU family unification migrants were partners or children.
      More…
    • Family migrants are more likely to settle in the UK than workers or students.
      More…
    • Family unification migrants are usually on a five-year route to settlement, and typically pay fees of around £8,000 from initial entry to settlement.
      More…
    • In 2019, South Asia and Africa were the most common regions of nationality for family migrants to the UK.
      More…
    • Among non-EU family migrants, dependants of temporary visa holders outnumber family unification migrants, but are less likely to settle.
      More…
  1. Understanding the Policy

    This briefing examines two types of family migration: ‘family unification’ and ‘dependant’ migration. ... Click to read more.

    Family unification refers to migrants entering or remaining in the UK to live with family members who are British citizens or non-British settled residents. These people can include spouses or civil partners; fiancé(e)s or proposed civil partners; unmarried partners (including same-sex partners); children; and, in a smaller number of cases, adult or elderly dependent relatives. Dependant migration refers to people who come to the UK as the family members of migrants who do not have settlement or British citizenship and are in the UK on a temporary visa, such as for work or study.

    Whichever category a family migrant belongs to, they will usually have no recourse to public funds, which means they cannot access housing support or benefits (except benefits based on National Insurance contributions), until they receive settlement (also known as indefinite leave to remain).

    Family migration rules are designed primarily to admit spouses or children. Adult or elderly dependent relatives may come only under certain restricted circumstances. For example, it must be demonstrated that they require long-term personal care to perform everyday tasks, and that such care can be provided only in the UK by their sponsoring family member, and without recourse to public funds.

    From November 2010, non-EU nationals applying to enter or extend their stay as a partner of a British citizen or settled resident were required to demonstrate a level of English language proficiency, with some exceptions. In this briefing, “EU” includes Switzerland and the three EEA countries, Liechtenstein, Iceland, and Norway, which are not subject to immigration control.

    Since July 2012, if a non-EU citizen applies as a partner of a British citizen or non-British citizen with settlement (ILR), the sponsor must have an annual income of at least £18,600, or £22,400 if the partner sponsored is bringing one child, plus £2,400 for each of any additional children. This is the ‘minimum income threshold’ (see the Migration Observatory report, The Minimum Income Requirement for Non-EEA Family Members in the UK).

    A partner may usually apply for permanent settlement after five years of residence in the UK. However, some family migrants must wait ten years before applying for settlement. This usually happens when people do not meet the mainstream requirements for family visas, but are granted status in the UK on human rights grounds.

    On 30 March 2019, the government launched a new family route, the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) family permit. This allows entry into the UK, subject to certain conditions, of a non-UK citizen whose family member is a British citizen or EU citizen who is protected by the EU Withdrawal Agreement. In most cases, this will involve EU citizens who were already living in the UK before the end of December 2020, and who already had a family relationship at that point with the person coming to join them in the UK. The EUSS family permit lasts for six months, and their holders must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme in the normal way (including after the deadline) to continue living in the UK.

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    Data on family migration to the UK is spread across multiple sources. Each source defines family migration differently, and hence produces different estimates of it. ... Click to read more.

    The main source of information on the family migration of both EU and non-EU citizens are the long-term international migration (LTIM) estimates produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These are based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS), which was suspended in March 2020 due to the pandemic and will no longer be used to provide new migration estimates. The IPS is a sample survey conducted at all of the UK’s major airports and sea routes, and the Channel Tunnel. The IPS defines a migrant as a respondent who states that they intend to come to the UK for one year or more. Migrant respondents are then asked to provide their “main reason” for migrating. The question is an open one and the answers are coded by an interviewer into one of four categories, including to “accompany/join” a family member, which encompasses both family unification and dependant migration. In deriving from the IPS, a sample survey, the LTIM estimates have a margin of error.

    ONS is developing new migration statistics to replace the IPS-based LTIM estimates. These are based primarily on administrative data. ONS has used these data to provide new provisional estimates of net migration from the year ending March 2013 to the year ending March 2020. However, ONS has not broken down these estimates by the type of migration, and so has not provided new estimates of family migration.

    A second source of information comes from Home Office administrative data on visas issued. Data on visa issuances in this briefing are confined to non-EU citizens, because before the end of free movement EU citizens did not require visas to come to the UK. Although this briefing presents data on visa issuances to non-EU citizens only, it will be updated with visa data for EU citizens in future. The Home Office classifies individuals by the type of visa they were granted, which includes visas to enter the UK, and any subsequent grants of extensions of stay in the UK, as well as grants of settlement (indefinite leave to remain).

    Unlike ONS’s LTIM estimates, the Home Office’s visa data organise family migration into three main categories: “family” visas (i.e., visas for the purposes of family unification, where the visa is given on the basis of a migrant’s relationship to a British citizen or a person settled in the UK); “dependants joining or accompanying” (i.e., dependants, where the visa is given on the basis of a migrant’s relationship to another migrant who is not settled in the UK or a British citizen, and who is on a route without a specific visa for dependants); and “EEA family permits” and “EU Settlement Scheme family permits”, which are for non-EU migrants to enter or remain in the UK as family members of EU or British citizens.

    Home Office visa statistics include people entering or staying in the UK for any period of time, and not just a year or more. This is one reason that Home Office estimates of non-EU family migration are bigger than those based on IPS data (as seen in Figures 3 and 7). Other reasons for the difference include: some people issued visas do not arrive in the UK, which would prevent them from being included in IPS counts; the visa granted might be different from the main reason of stay stated in response to the IPS; and some people switch visas while in the UK, which might create a further inconsistency with their stated reason for migration in response to the IPS.

    Dependant visas are granted by the Home Office to the dependants of a “main applicant”. The dependant(s) is usually recorded under the immigration route of the main applicant (e.g., as a dependant of a worker or student). There are also visas which act as a catch-all for dependants who have been issued a visa on the basis of their relationship with another migrant, who is not a settled person or British citizen. These are included within the Home Office category “Dependants joining/accompanying” (usually referred to in this briefing as “Dependant”) and may have been issued a visa for any reason (e.g., work, study, family). There are also data on the dependants of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers and their dependants are not issued visas and are recorded separately by the Home Office. These figures do not include people who join someone who has already been granted refugee status or humanitarian protection.

    This briefing uses Home Office data on the visa status of non-EU migrants over time, known as ‘Migrant Journey’ data. These data provide the immigration status of an annual cohort of new visa recipients at the end of each calendar year after their arrival. This information can be used to calculate the share of those issued a visa in a given year who have received a grant of settlement (or citizenship, which requires settlement) in subsequent years, especially within five or ten years (Home Office, 2021a). In this briefing, we instead look at the share with settlement at the end of the sixth year after initial visa issuance, to take account of the time it takes for settlement applications to be processed. This briefing sometimes groups people who hold either settlement or citizenship together, because a grant of citizenship requires settlement. Data on people issued visas in each route also include their dependent family members. Thus, for example, dependants of work migrants will generally be included in the ‘work’ settlement figures, not in ‘family’.

    This briefing also presents Home Office administrative data on non-EEA border admissions, which are compiled from samples of landing cards completed by passengers arriving at UK ports of entry. Landing cards stopped being collected in 2019, so 2018 is the last year for which there are border admissions data.

COVID-19 had a substantial impact on family migration to the UK in 2020

The impact of the pandemic upon family migration to the UK is seen in visa issuances to non-EU migrants (who require visas to move to the UK for family purposes). In 2020, around 155,000 family-related visas and permits were issued – 18% fewer than in 2019. There is no data on family migration of EU citizens in 2020, although it is likely to have fallen due to the sharp decline in EU net migration overall during the pandemic (ONS, 2021).

The 155,000 figure comprises three categories of family-related visa or permit: (1) visas issued for family reunification (mostly to partners and children); (2) visas issued to the dependants of temporary migrants; and (3) EEA family permits and EU Settlement Scheme permits, which grant permission to the family members of EU citizens to enter or remain in the UK.

The sharp fall in visa issuances seen across the family migration system was largely confined to Q2 2020 (1 April to 30 June), with a bounce-back in the third and fourth quarters (Figure 1). In Q4 2020, total issuances were 15% higher than in Q4 2019.

Figure 1

On 31 December 2020, EU freedom of movement ended. As a result, some EU citizens are now required to apply for family visas in the same way that non-EU citizens do, although there are exceptions for certain non-UK citizens joining an EU citizen who has status under the EU Settlement Scheme. Take-up of the new immigration system by EU citizens has been small. In Q1 2021, 714 EU citizens applied for family-related visas, including as the family members of British citizens or settled residents (33), the family members of migrants on temporary visas (333), or under the EU Settlement Scheme family permit route (348). By comparison, 61,214 non-EU citizens applied for family-related visas in the same quarter, including the dependents of people on temporary visas such as workers or students.

In recent years, small numbers of EU citizens have been issued EEA family permits (around 2,100 since 2005), and 5 were issued EU Settlement Scheme family permits in 2019–2020.

The rest of this briefing presents long-term trends in family migration to the UK, up to 2019, before the pandemic.

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Long-term family migration to the UK was relatively stable from 2000 to 2019, averaging an estimated 65,000 a year

Family migration to the UK was relatively stable from 2000 to 2019, averaging an estimated 65,000 a year. This contrasts with work, study, and asylum migration, which have risen and fallen more dramatically over time.

Family migration was lower in earlier decades. From 1982 (when records began) to 1989, it averaged an estimated 38,000 per year. In the 1990s, it rose to an estimated average of 42,000 per year.

Despite this increase in family migration, from 2000 onwards family immigration has made up a smaller share of all immigration than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s, due to a rise in total immigration (Figure 2). In 1989, family immigration made up an estimated 37% of all long-term immigration to the UK, its highest share on record. In recent years, it has made up 10–15%.

Family migration did, however, begin a moderate decline after 2006. This coincided with a fall in overall migration after 2008, and may have also been driven by the introduction of the English language requirement in 2010 and minimum income threshold in 2012 (see the Migration Observatory commentary, How many people have been prevented from bringing a partner to the UK due to the £18,600 minimum income requirement?).

Figure 2

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In 2019, there were an estimated four million family migrants in the UK, with most born outside the EU

According to the Annual Population Survey, in 2019 there were an estimated 9.4 million foreign-born people living in the UK. Of these, an estimated four million said that the main reason they originally moved to the UK was to join or accompany a family member. This means that 45% of all the foreign-born in the UK are family migrants, equivalent to 6% of the UK’s population of 66 million.

Although family migration makes up a small share of total migrant inflows to the UK (Figure 2), because family migrants are more likely to settle (see next section), they make up a larger share of the migrant population living in the UK, relative to work migrants or students (Figure 3).

Figure 3

The number of family migrants born in the EU and the rest of the world has increased steadily from 2011 to 2019. In 2019, 30% of family migrants in the UK were born in an EU country, and 70% were born in the rest of the world (Figure 4).

Figure 4

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In 2018, an estimated 96% of non-EU family unification migrants were partners or children

A large majority of people admitted to the UK for family unification are partners or children: 96% in 2018, according to data on admissions at the UK border (Home Office, 2021). The most common category of family unification migrant is wives, who in 2018 constituted 56% (8,900) of all such passenger arrivals, while husbands made up 19%, civil partners 7%, and children 11% (Home Office, 2019).

Statistics are not regularly published on the number of adult or elderly dependent relatives (ADRs) admitted. However, the Home Office (2018, p. 119) has said that the number of ADR visas issued has been small since July 2012, when new rules came into effect restricting their entry: 2,782 ADR visa applications were made from 9 July 2012 to 31 December 2015, of which 606 were successful – contributing an average share of around 0.5% of all family unification visas per year.

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Family migrants are more likely to settle in the UK than workers or students

Of all migrants issued a family unification visa in 2014, 69% (around 20,100) had received settlement or British citizenship by the end of 2020. This compares with 29% of those issued a dependant visa, 13% of those who came to the UK in 2014 on an initial work visa, and 0.1% of those issued a study visa (Figure 5).

One reason that dependants settle less than family unification migrants is that their stay in the UK depends on the length of stay of the ‘main applicant’. Among main applicants, rates of settlement are lower for those on work or study visas than for those on family unification visas (for further information on settlement see The Migration Observatory briefing, Migrant Settlement in the UK).

Figure 5

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Family unification migrants are usually on a five-year route to settlement, and typically pay fees of around £8,000 from initial entry to settlement

Of the roughly 20,000 family unification migrants granted settlement in 2020, around three-quarters received their initial visa in 2012 to 2014, consistent with a typical route to settlement of five years (Figure 6). Note that these figures do not yet reflect the expansion in the number of family migrants on a ten-year route to settlement, which took place after 2014.

Figure 6

It is expensive to settle in the UK as a family member of a British citizen or settled resident. For example, a partner on a five-year route to settlement will have to pay a minimum of around £8,000 in immigration fees; a partner on a ten-year route to settlement will have to pay around £13,000; and for a partner and child immigration fees up to and including settlement would cost around £15,500 (Table 1).

Table 1

Minimum cost of three typical routes to settlement for family migrants, as at 6 April 2021
Excludes legal fees and priority services

RouteItemFee
Partner on five year route(1) Initial visa application (from outside the UK)£1,523
(2) Extension visa application after 2.5 years (from inside the UK)

(3) Biometric enrolment
£1,033

£19.20
(4) Immigration Health Surcharge (for five years)£3,120 (£624 x 5)
(5) Settlement (“indefinite leave to remain”)

(6) Biometric enrolment
£2389

£19.20
(7) Life in the UK test£50
Total£8,153.40
Partner on ten year route(1) Initial visa application (from inside the UK)£1,033
(2) Extension visa application 1 (from inside the UK)

(3) Biometric enrolment
£1,033

£19.20
(4) Extension visa application 2 (from inside the UK)

(5) Biometric enrolment
£1,033

£19.20
(6) Extension visa application 3 (from inside the UK)

(7) Biometric enrolment
£1,033

£19.20
(8) Immigration Health Surcharge (for ten years)£6,240 (£624 x 10)
(9) Settlement (“indefinite leave to remain”)

(10) Biometric enrolment
£2,389

£19.20
(11) Life in the UK test£50
Total£12,887.80
Partner and child (under 18) on five year route(1) Initial visa application (partner; outside the UK)£1,523
(2) Initial visa application (child; outside the UK)£1,523
(3) Extension visa application (partner; inside the UK)

(4) Biometric enrolment
£1,033

£19.20
(5) Extension visa application (child; inside the UK)

(6) Biometric enrolment
£1,033

£19.20
(7) Immigration Health Surcharge (partner; for five years)£3,120 (£624 x 5)
(8) Immigration Health Surcharge (child; for five years)£2,350 (£470 x 5)
(9) Settlement (“indefinite leave to remain”) x2

(10) Biometric enrolment x2
£4,778 (£2,389 x 2)

£38.40 (£19.20 x2)
(11) Life in the UK test (for partner only)£50
Total£15,486.80

Source: Home Office immigration and nationality fees: 6 April 2021.
Notes: The table does not include other potential fees such as: professional document translation, which is required if relevant documents are not in English or Welsh; English language tests; the use of immigration lawyers; and the higher costs of the optional priority services. For the ten-year route, the in-country application is used in the itemised list above because most applicants will already be in the UK.

At the end of 2020, around 193,000 family unification migrants had valid leave to remain but not settlement. These people will generally have no recourse to public funds (as noted in Understanding the Policy). Note that these figures will not include many people on ten-year routes to settlement, who are typically already in the UK when they are granted status.

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In 2019, South Asia and Africa were the most common regions of nationality for family migrants to the UK

In recent years, the EU and South Asia (comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) have been the most common regions of nationality for family migrants to the UK (Table 2). However, in 2019, Africa overtook the EU as family migration from the latter is estimated to have almost halved.

These figures in part reflect the higher levels of total immigration of citizens from these regions. But they also reflect differences between nationalities in the share of long-term migrants to the UK who are family migrants. For example, in 2019 34% of African migration to the UK was family-related, while for South Asian citizens it was around a quarter (24%), and for EU citizens it was an estimated 6%.

Table 2

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Among non-EU family migrants, dependants of temporary visa holders outnumber family unification migrants, but are less likely to settle

From 2005 to 2020, the dependants of migrants on temporary visas have always outnumbered family unification migrants (Figure 7). As noted earlier, however, dependants of migrants on temporary visas are less likely to settle in the UK.

Figure 7

The post-2012 increase in the issuance of EEA family permits coincided with an increase in the population of EU migrants during this period (see the Migration Observatory briefing, EU Migration to and from the UK).

Among dependants of people on temporary visas, the largest category is dependants of migrants on work visas (Figure 8).

Figure 8

Evidence Gaps and Limitations

There is no single definition of family migration used across all datasets, making evidence from different datasets inconsistent with each other. Moreover, EU citizens and non-EU citizens are covered by different datasets, which are also incomparable.

ONS estimates of long-term international migration are based on the International Passenger Survey. The limitations of the IPS have been known for years, leading in 2019 to ONS downgrading its LTIM estimates from “National Statistics” status to “Experimental Statistics”, reflecting a lower level of reliability.

In a 2014 report on the quality of its long-term international migration estimates from 2001 to 2011, ONS (2014) announced revisions to its net migration estimates for that decade, based on evidence that they had substantially underestimated migration from the EU-8  countries. However, no revised estimates have been provided for the more detailed breakdown of immigration by citizenship and reason for migration, meaning that this briefing has relied upon figures which are now thought to be inaccurate.

In 2020, ONS stopped using the IPS as its major source of migration statistics, and has begun introducing new provisional estimates based on administrative data. These new provisional estimates suggest that from 2013 to 2020, the IPS-derived LTIM statistics underestimated total net migration, substantially underestimated EU migration, and overestimated non-EU migration. As a result, future estimates of EU family migration during this period – including those presented in this briefing – are likely to be revised.

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