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Family Migration to the UK

06 Oct 2023

This briefing examines the migration of family members to the UK. This includes migration of people who come to join British or settled residents in the UK, families of refugees, as well as people joining or accompanying migrants who hold temporary status.

  1. Key Points
    • Between 2009 and 2022, the level of family unification migration to the UK was lower than migration for work or study.
    • In 2022, an estimated 3.5 million people living in the UK said they had originally moved to join a British citizen or settled resident.
    • People on family unification visas are more likely to settle long-term in the UK than those on work or study visas.
    • Family migrants are usually on a five-year route to settlement, though ten-year routes have become more common in recent years.
    • The UK has comparatively restrictive economic requirements for the sponsors of family unification migrants.
    • A partner who comes to the UK on a family unification visa could face immigration costs of around £12,500 on a typical route to citizenship.
    • Over 90% of the people who enter the UK as families of refugees are women and children.
    • Since 2020, dependants of workers and students have significantly outnumbered family unification migrants.
    • Since 2016, the proportion of male dependants among study and work visa holders has increased significantly.
    • Work visa holders who come to the UK with dependants are more likely to obtain permanent status than those who come alone.
  1. Understanding the Policy

    This briefing examines three types of family migration. The first, “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. The second type of family migration is refugee family reunion (or simply “family reunion”). It includes people who come join a relative with refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK. The third type of family migration is of “dependants”. These are 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 any other temporary visa, such as for work or study. ... Click to read more.

    On 30 March 2019, the government launched a new family route, the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) family permit. This allows for entry into the UK of a non-EU-citizen family member of an EU citizen who has been granted settled status or pre-settled status under the EUSS.

    Family unification

    Family members of UK citizens or permanent residents can apply for a family visa to join them in the UK. The only family members eligible for family unification visas are 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.

    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 addition, since July 2012, the British citizen or permanent resident who acts as a sponsor needs to meet specific income requirements. They must have an annual income of at least £18,600, or £22,400 if the partner sponsored brings one child, plus £2,400 for each additional child.

    In December 2023, the Home Secretary announced a significant increase to this minimum income threshold, more than doubling it to £38,700. The stated reason for this policy change is to ensure that only those who can financially support their families are eligible for a visa, although the required income exceeds the earnings of most full-time employees in the UK. At the time of writing, the policy is due to be introduced via a ‘phased’ approach. The threshold will start at £29,000 in Spring 2024, then increase to £34,500 before reaching £38,700 in early 2025. There will be no more child element to the income requirement. See the MigObs commentary on the 2024 minimum income threshold.

    In July 2012, the UK also implemented stricter eligibility criteria for the Adult Dependant Relative route, which UK citizens and settled residents use to bring, for example, parents or grandparents to the country. Since this rule change, the adult relative needs to prove that they require long-term personal care to perform daily tasks as a result of age, illness, or disability; that this care is not available or affordable in their country of origin; and that the sponsor can maintain the applicant in the UK without access to public funds.

    Family unification visa holders may apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR, also known as settlement) after five years of residence in the UK. Until then, they usually have no access to public funds.

    Refugee family reunion

    Refugee family reunion is the pathway through which the family members of a person with recognised refugee status or humanitarian protection can join them in the UK. Typically, only spouses, unmarried partners (including same-sex partners), and children under 18 are eligible for family reunion. The refugee and the applicant must have been part of a family and lived together before the refugee was forced to leave the country. Separately from refugee family reunion, asylum applicants’ partners and minor children can also stay in the UK as dependants if they arrive in the UK with the person seeking asylum, known as the “main applicant”. The dependants on an application receive the same outcome as the main applicant. Family members of refugees can apply for ILR.

    New humanitarian visa schemes for Ukrainians and British National Overseas status holders have broader definitions of family than those that apply to most refugees. The protection schemes created to admit people fleeing Ukraine include as dependants the siblings, adult children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews, parents-in-law, and other relatives of the main applicant. Hong Kong British National Overseas visa holders (BNOs) can also bring other dependant relatives, provided they lived with the main applicant and are highly dependent on them due to illness, disability or age.


    Until recently, most work or study migrants could apply to bring their families to the UK as “dependants”. However, in March 2023, a new policy announced by the Home Office will mean that from 2024, sponsored students will no longer be eligible to bring dependants, unless they are enrolled in research postgraduate programs.

    Only spouses, partners (including same-sex partners) and children below 16 of the main applicant are eligible to apply as dependants. Children aged 16 or older can be accepted as dependants in some circumstances.

    Dependants are on the same route for settlement as the main applicant and do not have access to public funds until they obtain ILR. Children born in the UK to migrants who are not permanent residents do not automatically become British citizens; they must also apply for a dependant visa under the same route as their parents.

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    This briefing draws mainly upon Home Office administrative data on visas issued. The Home Office classifies individuals by the type of visa or grant of protection they were granted, any subsequent grants of extensions of stay in the UK, and grants of settlement (ILR). ... Click to read more.

    The Home Office breaks down family migration into four main categories: “family” visas (i.e., visas for family unification) and “dependants” (i.e., those joining family members on temporary visas, such as for work or study); “dependants joining/accompanying; and “EEA family permits”, for non-EU migrants who enter or remain in the UK as family members of EU nationals.

    To differentiate family visas from other types of leave granted to individuals joining or accompanying temporary migrants in the UK, this report uses the term “family unification visa” to refer specifically to visas granted to family members of UK citizens or settled residents.

    Dependant visas are recorded by the Home Office 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 based on 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” (referred to in this briefing as “Dependant”) and may have been issued a visa for any reason (e.g., work, study, family).

    Lastly, the “Family: other” category in the Home Office entry clearance dataset combines refugee family reunion visas and family unification visas under the ‘Parent Route’. Since refugees’ families are treated separately in this briefing, the ‘Family: other’ category was excluded from all estimates on family unification.

    We also use the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Long-term international immigration estimates for 2022 and compare them with Home Office information on entry visas issued. These ONS data were developed using new methods of measuring migration. These include tax and benefits records contained in the Registration and Population Interaction Database (RAPID) and Home Office data on visas granted and entries and exits at the border. These data sources can potentially improve migration statistics but are not yet labelled National Statistics and are presented as “experimental”. As such, they have significant limitations and a high degree of uncertainty.

    To determine the total number of family migrants currently residing in the UK, regardless of when they came into the country, we use the 2022 Annual Population Survey (APS). This survey provides information on the primary reasons that individuals went to the UK, including family unification or as the dependants of temporary migrants. The Annual Population Survey (APS) is obtained by merging waves one and five of four LFS quarters and data from the Annual Local (Area) Labour Force Survey (LLFS) Boosts for England, Scotland, and Wales.

Between 2009 and 2022, the level of family unification migration to the UK was lower than migration for work or study

The number of family unification visas issued by the UK remained relatively stable from 2009 to 2022, averaging approximately 38,000 per year. During this period, the levels of family unification migration have been consistently lower than those observed for work or study reasons (Figure 1). In the first two quarters of 2023, the Home Office recorded a two-fold increase in family unification visas issued. The rise has been recorded for migrants coming from all world regions. It remains to be seen whether this level will be sustained.

Between 2009 and 2012, family unification visas fell by almost 20%. This decline could have been driven by the introduction of the English language requirement in 2010, changes in the Adult Dependant Relative route, and the application of the 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 1

Long-term immigration (LTIM) estimates produced by ONS also reveal the stability and lower levels of family unification to the UK over the past couple of years compared to work and study migration (Figure 2).

The reason why LTIM estimates for family migration are consistently higher than those reported under Home Office data could be due to several factors, including differences in the way the ONS categorises the reasons for migration.

Figure 2

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In 2022, an estimated 3.5 million people living in the UK said they had originally moved to join a British citizen or settled resident

According to the Annual Population Survey, in 2022, an estimated 10 million foreign-born people were living in the UK. Of these, approximately 3.5 million said that they originally moved to the country mainly to join or accompany a British citizen or UK-settled resident. This means that over 35% of all the foreign-born in the UK are family unification migrants.

Although family unification makes up a small share of total migrant inflows to the UK (Figure 1), family unification migrants are more likely to settle (see next section). As a result, they make up a larger share of the migrant population living in the UK relative to work migrants or students (Figure 3).

Women are significantly more likely than men to state that they moved to the UK to join a British citizen or settled resident (Figure 3). Among the adult population (aged 18 or older), over 60% of family unification migrants are women.

Figure 3

Around eight in ten family unification visa holders are partners of the sponsor

In 2022, approximately 84% of all family unification visa holders were partners of the sponsor, and 15% were children (Home Office Statistics, Entry Clearance Visas, Table Vis_D02, YE March 2023).

Statistics are not regularly published on the number of adult or elderly dependent relatives (ADRs) admitted to the UK. However, the Home Office (2018) 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. Between 2017 and 2020, 97% of visa applications under this route were refused. According to a report published by the House of Lords, in 2021 and 2022, only one visa was issued to a parent or grandparent of a British citizen or settled resident under the ADR route. Drawing on qualitative data, the same publication suggested that the low number of ADR visas issued following the implementation of new rules may be attributed to the stringent eligibility criteria for this route. These require the sponsor to demonstrate that they meet the minimum financial requirements to care for a relative in the UK while proving that such care is neither available nor affordable in the individual’s country of origin.

Most people on family unification visas are women. Of all people granted this type of visa in 2022, 61% were women, 25% were men, and 13% were children. These data align with ONS estimates on the population of family unification migrants by sex, shown in Figure 3.

In 2022, 38% of family unification visas were granted to nationals of South Asian countries, while 19% were granted to nationals of Sub-Saharan African countries. Nearly half of the migrants granted family unification visas in 2022 are from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nigeria. These nationalities are also more likely to come to the UK on study and work visas.

Table 1

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People on family unification visas are more likely to settle long-term in the UK than those on work or study visas

Of all people granted a family unification visa in 2012, 82% had citizenship or indefinite leave to remain by 2022. Family unification visa holders are significantly more likely to settle in the UK than holders of work or study visas (Figure 4).

Figure 4

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Family migrants are usually on a five-year route to settlement, though ten-year routes have become more common in recent years

Of the roughly 33,000 family unification visa holders granted settlement in 2022, around three-quarters received their initial visa from 2015 to 2018, consistent with a typical route to settlement of five years (Figure 5). On average, migrants on work or student visas take significantly longer to settle.

Figure 5

However, in recent years, an increasing share of family unification migrants have been on a ten-year route to settlement. This will not be reflected fully in the settlement statistics for another few years because most are not yet eligible for settlement. However, the increase in individuals taking a longer route to settlement can be seen by looking at the share of people with leave to remain seven years after initially being issued a family unification visa. For example, of the roughly 29,000 people issued a family unification visa in 2014, 15% (around 4,400) had valid leave to remain, but not settlement or citizenship, at the end of 2021 (Figure 6). This share is around three times greater than for cohorts arriving from 2004 to 2010 before the current system of ten-year routes to settlement was introduced. It is likely that once the new minimum income threshold comes into effect in April 2024, more family unification migrants will be allowed entry into the UK based on “exceptional circumstances” for failing to meet the income requirement, which will put them on 10-year routes for settlement.

Figure 6

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The UK has comparatively restrictive economic requirements for the sponsors of family unification migrants

The UK’s main economic requirement for the sponsors of family unification migrants is a minimum income threshold. Since July 2012, if a non-EU citizen applies as a partner of a British citizen or non-British citizen with settlement (i.e., 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.

From April 2024, the minimum income requirement for partner visas will increase to £29,000, rising to £38,700 by early 2025 (see the Understanding the Policy section). The new UK minimum income requirement stands out in relation to other countries’ policies by linking the threshold to the level of skilled salaries, rather than the minimum wage. It will probably render most UK employers ineligible to bring a partner to the country (see the MigObs commentary on the 2023 income requirement for partner visas).

More broadly, the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) analyses 56 countries with respect to their policies for integrating migrants. The index comprises eight policy areas, one of which is ‘family reunion’. Within the policy area of family reunion, there are ten policy indicators, covering, for example, eligibility criteria for family migrants, integration requirements for family migrants, economic resources and accommodation requirements for sponsors, and the rights granted by family visas. The MIPEX analysis of these ten indicators ranks the UK as the second most restrictive country of the 56 analysed when it comes to family migration policy.

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Over 90% of the people who enter the UK as families of refugees are women and children

In 2022, the UK issued around 8,100 visas to the family members of refugees, either through refugee family reunion (where family members join those granted asylum or humanitarian protection) or as the dependants of successful main asylum applicants. This represents less than 1% of the total migrant visas issued in the same year.

From 2010 to 2022, the UK issued a total of 257,284 grants of refugee status and other protection. This figure includes people coming to the country as resettled refugees and under the family reunion route. In this period, the number of grants of protection given to main asylum applicants (107,397) was similar to the number of grants issued to refugees’ family members (96,709), either as dependants of main applicants or under the refugee family reunion route (Home Office Statistics, Asylum and Resettlement, Table Asy_D01, YE March 2023 and Home Office Statistics, Family Reunion visas grants, Table Fam_D01, YE March 2023.

Families of refugees tend to enter the UK after the refugee has arrived in the country and secured asylum. From 2010 to 2022, of the grants of protection issued to family members, approximately 70% were given through family reunion, with the remaining 30% being given to the dependants of main asylum applicants.

From 1 January 2019 to 31 March 2023, over 90% of the people who received permission to live in the UK as close family members of refugees or holders of humanitarian protection (whether as dependants or family reunion beneficiaries) were adult women and children. This is because, in the same period, the main applicants tended to be adult men (64%). Men are more likely to flee ahead of their families, often taking long and risky journeys, and then apply for family reunion once they have secured asylum.

Family reunion makes the refugee population in the UK almost gender balanced and even more evenly distributed across ages than resettlement (Figure 7). (See also the Migration Observatory briefing on Asylum and Refugee Resettlement in the UK.) One of the reasons that refugee family reunion cannot completely mitigate the gender bias seen among refugees is that a significant proportion of main applicants are unaccompanied boys (11%), who are not generally permitted to bring their parents or other family members to the UK.

Figure 7

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Since 2020, dependants of workers and students have significantly outnumbered family unification migrants

The migration of dependants is, by definition, dependent on immigration permission given to main applicants, such as for work or study. Unlike family unification, which has remained relatively constant over the years, the migration of dependants has seen a significant increase since 2020 (Figure 8), which is linked with the growth in visa issuances for work and study visas in the same period. (See the Migration Observatory briefing on Net Migration to the UK)

Figure 8

Over the past decade, dependants of workers have consistently accounted for the majority of dependant family migration to the UK, comprising over 60% of all visas in the category in 2017. However, in 2022, there was a notable shift where the share of dependant visas granted to family members of students and workers became quite similar (46% and 43%, respectively). This change can be attributed to two factors: more student visas were being issued in this period, and, among those, a higher proportion were issued to dependants (Figure 9).

While the share of dependant visas granted to sponsored workers has remained relatively constant over the years, there has been a rise in the percentage of dependant visas granted to students since 2021 (Figure 9), reaching over 45% of all student visas issued in the first quarter of 2023. This means that, on average, more students have come to the UK with dependants or that the mean number of dependants per student has increased. This trend is likely to change over the next couple of years, with the implementation of the policy that restricts the right of most students to bring family members, such that only Ph.D. students and master’s students on research-based courses (typically lasting two years) will be able to bring their partner and children.

Figure 9

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Since 2016, the share of men among dependants of study and work visa holders has increased significantly

In 2016, only 14% of the dependants of skilled worker visa holders were men (18+). In 2022, 50% were men (Figure 10). There may be several reasons for this trend. First, the share of women who came to the UK as main applicants has risen significantly, going from 30% in 2016 to 50% in 2022. Second, among the women who entered the country as main applicants, more could have come with their male partners. Thirdly, there could have been a rise in the number of men who were accompanied by their same-sex partners.

A similar pattern can be seen among study visa holders. Men represented 34% of dependants in this category in 2016. By 2022, this share had increased to 66%, and now men far outnumber women as study dependants (Figure 10). Interestingly, this occurred even though there are now roughly equal numbers of men than women entering the country as main applicants under the study route. One hypothesis for the rising share of male dependants is that more female students are coming to the UK with their families rather than alone. This is consistent with the increase in the proportion of study visas granted to dependent children, which went from 3% in 2016 to 18% in 2023.

Figure 10

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Work visa holders who come to the UK with dependants are more likely to obtain permanent status than those who come alone

Across all visa categories, dependants are, on average, more likely to obtain permanent status (ILR or citizenship) in the UK than main applicants. We do not have information about settlement rates between dependants and main applicants within the same family. However, since dependants have their right of residence tied to the main applicant, these data indicate that main applicants who come with dependants are more likely to get permanent status than those who come alone.

The difference in settlement rates according to the type of visa recipient (main applicant or dependant) is higher for workers than for sponsored students. Study visa holders are unlikely to obtain ILR or citizenship in any scenario (Figure 10). Among work visa holders, dependants are, on average, twice as likely to settle as main applicants (Figure 10). The greater likelihood of families settling in the UK compared to single individuals may be due to several factors, including that those who come with families may already have plans to settle and that families may be less mobile than single individuals.

Figure 11

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A partner who comes to the UK on a family unification visa could face immigration costs of around £12,500 on a typical route to citizenship

People who want to bring family members to the UK can face substantial costs, whether they are British people using the family reunion route or whether they are migrants bringing dependants with them on a work or study visa. Figure 12 illustrates the amount of money that different types of families would need to pay in visa and nationality and Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) fees for them to become UK citizens. The actual amount will vary depending on the initial type of entry leave since some visa fees are higher, and some settlement pathways are longer than others (e.g., workers are typically on a five-year route to settlement, while students are typically on a ten-year route to settlement because their time as a student does not count towards the five years of residence that is generally required for settlement).

According to visa fee levels as at October 2023 and the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) costs as at February 2024, a partner who comes to the UK on a family unification visa would need to pay around £12,500 in visa fees to become a British citizen; if they come to the UK with dependent children, these fees will be significantly higher. Families consisting of two adults and two children who arrive in the UK on a skilled worker visa would incur over £41,000 in immigration costs under 2024 fees. This represents a 30% increase in relation to September 2023.

In the case of workers, it is unclear what percentage of visa and IHS fees are covered by employers and whether they typically pay only for the fees of the main applicant or also include dependants. As a result, visa costs can have a varying impact on different immigrant groups, depending on factors such as work arrangements, entry visa category, and family size.

Figure 12

For more information on fees, see the Migration Observatory Q&A, Immigration Fees in the UK.

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.

Some dependant visas are recorded as “Joining or Accompanying” rather than being categorised according to the tier of the main applicant. Differences in recording protocols over the years could have an impact on the figures presented.

In the entry clearance dataset published by the Home Office, family reunion beneficiaries (refugees’ families) are counted under the “family: other” category together with family visa beneficiaries under the Parent Route. We have been told by the Home Office that the vast majority of family other correspond to family reunion visas. For this reason, we excluded the “family: other” category from our estimates on family unification, even though this category could include a small number of cases of family visa holders.

There are a couple of limitations regarding APS data, summarised here. In addition, it is possible that people do not correctly state their reason for coming to the country, particularly if they arrived in the UK a long time ago, which could impact family migration estimates.

There are substantial gaps in the evidence about the impacts of family migration policies in the UK. For example, it is currently not possible to estimate reliably how many people have been prevented from coming to the UK due to policies such as the minimum income requirement. Previous estimates looked at the decline in family visa grants immediately after the policy was introduced in 2012, but a decade later, it is more difficult to make assumptions about how many people would receive visas under a different policy regime.

Because fee waivers are not available for ILR applications, family members who cannot afford the fee for an application for ILR sometimes remain in the UK with temporary immigration status. This may lead to an increase in the duration of routes to settlement for family members. However, published Home Office statistics do not allow us to assess the number of people in this situation.


This briefing was produced with the support of Trust for London. The Trust is one of the largest independent charitable foundations in London and supports work which tackles poverty and inequality in the capital. More details at www.trustforlondon.org.uk.



Nuni Jorgensen
Peter William Walsh

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