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Migrants in the UK: An Overview

15 Oct 2018

This briefing provides an overview of the number, population share, geographic distribution and nationalities of migrants in the UK.

  1. Key Points
    • Between 2004 and 2017 the foreign-born population in the UK nearly doubled from 5.3 million to around 9.4 million. In 2017, 39% of the foreign-born population came from EU countries
    • London is the region with the largest number of migrants (3.4 million foreign-born people in 2017)
    • In 2017, the UK population was 14.4% foreign-born (up from 9% in 2004) and 9.6% foreign citizens (up from 5% in 2004)
    • Foreign-born people constituted 41% of Inner London’s population in 2017 (the highest share among all regions with comparable data)
    • Poland is the most common country of birth and the most common citizenship among migrants in the UK
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    This briefing defines the migrant population as the foreign-born population in the UK. Wherever relevant and indicated, the briefing also provides figures for foreign citizens residing in the UK, as well as for recent migrants – defined as foreign-born people who have been living in the UK for five years or less. Definitions have a significant impact on the analysis of the number of migrants in the UK and there is significant overlap between those who belong to the foreign-born group and those who belong to the foreign-citizen group.

    The briefing includes all migrants, irrespective of their age and employment status. Most of the data in this briefing are taken from the ONS population tables based on the Annual Population Survey (APS) which is derived from the LFS but includes an additional sample boost. Some figures are based on the Labour Force Survey (LFS) because the APS data files available for public use do not yet all include the migration variables required for the analysis. As a result, there may be some minor differences between the figures in this briefing and the ONS published tables. For information about the limitations of the LFS, see the ‘evidence gaps and limitations’ section at the end of this briefing.

    The terms A8 and A2 refer to migrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 respectively. A8 (meaning “Accession 8”) refers specifically to migrants from Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia while (similarly “Accession 2”) refers to migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.

The foreign-born population nearly doubled from 2004 to 2017

The size of the foreign-born population in the UK increased from about 5.3 million in 2004 to just under 9.4 million in 2017 (see Figure 1). During the same period the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 3 million to about 6.2 million.

Although the numbers of EU migrants have increased more rapidly than non-EU migrants over the past decade, Non-EU foreign born still make up a majority of the foreign-born population. In 2017, 39% of the foreign-born population were EU born.

Although the numbers of both female and male migrants have increased over time, women constitute a small majority of the UK’s migrant population. In 2017, 53% of foreign born population were women, according to LFS data.

Figure 1

Looking at the distribution of foreign-born by age (Figure 2), including children (those aged 0-15), youth (aged 15-25), adults (aged 26-64), and retirement age (aged 65+), between 69% and 76% of those born in different countries are adults, with the lowest percentage being for EU14 foreign born and North America. More variation is observed in the percentage of those aged 65+ spanning from 1% of A8 and A2 migrants to 17% of people born in India.

Between 5 and 11% of the foreign-born populations from different countries are children, including 11% of A8 and A2, and 5% of people born in African countries. Less than 13% of migrants are youth, with the smallest percentage (5%) being for Oceania and India, and the largest percentage (13%) of those born in Other Asia and A2 countries.

Looking at the UK born, only about half of the UK born population are adults aged between 26-64, while one in every 5 UK-born residents is a child; 11% of the UK-born population are youths, while the UK-born population has the highest proportion of retirement age individuals (19%).

Figure 2

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London has the largest number of migrants among all regions of the UK

Table 1 presents the distribution of the foreign-born population across England’s government office regions as well as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. There is significant variation in the geographic distribution of migrants in the UK. In 2017, about half of the UK’s foreign-born population (52% in total) were either in London (38%) and the South East (14%). Northern Ireland, Wales and the North East have a low share of the UK’s total foreign-born population, at 7.5%, 6.3% and 6.2% respectively. In comparison, the UK-born population is more evenly distributed. In 2017, only 10% of the UK-born population lived in London.

Table 1: Distribution of foreign-born population, 2017

RegionNumberPercent of migrants living in each regionPercent of region's population who are migrants
All of the UK9,382,000100%14%
West Midlands784,0008%14%
South East1,211,00013%14%
East Midlands599,0006%13%
Yorkshire and The Humber535,0006%10%
North West677,0007%9%
South West513,0005%9%
Northern Ireland138,0001%7%
North East161,0002%6%
Source: ONS Population by nationality and country of birth, table 1.1


In 2017 nearly 1.5 million foreign-born people were living in Inner London and nearly 1.9 million were living in Outer London. The smallest number of foreign-born individuals was found in the North East and Merseyside (Met County). The largest percentage increases during the 2004 and 2017 periods occurred for “Rest of Yorkshire” and Scotland. This is not surprising given the small number of migrants Rest of Yorkshire had in 2004. Between 2004 and 2017 Outer London, West Yorkshire (Met County), and Inner London, experienced the lowest percentage increase in the number of migrants (up 68, 46 and 40% respectively).

Table 2: Number of foreign-born by region, 2004-2017

 2004201420172004-2017 % Change
Yorkshire and Humber (excl. Met Counties)55,000112,000133,000142%
East Midlands266,000481,000599,000125%
West Midlands (excluding Met County)110,000179,000244,000122%
South Yorkshire (Met County)61,000106,000135,000121%
Merseyside (Met County)43,00085,00090,000109%
South West249,000445,000513,000106%
Tyne and Wear (Met County)47,00075,00092,00096%
Greater Manchester (Met County)196,000341,000376,00092%
Northern Ireland73,000125,000138,00089%
North East (excl. Tyne and Wear)36,00059,00068,00089%
North West (excl. Met Counties)113,000185,000210,00086%
West Midlands (Met County)295,000474,000540,00083%
South East669,0001,071,0001,211,00081%
Outer London1,115,0001,761,0001,868,00068%
West Yorkshire (Met County)183,000261,000269,00047%
Inner London1,065,0001,334,0001,487,00040%
Source: ONS Population by nationality and country of birth, table 1.1


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The UK population was 14.4% foreign-born and 9.5% non-British citizens in 2017

The share of foreign-born people in the UK’s total population increased from 8.9% in 2004 to 14.4% in 2017 (Figure 3). During the same period, the share of foreign citizens rose from 5.0 to 9.5%.

Figure 3

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The share of migrants in the population varies significantly across regions

The share of migrants in the population varies significantly across regions. In 2017, the number of foreign-born people relative to total population was greatest in Inner London (42%) and Outer London (36%). The region with the third highest proportion of migrants was W. Midlands Met. County where 19% of the population was foreign-born. The North East excluding Tyne and Wear was the area with the smallest proportion of foreign-born people.
Inner and Outer London also remain the areas with the highest share of migrants in the total population when focusing on foreign citizens (see Figure 4). Foreign citizens made up 28% and 21% of the population respectively in Inner and Outer London, respectively.

Figure 4

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Poland is the most common country of birth and country of nationality in the UK

Poland, India and Pakistan are the top three countries of birth for the foreign-born (Table 3) accounting respectively for 10%, 9% and 6% of the total. Poland is also the top country of citizenship of foreign citizens, accounting for 16.4% of non-UK citizens living in the UK.

Table 3: Top ten countries of origin by country of birth and nationality, UK 2017

RankCountry of birthNumberPercentage shareNationalityNumberPercentage share
9South Africa228,0002.4Spain182,0002.9
Source: ONS Population of the UK by nationality and country of birth, table 1.3 and 2.3


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Those born in India constitute the biggest group among the foreign-born population in London

India is the country of birth for 8.9% of all foreign-born persons living in London (Figure 6). Other Asian countries such as Bangladesh (4.6%) and Pakistan (3.8%) are also in the top-ten countries of birth of migrants in London. Poland, Romania, Italy, Ireland, and France are the five European countries in the top ten. With the exception of Sri Lanka and France the remaining top-ten countries of birth for migrants in London are also top-ten countries at the UK level.

Figure 5

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Evidence gaps and limitations

The LFS is a continuous survey of around 60,000 households each quarter. Although the LFS contains spatial information at a regional level, the standard release of LFS data set does not contain local authority identifiers. It is therefore not possible to use the standard LFS to analyse trends and characteristics of migration across local areas. The Annual Population Survey (APS) available since 2004 is more suitable for this purpose.

The LFS has some limitations for estimating the dynamics of migrants in the UK. First, it does not measure the scale of irregular migration. Second, it does not provide information on asylum seekers. Third, the LFS excludes those who do not live in households, such as those in hotels, caravan parks and other communal establishments. The LFS is therefore likely to underestimate the UK population of recent migrants.

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Further reading

  • Salt, J. “International Migration and the United Kingdom, 2010.” Report of the United Kingdom SOPEMI correspondent to the OECD, Migration Research Unit, University College London, 2011

With thanks to Martin Ruhs and George Leeson for comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing, and to Madeleine Sumption and Robert McNeil for the current version.

Recommended citation

Rienzo, Cinzia and Carlos Vargas-Silva. “Migrants in the UK: An Overview,” Migration Observatory briefing, COMPAS, University of Oxford, August 2018

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