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Settlement in the UK

16 Aug 2019

This briefing examines settlement in the UK, which is when a migrant is granted the right to live permanently in the country. It reviews settled migrants’ demographic characteristics and the reasons for their grants of settlement. It also discusses the post-Brexit EU Settlement Scheme.

  1. Key Points
    • Of all non-EU citizens issued their initial visa to come to the UK in 2013, a quarter had been granted settlement or citizenship or held valid leave to remain by the end of 2018.
    • Family migrants are more likely to settle permanently than work migrants or students.
    • Half of all non-EU migrants granted settlement in 2018 had been in the UK on a temporary visa for between five and seven years.
    • Over a quarter (29%) of those granted settlement in 2018 were initially granted visas to study or were dependants of a student, although most of these students arrived in the mid-2000s before restrictions on students’ transition to work were introduced in 2012.
    • There were around 90,600 grants of settlement to non-EU migrants in 2018.
    • The cost of an application for settlement for non-EU citizens has almost tripled since 2010, and in 2019 was £2,389.
    • The share of EU citizens who had applied under the EU Settlement Scheme by the end of July 2019 varied widely by nationality.
  1. Understanding the Policy

    A grant of settlement from the British government confers the right to live permanently in the UK. People granted settlement are also free to work or study in the UK; access state benefits; use the NHS; sponsor an immigration application, such as that of a spouse wishing to join them; and register their UK-born child as a British citizen. A grant of settlement is not the same as being given citizenship. British citizenship entitles the recipient to a British passport and to vote in general elections, while settlement does not. Settlement is also known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’ (ILR) or ‘settled status’.

    Nationals of European Union countries are not subject to immigration control while the UK remains a member of the EU, and so have not needed to apply for settlement in order to stay long term. However, after Brexit, EU citizens will be subject to immigration control and so will require settlement or a temporary status granted by the government in order to live in the UK (see below). We generally refer to the ‘EU’ throughout this briefing, though the same rules on movement and settlement apply to the European Economic Area (the EU countries plus Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway) and Switzerland. Irish citizens are allowed to live and work in the UK through separate arrangements that will not be affected by Brexit.

    For non-EU citizens to be eligible for settlement, a person must have lived in the UK with a qualifying temporary visa for a certain period of time in the UK, usually five years. Time spent on some visas, such as student visas or as an intracompany transferee, does not count towards the residence requirement for settlement. To receive ILR, most non-EU citizens will also have had to pass a ‘Life in the UK’ test and demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the English language. A person may also qualify for settlement if they have lived in the UK legally for a continuous period of ten years (a route known as ‘Long Residence’).

    In recent years, several policy changes have restricted access to settlement for non-EU citizens. Some noteworthy examples affecting asylum-, family-, and work-related routes to settlement include:

    • In August 2005, the practice of giving indefinite leave to remain immediately to people granted asylum was ended. Thereafter, almost all refugees are given permission to live in the UK for five years, after which they may apply for settlement.
    • In April 2010, the route to settlement for non-EU migrants admitted to the UK on Tier-2 (Intra-company Transfer) visas was closed.
    • In July 2012, the residence requirement for a partner of a British citizen or settled resident was increased, from two years to five years. At the same time, immediate settlement for migrant partners who had lived together for at least four years abroad was abolished.
    • In April 2016, a minimum salary threshold of £35,000 per year was implemented for those with a General work visa (Tier 2) applying for settlement, with exemptions for shortage and PhD-level occupations. A Home Office Impact Assessment (2012) estimated that around 16% of Tier 2 migrants would no longer qualify for settlement due to this salary threshold. The level of £35,000 reflected the median pay for UK workers in Tier 2 level jobs. This threshold level has since increased to £35,800.

    Settlement figures are also affected by one-off government programmes. A notable example, announced in July 2006, aimed to resolve within five years a backlog of cases involving unsuccessful asylum applicants who were still living in the UK, some of whom were granted settlement.

    EU Settlement Scheme: settled and pre-settled status

    EU citizens and their families, which can include non-EU family members, can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to continue living in the UK after 30 June 2021. This scheme was launched fully on 30 March 2019. A successful applicant will get ‘settled status’ if they can show that they have lived in the UK for a continuous period of at least five years. This permits them to stay in the UK indefinitely and to apply for British citizenship. If the successful applicant has lived in the UK for less than five years, they will usually receive pre-settled status, which allows the applicant to stay for another five years, after which they must apply again for settled status. Both statuses enable EU migrants to travel in and out of the UK, work or study in the country and use public services. ‘Settled status’ is, in legal terms the same as settlement or ILR, although people who apply under the EU Settlement Scheme will have some additional rights that most non-EU citizens do not have (such as the ability to leave the country for five years instead of two, without losing their status).

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    Data on settlement come from the Home Office, and take account of the appeal and reconsideration of cases.

    EU citizens are not currently subject to immigration control and so are not included in the main settlement figures (although there are separate statistics on the EU Settlement Scheme). When a country has joined the EU, its nationals are no longer included in the main figures. Hence nationals of EU8 countries are not included from 2004 onwards, and Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are not included in settlement statistics from 2007 onwards. Swiss nationals have not been included since June 2002.

    This briefing relies primarily on Home Office data on the visa status of non-EU migrants over time, also known as ‘Migrant Journey’ data. This information provides the immigration status of an annual cohort of new entrants at the end of each calendar year after their arrival, and is used to calculate the proportions of those granted a visa in a given year who have received a grant of settlement (or citizenship, which requires settlement) five years later (Home Office, 2019a). 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 a given route also include their dependent family members. Thus, for example, dependants of work migrants will be included in the ‘work’ settlement figures, not in ‘family’.

    Changes in the number of people granted settlement are not solely the result of changes in the level and composition of migration to the UK and the applications of migrants for settlement. Settlement grants are also affected by changes in government policy, most notably substantial changes to the Immigration Rules, and by the capacity of the Home Office to process applications for settlement.

    Statistics on the EU Settlement Scheme come from the Home Office (2019d). These are deemed ‘experimental’. They include data from when testing of the scheme began on 28 August 2018 through to 30 April 2019.

Of all non-EU migrants issued their initial visa to come to the UK in 2013, a quarter had been granted settlement or citizenship or held valid leave to remain by the end of 2018

From 2007 onwards, a declining share of migrants has received a grant of settlement by the end of the fifth year after receiving their initial visa to come to the UK (Figure 1).

Of 332,242 migrants issued an initial visa to enter the UK for work, family or study in 2013, 7% had settlement or British citizenship by the end of 2018. An additional 18% still had valid leave to remain, and so might be eligible to go on to settle in the UK (Figure 1). The gradual decrease in settlement seen over the past ten years has coincided with several changes to the immigration system that have made gaining settlement more difficult (see Understanding the Policy).

Figure 1

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Family migrants are more likely to settle permanently than are work migrants or students

The share of migrants receiving settlement is highly dependent on whether the initial visa was for family, work, or study (Figure 2). Of non-EU citizens granted a family visa in 2013, 44% had been granted settlement by the end of 2018, compared with 8% for those entering on a work visa in 2013, and 1% for student visa entries.

Figure 2

The 2013 figure of 44% for family migrants represents a large decrease compared to those arriving in 2011 and 2012. However, this is likely to result from the July 2012 policy change, which increased the settlement residence requirement for family visas from two years to five years (Home Office, 2019a, p. 8). Some family members on a five-year route to settlement will not yet have received it by the end of the fifth year, and this is reflected in the higher number of family members with valid leave to remain in 2013 (for more information on the settlement of family migrants see our briefing, Non-EU Family Migration to the UK).

For migrants issued an initial work visa in 2013, 8% had been granted settlement by the end of the fifth year. This is down from 18% for the 2004 cohort. Some of the decline in the share of migrants who had gained settlement five years after receiving their initial work visa in 2011 onwards may be attributable to the £35,000 minimum salary threshold, which will have prevented some migrants on Tier 2 visas from becoming eligible for settlement from April 2016 (for a breakdown of the settlement of work migrants by type of work visa see our briefing Work visas and migrant workers in the UK). Another source of this fall may have been the closure in April 2010 of the settlement route for migrants on a Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) visa.

For migrants issued an initial study visa in 2013, the share that had been granted settlement after five years was close to 0%, because study does not provide a direct route to settlement. To settle, students would normally have to switch to another route, which would make them eligible for settlement more than five years after the issuance of their initial visa (Home Office, 2019a, p. 7).

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Half of all migrants granted settlement in 2018 had been in the UK on a temporary visa for between five and seven years

Looking at those migrants granted settlement in 2018, 50% received their initial visa in 2011, 2012, or 2013 (Figure 3). Around one fifth (22%) took ten years or more to gain settlement (i.e., received their initial visa in 2008 or earlier). While family and work migrants most often waited five years for settlement, the most common duration for student migrants was ten years.

And around 15% received a grant of settlement in under five years, while 8% received their initial visa in the same year they were granted settlement or citizenship (i.e., in 2018). This last group will have been either granted settlement on arriving in the UK, known as ‘indefinite leave to enter’ (ILE), or “had a grant of settlement in the UK (ILR) as their earliest record” (Home Office, 2019a, p. 16).

Figure 3

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Over a quarter (29%) of those granted settlement in 2018 were initially granted study visas or were dependants of a student, although most of these students arrived in the mid-2000s before restrictions on students’ transition to work were introduced in 2012

Of over 90,000 migrants granted settlement in 2018, 29% had initially entered the UK on a study visa; 18% came initially on a work visa; 15% on a family visa; 8% entered on an entry clearance visa for immediate settlement (ILE); and 3% came as a dependant (of a temporary migrant) (Figure 4). A further 28% came to the UK for ‘other’ reasons; this includes asylum cases and grants of leave outside the immigration rules.

The share of settlement grants going to former international students may decline in coming years because of policy changes that have made it harder for international students to stay on after their studies to work – mostly notably the closure of the post-study work route in 2012. About 94% of people who originally came on student visas and received settlement in 2018 received their initial visa before 2010 (see Figure 3, above). From 2012 to 2013 there was a sharp decline in the number of students receiving visa extensions to stay in the UK for work, as described in the Migration Observatory briefing, Work Visas and Migrant Workers in the UK.

There are no visas for the purpose of seeking asylum. However, people granted settlement on the basis of asylum can be separately identified by looking at data on the reasons for the settlement grant rather than the initial visa type. Asylum settlement grants (including dependants) peaked in 2005 at 67,810, before falling to their lowest level on record in 2009 at 3,110. This decline resulted from two factors: a fall in the number of asylum seekers from 2003 to 2010 (see our briefing, Migration to the UK: Asylum and Refugees); and the August 2005 rule change, which ended automatic settlement for those granted asylum, which was replaced with permission to stay in the UK for five years, after which the person would be eligible for settlement. Thus, new refugees granted five years’ leave to remain in 2006 would not be eligible for settlement until 2011 – the year in which asylum settlement grants began to rise, reaching their highest level since 2010 in 2018, at 25,243.

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There were around 90,600 grants of settlement to non-EU migrants in 2018

Taking a longer view of settlement in the UK, we can see that throughout the 1990s settlement grants were relatively stable. The average annual number of grants for the decade was 61,300. However, from 2000 to 2009 the number of grants rose substantially, alongside higher overall immigration (Figure 4). Settlement grants are considerably lower than non-EU long-term immigration flows, because most non-EU citizens who migrate to the UK do not stay permanently.

The absolute number of settlement grants in a given year is not a useful indicator either of immigration levels or of policy on settlement, however. This is because the number of people receiving settlement depends on several factors, including levels of immigration a few years earlier, the changing requirements that migrants have to meet in order to settle, and changes in the length of time they must live in the UK first.

For example, in 2010, there were 241,192 grants of settlement, the highest level since comparable records began in 1960. This was an outlier, driven in part by a government programme to clear an asylum backlog, which resulted in grants of settlement to asylum applicants. The fall in settlement grants in 2016 and 2017, and the increase in 2018, were due primarily to a 2012 policy change that lengthened the residence requirement for family migrants from three to five years and thus delayed some settlement grants that would otherwise have been made in 2016 or 2017.

Figure 4

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The cost of an application for settlement for non-EU citizens has almost tripled since 2010, and in 2019 was £2,389

In 2003, a fee of £150 was introduced for an application for indefinite leave to remain. Since then the cost of the application has increased almost every year. In 2009, an in-country postal application cost £820. In 2019 it costs £2,389 (see Figure 5). This fee applies to each dependant of a non-EU citizen applying for settlement. A family of four who are all applying would therefore need to pay £9,556.

Figure 5

The total cost in government fees is higher if one includes prior immigration applications and other fees that must be paid before a person can apply for ILR. For example, based on current fee levels a partner on a five-year route to settlement could expect to pay just under £7,000 in fees, while a skilled worker with one dependant would expect to pay over £11,000, not including the ‘Immigration Skills Charge’ paid by their employer (Table 1).

Table 1

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The share of EU citizens who had applied under the EU Settlement Scheme by the end of July 2019 varied widely by nationality

The government’s EU Settlement Scheme is intended to provide EU (as well as EEA and Swiss) citizens and their families with a route to settlement in the UK despite the country’s departure from the EU (for more information on the EU Settlement Scheme see the Migration Observatory report, Unsettled Status? Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit?).

By 31 July 2019, the total number of applications received for EU Settlement was 1,040,600 (rounded to the nearest hundred), of whom 52,600 were non-EEA citizens and 1,500 were Irish. This means that approximately 30% of the estimated 3.35m non-Irish EEA citizens resident in the UK had applied by the end of July 2019 (Office for National Statistics, 2019). Irish nationals can apply but usually do not have to because they are protected separately by the Common Travel Area arrangements.

Of all the applications that had been received, 951,700 (91%) had been concluded, around two-thirds of which (64%, around 609,000) resulted in the applicant receiving settled status, and the rest (36%, around 343,000) pre-settled status. A further 0.5% of applications were not granted status, which included withdrawn applications, incomplete applications, or void applications because the applicant was ineligible to apply (e.g., because they were a British citizen).

The estimated share of people from each EU member state who had applied to the scheme in the early months of its operation varied widely (Figure 6). As of 31 July 2019, for example, an estimated 47–63% of Bulgarian citizens living in the UK had applied, a substantially larger share than Polish nationals (19–21%). The percentage of each country’s nationals that have applied for settlement under the scheme has a margin of error because the estimated number of each EU country’s citizens resident in the UK is based on a survey with margins of error. The percentages shown in the chart are based on the central estimates of the EU-citizen populations.

The most recent Home Office statistics on the settlement scheme are available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/eu-settlement-scheme-statistics. Regularly updated estimates using the same method are published by the House of Commons Library in their review of the Progress of the EU Settlement Scheme.

Figure 6

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Evidence Gaps and Limitations

The impacts of policy changes on settlement are often difficult to determine. It takes several years for policy changes to work their way through the system, since changes are generally introduced only for newly arriving people. We also know relatively little about the broader social and economic impacts of such policy changes. For example, it is not clear what has been the impact of lengthening the route for family migrants and refugees. Similarly, we do not know the impact of the £35,000 settlement salary threshold that came into force for most applicants in 2016, nor how many people have been unable to meet the threshold.

With thanks to Nicolas Rollason for providing valuable feedback on a draft of this briefing.


Related material

Research for this briefing was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

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