On 4 December 2023, the Home Secretary announced a series of changes to immigration rules designed to reduce net migration. This came after new official estimates from the Office for National Statistics revealed that net migration remained at record highs.
One unexpected change among the policies announced was an increase in the income requirement for British citizens and settled residents to bring their partners and children to the UK. The government says the threshold will increase in three stages, reaching £38,700 annually by early 2025. This is more than double the previous £18,600 and will align with the income level needed for skilled worker visas. The £38,700 requirement exceeds the median employee’s salary of £29,700, making the UK stand out from other countries’ family migration policies. Generally, these policies establish the threshold at the minimum income necessary for a family to avoid depending on social security benefits.
This commentary analyses the policy and its main implications:
- The policy announcement
- Family migration is a relatively low share of recent immigration
- The new income threshold may result in family separation and longer settlement routes
- Income thresholds affect lower earners more, such as women and young people
- The UK’s family income requirement is stricter than other countries’ policies
The policy announcement
Since July 2012, the minimum income required for British citizens and settled residents to bring their partner to the UK has been set at £18,600 per year, or £22,400 if the partner brings one child, plus £2,400 for each additional child. On 4 December 2023, the Home Secretary announced a significant increase to the current threshold, more than doubling it to £38,700. If simply adjusted for inflation, the income requirement from 2012 would be £25,500 in January 2024 based on the Bank of England’s inflator calculator.
The stated reason for this policy change is to ensure that only those who can financially support their families are eligible for a visa. However, the required income exceeds the earnings of most full-time employees in the UK.
In its first announcement, on 4 December 2023, the government declared that the threshold would reach £38,700 by Spring 2024. However, on 21 December 2023, the Home Office released a fact sheet that revised the policy and introduced a ‘phased’ approach to its implementation. The stated objective of the staged implementation was to provide families with more predictability. According to the fact sheet, the threshold would initially start at £29,000 in Spring 2024, then increase to £34,500 before finally reaching £38,700. In response to a public petition on 10 January 2024, the government finally announced that the last phase of £38,700 will come into force in early 2025.
The fact sheet clarified that people already on a family visa in the five-year partner route would not need to meet the new income requirement when applying for an extension. In the petition’s response, the government also announced that there would be no more separate child element for the family income threshold, unlike the previous policy. It is not yet clear whether the level of savings that applicants can use to qualify if they do not earn at the threshold (currently £62,500) will change.
Family migration is a relatively low share of recent immigration
The new family income requirement is part of a set of policies aimed at lowering overall net migration figures in the UK. Family migration accounts for a small share of overall net migration estimates. Despite the absolute number of family visas issued nearly doubling from 2020 to the year ending in September 2023, the proportion of family visas in relation to all entry visas has consistently remained low, at 5%. This percentage is stable and notably lower than in previous decades (Figure 1). This means that the policy is unlikely to have a large impact on the UK’s net migration.
Assessing the new rules’ implications for family migration numbers is more challenging. This is because we do not have information on how many British citizens or settled residents want to bring their families to the UK and whether they meet the new income requirement. A Home Office policy paper estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people who might otherwise have qualified for a family visa would be unable to do so with the £38,700 threshold. These figures represent between 23% and 71% of the 42,000 family visas issued in 2022. It is important to note, however, that these estimates assume that applicants who act as sponsors for family migrants have a similar income distribution to the overall UK population, which may not be the case.
The new income threshold may result in family separation and longer settlement routes
Although the number of people affected by the policy will be small in the context of overall UK migration, the impacts on the affected families are potentially very significant. Research from non-governmental organisations that work with people affected by the policy has found that the existing £18,600 threshold has created emotional distress due to family separation.
Some people who do not meet the threshold may be separated from their partners and children for a period of time while they attempt to establish an earnings record. Applicants can meet the current £18,600 threshold by working full-time at the minimum wage. However, under the higher thresholds of £29,000 or £38,700, there are fewer jobs that qualify, and some people will never expect to find jobs that earn above the threshold. In cases where the foreign partner or child also comes from a country with restrictive immigration rules (see below), there may be no other place where the family can live together.
Currently, some people whose sponsors do not meet the income threshold required can still be allowed entry into the UK based on “exceptional circumstances”. This means “unjustifiably harsh” outcomes for the applicant or their families. However, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what qualifies as unduly harsh, and lawyers have argued that this discretionary judgment makes the application process unpredictable. The Home Office does not publish figures on how many people have received entry visas as partners based on “exceptional circumstances”.
People who qualify in this way are usually put on 10-year routes for settlement (that is, they do not qualify for permanent residence rights until ten years have passed instead of the usual five). Data shows that more family migrants have been put on 10-year routes for settlement in recent years. However, not meeting income requirements is only one potential reason (see our briefing on Family Migration to the UK). A higher income requirement would likely mean more people applying under the exceptional circumstances rules. With the increase in Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) fees, set to take effect on the 6th of February, this means they would also be under significantly more expensive routes to settlement.
Available data suggests that around 50% of UK employees earn less than the £29,000 threshold, and 70% earn less than £38,700
Under the new rules, it is hard to estimate the number of UK citizens and settled residents who do not earn enough to sponsor someone on a family visa. Most available income data in the UK include only gross income from earnings, that is, remuneration from salaried employment – while the threshold can be met through a combination of different sources of income, such as self-employment, property rental, dividends, pension, and cash savings. In addition, these data provide information on all UK residents, including those who may not be eligible to bring someone on the family visa due to having a temporary migration status, such as a work or study visa.
Table 1 provides information on the percentage of people living in the UK who are employees and do not earn enough to meet the income threshold, according to different sources of income data and the policy phase. Although these data sources calculate income in different ways and have different reference dates, they all estimate that between 70% and 74% of the UK’s employed adult population would be unable to sponsor a family member, based on their salaries alone, under the £38,700 rule. Around 50% would not meet the first threshold of £29,000, and around 60% would fail to meet the second threshold of £34,500. The percentages will be higher if people who do not work are included.
Both the Annual Population Survey (APS) and the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) measure only gross earnings. However, the accuracy of the income data provided by the Annual Population Survey is believed to be lower, as it is self-reported. Additionally, while the last reference date for the APS is 2022, ASHE’s latest estimates are from 2023. The Survey of Personal Incomes (SPI) is based on HMRC data. It is more suitable for analysing the minimum income threshold since it measures earnings from both employment and self-employment. However, the most recent SPI data refers to the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
Income thresholds affect lower earners more, such as women and young people
The new family income requirement has a larger impact on low earners. People who are most likely to be affected include women, people below 30 years and above 50 years of age, people living outside London and the Southeast, and those, including British citizens, belonging to specific ethnicities such as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Caribbean.
According to the APS data, only 36% of employee women earned enough to meet the £29,000 threshold in 2022, compared to 58% of men (Figure 2). The percentage of women who can sponsor a family member will be lower if we consider those who are not working. This is because women are more likely to be out of the labour force due to caring responsibilities.
The UK’s family income requirement is stricter than other countries’ policies
Before the announcement of the new rules, the UK already had more restrictive family migration policies compared to other high-income countries. For example, the cross-country research project MIPEX ranked the UK and Denmark as the countries with the most restrictive family migration policies among all the cases evaluated. This ranking, however, includes many indicators, such as income and accommodation requirements, visa fees, which family members are eligible for reunification, and family migrants’ rights after settlement.
Not all high-income countries set earning thresholds for family visas. This is the case, for example, with Germany and Australia. However, they have other requirements, such as language tests, integration, or housing requirements, which may affect people with socioeconomic backgrounds more than others.
One of the most common rationales for income requirements in high-income countries is to prevent families from becoming a “burden to the welfare state”. For this reason, income thresholds are often defined in relation to the minimum income necessary for a family to avoid relying heavily on social security benefits or falling below poverty levels. For instance, countries like Spain and the Netherlands require sponsors to meet a yearly income amount equal to the social security salary, which is the minimum salary subject to taxes. Denmark follows a similar approach where sponsors must not have claimed social benefits in the three years leading up to their application.
In principle, the UK follows a similar rationale. The fact sheet released in December 2023 stated that the new policy’s goal was to ensure people can financially support their families, while the government’s response to a public petition in January 2024 argued that the new threshold prevents families from becoming a burden to the British taxpayer and facilitates their integration into British society. However, the Home Office has not defined what constitutes a burden to the state or what it means for someone to support their family, nor how the current way of measuring income aligns with these aims.
The new UK proposal stands out in relation to the previous threshold and other countries’ policies for linking the minimum income requirement to the level of skilled salaries. For instance, the Home Office fact sheet stated that the £29,000 requirement aligns with the 25th percentile of earnings for jobs at the skill level of RQF3, which refers to jobs requiring A-level or equivalent education. Still, the reasoning behind tying the threshold to RQF3 jobs remains unclear. If the policy aimed to ensure that family visa sponsors can support their families, setting the threshold at £38,700 in phase 3 would imply that around 70% of the UK population (see Table 1) is currently unable to support themselves financially without relying on state assistance.
Comparisons to other countries must consider not just the level of the threshold but also how it is implemented. The UK’s rules on what sources of income count towards the threshold are stricter than in other countries. For instance, Spain, the Netherlands, and Sweden allow sponsors to include assets as a source of income; in the UK, only cash savings exceeding £16,000 are considered. In Spain and the US, the partner’s foreign income also counts towards the threshold, and in the US, applicants who, even then, are unable to meet the requirement can enlist a joint sponsor. In contrast, only the citizen’s or permanent resident’s income is recognised in the UK.
With thanks to CJ McKinney for valuable comments on drafts of this commentary. This analysis was produced with the support of Trust for London. Trust for London 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.
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