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First data from the new immigration system

08 Jun 2021

By Madeleine Sumption & Peter William Walsh

New Home Office data give a first glimpse into take-up of the new post-Brexit immigration system. The data show low take-up of the new visa system among EU citizens, although as this commentary explains, it is still too early to judge the impact that the immigration system itself is having on EU migration.

On 31 December 2020, EU freedom of movement ended, with the UK entering a new national lockdown a few days later. Economic turmoil and travel restrictions meant that one would expect many fewer people to use the system in the first quarter of 2021 than would otherwise have been the case. It is also possible that some EU citizens who planned to come to the UK would have done so before free movement ended, in order to avoid the cost and bureaucracy of the new system.

As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that the number of EU citizens applying for UK visas in the first quarter after the end of free movement is relatively small.

How much demand for the new immigration system is there from EU citizens?

In the first quarter of 2021 (1 January to 31 March or Q1), EU citizens made 1,075 applications for long-term skilled work visas, including the health and care visa (this figure includes dependants). EU citizens made up only 5% of the total 20,738 applications for these visas during the first quarter of the year.

Some EU citizens who might otherwise have applied for mainstream work visas are eligible for ‘frontier worker permits’. These allow workers who have previously done paid work in the UK under free movement but who do not live here, to come back for the same purpose. This was the largest category of entry visa applications among EU citizens in Q1 2021, with 2,751 applications. The importance of this category is likely to diminish over time, and more people coming to work in the UK for short periods will need another visa (such as an intra-company transfer visa).

In total, there were 5,354 entry visa applications from EU citizens (this includes 70 people applying for visitor visas), the large majority of which were for work (4,568). EU citizens made up 10% of all work applications, including frontier worker permits (Figure 1).

Figure 1

EU citizens made up only 2% of the 4,035 applications for seasonal worker visas. Historically, most seasonal workers have been from EU countries. Again, however, many EU seasonal workers who have worked in the UK in the past will be eligible for either frontier worker permits or the EU Settlement Scheme, and so may not need to apply for work visas. In the first quarter of the year, the large majority (77%) of people applying for seasonal worker visas were from Ukraine.

The low number of visa applications may have resulted in part from EU citizens with plans to move to the UK bringing forward their trip to before the 31 December 2020 cut-off for free movement, rather than facing a more expensive and bureaucratic process under the post-Brexit immigration system. The Covid-19 crisis, rising unemployment, January lockdown, and travel restrictions will also have contributed to lower mobility.

How many people are using the post-Brexit work routes overall?

The post-Brexit immigration system is more liberal for non-EU workers than the system that preceded it. In particular, middle-skilled workers are now eligible for long-term work visas and the salary threshold is lower. Given that the UK was in lockdown in the first quarter of the year, it is perhaps not surprising that this more liberal system has not as yet translated into a substantial increase in visa applications.

Four out of the top five industries using skilled work visas saw a decline in applications in Q1 2021 (Figure 2). The exception was the health sector. In the first quarter of 2021, 38% of all skilled work visa applications were for people in the health and social work sector. This was up from 19% two years earlier in Q1 2019. In Q1 2021, the number of visa applications in this sector hit its highest level since comparable data are available (starting in 2010). The published data do not identify how many of these people are in positions that are only newly eligible for visas because of the post-Brexit immigration system (such as nursing auxiliaries).

Figure 2

Overall, the number of skilled worker visa applications did not change dramatically in the first quarter of the operation of the new immigration system. While applications for skilled worker visas had fallen sharply during the first lockdown in Q2 2020 (Figure 3), they rebounded quickly to pre-pandemic levels. The number of intra-company transfer visas (which are primarily used to bring IT workers to the UK, often for short assignments) remained much lower than usual throughout the period affected by the pandemic. Most of these latter visas are in the IT sector, where a substantial share of jobs can be done remotely.

Figure 3

Family migration

The mainstream family immigration policies for non-EU citizens did not change as a result of the new immigration system. Some EU citizens will now be 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. 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.

Refusals at the border

Since the end of free movement, there have been reports of EU citizens being refused entry to the UK and even being detained. In Q1 2021, 3,294 EU citizens were initially refused entry to the UK, either at UK ports or ports in France, Belgium and the Netherlands where UK border officers operate (Figure 4). This is more than a six-fold increase on the number refused entry in Q1 2020. By contrast, 1,540 non-EU citizens were initially refused entry in Q1 2021. Decreases in non-EU citizens refused entry in Q2 2020 and Q1 2021 are likely to result from lower travel volumes during the first and third UK lockdowns. In Q1 2021, the number of EU citizens refused entry exceeded the number of non-EU citizens for the first time since data are available.

A variety of factors affect the number of people refused entry, including overall travel volumes, decision-making by border officers, and travellers’ knowledge and understanding of changes in the rules. EU citizens do not require a visa to enter the UK, but border officers have discretion to turn them away if they believe that they are likely to violate the immigration rules, such as by working without permission.

Figure 4

However, although some EU citizens have been detained, the larger number of refusals has not translated into an increase in the total number of EU citizens being detained (Figure 5). In Q1 2021, 633 EU citizens entered immigration detention – just 35 more than in the previous quarter, and 145 fewer than in Q1 2020.

Figure 5

On 31 January 2021, the UK opened applications to a new route for people from Hong Kong: the National (Overseas) visa – or BNO visa, for short (see The Migration Observatory’ commentary: Q&A: The new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa).

Although the BNO visa is sometimes presented as an asylum route, it is not. The BNO visa does not confer an asylum-related status, and instead must be applied for like any other visa. And like other visas, its applicants must pay (substantial) immigration fees: for the visa itself, the immigration health surcharge, and, if desired, for any application for settlement or citizenship.

The Home Office reports that in February and March 2021, 34,300 people (including main applicants and their close family members) applied for the BNO visa (Figure 6). Of these, around 60% (20,600) were applications filed outside the UK, and 40% (13,700) inside the UK. Around 20,000 were main applicants, and the rest were family members of the main applicant.

BNOs who came to the UK before the end of January were able to apply for a provisional status to remain here legally while waiting for the scheme to open formally. In Q1 2021, around 5,500 BN(O) or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) passport holders were granted this provisional status at the border.

Figure 6

It is still too early to say how many people will apply for BNO visas in 2021 or beyond. The government’s central estimates were that between around 123,000 and 153,000 people would apply in 2021, although their analysis recognises that there is enormous uncertainty.

The present rate of applications cannot be taken to be representative of future take-up, because we do not know the degree to which the number of applications in the first quarter of 2021 was driven by pent-up demand versus factors that might reduce applications, such as travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic.


It is still too early to say what impact the post-Brexit immigration system will have on the numbers and characteristics of people coming to live or work in the UK. So far, applications from EU citizens under the new system have been very low and represent just a few percent of total demand for UK visas. However, it may take some time for potential applicants (or their employers) to become familiar with the new system and its requirements. And crucially, the first months of the system’s operation were very unusual, because of the pandemic, travel restrictions, and lockdown. Net EU migration to the UK was already thought to be very low during 2020 for these reasons.

The Migration Observatory’s work on post-Brexit immigration policy is supported by Trust for London, and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

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