It is now more than a decade since the UK introduced a minimum income requirement of £18,600 for British citizens and settled residents to sponsor partners and children for visas to live with them in the UK. Introduced in mid-2012, the minimum income requirement represented a substantially more restrictive family migration policy than the one previously in place. In 2020, the Migrant Integration Policy Index, which compares migrant integration policies across countries, concluded that the family reunion policy in the UK and Denmark were the most restrictive among the 56 countries covered.
Following newspaper reports suggesting that the government was considering increasing the minimum income requirement, the Migration Observatory has received requests for updated statistics relating to the threshold and who does and does not meet it. This short note provides this information.
How hard is it to meet the threshold?
It is not possible to know how many people are impacted by the minimum income requirement because we do not have data on people who would like to sponsor partners. However, we can give a rough illustration of how difficult the threshold is to meet by looking at data on earnings for the UK citizen population as a whole (whether or not they plan to sponsor a partner). The estimates do not take into account the policy’s finer details, such as the fact that the threshold is higher for people who are also sponsoring children or that some people qualify based on savings rather than income.
An estimated 26% of UK citizens earned less than £18,600 from employment in Q4 2022 if we consider only working-age employees. This is down from 41% in 2015 as a result of growth in nominal earnings over time. If the income threshold were adjusted for inflation since 2012 (i.e. if it increased to £23,565), the share earning below the threshold would increase to 37%. This data source does not include income for the self-employed, so they are excluded from the figures.
The 26% figure does not include people who do not work, for example, because they are students, have caring responsibilities or are unemployed. Such people often find it difficult to sponsor a partner, even if their partner works abroad and plans to work in the UK. This is because the partner’s non-UK income cannot be taken into account unless they are already working legally in the UK (e.g. on a skilled work visa). If we add together people who do not work and those who work but earn less than £18,600, they make up roughly 46% of the working-age population (excluding the self-employed from the calculation entirely).
Table 1: UK nationals earning below the minimum income threshold, October-December 2022
Only population aged 16 to 64, excluding self-employed
|Population of UK nationals aged 16 to 64
|Share with earned income less than £18,600
|Share with earned income less than £23,565
|N/A, but assumed to be 100%
|N/A, but assumed to be 100%
Source: Migration Observatory analysis of Labour Force Survey October-December 2022. Earnings figures are gross annualised earnings, i.e. weekly earnings multiplied by 52. There is some measurement error in earnings in the Labour Force Survey because the data are self-reported. Data on employees include those on government employment schemes.
However, some people earning below the minimum income would meet the threshold if we were able to account for savings or unearned income, such as money from rental properties. For example, someone earning £13,000 a year would qualify if they also had £30,000 in savings. So these figures are not an exact calculation of how many people would, in fact, meet the threshold.
How are different groups affected differently?
From April 2023, a person working full time (35 hours per week) at the minimum wage of £10.42 for adults aged 23 and above would meet the threshold. In practice, this means that the impacts of the threshold at its current level are likely to fall most heavily on part-time workers and people who do not work.
Some differences in earnings are shown in Figure 1. The table only includes employees aged 16 to 64, as the Labour Force Survey does not collect data about the wages or income of the self-employed. The biggest gap is between men and women, in large part because women tend to work fewer hours (in October-December 2022, 38% of women in employment worked part-time compared to 14% of men). If the minimum income threshold were to increase, some of the disparities between people with different demographic characteristics would grow. For example, a higher income threshold would particularly affect younger workers and would highlight regional disparities in workers’ ability to earn at least the minimum amount.
The numbers in Figure 1 do not account for people who are not working at all. The gap between men and women will thus be larger when considering that women are more likely not to work: just under 28% of working-age (16-64 year-old) women were not working in late 2022, compared to just under 21% of working-age men.
Among working-age women who were economically inactive in the period November 2022 to January 2023, the most common reason was looking after family or home (28%), followed by long-term sickness (26%) and being a student (21%). For women with caring responsibilities, entering the workforce or increasing their hours may be difficult, including due to the cost of childcare. For example, a couple comprising a non-working British woman who cares for the children while her non-UK husband works cannot count the husband’s overseas earnings towards the threshold. The British woman may thus have to return alone to the UK to build up an earnings track record for at least six months (as the immigration rules require)—either leaving her children behind or bringing them to the UK alone and balancing solo parenting with a job that earns enough to meet the threshold.
Past analysis shows that taking into account the non-UK citizen partner’s overseas earnings or prospective future income would make it substantially easier for couples to qualify. An estimated 65% of working-age men and women who came to the UK primarily for family reasons were in work in the last quarter of 2022, for example. Some further analysis of the jobs that family migrants do is included below.
Which jobs do family migrants do?
Among the 65% of family migrants aged 16-64 in employment in the last quarter of 2022, women are overrepresented in social care and childcare occupations, as well as in low-wage occupations in cleaning, warehousing or hospitality (Figure 2). By contrast, men in work who moved primarily for family reasons concentrate on both professional jobs (e.g. in science, engineering and technology) as well as low-wage work in cleaning, warehousing or hospitality.
Over half of women in employment who moved for family reasons concentrate in four economic sectors: education, social work and residential care, health, and retail (Figure 3). Family male migrants concentrate, by contrast, in transport and storage, retail, manufacturing and information and communication, which includes all IT jobs.
The impact of the minimum income requirement is likely to have fallen in the decade since its introduction because nominal earnings have risen—although this could, of course, change if the threshold were increased. At present, the threshold is expected primarily to affect UK sponsors who do not work full time, for example, due to caring responsibilities.
Thanks to CJ McKinney for comments on a previous draft. 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.
This report uses data from the Office for National Statistics, released 13 March 2023, ONS SRS Metadata Catalogue, Labour Force Survey Person dataset – UK, DOI: 10.57906/ns1n-5z24. The use of the data in this work does not imply the endorsement of ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the data.
 Based on an average of 2.4% inflation from 2012 to 2022 using the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, not including the high inflation from 2022-2023.