EU immigration to the UK

Published: 19th Dec 2018

An estimated 219,000 citizens from other EU countries immigrated to the UK in the year to June 2018, and about 145,000 emigrated abroad. So EU ‘net migration’ was around 74,000—the lowest level recorded since the year to September 2012.

In the year before the referendum, net EU migration was estimated at 189,000, so there’s been a large fall following the vote. We don’t know how much of that is a direct result of the decision to leave.

Madeleine Sumption, from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, commented on previous figures for the year to June 2017, which showed the same trend:

“It is unclear whether this decline is purely due to Brexit or would have happened anyway. The data don’t tell us this for certain, but the referendum has certainly created a set of circumstances – such as a fall in the value of the pound, and increased uncertainty about future status – that could make the UK less attractive."

Estimated non-EU net migration, meanwhile, is 248,000 a year—the highest level recorded since 2004. It has been almost consistently higher than EU migration for decades.

Fewer EU citizens are immigrating to the UK, and more are emigrating

The most recent set of figures published cover the year to June 2018.

Since the EU referendum in late June 2016, the estimated number of EU nationals immigrating to the UK fell from 284,000 the year before the vote to 226,000 in the year after. That stayed broadly level in the year to June 2018.

Meanwhile the number of EU citizens emigrating has increased from an estimated 95,000 in the year before the referendum to 145,000 now.

Again, while we can’t say how many people’s decisions to enter or leave the UK have been changed as a result of the Brexit vote, these could well be the biggest shifts in EU migration we’ve seen in recent years, and they are also driving overall falls in net migration to the UK.

The numbers are uncertain

These figures have a margin for error because they’re mainly based on surveys of passengers at airports. Net migration from the rest of the EU in any one year could usually be around 30,000 more or less than the estimates.

That means that small changes in immigration from one period to the next might not actually represent what’s really happening. With larger changes we can be more certain.

These figures also define immigrants and emigrants as people who change their country of residence for at least a year—which is called ‘long-term migration’. There are separate estimates for the numbers of people who come to the UK for less than a year.

There’s been controversy over whether long-term estimates accurately reflect immigration at all.

Reasons for coming here

About four in ten citizens from other EU countries say they come with a definite job lined up. Others usually come looking for work, to study or to join family members in the UK.

The proportion of EU citizens coming with a definite job had been rising until June 2017, which was thought to be related to the expansion of the EU and people leaving southern European countries experiencing economic problems.

But the proportion fell considerably last year to 37%

Non-EU immigrants, mainly say they come to study.

EU net migration was at historically high levels, but is now falling back

In recent years annual net migration from the rest of the EU has been at historically high levels. In the two years up until September 2016 it was between an estimated 160,000 to 190,000. Back in 2012 it was nearer 70,000 a year.

As the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford points out, when the EU expanded in 2004, the UK was one of three countries which opened its borders straight away to workers from the new member states.

The new estimates for 2018 suggest EU net migration has now returned to a level similar to that last seen in the year to June 2012.

3.8 million EU citizens in the UK

Around 3.7 million people living in the UK in 2018 were citizens of another EU country. That’s about 6% of the UK population, although these figures exclude people who live in communal establishments. Similarly, 6% of the UK population were born in another EU country.

Around 2.2 million nationals of other EU countries are in work, as of July to September 2018.

EU nationals of working age are more likely to be in work than UK nationals and non-EU citizens. About % of working age EU citizens in the UK are in work, compared to around 76% of UK nationals and 64% of people from outside the EU.

1.3 million people from the UK live in the rest of the EU

Figures for 2017 suggest that 1.3 million people born in the UK live in other EU countries. We’ve previously looked at all the estimates in detail.

Update 7 June 2017

We updated one of the figures in the 'reasons given for immigrating to the UK' graph from 41% to 42% to account for rounding error.

Correction 19 December 2018

This piece was updated in December 2018.


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