Long-Term International Migration Flows to and from the UK

12th June 2015
Next update
12/06/2016
Press contact
Rob McNeil

This briefing provides an overview of Long-Term International Migration (LTIM) inflows (immigration), outflows (emigration), and the difference between the two (net migration) in the UK.

Key Points:

  • Net migration to the UK, the difference between immigration and emigration, was 318,000 in 2014. This represents an increase of 109,000 since 2013 (when net migration was 209,000.
    More...
  • Inflows to the UK for 2014 were 641,000, up from 526,000 in 2013. Outflows from the UK were 323,000, comparable to the figure of 317,000 in 2013.
    More...
  • There has been continuous net emigration of British citizens since at least 1991. In 2014, about 56,000 more British citizens moved abroad than came to live in the UK.
    More...
  • In 2014, non-EU citizens accounted for 45% of all inflows to the UK (including inflows of British citizens). The share of EU citizens in total inflows increased from 22% in 2004 to 42% in 2014.
    More...
  • Formal study and work are the most common reasons for migrating to the UK. In 2014, 193,000 people migrated to the UK for study purposes and an additional 284,000 migrated for work related reasons. 
    More...

Understanding the evidence

The analysis in this briefing is based on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Long Term International Migration (LTIM). The primary data source for the LTIM estimates is the International Passenger Survey (IPS), but LTIM estimates also include adjustments based on other sources, such as the Home Office data on asylum seekers, the Labour Force Survey and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency international migration estimates.

To accurately understand and interpret LTIM data, it is important to be clear about its underlying definitions and limitations. ONS uses the current international standard definition of a long-term international migrant to produce LTIM estimates: a person who moves to another country for at least one year (see “evidence gaps and limitations” below for further discussion). This excludes for example, tourism or short-term business related travel.

Please note that the LTIM estimates used in this briefing are the revised estimates by the ONS. In early April 2014 the ONS published their report on the 'Quality of Long-Term International Migration estimates from 2001 to 2011', in which they revised the numbers of total net migration for the years 2001 to 2011. Based on the revision, total net-migration between 2001 and 2011 was underestimated by 346,000. There is evidence that the underestimation was predominantly driven by an undercount of migration from the A8 Eastern European countries. However, a revised version of inflows and outflows as well as breakdowns by citizenship or reason for migration, etc., is not currently available. As a result, estimates relating to any breakdown of inflows, outflows, or different reasons for migrating will not match the total net balance.

Back to top

Net migration to the UK, the difference between immigration and emigration, was 318,000 in 2014. This represents an increase of 109,000 since 2013 (when net migration was 209,000)

As shown in Figure 1, LTIM estimates suggest that since the early 1990s overall net migration to the UK has always been positive. In other words, the inflow of persons to the UK has been greater than the outflow. The headline net migration figures include people of all citizenships, including British citizens leaving the country or coming from abroad. 

The latest available calendar-year figure for net migration is 318,000 in 2014 – this represents an increase from 109,000 since 2013. It is comparable to the all-time high of 320,000 for the year ending in June 2005.

Between 2014 and 2013, inflows increased by 115,000, while outflows remained broadly stable. This trend differs from the year 2011-2012, when both immigration and emigration declined and contributed to a decline in the net migration level.

During the 1990s, there was mostly a positive trend in net migration as these flows surged from minus 13,000 (i.e. net emigration) in 1992 to positive 163,000 in 1999. In the 2000s there was a significant increase in net migration that coincided with the 2004 EU enlargement and the opening of UK labour markets to workers from the so-called Accession 8 (A8) countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia), plus Malta and Cyprus. Migrants from the A8 countries have accounted for a significant portion of recent net migration. ONS figures suggest the share of recent net migration attributed to citizens of A8 countries is about 19% of total net migration since 2005; it is worth noting that this share is likely to be higher but the revised net figures do not include a breakdown by citizenship.

Total net migration to the UK during 1991-2014 stands at approximately 3,979,000 migrants. Average annual net migration to the UK during 2004-2014 was 245,000, which represents about three to four times the annual average of 65,000 during the period 1991-1999.

Figure 1

Back to top

The share of EU citizens in LTIM inflows and net flows has increased.

Table 1 shows migration inflows and net flows to the UK by citizenship of the migrant. In 2014 non-EU citizens (Commonwealth and 'other' categories) had a positive net migration of 197,000 (up from 143,000 in 2013). They accounted for 45% of all inflows and 52% of non-British inflows. EU citizens had a positive net migration of 178,000 (up by 55,000 since 2013); they accounted for 42% of all inflows and 48% of non-British inflows.

The share of EU citizens in inflows has been steadily increasing since 2004 (when it stood at 22%) and is much higher than the average for the 2000-2003 period (when it stood at about 13%). By contrast, the share of migrants from Commonwealth countries declined from 37% in 2004 to 26% in 2012 and then to 20% in 2014. 

British citizens are the only group characterised by continuous net-emigration since 1991 (i.e. negative net migration). In 2014 there were 56,000 more British citizens moving abroad than coming to live in the UK. Although this is slightly lower than the 2000-2012 average of 78,000 British citizens per year, it remains significantly lower compared to 2006, when the net emigration of British nationals peaked at 124,000.

Table 1 - Inflows and net flows by citizenship (thousands)

YearBritishEU (British not included)CommonwealthOther
 InflowsNetInflowsNetInflowsNetInflowsNet
Average 1991-199998-45601487538643
(Share)30% 18% 26% 26% 
Average 2000-2003102-72629155101178120
(Share)21% 13% 31% 36% 
200489-10713087215162155104
(Share)15% 22% 37% 26% 
200598-881529618012013778
(Share)17% 27% 32% 24% 
200683-12417010420113514383
(Share)14% 28% 34% 24% 
200774-9719512717411613188
(Share)13% 34% 30% 23% 
200885-871986316510014287
(Share)14% 34% 28% 24% 
200996-441675817110513279
(Share)17% 30% 30% 23% 
201093-431767718713513583
(Share)16% 30% 32% 23% 
201178-711748217911913585
(Share)14% 31% 32% 24% 
201280-63158821297613181
(Share)16% 32% 26% 26% 
201376-572011231014814795
(Share)14% 38% 19% 28% 
201483-5626817812886162111
(Share)13% 42% 20% 25% 

Source: ONS, Long-Term International Migration Estimates, table 2.01a. Note that the sum of the shares may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

Back to top

Formal study and work are the most common reasons for migrating to the UK. In 2014, 193,000 people migrated to the UK for study purposes and an additional 284,000 migrated for work related reasons.

As people often move for a variety of reasons, it can be difficult to categorise migrants based on their reasons for migrating to the UK (see our ‘Mixed Migration: Policy Challenges’ primer for a discussion of mixed migration motivations. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, that someone is moving to the UK to join his/her spouse, work in the UK and to study. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that while the ONS records the categories discussed below as mutually exclusive categories, this is clearly not always the case in practice.

Focusing on inflows, LTIM estimates suggest that about 30% of the migrants came for study purposes in 2014 (see Figure 2). In total, the number of people moving to the UK for study reasons stood at 193,000 in 2014, which is 16,000 higher than in 2013 but still represents a decline of 17% compared to 2011 (when it was 232,000). 

Figure 2

Note: For 1995, there is no data for the "Looking for work" category.

Back to top

At the same time, 284,000 migrants came for work related reasons in 2014. These migrants either had a definite job (28%) or came to look for a job (17%). This is represents an increase of 32% or 69,000 migrants since 2013. Work reasons are now the most common reason for migrating to the UK, although formal study occupied this position between 2009 and 2012. 

In 2014, about 14% of migrants came to accompany or join a family member. This share has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years, though it represents a decline from a peak of 25% in 1994. A noticeable variation over time is discernible for the category defined by ONS as ‘other’ at 8% (see Figure 2; the blip in 1995 is the result of a change in data recording for that specific year). Overall, there has been a reduction in the share represented by this group since the 1990s, despite a small increase to 9% in 2012. 

Work related reasons were the most common motives for leaving the UK (about 56% in 2014), with 34% of those leaving having a definite job abroad and 21% going abroad to look for work.

In 2013, nearly half of migrants plan to stay in the UK for 1 or 2 years

As Figure 3 shows, there has been a steady increase in the share of migrants coming to the UK for 1 or 2 years (from 33% in 1991 to 43% in 2013) and a steady decrease in the share coming for more than 4 years (from 39% in 1991 to 27% in 2013). In 2010, for the first time, the majority of migrants to the UK reported intentions of staying for just 1 or 2 years, in 2013 this declined slightly to 43%. But overall, since 1991, there has been an increase in “long-term” migrants that plan to stay in the UK for a relatively short period.

Figure 3

In 2013 about 20% of migrants planned to stay for 3 or 4 years, while close to 10% were not sure. See the Evidence Gaps and Limitations section below for discussion of the limitation of the LTIM data in regards to using the intentions of migrants, which may or may not be realised in practice.

Back to top

The most popular destinations of people leaving the UK are non-EU countries

LTIM data also provide information about the ‘next intended’ country of residence of people leaving the UK, which may of course be different from their actual final destination. Moreover, the data will not reflect those instances in which individuals migrate to a country for a short time with plans of eventually moving to a third country.

The information reported in Figure 4 suggests that the most popular destinations of people leaving the UK in 2013 were non-EU countries (Commonwealth and others combined). Closer inspection of the data reveals that the most popular country for UK emigrants going to Commonwealth countries was Australia followed by countries in the Indian subcontinent. Because LTIM estimates do not make a distinction for naturalised British citizens, it is not possible to know how many of these emigrants were returning to a country of origin.

Figure 4

Back to top

Evidence gaps and limitations

Whether we should refer to all individuals who come to the UK as migrants for at least 12 months as 'long-term' migrants can be the subject of debate. For some people, the expression 'long-term' indicates a desire to settle or at least to spend a significant amount of time in the UK. However, the current ONS definition (which is the international standard) will place an individual who stays for 11 months and an individual who stays for 13 months in different categories, while a third individual who stays for 20 years will be in the same category as the individual who stays for 13 months.

In practical terms, the IPS asks individuals about their planned stay in the UK and abroad. The data thus captures individual intentions in order to measure inflows and outflows of migrants. Migrants’ plans for the future, e.g. the intention to stay in the UK for more than 12 months, may or may not be realised. The ONS uses different methods to address this challenge by, for example, adjusting for ‘visitor switchers’ (i.e. those whose original intention was to stay for less than one year but who subsequently stay longer) and for 'migrant switchers' (i.e. those who intended to stay for more than twelve months but left within a year).

Capturing information on migration is not the only purpose of the IPS, which collects data on a broad set of issues including tourists’ spending in the UK, towns visited and alcohol and tobacco purchases made, among others. Given that it is not an exclusively migration-focused survey, the sample of migrants in the survey is relatively small. As with any survey, there is a certain margin of error of the estimates. The ONS publishes the central estimate at the 95% confidence level, indicating the degree of uncertainty about this estimate. When evaluating changes, this allows for testing whether the given change is statistically significant or whether the estimate is too uncertain. Moreover, this uncertainty is especially relevant for the disaggregation of migrants across source countries given that the number of migrants interviewed from certain countries is small. As such, the ONS publishes the source of migrants using broad regional categories only.

It is also important to emphasize that the numbers and changes in net migration differ according to the source of estimates. For instance, it is possible to compare the dynamics suggested by these estimates with that of other data sources such as the Annual Population Survey (APS). LTIM estimates provide information on net migration flows (i.e. difference between immigration and emigration), while the APS provide information on the stock of migrants. The changes in the stock of migrants should reflect the level of net migration; however, there are significant differences between the estimates.

Finally, it is essential for the reader to keep in mind that the total net migration figures have been revised upwards for the years that span between 2001 and 2011. This change in estimates came alongside a published report by the ONS in early April 2014. Based on the revision, total net-migration between 2001 and 2011 was underestimated by 346,000. There is evidence that the underestimation was predominantly driven by an undercount of migration from the A8 Eastern European countries. However, the figures have not been revised to reflect undercounts in inflows and outflows and there are no revised figures with breakdowns by reason for migration or citizenship.  In simple terms, if for example one is looking at inflows and outflows for these years, the difference will not match the revised net balance of that year. This also applies to any other breakdown beyond the total net balance for each year between 2001 and 2011.

Back to top

Thanks to Ann Singleton for helpful comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing

Further Reading

Press contact

If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:
Rob McNeil
+ 44 (0)1865 274568
+ 44 (0)7500 970081
robert.mcneil@compas.ox.ac.uk