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EU Migration to and from the UK

05 Oct 2015

  1. Media Coverage

This briefing provides an overview of migration to the UK from European Union (EU) member countries. It discusses inflows, new registrations for a National Insurance number (NINos), employment, and other key statistics on EU migrants in the UK.

  1. Key Points
    • The population of EU-born in the UK stood at just over 3 million in the first quarter of 2015.
    • As of the first quarter of 2015, approximately 1.9 million EU-born were employed in the UK.
    • In 2014, inflows of EU nationals migrating to the UK stood at 268,000, up from 201,000 in 2013. Net migration from the EU was estimated at 178,000 in 2014, up from 123,000 in 2013.
    • EU citizens accounted for an estimated 48% of total non-British inflows in 2014.
    • Half of all EU nationals coming to the UK for 12 months or more in 2014 were nationals of countries that joined the EU in 2004 or later.
    • About two in three EU nationals migrating to the UK come for work related reasons. The next most common reason was formal study.
    • The number of National Insurance Number (NINo) registrations to EU nationals in the first quarter of 2015 was 216,609 in total. Of those, 31% were EU15 nationals, 21% A8 nationals, and 24% were A2 and other Accession nationals.
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    In UK immigration debates, EU citizens are a key group as they enjoy free movement within the European Union and the government cannot limit their rights to live and work in the UK in the same way that it does for non-EU nationals. The boundaries of the EU have changed significantly in the previous decades. A brief timeline of when EU members joined is as follows:

    1. Pre-2004 – EU15 (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom)
    2. 2004 – A8 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia) plus Malta and Cyprus
    3. 2007 – A2 (Bulgaria and Romania)
    4. 2013 – Croatia

    With the exception of the UK, Ireland and Sweden, all other pre-2004 EU member states decided to temporarily restrict labour market access to migrants from the A8 countries upon their accession to the EU in 2004. This was possible because the accession agreements allowed member states of the EU to impose restrictions on the immigration of citizens from the new member countries for a maximum of seven years. In the UK, A8 citizens were able to freely and legally take up employment from May 2004 as long as they registered with the Worker Registration Scheme (WRS). This requirement ended in 2011. The UK imposed restrictions on the access to labour markets of A2 citizens in 2007. These restrictions were lifted in January 2014, when citizens of these countries gained the same rights as all other EU citizens to live and work in any country in the union.

    To facilitate the analysis and allow for more consistent classifications over time, statistics presented throughout the briefing show information for the EU as a total, in addition to breakdowns for EU14, A8, and then A2 & other accession countries grouped together (as of 2015 this includes Romania, Bulgaria, Malta, Cyprus and Croatia).

    This briefing uses a variety of data sources (see the evidence gaps and limitations section below to understand challenges associated with these sources):

    Labour Force Survey (LFS) data from the ONS: quarterly survey of private households that provides data on foreign born and foreign nationals living in the UK and participating in the UK labour market. Labour Force Survey (LFS). For this briefing LFS information refers to the Q1 release.

    Long-Term International Migration (LTIM)estimates of the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS): provide data on immigration, emigration and net migration of EU citizens based on a standard definition of a long-term migrant as a person who moves to a country for at least a year. The International Passenger Survey is the main source of information for these estimates, in addition to adjustments for asylum seekers and other groups ‘Long-Term International Migration Flows to and from the UK‘).

    Please note that the LTIM estimates used in this briefing are based on 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.

    National Insurance Number (NINo) allocation data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP): provide information about the allocations of new National Insurance numbers to EU workers. NINos are issued once to people who are aged 16 or over and are working, planning to work or claim benefits in the UK, regardless of how long they intend to stay. Migrants may have lived in the UK prior to acquiring a NINo, nonetheless these stats can provide an idea of the number of EU nationals that enter the UK labour market in a given quarter.

The population of EU-born in the UK stood at just over 3 million in the first quarter of 2015

Figure 1 shows the number of EU born in the UK between Q1 1993 and Q1 2015 using information from the LFS. In contrast to other charts discussed in this briefing, this data refers to stocks of EU born who live in the UK, rather than flows of new migrants. For sample reliability purposes, people born in all accession countries are grouped together in this chart as accession born (A8, A2, Malta, Cyprus, and Croatia). Since the first quarter of 1993, the population of EU born in the UK increased by 184% or 2 million. The population of Accession-born UK residents has increased by about 1.4 million since 2004, reaching 1.7 million residents in Q1-2015.

Figure 1

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As of Q1 of 2015, approximately 1.9 million EU-born were employed in the UK labour market

Figure 2 shows the number of those in employment who are EU born, using information from the LFS. The chart identifies those who are 16 years old and older and who are in paid employment, both as employees or self-employed (includes also certain government schemes).

There is a general increasing trend in the number of EU born in the UK labour market over time, reaching its peak in the first quarter of 2015 with about 1.9 million EU workers. The upward trend is primarily attributed to increases in the number of accession workers over time. In 2004, 84% of employed EU born were from EU14 countries, whereas in 2015 this stands at 40% It is also worth noting that since about 2010, the number of accession born has surpassed the number of EU14 born in employment.

Figure 2

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In 2014, inflows of EU nationals migrating to the UK stood at 268,000, up from 201,000 in 2013. Net migration of EU citizens was estimated at 178,000 in 2014, up from 123,000 in 2013

Figure 3 uses data from the LTIM series to show the inflows, outflows and net-flows of long-term international migrants (i.e. those saying that they intend to stay in the UK for at least 12 months) from the EU for the period 1991-2014 based on nationality or citizenship. Note that the inflow and outflow numbers for the period 2001-2011 cannot be compared directly with those from 2012 onwards because of problems with the IPS data described in the “Understanding the Evidence” section of this briefing.

Inflows of EU nationals migrating to the UK stood at 268,000 in 2014, up from 201,000 in 2013. EU inflows were mainly flat for the 1991-2003 period, averaging close to 61,000 per year. Citizens from new EU member states are included in the data from 2004 onwards, after which the estimated EU migration inflows increased considerably.
Outflows of EU nationals from the UK remained relatively stable during the 1990s and early 2000s, fluctuating around 50,000 out-migrants per year. Out-migration of EU nationals peaked in 2008 (134,000) and 2009 (109,000), likely due to the 2008 recession.

Net migration from the EU, the difference between those coming and those leaving, was 178,000 in 2014, 96,000 higher than in 2012.

Figure 3

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EU inflows accounted for close to 48% of total non-British inflows in 2014

As shown in Figure 3, inflows of EU citizens accounted for close to 48% of total non-British inflows in 2014. Nationals of EU14 countries accounted for about 24% of total non-British inflows, while A8 nationals accounted for 15% of non-British inflows. Inflows from A2 and other Accession countries increased from 3% in 2012 to 10% in 2014.

Figure 4

However, it is important to note that the ONS has concluded that immigration from the A8 and other Accession countries was underestimated in the mid-2000s (ONS, 2012), as described in the Understanding the Evidence section above.

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Half of all EU nationals coming to the UK in 2014 were nationals of accession countries

In Figure 5 we can see EU inflows broken down by EU14, A8 and A2 & other Accession nationalities. Overall, half of EU inflows in 2014 were from nationals of EU-14 member countries and the other half from nationals of accession member countries. In 2014, inflows of nationals from A2 & other Accession countries (A2, Croatia, Malta, Cyprus) represented 20% of all EU inflows, up from 13% in 2013 and 8% in 2012. Inflows of A8 nationals accounted for one third of EU inflows in 2014.

Figure 5

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About 65% of EU nationals migrating to the UK come for work related reasons, followed by those who come for formal study

Figure 6 shows the shares of inflows of EU nationals to the UK in 2014 by citizenship and main reason for migrating. Among all EU nationals, 39% reported coming to take up a definite job and a further 26% to look for work. When focusing on EU14 nationals, 43% came for a definite job followed by 27% reporting studies as the main reason for migrating. A2 nationals were more likely to report coming to look for work, at 46%.

Figure 6

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The number of new NINo registrations to EU nationals in the first quarter of 2015 was 216,609 in total. Of those, 31% were EU14 nationals, 21% A8 nationals, and 24% A2 & other Accession nationals

Figure 7 provides the number of new NINo allocations to EU nationals in the UK. The inflow dynamics over time in NINo allocations are similar to the ones suggested by the LTIM data. Until 2004 the numbers were small, followed by an increase leading up to 2007 (first quarter). At that peak, quarterly NINo allocations to A8 citizens were about 111,000 (first quarter of 2007). Since then there has been an overall downtrend in NINo allocations to A8 citizens and the numbers have since stabilized at around 45,000 allocations per quarter. According to the latest estimate, there were 45,177 new NINo registrations to A8 nationals in the first quarter of 2015.

The group with consistent increases over time in new NINos includes nationals of A2 & other Accession member states, especially Bulgaria and Romania. The first peak for new NINo registrations to A2 nationals was the third quarter of 2008 with 12,630 new NINos. However, this peak was quickly surpassed. Between the summer of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015, new NINo allocations to other EU nationals averaged 55,414 per quarter and surpassed the quarterly levels for EU14 and A8 nationals.

As mentioned in previous materials of the Migration Observatory, it is important to highlight that NINo registrations are not a direct count of new migrants coming to the UK. Some of the people who are allocated new NINos could have been resident in the UK prior to applying, for example as students, short-term residents, among others. Moreover, being allocated a NINo does not provide any indication of how long a person will remain in the UK. Finally, evidence suggests that some migrants from A2 countries either had problems registering for NINos before January 2014, or may have been in the UK and working without having applied for a NINo, or not working.

Figure 7

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Evidence gaps and limitations

The ONS’s LTIM estimates rely heavily on the IPS, which is an imperfect data source. It is a sample survey, which is voluntary and relies on people outlining their intentions (see the Data Sources and Limitations section of the Migration Observatory website for further discussion of the limitations of this data source).

It is also 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.

The high level of immigration from the A8 to the UK after accession (713,000 for the 2004-2012 period) was not anticipated in reports used by the Home Office at the time; analysis at the time of the accession (Dustmann et al. 2003) suggested that flows were going to be much smaller. Due to a lack of historical data on migration from A8 countries to the UK, the projections for post-enlargement immigration from the A8 countries to the UK were based on a model whose parameters had to be estimated using data from other countries. Another problem with the projections was that this large-scale migration contrasts with the dynamics of previous EU accessions such as Spain and Portugal. In those cases, there were no significant migration movements (Vargas-Silva, 2011).

Similarly to the IPS, the LFS is also a voluntary sample survey and while it provides data on EU migrants in the UK, certain groups are excluded, such as those who do not live in a “private household” – which would include students living in dormitories, or people living in hostels or bed and breakfast accommodation. NINo allocations do not indicate when a worker enters the country and are, therefore, just a rough measure of new registrations of workers and not of the stock of migrants. The reliability of NINo allocations for measuring inflows of workers is further limited by the fact that not all migrants request a NINo number.


  • Dustmann, C., M. Casanova, I. Preston, M. Fertig, and C. M. Schmidt. “The Impact of EU Enlargement on Migration Flows.” Home Office Online Report 25/03, Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the UK, Home Office, London, 2003.
  • Office for National Statistics. Methods used to revise the national population estimates for mid-2002 to mid-2010. Office for National Statistics, December 2012.
  • Sumption, M. and W. Somerville. “The UK’s New Europeans: Progress and Challenges Five Years after Accession.” Policy Report, Equality and Human Rights Commission, Manchester, 2010.
  • Vargas-Silva, C. “Lessons from the EU Eastern Enlargement: Chances and Challenges for Policy Makers.” CESifo DICE Report, Journal for Institutional Comparisons 4 (2011): 3-7.

Further reading

  • Blanchflower D. and H. Lawton. “The Impact of the Recent Expansion of the EU on the UK Labour Market.” IZA Discussion Paper 3695, Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn, 2008.
  • Coombes M, T. Champion and S. Raybould. “Did the Early A8 In-migrants to England Go to Areas of Labour Shortage?” Local Economy 22 (2007): 335–48.
  • Dustmann, C., T. Frattini, and C. Halls. “Assessing the Fiscal Costs and Benefits of A8 Migration to the UK.” Fiscal Studies 31 (2010): 1-41.
  • Lemos, S. and J. Portes. “The Impact of Migration from the New European Union Member States on Native Workers.” Working Paper 52, Department for Work and Pensions, London, 2008.

Related material

Thanks to Agnieszka Kubal and Will Somerville for helpful comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing.

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October 5, 2016


Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva

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