The Immigration System | Key Topics

  • Citizens of European Union countries have ‘free movement’ rights within the EU. At present this gives them the right to live and work in the UK. These rules, as they apply to the UK, are likely to change when Britain leaves the EU, possibly as early as 2019.
  • Non-EU citizens have to meet criteria set out by the UK government in order to enter, work, study or settle in the UK.

1. Net migration to the UK is currently just under 330,000. This note outlines the main components of this migration and the routes by which migrants come to the UK.

EU Migration

2. European Union citizens have the right to live and work in other EU countries - a right first established by the Treaty of Rome in the 1950s. EU citizens can now reside legally in the UK as a job-seeker, a worker, a student or as persons of independent means. Their dependants are also entitled to move with them. The government has indicated that it intends to control EU migration when Britain leaves the EU.

3. As a result of the very strong cultural, social and economic ties that the UK shares with EU member states, the goal should be to minimise disruption as far as is possible. To this end, we recommend that free movement should continue for students, genuine marriage partners, the self-sufficient and business visitors. However, controls should be introduced on those wishing to work in the UK. Visas, confined to those offered a job in a skilled role could reduce EU net migration by as much as 100,000 a year (see our proposal here).

Non-EU migration

4. Citizens of countries outside the EU are subject to immigration control. This means that they do not have the right to enter the UK to live, work and study unless they are granted a visa. Citizens of most countries also need a visa just to visit the UK.

5. The Home Office administers the granting of visas. Applicants have to meet the relevant criteria set out in the immigration rules. Some applicants will also be interviewed to assess the merit of their application.

6. Visas for work, study or family are usually valid for a fixed amount of time. Depending on the category, some visa holders can legally extend their stay in the UK by applying for ‘Further Leave to Remain’, or by applying to settle indefinitely. Applicants who have settled can then apply for British citizenship.

7. Migrants who remain in the UK without valid permission become illegal immigrants (see our overview on illegal immigrants).

Non-EU work immigration

8. The largest category of work visa is for migrants sponsored by a company to undertake skilled work in the UK. This includes those recruited directly for jobs in the UK and those transferred within an international company to its UK offices. There is a cap of 20,700 places per year on applicants recruited directly for jobs in the UK although there are exemptions for the very highly paid.

9. Work visas are also available for ‘high value’ individuals including investors, entrepreneurs and those with outstanding talent in the science or arts.

10. Other visa categories include the youth mobility scheme which is open to young people of certain nationalities to experience life in the UK temporarily. There is also a scheme for domestic workers. Foreign nationals with British grandparents can apply for a British Ancestry visa to come to the UK. Over the last ten years an average of just over 170,000 work visas were granted every year.

Non-EU students

11. Non-EU citizens wishing to come to study must be sponsored by an educational institution such as a university or college in order to get a visa. There is no limit to the number of students that can come to the UK from outside the EU to study. Study is the single biggest reason given for non-EU immigrants coming to the UK. Some have argued that students should not be categorised as immigrants because they are only here temporarily. However, there are strong question marks over the extent to which some students overstay their leave to remain. For more on this see our overview of international students.

Non-EU family immigration

12. There are a number of routes through which non-EU family members can come to the UK. Some come as dependants of other migrants who are coming to work or study in the UK. Others come as spouses or civil partners of British citizens or those with settlement in the UK. Other non-EU migrants can come to the UK as family members of EU nationals.


13. In addition to the immigration system, the UK offers refuge to those who meet the criteria of the Refugee Convention or are in need of “Humanitarian protection”. There have been just under 240,000 applicants (excluding dependent family members) for asylum over the last ten years. Of these 36% have been granted refugee status or humanitarian protection. For more on asylum please see our overview.

Non- EU Visitors

14. Citizens of many non-EU countries also require a visa to visit the UK. Categories include visiting family members, tourism and business trips. Over the last ten years, the total number of visitors to the UK has averaged 7.8 million a year. The number of business visitors averaged 1.6 million a year over the same period and the average number of ordinary visitors was 6.2 million a year.

Recording Arrivals and Departures

15. A record is made of those admitted to the UK at the border. However a major weakness of the immigration system is that exit checks on those departing were scrapped in 1998. This meant that there has been no means of knowing who has subsequently left the country or who has stayed on illegally after their right to remain had expired. This weakness in the system encouraged overstaying and made it harder to identify which immigration routes are major sources of illegal immigration.

16. Exit checks were fully reintroduced in 2015 by requiring transporters such as airlines to collect information on their passengers in advance of travel. The Home Office plans to cross-reference this passenger information against its information on migrants’ immigration status. To date there has been no published information on the results. Over time it is important that the Home Office builds up an accurate picture of who is in the UK and who has stayed on illegally.

Updated November 2016

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