Immigration in Numbers:
2021 migration statistics

The Home Office has published its official immigration statistics for the year ending December 2021. These figures on migration and border control provide the most up to date estimates on the number of people crossing the UK border under immigration controls, as well as those applying to extend their stay or settle in the UK.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the UK immigration system, both in terms of restricting migrant movements to and from the UK and the impact on operational capacity. The figures in the report therefore reflect the restrictions that were in place during this period of the pandemic.

2021 is also the first year in which EU nationals require a visa to work in the UK on the same basis as non-EU nationals and so the data presented also gives us an early indication of how the points-based immigration system is being used by European citizens.

Below, we pick out some of the highlights from last year’s statistics on those arriving in the UK under work, study, family and other routes.


In 2021, there were an estimated 30.2 million passenger arrivals into the UK, including returning UK residents. This figure is almost a quarter (23%) less than the previous year, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

There were 1,311,731 visas granted in 2021, 59% less than in 2019 as a result of the pandemic, but 36% higher than in 2020. Of the visas granted in this period, 33% were for study, 31% were to visit, 18% were to work, 3% were for family and 14% for other reasons.

Work visas

There were 239,987 work-related visas granted in 2021 (including dependants). This represents a 110% increase on 2020 and is 25% higher than in 2019, the year preceding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Skilled work, which accounts for 63% of work-related visas granted, saw the largest growth in visa numbers from 2019 and increased by 37,551 or 33%. ‘Skilled work’ includes Tier 2 routes from the old points-based system and the new Skilled Worker, Health & Care, and Intra-Company Transfer visas, which replaced the Tier 2 routes in December 2020. The new Skilled work routes accounted for 148,240 or 62% of the total work-related visas granted and made up 98% of all Skilled work grants in 2021.

In the Temporary work category, ‘Seasonal Workers’ made up over half (55%) of all grants, increasing by 311% compared to the previous year. The growth in this route reflects the quota increases for the Seasonal Worker visa, which increased from 2,500 in 2019 to a current quota of 30,000 visas.

The Global Talent visa, which was introduced in February 2020, accounted for just over half (52%) of all grants in the High Value work visa category with 3,078 grants. This is nearly treble the amount granted in 2020.

Study visas

In 2021, there were 432,279 sponsored study visas granted (to both main applicants and their dependants). This is 89% (203,313) more than the previous year and 52% (147,558) higher than in 2019.

This is the highest annual number of sponsored study visas granted on record. The substantial increase not only represents a recovery from lower numbers during the pandemic, but also an increase on the pre-pandemic period.

Chinese nationals were the most common nationality granted sponsored study visas in 2021 with 119,334 visas granted, accounting for 28% of the total. This is much lower than the peak of 43% recorded in the year ending September 2019, and could be due to the early implementation of COVID-19 restriction in China from January 2020.

Nigerian nationals were the third largest nationality group this year and also saw the largest relative increase in sponsored study grants compared with 2019, increasing by 34,816 (+415%) to a record high of 43,200.

Family visas

There were 280,776 visas and permits granted for family reasons in 2021, 105% more than 2020. A sharp fall in grants was seen in April to June 2020 due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the number of grants of visas and permits has begun to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

There were 171,159 grants of visas to dependants of people coming to the UK on other types of visas, up 165% in the last year and up 111% since 2019. There were particularly large increases in grants to dependants of sponsored study visa holders and dependants of Skilled Workers.

There were 59,254 EUSS family permits issued to family members of those EEA or Swiss citizens granted or eligible for settled or pre-settled status through the EU Settlement Scheme on the basis of residence in the UK before the end of the transition period at 11pm on 31 December 2020 (up 210%). This is likely to be linked to growing awareness of the route which opened in March 2019 and closure of the EEA family permit route.

EEA and Swiss nationals

  • Work – In 2021, there were 30,514 work-related visas granted to EEA and Swiss nationals. The top EEA nationalities granted work visas and permits in 2021 were French, German and Italian nationals. The work route with the largest number of EEA grants was the Skilled Worker visa, with 10,827 grants. The second largest EEA work route was the Frontier Worker permit with 10,016 grants. Frontier Worker permits and Skilled Worker visas together made up 68% of all EEA worker grants.
  • Study – In 2021, there were a total of 22,714 Sponsored study visa grants to EEA and Swiss students, 5% of the total number of overseas student visas issued in this period. For EEA and Swiss nationals, French students had the highest number of Sponsored study grants (4,158), followed by students from Germany (3,816) and Spain (3,448). Together these three nationalities accounted for (50%) of all EEA and Swiss grants to study in 2021.
  • Family – From 2021, EEA nationals require a visa to enter the UK for family reasons, unless they are eligible for the EU Settlement Scheme or a free EU Settlement Scheme family permit. 59,254 EUSS family permits were issued in 2021 to family members of people from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, or Liechtenstein granted or eligible for settled or pre-settled status through the EU Settlement Scheme. The annual increase reflects increased awareness of the route and final closure of the EEA family permit route on 30 June 2021.

British National (Overseas) route

On 31 January 2021, the UK government introduced a new immigration route for British National (Overseas) (BNO) status holders, providing the opportunity for them and their family members to live, work and study in the UK. The route is open to BNO citizens and their dependants who are ordinarily resident in Hong Kong, the UK or the Crown Dependencies.

There have been a total of 103,900 applications for the BNO route since its introduction on 31 January up to the end of 2021. In Q4 of 2021, there were 15,600 applications, including 14,471 out of country applications and 1,100 in country applications.

As expected, the majority of grants (66%) were to BNO and/or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) passport holders. Dependants holding passports for countries other than BNO and/or HKSAR accounted for 74% of grants to dependants, including 72% who held Chinese passports.

In 2021, provisional management information shows that 8,350 BNO and/or HKSAR passport holders were granted “leave outside the rules” at the UK border.


In 2021, there were a total of 121,386 visa applications for Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) for work. This was 14% more (+15,346) than in 2018.

Skilled work CoS made up 77,272 (64%) of the total applications. Almost two-fifths of sponsored Skilled Worker visa applications were in the health and social care sector, with the five largest sectors comprising:

  • Human Health and Social Work Activities (38%)
  • Information and Communications (17%)
  • Professional, Scientific and Technical Activities (13%)
  • Financial and Insurance Activities (9%)
  • Education (5%)

Human Health and Social work CoS applications have almost tripled (+188%) since 2018, when they represented just 17% of sponsored skilled work visa applications, and where the largest sector was Information and Communications at 37% of the total. This increase is likely due to a combination of the removal of doctors and nurses from the Tier 2 Visa Cap in mid-2018 and the further demand for healthcare professionals resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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