Experiences of EU nationals in the UK – a review of the literature

Following the European Union (EU) referendum in 2016, the UK government developed the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), which was launched on 30 March 2019. The EUSS was introduced for an estimated 3.7 million EU, European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss citizens and their family members living in the UK, who wished to retain their residence status and work in the UK after free movement ended on 31 December 2020.

The ADR Wales European Union Settlement Scheme (EUSS) data linking project aims to identify whether EUSS citizens have different experiences from British citizens. We’re hoping to be able to highlight potential areas of discrimination or inequality and develop a dataset that will enable researchers and policymakers to better understand the experiences of EU citizens with pre-settled and settled status.

Although our project is taking a data-focused approach, we were keen to gather insights from the wider research literature. In all we looked at 80 studies, made up of 48 journal articles and 32 reports. The EUSS data linking project is exploring matters of health, education and children, employment, benefits and welfare, and EU citizens’ experience of living in Wales, so we were keen to identify the picture surrounding these areas.

What we found

Experiences of living in the UK

The focus was on EU citizens’ experience of living in the UK following the EU referendum and the process of applying to the EUSS, with the majority of publications relating to the experiences of Polish nationals. Whilst Polish nationals experienced racism and xenophobia prior to the EU referendum, the perception of an increase in these activities may well have contributed to Polish nationals’ (and other EU nationals’) uncertainty and anxiety about the future.

Decisions to apply for settled status were complex, with respondents being worried about the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU, yet the majority were confident about their right to stay and sense of security in the UK. Decisions about staying in the UK after the EU referendum were based upon an array of personal circumstances and life events and a range of economic, social and cultural considerations, including application fees, eligibility restrictions, and the right to dual nationality. Also, attitudes towards naturalisation varied significantly among EU nationals, with higher-income EU nationals, those with higher levels of education, and EU14 citizens displaying more resistance to applying to become British, on moral and political grounds.

Data for understanding the EUSS was limited due to lack of information about the number of EU citizens eligible to apply. There was an indication that most users of the EUSS online application process found it both functional and accessible in terms of language used. However, there was a high sense of insecurity and anxiousness amongst respondents around feeling welcome and integrated in the UK. 

Health outcomes

Mental health was the main focus of evidence in this area. Negative mental health aspects appeared to be prevalent prior to the EU referendum, due to discrimination, isolation and unfamiliarity with culture. However, following the referendum, feelings of insecurity and lack of acceptance appeared to have been exacerbated.

There were also reports of difficulties in access to and use of UK healthcare, due to language barriers and a lack of understanding of how the UK health system operated.

Children’s experiences

Children and young people faced particular vulnerability in the EUSS application process. This was due to place of birth, parents’ lack of knowledge or understanding of when their child could be registered as a British citizen, and parents’ ineligibility for citizenship.

Challenges with children’s eligibility and ability to apply for the EUSS was further compounded for vulnerable groups of children, such as those in care and within Roma communities. The evidence suggested that these vulnerable groups lacked the documentary evidence required to make an application to meet the EUSS registration criteria.

Barriers to education

Language and lack of familiarity with the UK education system posed the greatest barrier to education amongst children of EU citizens. Both primary and secondary schools experienced challenges where pupils had very little English, but were also unfamiliar with the teaching, learning and cultural aspects of school life. This was exacerbated when children arrived in the later years of compulsory education, with particular challenges associated with acquiring English to the level necessary to pass examinations.

Adult education was perceived as a more positive experience, with EU citizens being able to acquire new skills and improve their English language. It therefore provided a way of achieving better employment opportunities.


Many EU citizens were overqualified for their employment. EU citizens’ deployment in the labour market was diverse in terms of sector of employment, socio-economic status, and length of time in the UK. Those from EU14 countries were more likely to be in skilled occupations than those arriving from countries who joined the EU after 2003 (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia).

There was indication that younger and better qualified EU nationals, and those who have moved to the UK in recent years may leave the UK. However, although the result of the EU referendum created uncertainty, EU citizens intended to continue living in the UK, at least for the short to medium term. 

Benefits and Welfare

Navigating the welfare benefits system was hindered by language and cultural barriers, which was further exacerbated by perceptions of a system that stigmatised and discriminated against Eastern European citizens. Yet, evidence indicated that EU citizens were less likely than UK-born citizens to claim state benefits or tax credits, with take-up of benefits by migrants from EU2 countries (Bulgaria and Romania) being only 74% of that of EU8 citizens (those from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia).

EU citizens were also more likely to claim in-work benefits, rather than out-of-work benefits, than UK-born citizens, and EU8 and EU2 citizens had similar employment probabilities.

What’s next?

The review has provided the project with some insights into how EU nationals living in the UK navigate their lives, and the impact of the EU referendum and the subsequent EUSS. The information obtained is informing the key areas of data we need to focus on for the EUSS data linking project.

Based on the evidence identified in the review, further research is needed to estimate the full benefits and costs of leaving the EU – in relation to migrants or prospective migrants from these countries – for the UK in both a social and economic context.

Read the full literature review.

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