Understanding race and migration data in the census

This information is likely to be used and misused to develop stories about the impact of and response to minority groups. This short article is designed to summarise what is available in the census and ways that the data can be used at local level. It is supported by more detailed information on the variables and the categories provided in the census releases.

The first release of relevant variables took place on 2 November (for migration) and 29 November provisionally (for race).  These provide information on single variables which can be used to understand local populations, inform engagement activities and analysis of employment, participation and access to services by linking to activity records e.g. employment profiles, service delivery records etc.).

In early 2023 there will be tables matching these variables to other characteristics covering employment, economic activity, educational attainment, housing, health and disability, caring responsibilities.

Understanding race

The most commonly used variable is ethnicity which provides a breakdown into defined categories and allows people to enter their own definition (Census Explainer – ethnicity). The first release will only include the pre-defined categories with more detailed tables available in 2023. The ethnic categories often do not map neatly onto the ways in which people self-identify. In addition, categories such as Black African, European and Other Ethnic Group cover diverse populations and there may be more differences in outcome measures within the category than between that category and others. Other categories that may be relevant include passports held (Census explainer – passport), languages spoken (Census Explainer – Language) and national identity (Census Explainer – national identity).

Understanding migration

Migration flows over the last year are summarised in tables that identify the number in an area who lived somewhere else the previous year.  These will include both internal (Census Explainer – internal migration) and international migration. The number of international migrants in an area can be identified through year of arrival in the UK (Census Explainer – age and year of arrival in the UK).  More detailed information will be available from the country of birth (Census Explainer – country of birth).  The broad categories available in the first release will be derived from an open-ended question.  The more detailed breakdowns will be available in 2023.

In 2023 there will also be flow data which holds the origin and destination of migration.  This will cover internal and international migration, students away from their family address and those who have a second residence (Census Explainer – second address).


The data will be available at national, regional, local authority, constituency, ward and statistical geographies based on output areas – the smallest area available.