It goes without saying that 2020-21 was a strange year for international travel. With restrictions on many borders as a result of the pandemic, visa worries brought on by Brexit and employment uncertainty in many previously prosperous industries, you might expect for international relocations figures to be down this year, but MoveHub has actually seen a 15.9% increase in moves in 2020-21.

In this report we explore which countries people have moved to and from, the instances where we suspect people are choosing to move back to their country of origin, and which countries have won over new residents thanks to their handling of the pandemic.

a woman boards an escalator in an airport

Overall, we saw more people than ever choose to return to their country of origin in what we have dubbed the ‘great de-globalisation’. Whether it was to care for vulnerable relatives, take advantage of their local healthcare provisions or – for some – to find work after Covid-19 – many of our big cities could look a little different after this past year.

We see how remote working gave rise to more young people choosing to relocate to warmer climes, but also how the impacts of Brexit also meant, for some retirees, the expat dream came to an end.

MoveHub has used its own data, comprising over 89,000 international household moves, to see where and why people relocated in one of the most event-laden years the world has ever seen.

a map showing the global moving trends of 2021

Increases are based on data from 2020-21 compared to data from 2019-20

map showing global moving trends of 2021

Decreases are based on data from 2020-21 compared to data from 2019-20

The great repatriation

  • Many more arrivals than departures for UK and USA
  • Brexit and the pandemic loom large, making relocations a question of necessity
  • Rumblings of a de-globalised post-COVID world?

Twice as many people moved to the UK as left in 2020-21 (12,715 households vs 7,071), while the ratio for the USA was an even greater three to one (13,621 vs 4,380). Both countries saw big ‘net gains’, while most of our other busiest countries experienced the opposite. Australia, Canada, India, and France all had more people leave than arrive.

a group of friends walking down a London street

What really stood out to us here was the coming vs going ratio of moves. With some countries – like the UK and USA – these imbalances hold as (accelerating) trends across 2019-20 and 2020-21. With others – like France and the United Arab Emirates – they align much more neatly with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stepping back from ratios and looking at our raw numbers, more people moved out of the UK than from any other country (7,071 households), with Australia (5,331) and Canada (5,068) not far behind. Given the prevalence of closed borders to non-essential travel, the overarching picture is one of a de-globalised world, with expats returning home for economic, political, and pandemic reasons.

We have not one, but two elephants in the room for this year’s report: the pandemic and Brexit. Lucky us. Moves in the last twelve months likely have much more to do with necessity than with adventure or new horizons.

Between Brexit, a global pandemic, and a government keen to reduce net migration, our UK trends make sense. The Office for National Statistics suggests a million people have left the country in the last year – the largest fluctuation since the Second World War. London has been hit especially hard, though more on this later.

The net gain is especially interesting in this context. Perhaps the UK is swapping international workers for citizens returning home? Does this mark, as The Guardian puts it, ‘a slide into insularity’? Home and abroad, time will tell.

London churning

  • Huge fluctuations as London the most moved-to and moved-from city in 2020-21
  • Pandemic accelerates trends set in motion by Brexit
  • Brain drain, brain gain, or brain scramble?

London was both our most moved-to (735 households) and most moved-from (1,489 households) city of 2020-21.

It wasn’t close, either. Second and third on our list of moved-to cities were Toronto (344) and Sydney (318). London had more than those two combined, jumping from 307 to 735, with an incredible 139% increase.

The most striking fact among all this is that twice as many people left London as arrived. Top destinations included Sydney (147), Berlin (134), New York (121), Dublin (120), Dubai (120), and Paris (115), with plenty of other relocations to mainland Europe besides. Moves away from the capital increased 30% on the year before – from 1,145 to 1,489.

As with other city data, it’s worth mentioning that ‘moving’ to the city may mean it’s simply the nearest convenient port for the final destination, which may be more rural.

The last year has accelerated an ongoing trend. The Financial Times estimates as many as 1.3 million immigrants have left the UK in the last year, with around 700,000 of them coming from London. The city’s population has dropped around 8%, despite the apparent influx of returning nationals.

The United Kingdom formally left the European Union at the end of January 2020, with the transition period ending in December. Throw in a global pandemic, and you’ve got an awful lot of reasons for an awful lot of people to be relocating.

Between COVID-19 and Brexit, the UK has seen exceptional turbulence over the last year, nowhere more so than London. The country could well be trading an international workforce for returning nationals – a brain drain? Brain gain? Brain scramble? The combined ramifications of Brexit and the pandemic will likely take years to become apparent, but our data shows the ball is well and truly rolling.

All is forgiven? Moves from Canada to USA double

  • Moves from Canada to USA more than double between 2019-20 and 2020-21
  • Exodus from urban centres as small towns enjoy real estate boom
  • Election of Joe Biden bringing self-exiled Americans home?

Relocations from Canada to the USA increased from 885 to 1,989 between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. At 125%, that is the second largest country-to-country jump in our data. (The first was between India and the United Arab Emirates, which we’ve dedicated a separate piece to.)

people on santa monica beach

At the same time, moves the other way have jumped from 302 to 446 – a 48% increase. Relocations to Canada from US cities doubled between 2019-20 and 2020-21, with Los Angeles and New York leading the way with 116 and 110 moves respectively. Those two cities are home to the largest Canadian expat populations in the country, so it stands to reason that the jump is due to them returning home during the pandemic. All told, there seems to be something of an ‘exchange’ underway.

The ‘special relationship’ between Canada and the USA has been a little strained these last few years. Our 2017 report showed how interest from Americans in fleeing abroad skyrocketed as the presidential race progressed. New Zealand was one popular escape fantasy of choice – another was Canada.

Has Joe Biden being elected president inspired swathes of self-exiled Americans to return home and build a golden future? Perhaps, though even our 2017 report suggested there’s a fair amount of bluster on that angle. America’s standing in the world has certainly dropped these last few years, but moves there have remained steady.

As with most trends this year, the pandemic looms large. Canada’s international borders have been closed to all non-essential travel since March of 2020 – with no exception made for the US. If you’re going from one country to the other, you better mean it. With that in mind, we expect the jump in moves to be expat Americans returning home to see out the pandemic in… peace?

According to rental search site PadMapper, prices have dropped steeply in Canada’s cities, echoing trends elsewhere of urbanites moving to the suburbs and beyond. Rental prices in Toronto and Vancouver (the Canadian one) have hit four-year lows during the pandemic, while smaller towns have been enjoying a real estate boom. Between new remote working and expats being called home, living in urban centres may not be as important as it used to be.

The closed border has hit the Canadian tourism industry hard. Around two thirds of its foreign visitors are American, and they happen to spend a lot more money than other nationalities while there. Despite this, most Canadians favour keeping their distance until COVID-19 is under control. A hundred million more vaccinations and maybe Americans can start moving north again.

L’Exodus: Moves to France plummet

  • Relocations to France drop (almost) across the board
  • Would-be expats putting their moves on hold until pandemic passes
  • Rural property prices rise while city sales take a hit

Moves to France during the last year have dropped almost everywhere. Moves from the USA are down from 509 to 277 (a 46% drop), while from Canada it’s gone from 419 to 192 (a 54% drop). Even domestic moves shrank by around 33%.

Relocations to France from Italy, Portugal, and Algeria all featured in our top 100 in 2019-2020. All three dropped out in 2020-2021, and a few others besides.

The only notable increase was in moves from Germany, which went up a cool 37%, from 140 to 192. That’s the exception that proves the rule, though. France is the expat destination of choice for Brits and many others, but it seems the pandemic has put a lot of relocations on ice.

The coming/going ratio has been huge. In our 2019-20 window, 66% of moves involving France had the country as the destination. In 2020-21, that dropped to 40% – by far and away the biggest swing. Moves from the country have stayed steady at around 2,100, but moves toit have dropped off a cliff – from 4,060 to 1,431.

Suffice it to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on international moves. Relocations are happening more than ever, but the nature of those relocations have changed dramatically over the last twelve months. Few countries showcase that better than France.

France’s related travel restrictions will have played a big part in this, with the country spending most of the pandemic in a European bubble. It was only in March of this year that travellers from a handful of non-EU countries regained (conditional) access.

Does swing bear out in house sales and property prices? Yes and no. Paris has been hit hard by the pandemic, with the volume of transactions falling 18% in the year ending September 2020. In terms of our data on international moves, this makes sense – for one thing, the city’s expat population numbers in the millions. If our numbers are at all indicative of wider trends, then there are far fewer expats looking to buy right now.

There’s a little more to it than that, though. Property prices for property outside of the capital have actually risen. Remember the France to France moves mentioned above? The French are no strangers to domestic moves (a solid 5% of the population moves house each year), so it seems expats and nationals alike are seeping out of France’s more densely populated areas.

Does this mean France has lost its va va voom? Probably not. Expat communities there are going strong, but it seems a lot of would-be movers are waiting for the dust to settle before committing to that rustic cottage near the vineyards.

Covid-savvy Kiwis return to rule the roost

  • Moves to Auckland jump 75% during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Brain gain for New Zealand as nationals flock home after years away
  • Rest of world fantasises about moving there too

Moves to New Zealand’s most populous city, Auckland, rose from 137 to 240 between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 – a 75% increase. Relocations from London, Melbourne, and Sydney shot into our top 25 inter-city routes, having barely featured the year before.

On the flipside, moves from Auckland have not featured in our top city-to-city routes at all. This fits with Kiwis coming home to see out the pandemic in relative peace. It has been one city with a comfortable ‘net gain’ – indeed, some early analysis has suggested the pandemic could be a brain gain for the entire country, with three quarters of those returning saying they mean to stay permanently.

people hiking in new zealand

This doesn’t necessarily mean Auckland has itself seen a large influx of returning New Zealanders. It is the country’s largest commercial port, so it makes sense that moves would go through it, even if the final destination is somewhere off the beaten track. We take these numbers to be fairly representative of the country as a whole.

Although plenty of countries have dealt with the pandemic superbly well – Taiwan, Vietnam, and Iceland were a few named in our own analysis of the subject – the anointed media darling seems to be New Zealand, and with good reason.

In a year packed full of staggeringly bad news, the Kiwi response to the pandemic has been so good that it almost feels like they’re rubbing it in. Under prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s watch, the country’s ‘team of five million’ has followed the science, taken advantage of its island status, and kept the virus at bay. It is, in short, a good place to be hunkered down.

New Zealand’s performance compared to most of the western world has also led to an increase in people fantasising about moving there. ‘Moving to New Zealand’ has been our most popular search query since the start of 2020, while ‘How to move to New Zealand’ and ‘Living in New Zealand’ are also very popular.

These queries did not translate to many moves. Lots of people are curious about moving to New Zealand, but with the country closed off to non-residents for over a year now, that curiosity is as far as things can go.

For the time being, most of us will have to make do binge watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It will be interesting to see if this bug endures after the dust has settled – if it does, New Zealand could be looking at an influx of newly smitten expats.

Expats say goodbye to Dubai

  • Moves away from UAE city double in 2020-2021
  • Dubai’s population dropped 8.4% last year – double the Gulf average
  • Tourism sector having to make do with influx of influencers

Our city-to-city data suggests Dubai has been hit especially hard by the past year’s uncertainty. Two of the three biggest inter-city increases have Dubai as the origin – Relocations to Toronto went up from 70 to 141 (a 101% increase), while those to Mumbai rose from 51 to 109 (a 114% increase).

Stepping back and looking at the national picture, moves away from the United Arab Emirates increased from 937 to 1,283 (a 37% increase) between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. At the same time, moves to the country almost doubled from 933 to 1,779! Even if major cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are taking a hit, it seems the UAE population as a whole remains fluid.

centre of dubai

Relative to total population, the United Arab Emirates has one of the highest percentage of expats in the world. Fun fact: there are more Indians in the UAE than there are Emiratis. The country has a huge number of foreign workers, and most of them live in Dubai.

Our findings very much align with wider trends. According to the S&P, Dubai’s population dropped 8.4% last year – more than double the Gulf region average. Economic upheaval has led to job losses, and with residency permits in the UAE tied heavily to work, that means a lot of expats have had to leave the country. Real estate, tourism, and hospitality have been especially badly hit, with the S&P saying it could take up to two years for the sectors to fully recover.

If a pandemic and historic economic hardship wasn’t bad enough, Dubai has also had to contend with being the new favourite destination of influencers. The UAE has been comparatively lax about pandemic travel restrictions in a bid to remain open to tourists, opting for checks and self-isolation periods rather than full blown border closures. This has made it a go-to spot for social media influencers, whose blasé attitude to travel has caused its fair share of grumbling in the press.

Easy come, easy go, it seems. The tradeoff of the UAE having such a high expat population has been a fair number of people leaving when the going gets tough. The situation remains fluid, though, with the country remaining an accessible destination in a world with far fewer moving options than it had a year ago.

South Africa in stasis

  • Relocations to South Africa dropped steeply between 2019-20 and 2020-21
  • Despite this, moves out of the country only account for 7% of its data
  • Virus strains and closed borders keeping the country in stasis

The last year has not been ideal for those looking to move abroad, with a number of countries seeing big drops in arrivals.

South Africa was one of them. Indeed, moves to South Africa dropped from 2,325 to 1,706 between 2019-20 and 2020-21, a drop of 36%.

The trend was especially stark down under. Moves to South Africa from Australia dropped from 342 to 278 (a 19% drop), while from New Zealand the decrease was from 588 to 285 (a stunning 52%). Meanwhile, moves there from Portugal and the Netherlands dropped off our top routes entirely.

What especially stood out to us was the ratio of comings and goings. Only a handful of the moves involving South Africa were people leaving. No doubt this has a lot do with the country having the tightest travel restrictions in the world.

South Africa has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other country on the continent. Being home to a potentially vaccine-resistant variant of the virus won’t have helped matters for where moving is concerned – not exactly something you’d put on the brochure, is it?

It is likely that most of those who are moving to South Africa are returning expats, of which there aren’t all that many compared to other countries. It all amounts to a sense of battening down the hatches until the worst has passed.

All this has contributed to the South African economy shrinking for the first time in 11 years. Hospitality and tourism has been hit especially hard, though there’s cautious optimism that the country can bounce back relatively fast and strong.