What is the census?

The census is a once-in-a-decade survey that gives us the most accurate estimate of all the people and households in England and Wales. The information you give us helps decide how services are planned and funded in your local area. This could mean things like doctors’ surgeries, housing or new bus routes.

The census asks questions about you and your household to build a picture of all of us. It looks at who we are and how we live. There is nothing else that gives as much information about us and our society.

At the Office for National Statistics (ONS), we are responsible for planning and running the census in England and Wales. We work closely with the census offices in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who run their own censuses.

National Records of Scotland and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency both have information on their censuses and how you can take part.

When does the census happen?

We hold the census every 10 years. It all started back in 1801 – so we have been doing this for over 200 years (except for 1941, during World War 2).

We ran our last census in 2011. Right now, we are busy getting ready for the next one, which is planned to take place on 21 March 2021.

Why is the census important?

In a nutshell, there is no other survey that gives as much detail about us and the society we live in.

The information the census gives is vitally important to a lot of different people and organisations. These include local authorities and community groups in your area and nationwide, as well as the government, businesses, academics and genealogists.

Census data help these groups to understand our society and – in doing so – to help us. They use the information to find out what our needs are, and what those needs are likely to be in the future, to help decide how services are planned and funded.

The census also provides a snapshot of how we live for future generations to look back on.

So, what is information from the census used for?

Census information helps a wide range of people and organisations to do their work. All information is anonymised and your actual census record will be kept secure for 100 years.

Here are some examples of some of the main users of census information and what they use it for.

Your local authority and other public bodies

The census is very important to your local authority and others across the country. It is also vital to the government and many other public sector organisations.

This is because it gives them the information they need to:

  • develop policies

  • plan and run services, such as schools, health services, roads and libraries

  • decide how to allocate funds to make sure public funds get to where they are needed most

For example, census data showing how many people work in different jobs and industries are used to develop new job and training policies. Information on how people travel to work and how many cars they have contributes to planning roads and transport.


Lots of companies use census information to help them understand their customers. For example, a supermarket chain might use census population data to help decide where to open a new store.

Voluntary organisations

Voluntary organisations often rely on census data to get information about the communities they are working in. They may also use census data as evidence to support any applications they make for funding.

Academics and students

Academics such as university professors often use census data to support research that they are working on. Students use the data in a similar way to get the information they need for coursework and dissertations.

The public and genealogists

We can all use old census records for researching our family history – they are released to the public 100 years after the census took place. The records provide a fantastic source of information we can use to find out more about our ancestors.