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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. There’s no other survey that gives us as much detail about the entire population and the society we live in.

The census asks questions about you, your household and your home. The results help the government and local authorities decide how best to plan and fund the everyday services we all need – like housing, education, healthcare and transport.

Here at the Office for National Statistics, we’re proud to be responsible for carrying out the census in England and Wales – a total of more than 26 million households. It’s a massive operation. As billions of pounds of public money is distributed using census figures, it’s vital that we reach and engage with every individual. That’s where you come in.

The story so far

As it’s so big, we only do the census every 10 years. As soon as we’ve finished one, we start planning for the next.

The first census was way back in 1801, the most recent in 2011. Census 2021 is planned to take place on 21 March 2021.

As you can imagine, planning something on this scale takes mammoth preparation. But we’ve been working hard to get everything ready to make sure it runs smoothly. In 2015, we asked the public what topics they thought should go on the census questionnaire. The results helped us decide what to recommend to Parliament, which needs to approve the census. In 2017, we ran a census test. The test gave us a chance to try out our systems and services, including some new approaches, to ensure they work correctly before the full census in 2021.

In 2018, the government published the White Paper outlining recommendations for the census in 2021. White papers are policy documents that set out recommendations for future legislation and inform Parliament and the public about those recommendations. 2019 is the year of our rehearsal. This is taking place in Carlisle, Ceredigion, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. If you live in one of these areas, you can join us now to help make sure everything runs smoothly in 2021. 

In 2020, we’ll be updating our address register to add any new, changed or extinct addresses to make sure our data is as complete and accurate as possible. The national address register forms the backbone of our census and allows us to correctly contact more than 26 million households.

What's new? It'll be online

The census is moving with the times and going “digital first” in 2021.

For the last census in 2011, there was the option to fill in the form online instead of a traditional paper version. But now we’re going a step further.

This time, most people will get a letter with a unique access code through the post, rather than a paper census questionnaire. It’ll just be a case of entering the code into our secure website online and you’re ready to go. We’ll be able to help face-to-face and over the phone for those unable to get online or who need some help.

The Census Rehearsal

As part of our preparations for Census 2021, we’ll be holding a census rehearsal in October 2019.

A rehearsal is essentially a “mini-census”. We’ll be asking people in a few areas of England and Wales to fill in a census-style questionnaire as if it was the real thing.

The rehearsal will help us confirm everything is running as it should and lets us iron out any last challenges. We’ll run the rehearsal in four local authority areas. These are:

o             Carlisle

o             Ceredigion

o             Hackney

o             Tower Hamlets

If you live in one of these areas, we’re recruiting for the rehearsal and need your help right now. Search the Apply page