Voluntary Migration

It's the 1600s and you're boarding a ship with your loved ones. You'll be stuck onboard for anywhere between one to three months, sailing to a place you've never been, at dire risk of death from disease, storms, or starvation. Why would you do that? Well, the first European migrants to North America found themselves in this exact situation, moving in the hope of a better life. 

Voluntary Migration Voluntary Migration

Create learning materials about Voluntary Migration with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Today, many of us still have that desire to move, whether it's to the beat of a song, or to a new and undiscovered place. In the future, you may have to move for college, a job, or just because you want to! The United States has a plethora of opportunities within its borders, so you may not have to go very far. However, that's not always the case for people in many countries. As has always been the case, there are many reasons people want and need to move, and in the best of cases, it's by their own choice. Let's explore voluntary migration, the different types, and how very different it is from involuntary or forced migration.

    Definition of Voluntary Migration

    Although no universal definition for voluntary migration exists, it describes the process of migration where someone chooses to move. The choice is made of someone's own free will, usually to take up better economic opportunities, access more services and education, or simply because someone wants to.

    Voluntary Migration Annual Net Migration Rate (2010-2015) Definition of Voluntary Migration StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Annual Net Migration Rate (2010-2015); some countries experience more migration than others

    Voluntary migration can occur locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally. As globalization binds economic and political systems, more people will want to move to areas where they can be more successful. So don't think of migration as only occurring between different countries—it happens within countries and between cities too!

    Causes of Voluntary Migration

    Voluntary migration is caused by a range of forces in the world. Push and pull factors can explain what motivates people to move.

    A push factor is something that makes people want to leave a place, like economic and political instability, poor housing options, or insufficient access to services or facilities (i.e., hospitals, schools).

    A pull factor is something that makes people want to come to a place. For instance, good job opportunities, cleaner and safer areas, or access to better education. A mix of pull and pull factors is what motivates people to voluntarily migrate somewhere.

    The tech industry in the US has seen major growth for decades, due in part to shifts in the economy from tertiary to quaternary and quinary services. The job market in this industry is still growing and attracting people from all over the world to fill jobs. This can be considered a major pull factor for people to move to the US.

    Recent research from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania found that in the last 30 years, 75% of breakthroughs in AI research were made by foreign-born scientists.2 However, issues with visa and residency processes are making it harder for immigrants to stay in the US despite job offers in the industry.

    Difference Between Forced and Voluntary Migration

    The key difference between voluntary and forced migration is that voluntary migration is based on the free will to choose where to live. In contrast, forced migration is migration that is compelled by violence, force, or threat. An example of this is a refugee, fleeing an ongoing civil war or conflict in their country. They are forced to move under the threat of death or persecution.

    The causes of forced migration are usually development challenges, armed conflicts, or environmental disasters. Development issues include extreme poverty which can lead to death. Wars and religious or ethnic persecution are types of conflicts that can also threaten people's lives. Finally, environmental disasters can completely destroy homes and communities. Climate change is driving more environmental disasters and increasing their severity, leading to the new term climate refugee, someone who must move due to extreme environmental disasters and changes.

    See our explanation on Forced Migration to learn more!

    Types of Voluntary Migration

    There are several types of voluntary migration. This is because people will not only move for different reasons but can move within or between countries. It sounds complicated, but understand that as long as people get to choose to move, there will be many explanations for why and where they go.

    Voluntary Migration British migrants to Australia Types of voluntary migration StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - British migrants to Australia in 1949

    Transnational Migration

    Transnational migration is when people move to a different country while keeping ties to their original country or homeland. In this case, people will move but money, goods, products, and ideas may flow back to the original country. This is because of strong familial or relational ties.

    Try to remember this form of migration as a two-way flow!


    Transhumance migration is the seasonal movement of people seasonally, either with changes in the season or climate patterns. An example of this is pastoralism, which is the movement of livestock from low altitudes to higher, mountainous altitudes in the summer months. This means herders and farmers would have to move with their livestock as well. Check out our explanation on Pastoral Nomadism for more information!

    Internal Migration

    Internal migration is migration within a country, usually for economic or educational purposes. For instance, if you accept a job offer in New York City while living in Los Angeles, you may have to move! This can occur locally or regionally but is confined to the borders of a country.

    Chain Migration and Step Migration

    Chain migration is the process of moving to an area where either friends or family will also follow. The most common form of this is family reunification, where at least one family member moves to an area and sponsors the rest of their family members to join them.

    Step migration is the process of migrating in a series of steps. This means migrating in such a way that the main destination is reached after several moves. This may be because people need time to adjust to a new place or need to relocate temporarily until they move again to their final destination.

    To differentiate, think of chain migration as having links to other people. Step migration is then migrating step-by-step until reaching the final destination.

    Guest Workers

    A guest worker is a foreign worker with temporary permission to work in another country. With constantly-evolving economies, some jobs are left unfilled and a solution to that is to open positions to immigrant workers. In many cases, these kinds of workers will send the money back to their home country in the form of remittances. In some countries, remittances make up a large part of the economy.

    Rural to Urban Migration

    Rural to urban migration is the movement of people from rural areas to urban areas, such as larger cities or towns. This usually occurs within countries, though people can move from a rural area to an urban area in another country as well.

    The reason for this kind of migration can again be for economic or educational opportunities. Urban areas tend to have more access to other services and amenities, as well as entertainment and culture. Rural to urban migration is the leading cause of urbanization in the developing world.

    Urbanization is the process of towns or cities growing.

    Example of Voluntary Migration

    There are several examples of voluntary migration. International migration is usually tied to geographic proximity and historical roots between places.

    Guest Workers in the US and Germany

    The US has a long history of guest workers from Mexico. Much of it began when after the Mexican-American War, northern Mexico became southern US territory. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans suddenly became US residents. There was little restriction on migration, with free movement across the newly-founded borders.

    Voluntary Migration Mexican workers wait for legal employment under the Braceros guest worker program in 1954 Example of Voluntary Migration StudySmarterFig. 3 - Mexican workers wait for legal employment under the Braceros guest worker program in 1954

    When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, restrictions on immigration began to take place, especially as jobs became scarce and unemployment rose. Soon after, World War II began and a labor shortage arose. The Bracero program then began as an arrangement for guest workers to come fill jobs in factories and agriculture. Although the Bracero program ended in 1964, there is still a high rate of Mexican workers coming to the US.

    Similar to the Bracero program, Germany had its own guest worker program with Turkey. A labor shortage arose with the division of Germany into East and West after World War II. As a result, almost a million guest workers came from Turkey to West Germany in the 1960s and 70s, filling jobs and rebuilding the country after the war. Many stayed and brought their families via chain migration after several civil conflicts in Turkey drove people away.

    Voluntary Migration - Key takeaways

    • Voluntary migration is the process of migration wherein someone chooses to move. The choice is made of someone's own free will, usually to seek economic opportunities, access more services and education, or simply because someone wants to.
    • Voluntary migration is caused by a range of push and pull factors, usually economic and educational opportunities or greater access to services.
    • Types of voluntary migration include transnational migration, transhumance, internal migration, chain and step migration, guest workers, and rural to urban migration.
    • An example of voluntary migration is the Bracero guest worker program between the US and Mexico.


    1. Fig. 1, Annual Net Migration Rate (2010-2015) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Annual_Net_Migration_Rate_2010%E2%80%932015.svg), by A11w1ss3nd (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:A11w1ss3nd), licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
    2. Thompson, N., Shuning, G., Sherry, Y. "Building the algorithm commons: Who discovered the algorithms that underpin computing in the modern enterprise?." Global Strategy Journal. Sep. 1, 2020. DOI: 10.1002/gsj.1393
    Frequently Asked Questions about Voluntary Migration

    What is voluntary migration?

    Voluntary migration is the process of migration where someone chooses to move.

    Is migration always voluntary?

    No, migration can also be forced under threat of violence or death. That is called forced migration. 

    What is the difference between involuntary and voluntary migration?

    The key differences between voluntary and forced migration is that voluntary is based on the free will to choose where to live. In contrast, forced migration is migration under threat of violence, force, or threat. 

    What are some examples of voluntary migration?

    Some examples of voluntary migration are the guest worker programs between the US and Mexico as well as Germany and Turkey. 

    What are the two types of voluntary migration?

    There are several types of voluntary migration. One type is transnational, when someone moves across borders. Another type is internal, when someone moves within a country. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are causes of voluntary migration?

    Voluntary migration only occurs internationally.

    What is the key difference between forced and voluntary migration? 


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Voluntary Migration Teachers

    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App