Although narratives describing the first waves of immigration to the United States often focus on European newcomers, Chinese migrants drawn by the economic boom associated with the 1849 California Gold Rush were also among the country’s early immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, however, banned most Chinese immigration to the country, and legal opportunities for Chinese migration to the United States did not expand significantly until the reform of the U.S. immigration system in 1965.
The number of Chinese immigrants in the United States has grown each decade since 1960, when the population stood at just under 100,000, to reach 1.8 million in 2010. The Chinese born represented the second-largest immigrant group in the country (after the foreign born from Mexico) in 2010, and accounted for 4.5 percent of the total foreign-born population.
Compared to the foreign born overall, Chinese immigrants in 2010 reported higher levels of educational attainment, were less likely to live in households with an annual income below the poverty line, and were substantially more likely to have naturalized as U.S. citizens. Yet, Chinese immigrants were also more likely to have limited English proficiency than the foreign born overall, and immigrant men born in China exhibited lower rates of labor force participation than immigrant men overall.
This Spotlight focuses on Chinese immigrants residing in the United States and examines the population's size, geographic distribution, admissions categories, legal status, and demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. The data used are the most recent detailed data available and come from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey (ACS), the 2000 Decennial Census (as well as earlier censuses), and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).
The ACS and OIS data used in this article refer to immigrants born in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Instances wherein the data refer only to immigrants from Mainland China or from Hong Kong are noted.
Size and Distribution
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
Size and Distribution
There were about 1.8 million foreign born from China (including Hong Kong) residing in the United States in 2010.
In 2010, just over 1.8 million immigrants born in either Mainland China or Hong Kong resided in the United States. These immigrants accounted for 4.5 percent of the country's approximately 40 million total foreign born and represented the second-largest immigrant origin group after the foreign born from Mexico, who comprised 29.3 percent of all immigrants in 2010.
The Chinese-born population has both increased in numeric terms and made up a larger share of the foreign-born population each decade since 1960, when the population stood at just under 100,000 and represented only 1.0 percent of all immigrants. Relative to other groups, the Chinese immigrant population grew particularly rapidly during the 1990s, rising from the sixth largest group in 1990 to the third largest in 2000.
More than one in ten Chinese immigrants in 2010 was born in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.
The majority of Chinese immigrants in 2010 were born in Mainland China (88.9 percent, or 1,608,095). A smaller share (11.1 percent, or 199,971) reported their birthplace as Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China. Excluding the Hong Kong born from the total number of Chinese immigrants made China the fourth, rather than the second, top country of origin for the foreign born in 2010. In previous decades, immigrants from Hong Kong made up a larger share of the overall Chinese-born population, accounting for 21.9 percent in 1980, 21.7 percent in 1990, and 17.1 percent in 2000.
Over half of the Chinese born resided in two states: California and New York.
California had the largest number of Chinese immigrants in 2010 with 577,745 individuals and 32.0 percent of the total Chinese-born population, followed by New York with 376,584 Chinese born, or 20.8 percent of all Chinese immigrants. The Chinese born in these two states collectively accounted for more than half (52.8 percent) of all Chinese immigrants in the United States. Other states with Chinese immigrant populations greater than 60,000 in 2010 included Texas (79,577, or 4.4 percent), Massachusetts (71,558, or 4.0 percent), New Jersey (65,933, or 3.6 percent), and Illinois (62,545, or 3.5 percent).
While the number of Chinese-born persons in South Dakota was small (just over 2,000), the share that they represented in the state’s total immigrant population was the highest in the nation (9.7 percent). The Chinese born accounted for 8.8 percent of all immigrants in New York, 8.7 percent in Hawaii, 7.8 percent in North Dakota, and 7.3 percent in Massachusetts.
More than one in five Chinese immigrants lived in the New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA metropolitan area in 2010.
In 2010, New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA was the metropolitan area with the largest number of Chinese born (407,372 individuals, or 22.5 percent of all Chinese immigrants), followed by the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA (228,107, or 12.6 percent) and the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA (202,988, or 11.2 percent) metro areas. Together, these three metropolitan areas were home to almost half (46.4 percent) of the 1.8 million Chinese immigrants in the United States.
Compared to other metro areas, San-Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA had the highest share of immigrants born in China in 2010.
Chinese immigrants accounted for 17.5 percent (228,107) of all immigrants in the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA metropolitan area in 2010. The other metro areas with the highest shares of immigrants born in China were: San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA (63,240, or 9.4 percent of all immigrants), Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH (66,355, or 8.6 percent), and New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA (407,372, or 7.5 percent).
There were about 4.3 million self-identified members of the Chinese diaspora residing in the United States in 2010.
Of the nearly 4.3 million self-identified members of the Chinese diaspora residing in the United States in 2010, about half (42.2 percent, or 1.8 million) were born in mainland China and Hong Kong. More than one-third (38.2 percent, or 1.6 million) were born in the United States or born abroad to U.S. citizen parents, and the remaining 19.7 percent were born elsewhere, mainly in East and Southeast Asian countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
Note:There is no universally recognized definition of the term "diaspora." Most often, the term includes individuals who self-identify as having ancestral ties to a specific country of origin. To calculate the size of the Chinese diaspora in the United States, we included all individuals born in Mainland China or Hong Kong (except those born to at least one U.S.-citizen parent), all individuals who reported "Chinese" as their race or ethnicity regardless of where they were born, and all individuals who selected “Chinese” or "Cantonese" either alone or in combination with another option as a response to either of the two ACS questions on ancestry.
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
More than 700,000 immigrants born in Mainland China and Hong Kong were granted green cards between 2001 and 2010.
Of the approximately 10.5 million total immigrants who obtained green cards (i.e., lawful permanent residence) between 2001 and 2010, 6.3 percent (or 662,678) were born in Mainland China. A much smaller share (0.4 percent) of all green card recipients were born in Hong Kong.
In 2010 alone, Chinese immigrants from Mainland China accounted for 6.8 percent (or 70,863) of the 1.0 million immigrants granted lawful permanent residence, with immigrants born in Hong Kong accounting for only 0.2 percent (2,432) of all grants.
Chinese immigrants were less likely than immigrants overall in 2010 to obtain lawful permanent residence through family-based channels.
Among those immigrants from Mainland China and Hong Kong who obtained lawful permanent residence in 2010, more than half (54.2 percent) did so through family-based routes, compared to about two-thirds (66.3 percent) of immigrants overall.
About one-third (34 percent, or 24,929) of the Chinese born who received green cards did so as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, one-quarter (25.1 percent, or 18,413) did so through employment-based channels, 20.4 percent (14,950) as asylees or refugees, 20.2 percent (14,806) through family-sponsored preferences, and the remaining 0.2 percent through other means.
By comparison, among the 1.0 million immigrants overall who became lawful permanent residents (LPR) in 2010, 45.7 percent did so as immediate family members of U.S. citizens, 20.6 percent through family-sponsored preferences, 14.2 percent as employment-based immigrants, and 13.1 percent as refugees and asylees. A small share were also admitted through the Diversity Visa Program (4.8 percent) and through other means (1.7 percent).
More than one in ten employment-based green cards went to Chinese immigrants in 2010.
In 2010, 12.4 percent of LPRs admitted to United States through employment-based channels were born in Mainland China or Hong Kong. Only India was the birthplace of more employment-based LPRs, with the Indian born accounting for 21.0 percent (or 31,118) of these admissions.
Chinese nationals received more asylum grants than any other nationality in 2010.
Almost one-third (31.7 percent, or 6,683) of the 21,113 persons granted asylum in the United States in 2010 were nationals of the People's Republic of China. No other country accounted for more asylum grants, and China had more than six times as many grants as the second leading country of nationality, Ethiopia (1,093).
A very small number of Chinese nationals (72) were admitted to the United States as refugees in 2010, accounting for a very small share (0.1 percent) of the year's total refugee admissions (73,293).
The People's Republic of China was the third most common birthplace for lawful permanent residents in 2010.
As the origin of 4.4 percent of the country's 12.6 million total LPRs, the People's Republic of China was the third most common birthplace for LPRs living in the United States in 2010. The top country of birth for LPRs was Mexico (3.3 million, or 26.0 percent of all LPRs), followed by the Philippines (560,000, or 4.4 percent).
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated that about 40 percent of Chinese LPRs (220,000 persons) were eligible to naturalize as U.S. citizens in 2010, representing 2.7 percent of all LPRs eligible for naturalization.
In 2010, roughly 1 percent of all unauthorized immigrants in the United States were from China.
The Office of Immigration Statistics has estimated that, in January 2010, about 1.2 percent (130,000) of the approximately 10.8 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States were born in China. Estimates suggest that, from 2009 to 2010, the number of unauthorized Chinese immigrants increased slightly from 120,000 to 130,000.
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
The data used in this section come from the 2010 American Community Survey, accessed from Steven Ruggles, et al. Integrated Public Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2010.
More than four in ten Chinese immigrants in the United States arrived in 2000 or later.
As of 2010, 40.8 percent of the 1.8 million Chinese born (including those from Hong Kong) in the United States had entered the country in 2000 or later.
Among the Chinese born, immigrants from Mainland China were more likely to be recent arrivals than their Hong Kong-born peers. More than half (56.0 percent) of immigrants born in Hong Kong arrived in the United States before 1990, compared to 26.6 percent of those born in Mainland China. Similar shares of immigrants from Hong Kong and the mainland arrived during the 1990s – 26.9 percent and 29.6 percent, respectively – but 43.8 percent of immigrants from Mainland China arrived in 2000 or later, compared to only 17.1 percent of those from Hong Kong.
With respect to the U.S. foreign-born population overall, 34.7 percent of the 40 million total entered the country in 2000 or later, with 27.1 percent entering between 1990 and 1999, 18.5 percent entering between 1980 and 1989, 10.5 percent between 1970 and 1979, and the remaining 9.1 percent prior to 1970.
The foreign born from China were more likely to be age 65 or older than both the native born and the foreign born overall.
On average, the Chinese born residing in the United States in 2010 were older than both the native born and the foreign born overall: 15.4 percent of Chinese immigrants were age 65 or older (seniors), compared with 13.2 percent of the native born and 12.4 percent of all immigrants. The vast majority of Chinese immigrants (77.9 percent) were of working age (16-64), although a greater share of the foreign-born population overall (82.0 percent) fell into this age range than did either Chinese immigrants or the native born (63.3 percent).
Chinese immigrants were also slightly more likely to be age 15 and younger (youths) than the foreign born overall, with 6.8 percent of the former falling into this age range compared to 5.6 percent of the latter. Among the native born, a category that includes U.S.-born children of immigrants, 23.5 percent were youths.
Among Chinese immigrants there was also some variation with respect to age, with the foreign born from Hong Kong overwhelmingly concentrated in the working age range (91.1 percent) compared to those born in Mainland China (76.2 percent). Immigrants from Mainland China were more likely to be youths (7.4 percent versus 1.9 percent) and seniors (16.4 percent versus 7.0 percent) than their Hong Kong-born peers.
Chinese immigrant women outnumbered men in 2010.
Among all Chinese immigrants residing in the United States in 2010, 55.0 percent were women and 45.0 percent were men. There was little variation in the gender balance between Mainland Chinese immigrants and those from Hong Kong. The native and foreign born overall each had more balanced gender distributions, both weighted slightly towards women (50.8 and 51.0 percent, respectively).
Chinese immigrants were significantly more likely than the foreign born overall to be naturalized U.S. citizens.
More than half (53.8 percent) of Chinese immigrants were naturalized U.S. citizens in 2010, compared to only 43.7 percent of the foreign born overall. Among the Chinese born, those born in Hong Kong were almost 30 percentage points more likely to be naturalized citizens than those born in Mainland China (78.9 percent and 50.6 percent, respectively).
Roughly three of five Chinese immigrants were limited English proficient in 2010.
In 2010, 62.8 percent of Chinese immigrants age 5 and older were limited English proficient (LEP), meaning that they reported speaking English less than "very well." The Chinese born were more likely to be LEP than the foreign-born population overall, 51.6 percent of which reported limited English proficiency in 2010.
Rates of English proficiency varied among Chinese immigrants, with immigrants born in Hong Kong reporting higher rates of proficiency than their mainland-born peers. Among the foreign born from Hong Kong, 12.7 percent reported speaking only English and 45.8 percent reported speaking English "very well," compared to 7.6 percent and 26.9 percent of Mainland Chinese immigrants. With respect to the foreign born overall, 15.2 percent reported speaking only English and 33.2 percent reported speaking English "very well."
Overall, 65.5 percent of immigrants born in Mainland China were LEP, compared to 41.6 percent of immigrants from Hong Kong.
Note:The term "limited English proficient" refers to any person age 5 and older who reported speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well" on their survey questionnaire. Individuals who reported speaking only English or speaking English "very well" are considered proficient in English.
Almost all of the Chinese immigrants who were limited English proficient in 2010 reported speaking "Chinese," Cantonese, or Mandarin.
Among the 1.1 million Chinese immigrants age 5 and older who were LEP in 2010, 65.4 percent reported that they spoke "Chinese" (as a larger category, "Chinese" could include Mandarin and Cantonese), 16.9 percent specified speaking Cantonese, 14.4 percent specified speaking Mandarin, and the remainder reported speaking other languages.
The majority of immigrants born in Mainland China and Hong Kong who were LEP reported speaking "Chinese" (66.5 and 51.9 percent, respectively).
Chinese-born adults were more likely than the native born to have a bachelor's degree or higher level of education.
In 2010, 45.4 percent of Chinese immigrants age 25 and older had attained a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 28.5 percent of the native born and 27.1 percent of the foreign born overall. More specifically, 19.2 percent of Chinese born reported a bachelor's degree as their highest educational credential, compared to 18.1 percent of the native born and 15.9 percent of the foreign born. Chinese immigrants (26.1 percent) were also more likely than the native born (10.3 percent) and the foreign born overall (11.1 percent) to have attained a post-bachelor's-level degree.
Levels of educational attainment varied among Chinese-born populations. Immigrants born in Mainland China (25.6 percent) were about 10 percentage points more likely than those born in Hong Kong (15.0 percent) to have not obtained a high school degree or equivalent credential. They were also more likely (18.5 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively) to have attained a high school diploma or equivalent as their highest degree.
However, both groups were less likely than the foreign born overall to fall on the lower end of the spectrum of educational attainment. In 2010, 31.7 percent of all immigrants lacked a high school diploma and 22.5 percent reported that degree as their highest educational credential.
Chinese immigrant men were less likely to participate in the civilian labor force than foreign-born men overall.
In 2010, Chinese-born men age 16 and older were slightly more likely than native-born men to participate in the civilian labor force (69.4 and 67.8 percent, respectively). Both of these groups, however, were significantly less likely to be in the labor force than foreign-born men overall (78.9 percent).
Chinese-born women (57.3 percent) were about as likely to participate in the labor force as immigrant women overall (56.9 percent), but both groups were slightly less likely than native-born women to be part of the labor force (59.7 percent).
Among Chinese immigrants of both genders, those born in Hong Kong had higher labor force participation rates than those born in Mainland China. Roughly 71 percent of women born in Hong Kong participated in the labor force in 2010, compared to 55.5 percent of women born in Mainland China. Among men, 78.7 percent of the Hong Kong born participated in the labor force, compared to 68.2 percent of those born in Mainland China.
Almost one-quarter of employed Chinese-born men worked in information technology and other sciences and engineering occupations in 2010.
Among the 498,416 Chinese-born male workers age 16 and older employed in the civilian labor force in 2010, 11.1 percent reported working in information technology (compared to 4.4 percent of foreign-born men overall), and 13.7 percent reported working in other science and engineering occupations (compared to 4.0 percent of immigrant men overall). Additionally, 14.4 percent of Chinese-born men reported working in management, business, or finance professions, and 20.2 percent reported working in service occupations.
Chinese-born women were more likely than Chinese-born men and immigrant men and women overall to work in management, business, and finance professions in 2010.
Among the 474,603 Chinese-born female workers age 16 and older employed in the civilian labor force, 17.2 percent reported working in management, business, and finance occupations. The share of Chinese-born men who reported working in this profession was smaller (14.4 percent), as was the share of foreign-born women overall (10.3 percent) and foreign-born men overall (10.8 percent).
Chinese-born women were most likely to report working in service occupations (19.6 percent) in 2010, but worked in these roles at significantly lower rates than foreign-born women overall (26.7 percent). A significant share of Chinese-born women also reported working in administrative support positions (11.6 percent).
Chinese immigrants were less likely to live in poverty in 2010 than the foreign born overall.
In 2010, a smaller share of Chinese immigrants lived in a household with an annual income below the federal poverty line than the foreign born overall (16.1 percent, compared to 18.7 percent). Chinese immigrants were only slightly more likely than the native born (14.7 percent) to live in poverty. With respect to place of birth, Chinese immigrants born in Hong Kong were significantly less likely than their mainland-born peers to live in poverty. Only 9.0 percent of the Hong Kong born lived in poverty in 2010, compared to 16.9 percent of those born in Mainland China.
Note:Poverty is defined as individuals residing in families with a total annual income below the federal poverty line. Whether an individual falls below the official poverty line depends not only on total family income, but also on the size of the family, the number of children, and the age of the householder. ACS reports total income over the 12 months preceding the interview date.
About 479,000 children resided with at least one Chinese-born parent in 2010.
In 2010, about 479,000 children under the age of 18 resided in a household with at least one immigrant parent born in China or Hong Kong. This represented 2.8 percent of the 16.9 million total children under 18 who lived in immigrant families that year.
Like the overall population of children with immigrant parents, the majority of children in Chinese immigrant families were native born. This figure was comparable for children with Chinese parents (85.1 percent) and for children with immigrant parents overall (85.9 percent).
Note:Includes only children who reside with at least one foreign-born parent.
Hoefer, Michael, Nancy Rytina, and Bryan C. Baker. 2011. Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.
Nancy Rytina. 2011. Estimates of the Legal Permanent Resident Population in 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.
U.S. Census Bureau. 2010 American Community Survey. Accessed from Ruggles, Steven, Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. 2010. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. Available online.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. 2011. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Various tables. Available online.