Catalonia's population boom resounds on streets of Barcelona

Residents and visitors give their take on the 8 million milestone and migration trends

A woman sitting down checking her mobile phone on a square in Barcelona
A woman sitting down checking her mobile phone on a square in Barcelona / Jordi Borràs
Lorcan Doherty

Lorcan Doherty | @catalannews | Barcelona

November 11, 2023 12:43 PM

November 11, 2023 01:19 PM

Catalonia's population is booming, jumping from 6 million in 1987 to over 8 million today. 

Booming, and changing, with international migration the principal driver of population growth in the last two decades. 

Keen-eyed readers know all this already of course, but what about Barcelona residents and visitors in general? 

Catalan News hit the streets to find out.


Pick a number, between 1,000 and 20 million 

The obvious question to start: How many people live in Catalonia today? 

Some went low. Cristina from Catalonia and Chiara, born abroad but now living in Barcelona, both guessed around 3 million, while Maria from Georgia said a thousand! Let's assume she meant a million; the words are similar in many languages, including Catalan and Spanish. 

Others went high. Gandor from the US reckoned there are 12 million, while Gulda from Latvia plumped for 20 million

But quite a few got it spot on, or very close. Pau, possibly remembering the well-known government ad campaign when the population reached 6 million, guessed 8 million. "It was 6, now it must be 7 or 8." 

Kim from Canada went for 7 million, while Patricia, from Ecuador but living in Catalonia for 14 years, said 8 million, "a bit more, but not less than 8 million."

The answer? It's 8,005,744, according to data published on November 1 by Catalonia's statistics body Idescat. 

The figure surprised those who had underestimated it. "8? Damn!" Chiara said. "I come from quite a small city, 60,000 people, so 3 million people in a region for me is a lot. And eight? I can't even imagine it."   


During the second half of the twentieth century, population growth in Catalonia was driven by internal migration within Spain, but this century, international migration has been the key factor, as Albert Esteve, Director at the Centre for Demographic Studies explains. 

"Our demographic dynamism is weaker," he says, "with far fewer people being born than dying. But, just like the Catalonia of 6 million, today's Catalonia is growing mainly thanks to people moving here, not so much now from the rest of Spain, but rather from the rest of the world." 

Catalonia's extremely low birth rate means that, without migration, its total population would begin to fall.

A man walks his dog in Girona's Plaça Independència square
A man walks his dog in Girona's Plaça Independència square / Ariadna Reche

"Over the last 40 years, Catalonia has had a fertility rate below 1.3 or 1.5," Esteve explains. "Long term, in order for the population not to shrink, it should be 2.1 children per woman." 

As well as the "direct population influx," Esteve says, there has also been an "indirect population influx – the second generation, children of people who moved here from countries like Morrocco and Colombia." 

What's more, there has been an "influx of diversity" - cultural, linguistic, economic. From "highly qualified migrants" moving to Barcelona, to people coming to work "in agriculture areas like Lleida," the foreign-born population is not one homogenous group, Esteve explains. 

More than 1 in 5 born abroad

In 1991, 1.68% of those residing in Catalonia were foreign-born, fewer than 100,000 people. In 2022, that had increased to 21.2%, or 1.65 million people. In other words, one in every five Catalan inhabitants was born abroad. 

Has this boom resounded on the streets of Barcelona? 

Patricia, who guessed the 8 million figure correctly, thinks the answer could be 3 million. "Wherever you go you find a lot of foreigners. And from my country [Ecuador], I think there are also quite a few!" 

Cristina also overestimates: "Of the 8 million? 2, maybe, 2 or 3?" 

North Americans Gandor and Kim both go the other way, guessing the figure must be around a million. 

Julio, from Andalusia in the south of Spain, has a guess at the population born outside Catalonia, rather than outside Spain. "45% of us I think are from outside, because everyone I speak to says: I am from Andalusia, I am from Málaga." 

In fact, 36% of Catalan residents were born outside Catalonia – 15% in the rest of Spain, down from 31% in 1991. 

Increasingly international 

The fact that 1.65 million people in Catalonia are foreign-born doesn't come as a surprise to many. 

"It's a very cosmopolitan area, so I guess that makes sense," Gandor says. 

"It's a beautiful region, beautiful country, so it's not shocking," says Kim, adding "I know lots of people in Canada who have relatives living here." 

On the other hand, Chiara expected the number to be higher. "I thought it was more," she says. "In Barcelona, there are a lot." 

Pau is taken aback at first. "1.6 million foreigners? My God." After a moment of consideration, he seems less surprised. "Well, Barcelona is increasingly more international, Catalonia too."