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Virginia's earliest European immigrants were English—only a few hundred at first, but 4,000 between 1619 and 1624, of whom fewer than 1,200 survived epidemics and Indian attacks. Despite such setbacks, Virginia's population increased, mostly by means of immigration, from about 5,000 in 1634 to more than 15,000 in 1642, including 300 blacks. Within 30 years, the population had risen to more than 40,000, including 2,000 blacks. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, immigrants came not only from England but also from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Poland. In 1701, about 500 French Huguenots fled Catholic France to settle near the present site of Richmond, and beginning in 1714, many Germans and Scotch-Irish moved from Pennsylvania into the Valley of Virginia.

By the early 19th century, Virginians were moving westward into Kentucky, Ohio, and other states; the 1850 census showed that 388,000 former Virginians (not including the many thousands of slaves sold to other states) were living elsewhere. Some of those who left—Henry Clay, Sam Houston, Stephen Austin—were among the most able men of their time. The Civil War era saw the movement of thousands of blacks to northern states, a trend that accelerated after Reconstruction and again after World War I. Since 1900, the dominant migratory trend has been intra-state, from farm to city. Urbanization has been most noticeable since World War II in the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas. At the same time, the movement of middle-income Virginians to the suburbs and increasing concentrations of blacks in the central cities have been evident in Virginia as in other states. During the 1980s, the urban population grew from 66% to 69.4% of the total population; during the 1990s it reached 77.9%.

Between 1940 and 1970, Virginia enjoyed a net gain from migration of 325,000. In the 1970s, the net gain was 239,000, and during 1985–90, 377,000 (4th highest among the states for that period). Between 1990 and 1998, Virginia had net gains of 68,000 in domestic migration and 131,000 in international migration. In 1996, 372,000, or about 6%, of the state's population was foreign-born. In 1998, 15,686 foreign immigrants arrived in Virginia, the 9th-highest total of any state. Of that total, 1,509 came from El Salvador, 921 from the Philippines, and 910 from India. Between 1990 and 1998, Virginia's overall population increased 9.7%. In the period 1995–2000, 821,738 people moved into the state and 746,008 moved out, for a net gain of 75,730. Most new residents were from Maryland.