A National census has taken place here every 10 years from 1801. The first four 1801,1811,1821,1831 were completed, examined by Government and then destroyed. From 1841 onwards the returns were kept. They are of immense use to genealogists as they provide a "snapshot" of a household every 10 years. Details include names/surnames of residents, place, street, number/name of house, age and sex, relationships, occupations, and where born. Also whether anyone was blind, deaf, imbecile, idiot or lunatic!
The easiest census to examine is the 1881 census. This was transcribed and indexed thanks to volunteers from the LDS Church and Family History Societies and is available on CD Rom at a reasonable price.It is very easy to use and is a MUST for those whose Ancestors were alive in this Country in 1881. A similar indexed version on CD for the 1851 census is available for the Counties of Devon, Norfolk and Warwickshire only.
The 1901 census was released on the Internet in January 2002 having been transcribed over the years by inmates of HM Prisons. This is indexed, and a limited amount of free information is available , for more details a modest fee is charged. However demand was underestimated the site was unable to cope with the traffic and it was impossible to access . The site is undergoing "enhancements" at the moment but it is unclear when it will be available on line again.
There are other indexes to some Counties for various census years. See http://rontay.digiweb.com/Default.htm. This site provides a look up service for a small fee.
For the majority of census entries that have not been indexed it is necessary to have an address of an Ancestor before searching except in the case of smaller Villages. It has been known in desperation for researchers to look through all the entries of a large Town to find an Ancestor when their address has not been known. However, this can take many hours causing much eyestrain and entries can be easily missed this way. You may know an address from a BDM Certificate however. If not, there are other sources that can be used to get an address including electoral registers, trade directories, probate records, rate books, etc. These records not being readily available in America / Canada would have to be searched by a UK researcher.
Once an address is found finding it in an unindexed census is not always straightforward. Smaller rural areas present few problems, larger urban areas can be harder. However there are many street indexes available at UK Archive Libraries which will make it easier to find the right place in the census. You may consider that it is easier to ask a researcher to find census entries for you.
If you feel confident searching yourself, a census film for a particular area can be ordered via LDS Family History Centres anywhere in the World. You can check the details for the places you are interested in the LDS Family History Library Catalogue, accessed via http://www.familysearch.org. An asterisk (*) next to a place indicates that an index is available.
Philip Westwood runs a genealogical service enabling Americans and Canadians to research their English Ancestors. For more details view his profile.