How to Respond

Self-Response Options 

When the census starts in 2020, about 80 percent of addresses will receive an invitation letter with instructions on how to respond online or by telephone using a unique ID. The remaining 20 percent of addresses — selected because they are less likely to have or use the internet — will receive both an invitation letter (with a unique ID) and a paper questionnaire with a postage-paid return envelope. After three mailed requests to complete the census online or by phone, unresponsive households will receive a paper questionnaire and return instructions on the fourth mailing. Online Response All households will have the opportunity to complete the 2020 Census online or via smartphone, identifying themselves through either the unique ID included in the mailing or their household address.

Phone Response

The 2020 Census will be the first U.S. census in which people can respond to the census by telephone with their unique ID or household address. Respondents can also call the toll-free Census Questionnaire Assistance (CQA) with questions about other response methods or about the census in general.

Paper Questionnaire

As noted above, only 20 percent of households will receive a paper questionnaire (with postage-paid return envelope) in the first census mailing. This “Internet Choice” mailing will include both a paper questionnaire and instructions on how to respond online or by telephone.

Nonresponse Follow-up (NRFU) Around May 9, 2020, the Census Bureau will begin NRFU, to count households or determine the status of housing units that did not self-respond. This is the costliest census operation, so the Census Bureau strives to obtain the highest self-response rate possible.

Vacant Housing Units The Census Bureau will use administrative data, primarily from the U.S. Postal Service, local governments, and third-party commercial vendors, to identify and remove vacant housing units from the NRFU universe. The Census Bureau will mail a final postcard to those addresses, inviting someone to respond or contact the Census Bureau if the home is, indeed, occupied. 

In-Person Enumeration Enumerators will visit all non-responding households (that is, occupied housing units that haven’t responded) at least once. If no one answers the door or if the “head of household” is unavailable, the enumerator will leave a “Notice of Visit,” a note explaining the attempt and encouraging the occupants to self-respond. Unlike previous decennial censuses, census enumerators will use smart devices to collect data, instead of the traditional pen and Proxy Interview If three in-person attempts to count a household are unsuccessful, enumerators will attempt to conduct an interview with a proxy respondent if they determine the proxy has sufficient knowledge of who lived in the housing unit on April 1, 2020. Proxies can include: 

  • Neighbors
  • Relatives of the occupants
  • Landlords or building managers
  • Real estate agents and new occupants (if the residents moved around the time of Census Day)
  • Local government employees (clerks, tax collectors, and other administrative staff)
  • Utility workers or postal service employees

Otherwise, enumerators can make up to three additional contacts in person or by telephone (no more than six in total) to complete the census form. 

Records Matching Once all attempts to count a housing unit have been exhausted, the Census Bureau will use federal and local administrative records to fill in missing information. Examples of administrative records include: 

  • Medicare and Medicaid records
  • Social Security Numerical Identification System records
  • U.S. Post Office files n Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Records from previous Census Bureau surveys
  • IRS documents (1040 Forms)

If high-quality administrative data are not available, the Census Bureau will use statistical imputation methods to count households that appear to be occupied.