NGC 6823 is a young open cluster that lies at a distance of ∼2 kpc in the Vulpecula OB1 association. Previous studies using CCD photometry and spectroscopy have identified a Trapezium system of bright O- and B-type stars at its centre, along with several massive O-, B- and A-type stars in the cluster. We present optical VRI and near-infrared JHK photometric observations, complemented with Spitzer/Infrared Array Camera archival data, with an aim to identify the young low-mass population and the disc candidates in this region. Our survey reaches down to I∼ 22 mag and Ks∼ 18 mag. There is significant differential reddening within the cluster. We find a bimodal distribution for AV, with a peak at ∼3 mag and a broader peak at ∼10 mag. We have classified the sources based on the [4.5] −  colour, which is least affected by extinction. We find a ∼20 per cent fraction of Class I/Class II young stellar objects (YSOs) in the cluster, while a large 80 per cent fraction of the sources have a Class III classification. We have made use of the INT Photometric Hα Survey (IPHAS) in order to probe the strength in Hα emission for this large population of Class III sources. Nearly all of the Class III objects have photospheric (r′−Hα) colours, implying an absence of Hα in emission. This large population of Class III sources is thus likely the extinct field star population rather than the discless YSOs in the cluster. There is a higher concentration of the Class I/II systems in the eastern region of the cluster and close to the central Trapezium. The western part of the cluster mostly contains Class III/field stars and seems devoid of disc sources. We find evidence of a pre-main-sequence population in NGC 6823, in addition to an upper main-sequence population. The pre-main-sequence population mainly consists of young disc sources with ages between ∼1 and 5 Myr, and at lower masses of ∼0.1–0.4 M⊙. There may be a possible mass-dependent age spread in the cluster, with the older stars being more massive than the younger ones. The presence of young disc sources in NGC 6823 indicates similar star formation properties in the outer regions of the Galaxy as observed for young clusters in the solar neighbourhood.