The Portugal-born Community

Historical Background

Although it is still widely accepted that the Dutch were the earliest European visitors to Australia, there is evidence to suggest that the Portuguese explored parts of Australia's north-western coast, possibly as early as 250 years before Captain Cook's voyage of 1770. This would have been facilitated by the establishment of a Portuguese colony in Timor (only 475 kilometres from the Australian coast) in 1516.

Two Portuguese families are known to have migrated in the nineteenth century, and one was commissioned to grow grapes on an experimental farm. By the time of the 1901 Census there were 311 recorded Portugal-born in Australia. In the early twentieth century the number declined, with the 1933 Census only recording 70 Portugal-born. In the 1950s the number increased slightly with the arrival in Western Australia of some immigrants from Madeira, who established a fishing community in Fremantle.

By the 1961 Census, there were 958 Portugal-born in Australia. There was an increase in numbers due to the return of troops following the end of the protracted Portuguese colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique in 1974, and the return of expatriate Portuguese following the arrival of Indonesian troops in East Timor in 1975. These events had a significant impact on Portugal's economy, which led many Portuguese to emigrate to other countries, including Australia.

Most of the Portugal-born in Australia today are relative newcomers who have been here for less than 30 years. Many were originally rural workers in the cork, wine-growing and fishing industries.

The Portugal-born, despite many being from rural backgrounds, have settled mainly in city locations such as Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Fremantle.


Geographic Distribution

The latest Census in 2011 recorded 15 328 Portugal-born people in Australia, an increase of 0.9 per cent from the 2006 Census. The 2011 distribution by state and territory showed New South Wales had the largest number with 8244 followed by Victoria (2650), Western Australia (2451) and Queensland (1050).

Age and Sex

The median age of the Portugal-born in 2011 was 52 years compared with 45 years for all overseas born and 37 years for the total Australian population.

The age distribution showed 1.5 per cent were aged 0-14 years, 2.8 per cent were 15-24 years, 27.4 per cent were 25-44 years, 45.7 per cent were 45-64 years and 22.7 per cent were 65 years and over.

Of the Portugal-born in Australia, there were 7798 males (50.9 per cent) and 7529 females (49.1 per cent). The sex ratio was 103.6 males per 100 females.


In the 2011 Census, the top ancestry responses* that Portugal-born people reported were Portuguese (14 207), English (242) and Timorese (209).

In the 2011 Census, Australians reported around 300 different ancestries. Of the total ancestry responses*, 46 519 responses were towards Portuguese ancestry.

*At the 2011 Census up to two responses per person were allowed for the Ancestry question; therefore providing the total responses and not persons count.


The main languages spoken at home by Portugal-born people in Australia were Portuguese (11 419), English (3368) and Italian (100).

Of the 11 959 Portugal-born who spoke a language other than English at home, 73.3 per cent spoke English very well or well, and 25.3 per cent spoke English not well or not at all.


At the 2011 Census the major religious affiliations amongst Portugal-born were Catholic (13 200) and Jehovah's Witness (208).

Of the Portugal-born, 6.3 per cent stated 'No Religion' which was lower than that of the total Australian population (22.3 per cent), and 2.2 per cent did not state a religion.


Compared to 62 per cent of the total overseas born population, 88.6 per cent of the Portugal born people in Australia arrived in Australia prior to 2001.

Among the total Portugal-born in Australia at the 2011 Census, 3.4 per cent arrived between 2001 and 2006 and 4.4 per cent arrived between 2007 and 2011.

Median Income

At the time of the 2011 Census, the median individual weekly income for the Portugal-born in Australia aged 15 years and over was $541, compared with $538 for all overseas-born and $597 for all Australia-born. The total Australian population had a median individual weekly income of $577.


At the 2011 Census, 39.6 per cent of the Portugal-born aged 15 years and over had some form of higher non-school qualifications compared to 55.9 per cent of the Australian population.

Of the Portugal-born aged 15 years and over, 2.3 per cent were still attending an educational institution, compared to 8.6 of the total Australian population.


Among Portugal-born people aged 15 years and over, the participation rate in the labour force was 59.1 per cent and the unemployment rate was 4.3 per cent. The corresponding rates in the total Australian population were 65 per cent and 5.6 per cent respectively.

Of the 8345 Portugal-born who were employed, 45.6 per cent were employed in either a skilled managerial, professional or trade occupation. The corresponding rate in the total Australian population was 48.4 per cent.

Produced by the Community Relations Section of DIAC All data used in this summary is sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census of Population and Housing. Sources for the Historical Background are available on our website.
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