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Kiwis overseas

by  Carl Walrond

Travelling is a part of life for many New Zealanders. The earliest Polynesians sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki, and prospectors and settlers arrived from all over the world in the 19th-century. The country’s people have had a restless curiosity for the places of their ancestors and the opportunities offered by broader horizons.

A nation of migrants

Original homelands: Hawaiki, Britain

New Zealanders have always been a migratory people. Ingrained in both Māori and Pākehā traditions are stories of arrival: the first Polynesian settlers sailed from Hawaiki, and 19th-century colonials came from Europe.

Not all early arrivals to New Zealand stayed. Many British and other Europeans who came were itinerant, and sailed away after the ready gold had been won, the seals clubbed, or the whales harpooned. The country’s first British settlers were in fact rather unsettled. When they spoke of ‘home’ they meant England, Ireland or Scotland. In the 1860s and 1870s, the era of huge pastoral estates, landowners often sojourned in Britain. The Enys brothers of Canterbury’s Castle Hill station were nicknamed ‘buckets in the well', for if one was not in England the other was. John Enys, like many settlers, returned to his English home for good.

Because of their comparatively recent and varied origins – Polynesia, Europe, Asia and elsewhere – many New Zealanders go overseas. They go because they are curious about the lands of their ancestors; because they have entry and work permits to those places; or they go to escape New Zealand’s relative isolation. Many travel for a few years, while others, who are discussed here, emigrate permanently.

Empire of opportunity

Until the early 20th century, subjects of the British Empire had many options as to where to settle. If opportunity didn’t knock in the South Pacific they steamed or sailed to Africa, Australia or India. There was a constant return flow from New Zealand to England, the hub of the empire. It is difficult to know at which point these colonials felt they were no longer returning British expatriates, but rather New Zealanders living overseas.

Links with ‘mother England’ were reinforced when New Zealanders served in the South African War and two world wars. Young men saw the world through war; in an era of expensive travel it was one way to gain a form of OE (overseas experience), if a rather horrific one. New Zealanders also served Britain in peacetime as administrators in her expansive empire. Many established lifelong careers with the British colonial service in what would become diverse Commonwealth countries, aiding the transition to independence from colonial rule. Kiwi doctors, nurses, teachers and missionaries were especially prominent in the Pacific. And the politician Garfield Todd and the social reformer and peace activist Rewi Alley became better known in Zimbabwe and China respectively than they were in the land of their birth.


In the second half of the 20th century as incomes rose and fares reduced, increasing numbers of New Zealanders travelled overseas, first by ship and then from the mid- 1960s by jet. Most continued to go to England, but air travel opened up other options in North America, Asia and Africa. Many who went for ‘overseas experience’ would marry or find an interesting job and eventually end up staying away for life.

A restless curiosity

In his book Report on experience (1947) John Mulgan wrote of New Zealanders’ propensity for travel, and their need to return:

‘They come from the most beautiful country in the world, but it is a small country and very remote. After a while this isolation oppresses them and they go abroad. They roam the world looking not for adventure but for satisfaction. They run service cars in Iraq, goldmines in Nevada, or newspapers in Fleet Street. They are a queer, lost, eccentric, pervading people who will seldom admit to the deep desire that is in all of them to go home and live quietly in New Zealand again.’ (pp. 3–4)

The expatriate community of New Zealanders is growing. Its size is very difficult to determine. Estimates range from 600,000 to one million. In the early 2000s one estimate placed around one in six, or 800,000 Kiwis (500,000 New Zealanders by birth, and 300,000 of their children) as living overseas. In 2006 there were about 390,000 New Zealand-born in Australia. In 2001, there were an estimated 50,000 New Zealanders in Britain, 10,000 in the United States and 9,000 in Canada, with a further 50,000 scattered in other places around the globe.

In 2003, 43% of permanent and long-term departures were to Australia, 21% were to the United Kingdom, and 4% were to the United States. In the 2000s expatriate organisations had formed in at least 17 countries. Although New Zealand consistently loses citizens overseas, external migration is offset by immigration.

Small country syndrome

As a new colonial society, there were limitations in some fields of New Zealand life and culture. New Zealand took decades to achieve cultural independence and emerge as a nation in its own right, with the specialised occupations of an urban culture. Initially a rural people, New Zealanders were often ambivalent toward intellectual or artistic aspirations. Recent immigrants from England were still conscious of its class system, and New Zealand’s wealthy élite felt inferior to their British contemporaries.

Writer Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) was one who felt stifled by the drudgery and conservatism of colonial life, and like many others she left for Europe as soon as circumstances allowed.

Writing from Cairo during the Second World War, soldier and writer John Mulgan expressed this wanderlust: ‘New Zealanders … spend their lives wanting to set out across the wide oceans that surround them in order to find the rest of the world’. 1 New Zealanders’ war service meant that they were well known in post-war Britain. In her entry on expatriates in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966), the New Zealand novelist and theatre producer Ngaio Marsh wrote that ‘of all importations from the Dominions, New Zealanders are the most welcome and the most popular’.

Writers write home

Shortly before her death, in a 1922 letter to her father, expatriate writer Katherine Mansfield commented, ‘the longer I live the more I turn to New Zealand,’ and, ‘New Zealand is in my very bones’. 2

In a 1932 letter to fellow poet R. A. K. Mason, Rex Fairburn also expressed his yearning for home:

‘This natural scene, in England, is lovely – stately and beautiful, calm and sedate. But I have no sympathy with it – none whatever. I had rather be beside a smelly New Zealand tidal creek.’ 3

An emergent people

Ngaio Marsh also lamented New Zealand’s lack of cultural opportunities, calling New Zealanders ‘an emergent people’. For writers, actors, artists, musicians and scientists the call of established cultural scenes and institutions was too strong.

Ernest Rutherford quipped that ‘we haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think’, an attitude that, perhaps, helped him split the atom. Yet opportunities for fertile minds like Rutherford’s were invariably overseas. New Zealand universities were small and lacked the laboratories that larger economies could afford. Even after the Second World War, academic brilliance was a one-way ticket to the United Kingdom or United States. Rocket scientist William Pickering could hardly have worked for NASA from his home town of Wellington. He became a United States citizen in 1941, but still hung a painting of Mt Cook in his office, and retained a faint Kiwi accent.

While many found opportunity overseas, exile had its downsides. Although letters and news from the antipodes alleviated homesickness, they also intensified the feeling of distance. When writer Kevin Ireland, then England-based, heard of the poet James K. Baxter’s death, his grief could only be private. In the poem ‘A way of sorrow’ he wrote: ‘I did not weep / or talk at length or write / but read the poem you sent’. 4

  1. John Mulgan. Report on experience. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1947, p. 4. › Back
  2. New Zealand Book Council, ‘Katherine Mansfield birthplace and heritage garden’, › Back
  3. A. R. D. Fairburn to R. A. K. Mason, 24 June 1931, in Lauris Edmond (selected and edited), The letters of A. R. D. Fairburn. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 80. › Back
  4. New Zealand Book Council, ‘Kevin Ireland’, › Back

Staying in Britain

Intimate strangers

The longer New Zealanders stay away, the less likely they are to return. Career paths take them down certain roads, or they marry. After decades away, many expatriates have children and grandchildren. By 1978 the writer and publisher Dan Davin knew that living anywhere but England would be ‘emotional suicide’. In 1962 he had spoken of himself and other expatriate writers as ‘early settlers who by pioneering in this country have made it possible for our countrymen to stay at home’. 1 Like many others, Davin made return visits, but referred to himself as an ‘intimate stranger’. Many other New Zealand-born people have remained in Britain, attracted by a richer and more specialised cultural life – people like R. W. Burchfield, the editor of the Oxford English dictionary, or Alexis Hunter, who arrived in 1972 and went on to become a leading feminist artist.

As citizens of the Commonwealth, New Zealanders had free access to Britain. Until 1973 the words ‘British Subject and New Zealand Citizen’ appeared on every New Zealand passport, but from 1974 the wording read, ‘New Zealand citizen’. In the 2000s many New Zealanders qualified through having patriality (because they had a United Kingdom parent or grandparent), and could live and work there for four years, followed by the prospect of full citizenship. Those without patriality and who were aged between 17 and 30 could still visit for up to two years on working-holiday visas.

A conservative estimate of the New Zealand population in the United Kingdom in 2001 was 50,000. In 2003 the British Home Office estimated that 400,000 New Zealanders held British passports. At any one time, many will be working visitors in the United Kingdom, and this is why other estimates put the New Zealand population as high as 150,000–200,000. The true figure is hard to determine but probably lies somewhere in the 60,000–150,000 range.

Best and brightest

In the 1930s Margaret Mead, a visiting American anthropologist outlined her thoughts on the phenomenon of Kiwi migration:

‘It is New Zealand’s role to send out its bright young men and women to help run the rest of the world. And they go, not hating the country of their birth, but loving it. From this loving base they make their mark on the world’. 2

Britain’s expatriate community

With a shared language and history, and similar legal and cultural backgrounds, ties between New Zealand and the United Kingdom have always been strong. The New Zealand Society was formed in 1927 as a dining club for Kiwis in London. Later, many other organisations based around sports, culture, business and professions were also established, mainly in London.

In 1999, 8,000 people went to Whitehall, London, on Anzac Day to pay their respects to Australian and New Zealand servicemen. In the 2000s the weekly newspaper New Zealand News UK, established in 1927, claimed a readership of 62,500.

    • Keith Ovenden, A fighting withdrawal: the life of Dan Davin, writer, soldier, publisher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 329. › Back
    • Quote 85, cited in John Daley, ed. Good as gold: being a New Zealander. Auckland: Godwit, 2002. › Back

Migration to Australia

Across the ditch

Australia, with its warmer climate, larger population and similar culture, has often been considered by New Zealanders an ideal place to settle. Australia was a popular destination even for the earliest New Zealanders; in 1861 an estimated 1,350 New Zealand-born people were living there.

The invention of air travel changed the geography of Australasia. Because of economies of scale, today’s Auckland–Brisbane flights can be cheaper than those between Auckland and Invercargill. The 1973 Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement formalised a long-standing understanding that Australians and New Zealanders could visit, live and work in each other’s countries without restriction. Australia was no longer over the sea – it was just across the ditch.

Migration reflected relative economic conditions. In the 1860s many Australians crossed the Tasman Sea, attracted by the Otago and Westland goldfields. In the 1880s many New Zealanders crossed back as ‘marvellous Melbourne’ continued to prosper while New Zealand went into depression. There was very little migration either way from the 1930s to the 1960s. From the late 1960s Kiwis poured into Australia. This flow surged in the late 1970s. Between 1976 and 1982, 103,000 New Zealanders settled permanently in Australia. New Zealand’s prime minister at the time, Robert Muldoon, had a ready reply to complaints: ‘New Zealanders who leave for Australia raise the IQ of both countries’. 1

From shearers and miners working in the outback, to retired people on the Gold Coast, to professionals in Sydney: New Zealanders are everywhere, as witnessed by the prevalence of Kiwi jokes. But stereotypical perceptions of Kiwis as dole bludgers living at Bondi Beach are unfounded. In 2002, 83% of New Zealanders in Australia were employed.

No loss, no gain

In 2001 a New Zealand Treasury study concluded that due to a common labour market, New Zealand–Australia migration was unique:

‘New Zealand consistently loses its citizens to Australia, but they are not just the highest skilled. Instead, they are representative of the general population of New Zealand …There is no brain drain to Australia … but what might be called a "same drain”.’ 2

The expatriate community

In 1996 there were 291,388 New Zealand-born in Australia; by 2006 this had grown to 389,463, and in 2013 the figure was 483,398. This made it easily the largest New Zealand expatriate community in the world, and a far higher number than that of any single foreign-born population in New Zealand. Successful migrants such as satirist John Clarke (Fred Dagg), actor Russell Crowe, film-maker Jane Campion, and Snowy Mountains hydroelectric engineer William Hudson, among many others, have been claimed by Australians as their own.

Between 1996 and 2000, New Zealanders were the largest immigrant group arriving in Australia. The net annual permanent growth in Australia’s New Zealand population increased from less than 3,000 in 1991–92 to almost 30,000 in 1999–2000. By the 2000s, over one in 10 New Zealanders lived in Australia.

In 2000, Kiwis living in Australia were mainly of working age; 62% were between 20 and 49 years old. In 1996, 25% lived in Sydney, 24% in Brisbane, 12% in Melbourne, 10% in Perth, and a further 6% in other cities. The remaining 24% were scattered in other areas. For most migrants, crossing the Tasman promises a better lifestyle, greater economic opportunities and working conditions, and a sunnier climate. A substantial proportion of those migrating to Australia do not intend to return.

New Zealanders are culturally very similar to Australians, and intermarriage is common. Expatriates’ children often have divided loyalties. It is difficult to say when one becomes more Aussie than Kiwi; the acid test is probably allegiance during international sporting contests.

Who gets in and who pays?

In 2001, 96,000 Kiwis drew some kind of Australian welfare. In the early 2000s Australia claimed the annual cost was as high as AUS$1.1 billion. New Zealand pointed to the contribution its citizens made to the Australian economy, including tax payments of around AUS$2.8 billion per year.

For those living in New Zealand who were not New Zealand-born, the country was seen as ‘a back door‘ into Australia. Throughout the 1990s the number of non-New Zealanders moving to Australia grew from 960 a year to almost 10,000. This figure represented more than one in 10 of the annual migrants settling in Australia in 2000. Many of them would not have gained entry any other way.

In 2001 new restrictions required New Zealanders to obtain permanent residence if they wished to access social security, gain citizenship or sponsor other people for permanent residence. While these restrictions applied to New Zealanders in Australia, the converse did not apply, reflecting the fact that there were eight times more New Zealanders in Australia than Australians in New Zealand. Australian officials expected New Zealand migrants to halve under the new restrictions.

    • Harry Orsman and Jan Moore, eds. Heinemann dictionary of New Zealand quotations. Auckland: Heinemann, 1988, p. 488. › Back
    • Hayden Glass and Wai Kin Choy, ‘Brain drain or brain exchange?’, New Zealand Treasury, › Back

Kiwis living overseas

Other countries

There are over 50,000 New Zealanders living in places other than Australia or Britain. In the United States there are New Zealand women who emigrated there as war brides after the Second World War, and many New Zealand scientists and researchers – people like the Olympic runner Peter Snell who went to research the physiology of exercise and stayed. Actors such as Martin Henderson, directors including Lee Tamahori and Roger Donaldson, and models such as Rachel Hunter have also been drawn by the bright lights of the big American cities. Asia, Africa and the Pacific are also home to New Zealanders who perhaps came first with the Volunteer Service Abroad programme or as teachers of English, and then stayed. International organisations in New York or Geneva regularly employ New Zealanders. In many of these places there are clubs which organise social occasions and the exchange of news from home. Where the community is smaller as in Denmark or Malaysia, Kiwis often join forces with their Aussie cousins.

Brain drain?

Whenever there is a net loss in population, concerns are raised about the economic consequences of a ‘brain drain’. In the late 1990s, young New Zealand professionals were increasingly pushed away by lower wages, an inability to repay student loans, and limited career opportunities. With one in five working New Zealanders overseas, the potential tax take was drastically reduced.

However, the diaspora can be seen in a positive light: expatriates can serve as ambassadors, helping to stimulate trade and inbound tourism. The New Zealand government has also funded networks of expatriates to help the economy from afar.

Many expatriates retain strong links with their country of origin. Restaurateurs offer green-lipped mussels and New Zealand sauvignon blancs; professional sportspeople earn their living from sport overseas but represent New Zealand at the Olympics; film-makers such as Jane Campion and Vincent Ward return to shoot films with a New Zealand setting. Alan MacDiarmid went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship and stayed because of the research opportunities. But after winning a Nobel prize for chemistry in 2000 he returned regularly to help promote the Alan MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Victoria University of Wellington.

Global food

Peter Gordon, a New Zealand-born chef and co-owner of restaurants in London and New York, has many New Zealanders working with him. He uses ingredients which he says ’may seem peculiarly Kiwi’, but in his book, A world in my kitchen, he explains; ‘A good recipe isn’t geographical in its appeal or approach.’ 1

In the longer term, quite often at retirement, many skilled New Zealanders come back. Since the early 1980s more than half a million have returned. And although losses of doctors and nurses are highlighted by individual cases, research does not support the theory of a brain drain. It is more of a ‘brain exchange’, as New Zealand gains as many highly skilled migrants as it loses.

The term ‘slacker drain’ has been applied to Australia-bound migrants, as some are unemployed. But research shows that those leaving for Australia are representative of the entire New Zealand population.

Many leave, many return

With a global labour market, many Kiwis will spend a considerable time overseas. This is part of a worldwide trend in which people are generally more mobile. Some New Zealanders intend to stay for good, while others are undecided. But return is always an option as long as they retain their nationality (or even if they gain Australian nationality). Expatriates on the electoral roll can vote in the three weeks prior to a New Zealand election.

New Zealand’s population is itinerant, and movement in and out of the country is variable. In 2001, 1.9% of the population left intending to be away for more than a year. This was higher than figures for Australia (1%), Ireland (0.6%) and Britain (0.5%). But the media hype that is generated whenever outward migration surges seems surprising considering New Zealanders’ long history of leaving and returning.

    • Peter Gordon, A world in my kitchen. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 2003, p. 6. › Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Kiwis overseas', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005, updated 17 Sep 2014