Headed to the Land Down Under

Economic Growth and Shared Language Go a Long Way in Promoting Migration


In my last post, I presented data on the number of US-born individuals living abroad, and noted that there was only one country that had received more historic migration from the US than the US had received from it: Australia. For some reason, Australia has succeeded in attracting a relatively larger US diaspora than other countries.

See the full visualization and get the data here.

Because there’s only one country in the world to hold this distinction, it seemed only fitting that I should dig deeper and figure out what’s going on. As I will show, migration to Australia is helped along by a shared language and Australia’s robust economic growth. A historically pro-immigration settlement policy doesn’t hurt, either.


Antipodean Americans in Perspective

How Many Americans Live in Australia?

According to Australia’s Census as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 90,000 US-born individuals in Australia in 2011, up from 60,000 in 2001. As of 2011, the sex ratio was 50–50, a change from 2001, when women were just 48.5% of the US diaspora. Individuals under 20 years old make up 20% of the diaspora, compared to 31% of Australians generally. Over-55-year-olds make up 22% of both US diasporans and Australians, while 20-somethings are 14% of Australia’s population, but 16% of the US-born diaspora. The remaining “prime working age” years from 30 to 54 make up 32% of Australians and 41% of the US-born diaspora. These ratios suggest that Americans in Australia probably aren’t overwhelmingly retirees, and are probably in Australia for work or school.

Antipodean Americans in Perspective

Is the US-Diaspora Large?

Saying there are 90,000 Americans is one thing, but we need to put it in perspective. For example, the US-born community in Australia is the 6th largest American diaspora group in the world: so that sounds pretty big. But is that really the most important scale? Maybe Australia looms large for the American diaspora: but is the American diaspora big for Australia?

See the full visualization and get the data here.

Turns out, no, the US-born population is pretty small in Australia. At most, in the Australian Capital Territory (something like the District of Columbia in the US), Americans make up 0.75% of the population. In South Australia, they make up just 0.28%. Overall, US-born individuals come to 0.4% of Australia’s population. That’s about equivalent in scale to the Vietnamese population in the United States: which, again, while not overwhelming, sounds pretty significant.

However, Australia and the United States have different cultures of immigration. We in the US like to think we have a lot of immigrants. But Australia takes the cake. While the United States is about 13% foreign-born, Australia is about 26% foreign-born. So the US diaspora as a share of foreigners (about 1.5%) is equivalent to Colombians in the US. Not invisible, but absolutely swamped by other groups. Overall, Americans are not an extremely large immigrant community in Australia.

Antipodean Americans in Perspective

The US-Born Diaspora Is Growing

See the full visualization and get the data here.

The US-born diaspora in Australia is growing quickly, in fact faster than the Australian-born population. That growth is not restricted to a small group of Americans: every age group grew for both sexes. This suggests, again, that US-born migration to Australia isn’t driven by one fluke, or just one community, but is fairly broad-based. However, some groups of Americans did grow faster than others.

Women in their 20s grew by the largest amount from 2001 to 2011, outpacing their male counterparts as well as the fast-growing retiree population. This growth may reflect many factors: economic opportunities creating knowledge-economy jobs for increasingly well-educated English-speaking American women, positive study abroad experiences, a perceived cultural friendliness to women’s rights, or even a lopsided marriage market: men outnumbered women among Australians aged 20–35. I won’t delve too deeply into the specifics, but these are all potential explanations.

The retiree population also grew. Considering both sexes together, the 60–64 range grew the most of any age range, by 4,200 individuals, while 55–59 came in 3rd and 65–69 came in 6th. Retirees may move to Australia for many reasons as well: pleasant climate, a “new start” (very few older retirees move to Australia), or to occupy a location family will want to visit. Affordability is unlikely to be a key motive as life in Australia is not generally cheaper than the United States.

See the full visualization and get the data here.

The US-born diaspora grew in almost every Australian state and territory. The one exception was the Northern Territory, which is very small and which, as I’ll show below, has a disproportionately large US-born population already. Overall, as can be seen, the US-born population is outgrowing the local Australian population in every territory.

See the full visualization and get the data here.

By and large the US-born diaspora is not heavily concentrated within Australia. Americans are dispersed throughout the country in a pattern very similar to Australians themselves. The US-born are somewhat more likely to live in New South Wales, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Territory, but the differences are not huge. Meanwhile, Americans are slightly less likely to be found in Victoria or South Australia.

Antipodean Americans in Perspective

How Did Antipodean-Americans Get There?

Thus far I’ve established basically two things:

  1. There is a sizable US-born diaspora community in Australia
  2. They are growing by almost any measure

But the really interesting story is about migration: how many people move each year, why, and how are things changing?


American-Australian Migration

Historic Migration from the US to Australia

There are serious data constraints for analyzing international migration. Some countries (like the US) don’t track both sides of migration. Even countries that do track migration may not always define it the same way, or may report migration only for some groups. These differences are not small; in fact they can be enormous. What data source we choose will determine a lot of the answer to any question we ask.

So, first things first, let’s look at what data is available.

Above, I have shown the number of migrants from the US to Australia, from four sources. Three sources are similar. One is not.

The green and orange lines come from the UN’s Population Division International Migration Flows data. They are reported by the Australian government to the UN. From 1961 to 1996, the orange lines closely matches the blue line, which is migration data from the Australian Migration Programme, a statistical database of arrivals for immigration. The green line shows how many people residing in the United States came to Australia. The orange line shows how many people born in the United States came to Australia to immigrate. The blue line, from 1945 to 1961 and from 1996 to 2013, shows how many US citizens came to Australia. From 1962 to 1996, it shows how many people born in the US came to Australia. The red line reflects my estimates of how many US-born individuals moved to Australia each year, derived from my US diaspora size estimates.

So which line is “right”? Well, if we want to measure the US-born diaspora, then the red or orange lines are “right.” If we want to measure the diaspora of US citizens, the blue line is better. If we want to measure how many people, regardless of birth or citizenship, moved (including some shorter-term moves), then the green line is right. The green line, however, does include many shorter-term arrivals and individuals who may not consider themselves to be “immigrating,” and may include non-US born, non-US citizens moving from the US to Australia. As such, it probably does not reflect a meaningful measure of “diasporan migration.”

Thus, we can say that migration from the US to Australia has ranged from about 1,000 to 4,000 people per year. That’s not that much overall, but is very big when you consider a diaspora of just 60,000 to 90,000 people. The in-migration rate for the diaspora is between 1% and 7%: potentially on par with high-migration US states like Florida, Arizona, North Dakota, or Delaware.

American-Australian Migration

Historic Migration from Australia to the US

You’ll notice that, when I looked at US-Australia flows, there was no US government source. That’s because the US government doesn’t consistently track and publish data on emigration. Australia’s government does provide data on these questions, in readily-usable formats.

Once again, the way we measure Australia to the US flows depends on which source we use. We need a number for this so that we can estimate net migration; but which one should we use? Because we’re looking at immigration into the US, we actually have data from the US and from Australia.

And once again, the green line, which represents any departures from Australia to the United States, is very high, and probably doesn’t represent anything meaningful for diaspora formation. The light blue line shows the US’ reported arrivals of Australian citizens from Australia, which closely tracks (but is not identical to) the purple line, which is the US government’s estimate of how many Australian-born individuals arrived in the United States. The orange line is Australia’s estimate of how many Australian-born emigrated from Australia. The red line again tracks my estimates of the Australian-born. The dark blue line shows data from the Department of Homeland Security tracking arrivals for residence. In all of these cases, Australia and the United States have slightly different definitions of their terms.

Probably either the blue or orange lines will be best for our purposes, as they track Australian-born individuals. I’m glad that Australia provides us with emigration data, but, in general, I do trust immigration data slightly more, especially in the United States, where we track border and immigration issues fairly carefully. As such, the best estimate of Australia to US migration for my purposes is between 1,000 and 4,000 a year.

You’ll notice an issue: the range of my estimates is pretty large, and identical for both migration directions.

So let’s look at net migration for various sources.

American-Australian Migration

Net Migration Between Australia and the United States

Because the gross migration flows vary by source, net migration also varies: and by a pretty extreme amount. For example, in 1995, the net balance of migration may have been anywhere from -3,800 (implying the US lost 3,800 people) to 2,000 (implying the US gained 2,000). Not only are levels different, the trends are different: there’s no correlation between the datasets.

Let’s take them one-by-one.

Australia Residence Data

I identified this series as the least useful when looking at gross flows. Notably, for net flows, it is also the most volatile. Overall, in the most recent year (2009), this data shows that the US lost 5,100 people: the largest loss on record.

However, this may not be a large concern. Australia’s arrival and departure data includes many people who may simply be going back for a “long term visit,” for example a long holiday of 3 or 4 months. Is that person truly an immigrant? Maybe, but maybe not. It is particularly interesting that, when my derived data shows migration tipping from net gains to net losses for the US, Australia’s residence data makes the opposite shift. This could be because one dataset is wrong, or it could be that more and more Americans moved to Australia, but came home to the US for long visits.

Australia Birth Data

Australia’s data cataloging migration for individuals born in the United States shows a consistent, although diminishing, loss for the United States. At first glance, I was inclined to accept this data source as gospel. It’s consistently reported, immigration and emigration, and it makes sense to use Australia’s data for an Australian issue. But there’s a problem.

Remember how I said the US-born population in Australia grew from 60,000 to 90,000 between 2001 and 2011? Now, the only way this population can grow is if people born in the United States move to Australia. A person born to American parents in Australia would, logically, be born in Australia. Furthermore, between 2001 and 2011 we can assume that some of those original 60,000 Americans probably died or moved to countries other than the United States. Thus, logically, the total net migration of Americans from 2001 to 2011 should be more than 30,000 people lost from the United States to Australia. It’s possible that some Americans may have moved from non-US locations to Australia, but those foreign-to-foreign moves probably offset one another.

Turns out, the Australian data only shows a gain of 4,300 US-born individuals. In other words, it doesn’t seem to jive with the Census data, which is the most reliable data available. So the Australian birth data may be pretty good, but it’s clearly not complete.

Administrative Data

I refer to Department of Homeland Security estimates of Australian arrivals, as well as Australian Migration Programme statistics, as “Administrative Data.” This data reflects individuales claiming permanent residency or long-term visas in each country, and is collected pursuant to various legal obligations in government agencies. True, DHS and AMP statistics are not identically defined, but the two systems are similar enough, and similarly collected enough, that they seemed to offer a reasonable comparison.

Administrative data shows a worsening migration record between the US and Australia as more and more Americans claim residence in Australia while fewer Australians claim residency in the United States.

However, this data is even more problematic than the births data. Due to being officially collected, it won’t capture migrants who slip through the cracks or exploit legal loopholes, the timing of the data may be substantially wrong, and the definition of the data may change with shifting programmatic obligations. This means that a given net migration balance in one year may imply different things than the same balance in another year. That’s no bueno for my analysis.

Derived Data

Which brings us to my derived data. Because it is calculated using the size of given diaspora populations as the basis for derivation, it, by definition, fully accounts for the increasing US-born diaspora in Australia. It attributes 100% of the change in that diaspora (less attrition due to mortality) to migration from the US. That may be an error, since the US-born diaspora may have foreign-to-foreign migration but, as above, I expect such migration to be mostly a wash.

My numbers for Australia and the US are based on reliable Census estimates in both cases, and the numbers have the same definition over time. These numbers reflect individuals residing in one country for Census purposes rather than border control and visa purposes, yet born in a different country, so don’t reflect medium-term arrivals as in the residence data or programmatic changes. All-in-all, the dataset I’ve assembled is, I think, a best guess at migration of US- and Australian-born individuals between the US and Australia. However, it does not reflect citizenship, and it does not reflect the migration of non-US, non-Australian foreigners between these two countries. So, for example, a British citizen born in London moving from New York to Western Australia would not show up. That’s a problem if our goal is to measure all migration. But that’s not the goal: the goal is just to measure the diaspora. Plus, foreign-to-foreign migration is likely to be much smaller than the flows I measure.

American-Australian Migration

US-AUS Migration, a History

See the full visualization and get the data here. Annual migration figures are derived from decadal estimates and should not be considered authoritative, but rather illustrative. Decadal estimates are based on Census-reported migrant stocks. Seriously: if you want to quibble over a specific year’s value, I won’t fight you on it. I’m confident in the decadal average and reasonably satisfied that my annual numbers make sense too, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. So don’t ask me to.

The above chart shows just my derived data. The blue line is the net migration of Australians to the United States. The red line is the net migration of Americans to Australia. The black line subtracts these two, showing a net balance between these two flows.

At current record-high net migration rates, Australia’s diaspora in the United States will be larger than the US diaspora in Australia in 6 years. That’s entirely because of unusually high 2010–2013 migration by Australians, however. Applying the 10-year average net migration rate, the imbalance will never break even, and Australia will simply continue to accumulate a larger and larger US diaspora relative to the Australian diaspora in the US.

American-Australian Migration

Why Are Americans Migrating?

International migration is heavily influenced by what I will call accessibility factors in a way that internal migration is not. International migrants are limited by legal barriers, transportation costs, linguistic barriers, and other factors that aren’t present for internal migrants. Thus, the first thing to do when we look at international migrants is to narrow down the field: where are places where our potential migrant could go? For Americans, there are basically two barriers: language and politics.

For political reasons, it is challenging for Americans to relocate to North Korea, Iran, and a number of developing countries. But generally, this isn’t the biggest barrier.

The big barrier is language. Most Americans don’t speak second languages. Countries with large diasporas in the US have large US-born populations, mostly tied to US-based ethnic communities that promote language-learning (Mexico, South Korea, and the Philippines all come to mind). So Americans will tend to gravitate towards English-speaking countries.

Beyond these basic accessibility issues are desirability factors. Does a country have clean water and modern amenities, is it relatively easy to get there, is the country peaceful? Relatively few migrants choose to relocate away from health, peace, and prosperity towards places of risk, violence, and poverty.

The above map, which I showed in my last post, reveals these trends quite well. The Anglosphere makes a very strong showing with Australia and New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada, and even Belize. Diaspora ties show up as well in Ecuador, Mexico, and many other countries. Countries with high English-proficiency, even if they aren’t primarily English-speaking, are also prominent: Israel, Panama, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland. There is really just one unstable country with a large US diaspora: Libya. Prosperous Gulf states also make a strong showing.

But that only gets us so far. Most of these traits don’t change over time, and most don’t apply to Australia. We need some way to explain why Australia has more positive historical migration flows versus the US than the United Kingdom or Canada or New Zealand.

American-Australian Migration

Jobs, Retirement, and School

Australia has the trifecta: a good higher educational system with courses taught in English and easy visa access for Americans, wonderful climate for retirees, and a relatively strong economy to draw workers. Combine these features with a fairly welcoming national culture, interesting wildlife, and a good basecamp for Americans who want to explore Asia, and you’ve got the makings of a strong migration record versus the United States. But education varies only over the very long term, and climate only changes over the very long term. While growing cost of school in the US, growing demand for education, and an aging American population could make these factors more important over time, economic shocks explain much short- and medium-term variation in migration.

The above graph shows indexed net migration between the US and Australia versus an indexed “growth gap.” The gap is defined as the difference between the preceding decade’s average annual real GDP growth rate for Australia and the US. In the 1960s, 1980s, 2000s, and 2010s, Australia’s economy grew faster than the United States’, slower in the other periods. I index the two values purely to put them on the same scale; it doesn’t change the relationship.

As can be seen, there is an approximate correlation between the growth gap and net migration. When the US underperforms economically, fewer Australians arrive and more Americans leave. This was especially clear in the 2000s, when Australia’s economy grew rapidly fueled by a natural resource boom while the US struggled through two recessions. Australia wasn’t recession-proof, but it did have other strengths.

The most recent period, 2010–2013, is a large divergence, but that likely reflects several factors. First, the data I have for the size of the US-born diaspora in Australia was less consistent for 2013 (only a partial update rather than a complete Census-round). Second, the decade is young, and has seen a rapid economic recovery. It may take time for migration decisions to incorporate new information about relative economic performance. Third, decade-long trends have significant variation within the decade, so we may just be at a high point that will dissipate in the coming years.


As I’ve shown, the American diaspora in Australia is growing rapidly across every category and throughout Australia. This growth is fueled by international migration, which has varied widely across the history of the US-Australia relationship. American migration to Australia peaked in the 2000s, and has fallen since. Meanwhile, Australian migration to the United States has risen in recent years, reaching historic highs. Although the US-born population in Australia outnumbers the Aussie-born population in the United States, the balance could flip as early as 6 years from now. If that happens, then there will not be a single country in the whole world with a positive accumulated migration balance against the United States. The main determinant of this migration relationship will be relative economic growth. If the US shows strong economic growth while Australia slows down, then many Australians will take advantage of opportunities in the US. But if the US recovery falters while Australia continues to chug along, recent trends could reverse, and Australia could maintain is migration lead indefinitely.

In my post tomorrow, I will present a pile of maps and statistics about diasporan populations generally, not just the US.

PS- I have to give a shoutout here to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Y’all are fantastic. ABS provides easy-to-use data on Australian demographics and other statistics, available in cross-section or time series. Actually, virtually every Australian government website I went to had easy-to-find statistics that were formatted in a comprehensible way. It’s remarkable how rare that is.

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I’m a grad student in International Trade and Investment Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, and faith.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the George Washington University nor the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I do not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.

Cover photo source.