Migration and citizenship

Colour photograph of children in the play centre at the Bonegilla migrant reception centre, 1960
Children in the play centre at the Bonegilla migrant reception centre, 1960 (NAA: A12111, C60/22A/2)

People have come to Australia from all over the world, for different reasons and in different ways. The National Archives holds records about many individuals who arrived from overseas during the 20th century and some who arrived during the 19th century. We also hold records about Australians who left and returned to Australia.

Since Federation, the Australian Government has been responsible for developing laws and policies that decide who can and can’t enter Australia, for travel or migration.

Our records reflect the disparate and changing attitudes towards migrants and the evolving patterns of migration over the 20th century. They are of immense historical and personal significance. Our records of displaced persons are listed on UNESCO's Australian Memory of the World register.

Records about migration and citizenship

Photograph of Prime Minister Ben Chifley and Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, greeting a group of British migrant tradesmen, 1947
Prime Minister Ben Chifley and Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell greet a party of migrant British building tradesmen. The men were bound for Canberra and had arrived at Sydney on the Largs Bay in January 1947. (NAA: A1200, L21159)

Migration records are one of the most significant parts of the National Archives collection. The records include:

  • alien (non-citizen) registration
  • migration applications
  • case files
  • migrant selection documents
  • migrant accommodation records
  • naturalisation (citizenship) records
  • passenger records
  • passport records
  • policy files
  • visas and entry/exit documents

What could these records help me discover?

Our records cover many areas of migration, citizenship and travel, mostly during the 20th century. Many relate to individuals and families and can provide information about the process of their migration to Australia and their settlement here. The types of records vary according to the person’s country of origin and the date of their migration, but typically the records include details such as nationality, date and place of birth, education, occupation, details of family members and in many cases, a photograph.

The records focus on people whose migration was controlled or administered by the Australian Government since 1901. Before World War II, the records deal primarily with non-British migrants, such as Chinese, Japanese and Syrians, and British assisted migrants. From 1945 onwards, a large part of the records document the assisted migration schemes that brought thousands from Britain and Europe, including displaced persons. In the later decades of the 20th century, the records broaden to include migrants from around the world, such as Colombo Plan students from Asia, Lebanese migrants and Vietnamese refugees.

While many records document the migration and travel of individuals, other policy files deal with broader issues. They show the way in which the government and the departments responsible for immigration and citizenship made laws and decisions that affected who could come to Australia, what government assistance they might receive and who was and could become a citizen.

Administrative history

Black and white photograph of Italian migrants arriving in Australia, 1967
Italian migrants arriving in Australia, 1967 (NAA: A1200, L62876)

Before Federation, each of the Australian colonies was responsible for its own immigration policies and schemes. In 1901, control of immigration restriction was passed to the Commonwealth, but the practical responsibility for immigration and its encouragement passed from the colonies to state governments until the Joint Commonwealth and States Scheme of 1921.

Before 1921 then, the role of the Australian government in immigration was mostly to control prohibited migration, monitor illegal immigrants and to advertise the nation’s resources overseas.

From the 1920s there were new immigration agreements between the Commonwealth and state governments and between Britain and Australia, and the Australian government took control of assisted migration schemes. Naturalisation had been a responsibility of the individual colonies until 1903 when it was also taken over by the Commonwealth.

Until World War II, immigration policy and administration were looked after by a number of different government departments, primarily:

  • Department of External Affairs, 1901–16 (CA 7)
  • Department of Home and Territories, 1916–28 (CA 15)
  • Department of Home Affairs, 1928–32 (CA 24 and CA 28)
  • Department of the Interior, 1932–39 (CA 27 and CA 31)

In 1945, the newly created Department of Immigration (CA 51) took over control of all immigration matters, although the Department of Interior continued to play an important role. The government agencies listed below (and their successors) were also involved in immigration matters:

  • Department of Trade and Customs
  • Collector of Customs in each state
  • Prime Minister’s Department
  • Governor-General
  • Attorney-General’s Department
  • Investigation Branch, later Commonwealth Investigation Service

Finding migration records

Black and white photograph of Steve Carter, a migration officer, interviewing Vietnamese refugees at a refugee camp in Malaysia
Steve Carter, a migration officer, interviews Vietnamese refugees at a refugee camp in Malaysia, 1979 (NAA: A12111, 79/46A/8)

You can use RecordSearch for migration, citizenship and travel records in our collection database. For general information about how to find records use the step–by–step guide for researchers.

If you are searching for records about an individual, use the NameSearch facility within RecordSearch. NameSearch lets you search more easily for records relating to a person by only looking for particular categories of records, such as migration records. To locate migration and citizenship records in NameSearch, select 'Immigration and naturalisation' in the 'Category of records' dropdown list.

Making Australia Home – migration records online

Making Australia Home is an Archives project that is providing migrants and their families with better access to records that document their arrival and settlement in 20th-century Australia.

Resources

You can find more information about migration, travel and citizenship records in the Archives resources listed below.

Fact sheets

Fact sheets provide brief information about our records on various topics or about particular groups of records. They are a valuable starting point for your research. We have prepared more than 30 fact sheets related to migration and citizenship.

Research guides

The Archives research guides provide in-depth descriptions of our holdings on particular topics. They are available to view in our reading rooms and to purchase. Many can also be downloaded for free from the online shop.

Finding Families: The Guide to the National Archives of Australia for Genealogists

More People Imperative: Immigration to Australia, 1901–39

Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia

Safe Haven: Records of the Jewish Experience in Australia

Chinese-Australian Journeys: Records on Travel, Migration and Settlement, 1860–1975

Chinese Immigrants and Chinese-Australians in NSW

Allies, Enemies and Trading Partners: Records on Australia and the Japanese

Near Neighbours: Records on Australia’s Relations with Indonesia

Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records

Collections in Perth: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records

Collections in Melbourne: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records

Websites

Muslim Journeys – Uncommon Lives: Surprising stories of adventure and adversity of Australia's Muslim pioneers

Wolf Klaphake – Uncommon Lives: Scientist and inventor who emigrated from Germany in 1935

Documenting a Democracy: See copies of some key migration and citizenship laws, such as the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901, Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948

Destination Australia features more than 20,000 photographs of migrants who arrived in Australia from all over the world after World War II. You, or someone you know, could be among them.

Books

Russian Anzacs in Australian History by Elena Govor: The extraordinary story of Russian-born soldiers who fought beside other Australians during World War I

Defining Australian Citizenship: Selected Documents: How Australian law has accommodated changing ideas about what citizenship is and who is eligible for it

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014