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International migration to and from Canterbury region: 1996–2014

This article is one of a series that looks into the characteristics of international migration for each New Zealand region. We used June year data for permanent and long-term (PLT) migrants arriving and departing from the Canterbury region (Waitaha).

Topics covered in this article:


Canterbury was one of only four regions to record a net gain of international migrants over the 1996 to 2014 period. It had the second largest net gain of migrants, behind Auckland.

Canterbury tends to be home to more overseas born residents than most regions, and has a higher proportion of migrants arriving from Asia (particularly Japan) than most other New Zealand regions. Recent years have seen an increase in migrants arriving in Canterbury on work visas, particularly from the United Kingdom and the Philippines. This reflects the change in demand for skilled migrants following significant earthquakes in the region in 2010 and 2011. The most common occupation group of a migrant arriving in Canterbury in 2014 was ‘bricklayer, carpenter or joiner’.

Migration out of Canterbury was at its lowest for a June year, between 1996 and 2014, in 2014. The profile of a permanent and long-term migrant departing Canterbury, like New Zealand as a whole, is someone most likely heading to Australia, who is quite young (15 to 34 years old).

Initially following the Canterbury earthquakes, migrant arrivals decreased and departures increased. However, as the Canterbury rebuild progressed, arrivals increased and departures decreased, producing an all-time high of net migration in the June 2014 year of 5,600 people.

For more general information about all regions and data quality, see An introduction to international migration by region: 1996–2010.

Canterbury region at a glance

Canterbury has the largest area of any region in New Zealand, lying in the east of New Zealand’s South Island. In 2014, Canterbury had an estimated 574,300 residents, making up 13 percent of New Zealand’s population, and ranking second in population size out of all regions, behind Auckland (34 percent). The region’s largest population centre is the city of Christchurch. The larger towns include Timaru, Ashburton, and Rangiora.

Christchurch city, which is situated near the coast, has an average maximum temperature that rises to 22⁰C in summer, and an average minimum temperature that falls to 2⁰C in winter.

Overseas-born residents accounted for 20 percent of Canterbury’s population in the 2013 Census, the fourth highest out of 16 regions, behind Auckland, Wellington, and Nelson. Of the overseas-born living in Canterbury, 36 percent were born in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A further 27 percent were born in Asia.

Canterbury is home to a number of tertiary education institutions including the University of Canterbury, Lincoln University, and the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. The University of Canterbury’s figures for 2013 show that approximately 1,000 (7 percent) of its students were from overseas. In comparison, approximately 1,200 (35 percent) of Lincoln’s students are international.

The median age of Canterbury’s population (39 years) was slightly older than the national figure (38 years) in the 2014 population estimate.

Canterbury was the second largest regional employer in New Zealand in 2014. Canterbury employs 14 percent of New Zealand’s workers, second only to the Auckland region with 34 percent of New Zealand’s employees. Industries with a high presence in Canterbury, by number of employees, include 'manufacturing' (particularly 'food manufacturing'); 'construction'; and 'healthcare and social assistance'.

Canterbury earthquakes

Canterbury’s recent history has been affected by a number of earthquakes. The region was struck by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake on 4 September 2010. This quake caused no deaths directly, but there was extensive property damage. Canterbury’s most damaging earthquake was a magnitude 6.3 on 22 February 2011. This quake directly caused more than 180 deaths, numerous injuries, and substantial damage to public and private property. The damage was concentrated in greater Christchurch, which includes Christchurch city and parts of the Waimakariri and Selwyn districts.

These two earthquakes were the most significant in a period of sustained seismic activity felt in the region. Between 4 September 2010 and 3 September 2014, the Canterbury region experienced 4,558 earthquakes of a magnitude 3.0 or greater.

The analysis below shows how Canterbury’s migration has changed over time and, in particular, how the earthquakes affected the skill set, age, and origin of migrants arriving and departing from Canterbury.

Total migrant flows

Between 1996 and 2014 June years, both New Zealand and Canterbury recorded their lowest number of migrant arrivals in 1999. The number of arrivals to Canterbury fell in 2011 and 2012 following the Canterbury earthquakes, but reached a new peak in 2014 (see figure 1), as did New Zealand.

The national peaks in 2002 and 2003 were due to the high number of arrivals to the Auckland region. The subsequent decrease in arrivals to Auckland, and therefore New Zealand as a whole, followed an immigration policy change in 2003. The policy change saw points granted to people applying for residence under the ‘skilled migrant’ category if they had a relevant job offer outside the Auckland region.

Figure 1

Graph, Permanent and long-term arrivals to Canterbury and New Zealand, 1996 to 2014.

The number of PLT departures was lowest in 1996 for New Zealand, and 2014 for Canterbury, for a June year. In comparison, departures peaked in 2012 for both Canterbury and New Zealand.

The departure of migrants from Canterbury was affected by the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Immediately following the earthquakes, migrant departures rose. However, as the rebuild of Canterbury progressed, migrant departures decreased.

Figure 2

Graph, Permanent and long-term departures from Canterbury and New Zealand, 1996 to 2014.

Canterbury primarily had a net gain of international migrants between 1996 and 2014 (as shown in figure 3), which is similar to the national pattern. Both Canterbury and New Zealand experienced negative net migration in 1999 to 2001. Canterbury also had a net loss of migrants following the earthquakes. Canterbury had the second largest net gain of migrants in 2014 (behind Auckland: 17,800), with 5,600 more arrivals than departures. The region was one of only four with an overall net gain of migrants during the 1996 to 2014 period. It had the second largest overall net gain, averaging over 1,000 people per year.

Immediately following the Canterbury earthquakes, migrant arrivals fell, while departures increased, resulting in a net loss of migrants. As the Canterbury rebuild progressed, this pattern reversed, with increasing arrivals and decreasing departures leading to the highest ever net gain of migrants to Canterbury (5,600, June 2014 year).

Figure 3

Graph, Net permanent and long-term migration for Canterbury, 1996 to 2014.

Note that net migration is likely to be understated in most regions, because people departing from the country state their New Zealand address more often than people arriving in the country.

International migration is only one of several contributors to population change – the others being births, deaths, and migration to and from other regions in New Zealand.

Citizenship of migrants

The citizenship of people arriving and those departing is often related, as some New Zealanders who leave come back, and some immigrants later return overseas.

Compared with most other regions, New Zealand citizens accounted for a smaller proportion of migrants to and from Canterbury, and non-New Zealand citizens a larger proportion.

From 1996 to 2014, about 35 percent of the migrants arriving in Canterbury were New Zealand citizens. This was lower than all regions except Auckland (25 percent).

Canterbury’s lower share of New Zealand citizens arriving and departing was consistent with other regions that have a university. New Zealand citizens accounted for 72 percent of departures from Canterbury over the same period, lower than all regions except Auckland (68 percent) and Otago (69 percent), which are also regions with a university.

Country of last or next residence

When examining a migrant’s country of last or next residence, there are big differences between those moving to and from the Auckland region compared with other regions. Since Auckland accounts for a big portion of New Zealand’s migration flows, this section mainly uses comparisons with all other regions excluding Auckland (‘other regions’), to better highlight the unique features of Canterbury.

The most notable difference between Canterbury’s migrant arrivals and other regions (excluding Auckland) is a greater proportion of people arriving from Asian countries. From 1996 to 2014 Canterbury’s migrants from Asia were more likely to be from Japan (26 percent), compared with the average for other New Zealand regions (15 percent); and fewer migrant arrivals from Asia were from India (7 percent) compared with the average for other regions (16 percent).

This picture has changed recently. In the year ended June 2014, 29 percent of migrants arriving from Asia to Canterbury came from the Philippines, compared with an average of 8 percent between 1996 and 2014. Migrants arriving from the Philippines to other New Zealand regions averaged 14 percent in 2014. From 1996 to 2014, 10 percent of migrants arriving in other New Zealand regions from Asia came from the Philippines.

Figure 4

Australia and the United Kingdom were the leading destinations for migrants leaving Canterbury, with around half of all departures leaving for Australia (see figure 5). Australia dominates emigration from New Zealand, because immigration policies let New Zealanders live and work indefinitely in Australia.

Canterbury not only had a higher proportion of migrants arriving from Asia than other regions, but also a higher proportion leaving for Asia. Of the PLT migrants departing from Canterbury for Asia in 1996 to 2014, 25 percent were heading to Japan, while 21 percent of migrants from other regions going to Asia went to Japan. Similarly within Asia, Korea was the destination for 23 percent of migrants leaving Canterbury, while 13 percent of those heading to Asia from other New Zealand regions went to Korea.

Figure 5

Age and sex

Migrants arriving and departing from New Zealand were mostly in the 15 to 34 year age group between 1996 and 2014. Permanent and long-term migrants arriving in Canterbury tend to be even more concentrated in this age group (see figure 6).

Figure 6

Graph, Age distribution of permanent and long-term arrivals, 1996 to 2014.

Similarly, departures from Canterbury, like New Zealand as a whole, were also concentrated in the 15 to 34 year age group.

Immediately following the Canterbury earthquakes, nearly all age groups had an increase in PLT departures from Canterbury. Departures by age group have since decreased to their pre-quake levels, and in most age groups even lower.  

Figure 7

Graph, Age distribution of permanent and long-term departures, 1996 to 2014.

The five-year age group with the biggest net gain of migrants for Canterbury from 1996 to 2014 was 30 to 34 years for males, and 25 to 29 years for females. For New Zealand as a whole, the biggest net gain was in the 15 to 19 year age group for males, and as with Canterbury, the 25 to 29 year age group for females.

The biggest net loss of migrants occurred in the 20 to 24 year age group for both sexes in New Zealand, as well as the Canterbury region.

The migration pattern for men and women in Canterbury was very similar before the earthquakes, with both male and female arrivals and departures increasing and decreasing in the same periods. Since the Canterbury earthquakes, however, arrivals of male migrants to Canterbury increased more than female arrivals, resulting in a greater net gain of males than females in 2014.

Figure 8

On average, fewer males than females arrived in Canterbury from 1996 to 2014. For example, in the June 2010 year, 96 males migrated to Canterbury for every 100 females. However this trend has recently reversed. In the 2014 year, 125 males arrived in Canterbury for every 100 female migrants.

In 2012, as the Canterbury earthquake rebuild gained momentum, the ratio of male to female PLT migrants to Canterbury surpassed the ratio of male to female migrants arriving in New Zealand as a whole, and continued to be more skewed toward male arrivals to Canterbury in the following two years.  

Visa type

‘Visa type’ is the type of immigration visa given to a migrant when they entered New Zealand. This data is available from July 2003 and is shown in figure 9.

From 2004 to 2014, 39 percent of migrants arriving to live in Canterbury were New Zealand or Australian citizens. Other migrants most commonly arrived on work visas (26 percent), followed by student visas (15 percent), residence visas (14 percent), and visitor visas (5 percent). Canterbury has fewer migrants arriving on residence visas than the national average (17 percent).

The number of migrants arriving in Canterbury on student visas (15 percent) is consistent with the average for other regions with universities (16 percent), while other New Zealand regions have fewer PLT migrants arriving on student visas (11 percent).

Figure 9



The number of migrants arriving in Canterbury on work visas increased from 1,900 in 2004 to 4,200 in 2014. Following the post-earthquake fall in work visa arrivals, seen in 2011, work visa arrivals to Canterbury surpassed pre-earthquake levels as the rebuild gained momentum.

The United Kingdom was Canterbury’s largest source of work-visa arrivals, showing significant growth in 2013 and 2014. In 2004 to 2012, people arriving in Canterbury on a work visa from the United Kingdom averaged approximately 600 a year; by comparison, in 2013 and 2014, arrivals from the United Kingdom averaged approximately 1,000 a year.

Figure 10



The other most notable change in Canterbury PLT arrivals on work visas was migrants from the Philippines. Workers arriving from the Philippines in recent years have most commonly been involved in construction trades and agricultural jobs. Migrants from the Philippines are now the second largest source country of migrants arriving in Canterbury on work visas, with a record high of 700 arrivals in the June 2014 year.

The previous jump in migrant arrivals from the Philippines in 2008 and 2009 occurred after the Philippines was designated a ‘comparable labour market’ by Immigration New Zealand, making it easier to meet immigration requirements. Work experience gained in a country that has a comparable labour market is recognised when applying for a work visa in New Zealand.


The occupation groups used for international travel and migration statistics changed in October 2009, and are not easily comparable with the occupation groups used previously. This section focuses on the occupation statistics from October 2009 onwards, unless otherwise stated.

From October 2009 to June 2014, ‘bricklayers, carpenters and joiners’ was the leading occupation group for arrivals to Canterbury, while the leading occupation group for arrivals to New Zealand was ‘school teachers’. Canterbury’s third leading occupation group was ‘engineering professionals’. This is further evidence of skilled migrants coming to Canterbury to help with earthquake rebuild work.

Table 1

Top occupation groups for permanent and long-term arrivals
October 2009–June 2014
Canterbury New Zealand
Occupation group Number Occupation group Number
Bricklayers, carpenters and joiners 1,447 School teachers 10,908
School teachers 1,302 Engineering professionals 8,424
Engineering professionals 1,285 Hospitality workers 6,820
Sales assistants and salespersons 751 Food trade workers 6,127
Food trades workers 742 Sales assistants and salespersons 5,967
Source: Statistics New Zealand

Prior to the first major Canterbury earthquake (ie October 2009 to August 2010), the main occupations of migrants arriving in Canterbury were school teachers, and hospitality and food trade workers. Looking at the period after the second major earthquake (ie March 2011 to June 2014), ‘bricklayers, carpenters and joiners’, and ‘engineering professionals’ became the main occupations of migrants arriving in Canterbury.

Demand for engineering professionals in Canterbury steadily increased following the main earthquakes, while in the June 2014 year the arrival of engineers started to stabilise. In contrast, the number of ‘bricklayers, carpenters and joiners’ was slower to grow following the earthquakes, but as the rebuild pace increased people with these professions arrived in greater numbers.

Figure 11



From October 2009 to June 2014, ‘school teachers’ was the most common occupation group for migrants departing from Canterbury. The main occupations of migrants departing Canterbury reflect the main occupations of migrants departing New Zealand as a whole.

Table 2

Top occupation groups for permanent and long-term departures
October 2009–June 2014
Canterbury New Zealand
Occupation group Number Occupation group Number
School teachers 1,283 School teachers 10,207
Sales assistants and salespersons 935 Sales assistants and salespersons 7,766
Engineering professionals 838 Engineering professionals 6,298
Hospitality workers 743 Hospitality workers 6,134
Food trades workers 719 Miscellaneous specialist managers 5,698
Source: Statistics New Zealand

Data sources

International travel and migration dataset: Year ended June 1996–2014. Statistics New Zealand.

2013-base subnational population estimates: at 30 June 2014. Statistics New Zealand.

2013 Census regional summary tables – parts 1 and 2. Statistics New Zealand.

Business demography statistics: Detailed industry by region for geographic units (ANZSIC06) 2000–2014. Statistics New Zealand.

Mean daily maximum temperatures (⁰C) and Mean daily minimum temperatures (⁰C). NIWA.

Canterbury aftershocks: Geonet

UC facts: University of Canterbury

New Zealand universities – Directory for international students, edition 9. Universities New Zealand.

Comparable labour market. Immigration New Zealand.

More information

Use Infoshare

For New Zealand area time series, select the following categories from the Infoshare homepage:
Subject category: Tourism
Group: International Travel and Migration - ITM
Tables: Permanent & long-term migration by age, sex and NZ area
Permanent & long-term migration by ctry of residence, citizenship and NZ area 

For more information contact:
Nicholas Thomson or Melissa McKenzie 
Christchurch 03 964 8700

For general enquiries contact our Information Centre:
Phone: 0508 525 525 (toll-free in New Zealand)
+64 4 931 4600 (outside New Zealand)

Statistics New Zealand (2014). International migration to and from Canterbury region: 1996–2014. (Statistics New Zealand International travel and migration article). Available from

ISBN 978-0-478-42949-7 (online)
ISSN 1178-3877 (online)

Published 12 December 2014

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