Australia is the most sparsely populated of the inhabited continents. The estimated total population in 2013 was 23,272,502, giving the country an overall population density of 2.8 persons per sq km (7.3 per sq mi).
The country is heavily urbanized. Some 92 percent of the population lives in cities, about two-thirds in cities with 100,000 or more residents. The most rapidly growing areas are the coastal zones near and between the mainland capitals in the east, southeast, and southwest. In fact, four out of every five Australians live on the densely settled coastal plains that make up only about 3 percent of the country’s land area. The fastest-growing region is southeastern Queensland.
The major cities of Australia are Sydney, a seaport and commercial center; Melbourne, a cultural center; Brisbane, a seaport; Perth, a seaport on the western coast; and Adelaide, an agricultural center. Canberra, the national capital, is much smaller in population.
The United Kingdom and Ireland were traditionally the principal countries of origin for the majority of immigrants to Australia, reflecting the colonial history of the country. Since World War II (1939-1945), however, Australia’s population has become more ethnically diverse as people have immigrated from a wider range of countries. In 1947, 81 percent of new arrivals came principally from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and to a lesser extent from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the United States. In 2000 only 39 percent of new arrivals came from those major English-speaking countries. From 1995 to 2000, people from New Zealand constituted 18 percent of total immigration; those from the United Kingdom, 11 percent; China, 8 percent; the former Yugoslavia (overwhelmingly refugees and asylum seekers), 7 percent; South Africa, 5 percent; and India, 4 percent. These six principal countries of birth represented about 53 percent of total immigration during those years. Since the early 1970s the countries of South, Southeast, and East Asia have become an increasingly important source of new arrivals, both settlers and long-term visitors (who are primarily in Australia for educational purposes).
People of European descent constitute about 91 percent of Australia’s population. Although most claim British or Irish heritage, there are also Italian, Dutch, Greek, German, and other European groups. People of Asian descent or birth constitute about 7 percent of the population; their countries of origin include China, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, and Malaysia. People of Middle Eastern origin make up an estimated 1.9 percent of the population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute about 2.2 percent; their proportion of the total population rose strongly during the 1990s. Also known as Indigenous Australians, these two groups are the original inhabitants of the region. Torres Strait Islander people, who are a Melanesian people, are indigenous to the islands of the Torres Strait, which lies between the Cape York Peninsula of Queensland and the island of New Guinea.
The Aboriginal people are indigenous to Australia, meaning their ancestors were the first humans to settle and populate the continent. Aboriginal folklore claims that they were always in Australia. However, most anthropologists believe that they migrated from Southeast Asia at least 50,000 years ago, probably during a period when low sea levels permitted the simplest forms of land and water travel. A rise in sea level subsequently made Tasmania an island and caused some cultural separation between its peoples and those on the mainland.
Estimates for the total Aboriginal population in 1788 vary. Current estimates based on archaeological research range between 500,000 and 1 million. During the first century of white settlement, there were dramatic declines in the Aboriginal population throughout Australia. By 1901 the Aboriginal population had declined to roughly 93,000.