Australian Customs and Laws

Knowing and understanding Australian customs and laws will help you to adjust to life in the Australian community.

Australia is a tolerant and diverse society with people from many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Australians come from all corners of the world. Approximately 45 per cent of Australians were born overseas or have a parent who was. Although English is the national language, there are around 300 languages spoken in Australia. Australians also practice a wide variety of religions.

By law, everyone in Australia is free to express and maintain their cultural and religious traditions. You may not be used to this diversity at first but if remain open and respectful towards other people, ideas and traditions, you are likely to fit in and be successful in your new life.

This information is from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s website
www.immi.gov.au/living-in-australia


1. Responsibilities and values

The freedom and equality we enjoy in Australia depends on everyone fulfilling their responsibilities. We expect you to be loyal to Australia, support our democratic way of life and help maintain Australia’s tradition of acceptance, inclusion and fairness for all.

Our values provide the basis for Australia’s free and democratic society. They include support for:

  • Parliamentary democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Living peacefully
  • Respect for all individuals regardless of background
  • Compassion for those in need
  • Freedom of speech and freedom of expression
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of religion and secular government
  • Equality of the individual, regardless of characteristics such as disability and age
  • Equality of men and women
  • Equality of opportunity.

The responsibilities of Australian citizens include:

  • Obeying the law
  • Voting in federal and state or territory elections, and in a referendum
  • Defending Australia should the need arise
  • Serving on a jury if called to do so.

2. Equality and anti-discrimination

You have the right to be respected and to have your needs considered as fairly as everyone else. Similarly, you should respect other people, whether they were born in Australia or, like you, migrated here.

Under federal and state/territory anti-discrimination laws, no person should be treated less favourably than others because of their age, race, country of origin, sex, marital status, pregnancy, political or religious beliefs, disability or sexual preference. This applies to most areas, including employment, education, accommodation, buying goods, and access to services such as doctors, banks and hotels. Men and women are equal under the law and for all other purposes.

Australia has a tradition of free speech. However, it is unlawful to insult, humiliate, offend or intimidate another person or group on the basis of their race, gender, marital status, pregnancy, or political or religious beliefs.

3. Meeting people and communicating

When meeting someone for the first time, it is common in Australia to shake the person‟s right hand with your right hand. People who do not know each other generally do not kiss or hug when they first meet.

Many Australians look at the eyes of the people they are talking with, as a sign of respect and to show that they are listening. You should be aware however, that it may make some people feel uncomfortable or embarrass them.

When meeting a new person, many Australians are not comfortable being asked questions about their age, marriage, children or money. In the workplace and with friends, Australians usually call each other by their first names.

4.Polite behaviour

Australians usually say “please” when asking for something or for a service and usually say “thank you” when someone helps them or gives them something. Not saying please and thank you will be seen as impolite.

Australians usually say “excuse me” to get someone’s attention and “sorry” when they accidentally bump into someone. Australians also say “excuse me” or “pardon me” when they burp or belch in public or in someone’s home.

You should always try to be on time for meetings and other appointments. If you realise you are going to be late, try to contact the person to let them know. This is very important for professional appointments as you could be charged money for being late or if you miss the appointment without letting the person know in advance. A person who is always late may be considered to be unreliable.

If you receive a written invitation it may include the letters 'RSVP' with a date provided. This means that the person inviting you would like to know whether or not you will be attending. In such a case it is polite to reply by that date.

Most Australians blow their noses into handkerchiefs or tissues, not onto the pavement. This is also true for spitting. Many people will also say “bless you” when you sneeze – this phrase has no religious intent.

It is important to know that some behaviour is not only impolite but is also against the law. Examples include swearing in public, pushing in line, and urinating or defecating anywhere except in a public or private toilet.

5. Clothing

Australia is a diverse society. The variety of clothing which people wear reflects this diversity. Many people tend to dress casually or informally for comfort or according to the social situation or climate. Many people also choose to wear traditional clothes, which may be religious or customary, particularly on special occasions.

There are few laws or rules on clothing, although there are requirements to wear certain clothing for work situations and in certain premises. For example, safety boots and hard hats must be worn for safety reasons on construction sites, and police, military and staff of some businesses wear uniforms.

Clubs, movie theatres and other places may require patrons to be in neat, clean clothing and appropriate footwear.

You may find some clothing styles confronting or offensive. For example, some women wear clothes that reveal a lot of their body. You should not judge them by the standards of your previous country. In Australia, no matter what a woman’s style of dress might be, you must not interpret it to mean they have low morals or that they wish to attract men’s interest.

6. Common Australian expressions

Many common Australian expressions or slang may seem strange to people new to Australia. If you are unsure what an expression means, it is acceptable to ask. Some common examples are:

Bring a plate – when you are invited to a social or work function and asked to "bring a plate", this means to bring a dish of food to share with other people.  

BYO – this means to 'Bring Your Own' drink which may include alcohol, juice, soft drink or water. Some restaurants are BYO. You can bring your own bottled wine, although there is usually a charge for providing and cleaning glasses, called 'corkage'.  

Fortnight – a 'fortnight' is a two-week period. Many Australians receive salary or wages every fortnight.

7. Driving

You must have a driver’s licence in order to drive a car in Australia and the vehicle you are driving must be registered with the government.

Disobeying or breaking traffic laws can result in large fines, the loss of your driver’s licence or even imprisonment. It is against the law to use your mobile phone while driving. It is acceptable only if you use a 'handsfree' kit.  

There are seatbelts (also called 'restraints') in all cars for adults and older children. You will require special government approved restraints for young children and babies. The law states that everyone in your car must use a seatbelt or a proper child restraint. If you are involved in a road accident you must report it to the police immediately.  

In some areas is it is possible to hire child safety restraints. To find out about the availability of this service in your area, visit www.kidsafe.com.au  

The laws are particularly strict regarding speed limits and driving after drinking alcohol. Permitted blood alcohol levels vary, depending on the state or territory and in accordance with the class of driver’s licence held. It is illegal to drink alcohol while driving. For more information visit www.alcohol.gov.au/internet/alcohol/publishing.nsf/Content/guidelines

8. Criminal offences

Crime is usually described as any behaviour or act that is against the law and may result in punishment. Everyone in Australia is expected to obey all Australian laws.

Religious and cultural practices must conform to existing Australian laws. For example, the laws in states and territories prohibit practices involving violence in the home.

Domestic or family violence

As in other countries, violence towards another person is illegal in Australia and viewed very seriously. This includes violence within the home and within marriage, otherwise known as domestic or family violence. This is behaviour by a person which may result in the victim experiencing or fearing physical, sexual or psychological abuse and damage, forced sexual relations, forced isolation or economic deprivation.

The legal age of consent

The legal age of consent, that is the age that the law recognises your right to agree to have sex with another person, varies from state to state in Australia. It is illegal to have sex with someone younger than the age of consent and there can be severe penalties for anyone breaking this law.  

In the ACT, the age of consent is 16 years old for both men and women. This law protects younger people from exploitation.

Rights of children

Australia has a strong commitment to protecting the human rights of children, which may be different to some cultural practices relating to child rearing. Specific practices which are illegal under Australian laws include forced early marriage and female genital mutilation (cutting). It is also illegal to take or send a child to another country for forced early marriage or female genital mutilation, or to have someone else organise this. There are services available to respond to these practices.  

Children are protected by law from physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect and violence, both at home and at school, and reasonable provision must be made for their supervision and care. Physical discipline is generally discouraged, and if it causes significant harm, is illegal. It is not allowed in schools.  

Where a practice harms or is likely to harm a child or young person, Child Protection Services may become involved to ensure their safety and wellbeing. If you or someone you know needs protection from violence or abuse, you should contact the police or a child protection service.  

9. Drugs, smoking and drinking

There are many laws about having possession of and using drugs. Breaking drug laws can lead to severe penalties. Drug laws in Australia distinguish between those who use illegal drugs and those who make a business of supplying, producing or selling them.

Smoking tobacco is prohibited in a growing number of places in Australia, including most government offices, health clinics, and workplaces. Smoking in restaurants and shopping centres is also prohibited in most states and territories. Non-smoking areas are often, but not always, indicated with a 'no smoking' sign.

It is an offence for a retailer to sell tobacco products to a 'minor' (that is, someone under 18 years of age). Supplying tobacco to a minor is also prohibited in most states and territories.

Drinking alcohol is legal in Australia but only in certain places at certain times. It is against the law for any person to sell or supply alcohol to a person under the age of 18 years (a minor). It is also against the law for a minor to drink alcohol except on private property such as a private home. Drinking alcohol is also prohibited in some public areas.

10. Environment

A clean environment and the protection of nature are important to Australians. It is illegal to litter, create pollution or dispose of wastes without permission. Native animals, fish, shellfish and plants are protected by law. Do not hunt, fish or collect plants or shellfish before checking whether you need a permit. In addition, there are special rules which apply to National Parks to prevent them from being spoilt. See www.tams.act.gov.au/play/pcl for more information.

11. Noise

There are laws that protect Australians from excessive noise. The regulations vary across the states and territories, and also depend on whether the area is zoned for commercial, industrial or residential use. In general, neighbours are tolerant of occasional noise, but if it is frequent, excessively loud or occurs at night, a complaint may be made to the local council, the state or territory environment authority, or the police.

12. Animals

Australia has laws to protect animals from cruelty and neglect. It is forbidden to kill animals in the backyard. People who mistreat animals and birds can be fined or imprisoned. There are local laws on what domestic animals can be kept at home. Household pets like dogs need to be registered with the local council. Look under 'Dog' in the 'Government' section of your White Pages telephone directory at www.whitepages.com.au

If you get a pet you are responsible for looking after it properly including feeding it and keeping it clean. Many pets need to be vaccinated regularly and treated by a vet when they are sick or injured. Having household pets de-sexed and micro-chipped is expected in Australia and is also the responsibility of the owner. You can get more information from your local vet or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). www.rspca.org.au