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What is the Census? – details

Why have a Census?

The Census is the only way to obtain information about how many people there are in each part of Australia, what they do, and how they live. See also: Chapter 1 in How Australia Takes a Census 2011 (cat. no. 2903.0).

Census information is used by all sections of the community, from federal, state and territory governments to town planners, community groups, students, large and small businesses, and more:
  • to estimate the population of each state, territory and local government area
  • to determine electoral boundaries and calculate the number of members to be elected to the House of Representatives from each state and self-governing territory
  • to determine the distribution of federal government funds to the states and territories
  • to show characteristics of Australia's people and their housing within small geographic areas and for small population groups
  • to give governments and other users information they can use to support planning, administration, policy development and evaluation activities
  • to help plan basic services such as housing, social security, transport, education, industry, shops and hospitals.

The United Nations and the Census

The United Nations urges Member States to carry out regular population and housing censuses under the World Population and Housing Census Programme, in order to:
  • ensure improvement in living standards
  • devise effective development plans
  • monitor population, socio-economic and environmental trends
  • evaluate policies.

Australia is a world leader in censuses, providing management guidance to several countries.

Who is counted

Everyone who is in Australia on Census Night is counted, except foreign diplomats and their families.

The people who are counted include:
  • people working or living on boats in Australian waters
  • overseas visitors to Australia, regardless of how long they've been in the country or how long they plan to stay
  • people outside, but normally resident in, Australia who are not subject to outbound migration formalities, such as those on oil and gas rigs off the Australian coast
  • people of the Torres Strait Islands
  • people of the Territories of Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island – following the enactment of the Territories Reform Act 1992, the results for these Territories were included in the counts for Australia for the first time in 1996
  • people 'over-wintering' in the Australian Antarctic Territory
  • homeless people
  • people on aeroplanes travelling between Australian destinations on Census Night
  • people on ships travelling between Australian destinations on Census Night
  • all children, including newborn babies born before midnight on Census Night
  • people in detention centres
  • people in prison
  • transport drivers on the road
  • people in hospitals and institutions.

Norfolk Island is outside the scope of the Census.

The Census questions

Since the first national Census in 1911, the content of Censuses has changed. Some topics have been included in each Census since 1911, for example, age, marital status and religion, while others have been included or excluded depending on the importance of the topic at the time. Topics selected for a Census must have specific purposes which are of national importance. There must be a demonstrated need for the Census data for policy development, planning and program monitoring. A public consultation process is undertaken before changes are made. The ABS publication How Australia Takes a Census, 2011 describes the planning of the 2011 Census. It also includes a list of Census topics from 1911 to 2011. Appendix 1 contains the Census form, and Appendix 3 contains the detailed Census Guide, which explains why the questions are asked. To find the questions for a previous Census, go to Historical reference & information.


The Census form and publications about Census data include some terms and concepts which have specific meaning in the context of the Census. Definitions of these terms and concepts are included in the Census Dictionary Glossary

How Census data are used

The Census provides the characteristics of the population and its housing to support the planning, administration and policy development activities of governments, businesses, communities, researchers and other users. While some of this information is available from other sources, only a Census can provide the information for the country as a whole and for small geographic areas and small population groups. Examples of how Census data are used can be found in the publication How Australia Takes a Census, 2011 (cat. no. 2903.0). For information about how you can use Census data, see Using Census data.

More information

For more information about the background of the Census and how it is conducted, view the following pages:

2011 reference & information
Historical reference & information

What is the Census?