Australian customs and law

Knowing and understanding Australian customs and laws will help you to adjust to life

in the Australian community.

Australia is a tolerant, diverse society with people from many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Australians come from all corners of the world. About 43 per cent of Australians were born overseas or have a parent who was. Although English is the national language, there are around 200 languages spoken in Australia. Australians also practise a wide variety of religions.


In Australia, everyone is free to express and maintain their cultural and religious traditions, within the law, and participate and belong as an Australian. At first, you may not be used to such diversity. However if you are open and respectful towards people, ideas and traditions you are likely to fit in and be successful in your new life.

Responsibilities and values

The freedom and equality we enjoy in Australia depend on everyone fulfilling their responsibilities. We expect you to be loyal to Australia, and support our democratic way of life and its underlying values. These values include respect for the law, the freedom and dignity of each person and the equality of men and women, and tolerance, fairness and compassion for those in need.

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 the Anti-Discrimination Act, 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.

The Australian Government’s Living in Harmony Programme promotes the Australian values described above, mutual obligation and understanding between people of different backgrounds. It also aims to address intolerance. It does this through:

  • local community projects
  • partnerships with national organisations
  • a public information strategy, which includes Harmony Day on 21 March each year.
To find out more, contact:  
Harmony Day 1800 331 100
Funded community projects 1800 782 002
1800 782 002  
Living in Harmony website

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) administers Commonwealth law in the area of human rights, anti-discrimination and social justice.

Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission 1300 369 711
TTY (for hearing and speech impaired) 1800 620 241
HREOC website (including information in languages
other than English)

The EOCV's primary purpose is to prevent and reduce discrimination and assist all Victorians to experience equality and a Fair Go, through the administration of the Equal Opportunity Act 1955 and the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.

If you are the victim of discrimination you can lodge a complaint at:

Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission 9281 7111
Country callers 1800 134 142

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. For more information on criminal offences and the role of police in Australia, go (available in 8 languages).

Australasian Police Multicultural Advisory Bureau (03) 9603 8341
APMAB website (including information in languages
other than English)

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

If you have witnessed a criminal offence or if you have information which may help police solve a crime contact:

Crime Stoppers 1800 333 000


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.

Violence Against Women (24 Hour Helpline) 1800 200 526
Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service 9373 0123
24 hour line 1800 015 188
Women's Health in the North (North Metropolitan) 9484 1666
Immigrant Women’s Domestic Violence Service 9898 3145
Violence Against Women website (including information
in languages other than English)
Men's Line Australia (24 Hour Line) 1300 789 978
Men's Line Australia website

Domestic Violence Outreach Services offer women and children who are enduring or escaping from a violent partner practical support and information about safe accommodation options, obtaining legal advice, accessing financial entitlements, referrals to counselling and other services.

Local and regional services:

Grampians Community Health
Tel: 5352 6200
Willaneen Women’s Shelter
Tel: 5152 1863
Tel: 5333 3666
Tel: 5443 4945
Mitchell Community Health Service
Tel: 5784 5555
Emma House Domestic Violence
Tel: 5581 2109
Dandenong or Springvale
Tel: 9791 6111
Women’s Health West
Tel: 9689 9588
Tel: 9781 4658
Barwon Domestic Violence
Outreach Service
Tel: 5224 2903
Emma House Domestic Violence
Tel: 5571 1778
Northern Family Domestic Violence
Outreach Service
Tel: 9458 5788
Grampians Community Health
Tel: 5362 1200
Tel: 5662 4502 or 1800 221 200
Mallee Domestic Violence Services
Tel: 5021 2130
Narre Warren
Tel: 9703 0044
Quantum Support Services
Tel: 5120 2000
Emma House Domestic Violence
Tel: 5521 7937
Tel: 5945 3201
Goulburn Valley Community Health
Tel: 5823 200
Eastern Domestic Violence
Outreach Service
Tel: 9870 5939
Grampians Community Health
Tel: 5358 7400
St Kilda or Moorabin
Southern Region Outreach Service
Tel: 9536 7777
Swan Hill
Mallee Domestic Violence Services
Tel: 5033 1899 (24 hr line)
Emma House Domestic Violence
Tel: 5561 1934
Cooroonya Domestic Violence
Tel: 1800 721 100
Quantum Support Services
Tel: 5622 7000
Upper Hume Community Health
Tel: (02) 6022 8888

Men’s Referral Service provides information, counselling and referral for men who have used violence against women or children and who want to stop their use of violence.

Men’s Referral Service 9428 2899
1800 065 973

Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASAs) provide timely and appropriate responses to the needs of recent and past victims/survivors of sexual assault. Services are available for women, men and children.

Victorian After Hours Sexual Assault Crisis Line 
(Operates 24 hours a day)
9349 1766
Centre Against Sexual Assault For referral to your local CASA 9635 3610
After hours state-wide 1800 806 292

Children are protected by law from physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect and violence, both at home and at school. People found guilty of these offences are punished by law. If you or someone you know needs protection from violence or abuse, you should contact the police or Child Abuse Prevention Service (see Chapter 3, Emergency services), or ask for help from one of the organisations listed in Chapter 4, Where to go for help.

CAPS website
Child Abuse Prevention Service (CAPS) (24 Hour Freecall Crisis Line) 1800 688 009
Children’s Protection Society 9458 3566
After Hours Child Protection Service 13 1278

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 Victoria the Age of Consent is 16 years old for both men and women providing the other partner is not their carer or teacher. People aged 10-15 may legally have sex providing the other partner is not more than two years older. These laws protect younger people from exploitation.

You can find out more about the age of consent by talking to a doctor or contacting a sexual health clinic, family planning clinic or one of the organisations below:

Action Centre for Young People: 9654 4766
Country callers 1800 013 952
Melbourne Sexual Health Centre: 9347 0244
Country callers 1800 032 017


To drive a car in Australia, you must have a driver’s licence and the vehicle you are driving must be registered with the government. For information about licences and motor vehicle registration see Chapter 1, What to do soon after arrival.

Disobeying or breaking traffic laws can result in large fines, the loss of your driver’s licence or even imprisonment. 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, and if you are involved in a road accident you must report it to the police immediately.

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 contact:

Alcohol Guidelines (Australian Drug Foundation – Drug Info Clearing House) 1300 858 584

For new migrants it is also useful to know that using a mobile phone while driving is against the law, unless you do so using a 'handsfree' kit. Melbourne now has several 'toll' roads, known as CityLink and you must pay to use these roads. For more information contact:

VicRoads 13 1171
CityLink 13 26 29

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.

Australian Drug Information Network 
(including information in languages other than English)
CityLink 13 26 29


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 being spoilt.

Environment Protection Authority Pollution Watch Line 9695 2777
Country callers 1800 444 004
Department of Primary Industries 13 6186
Department of Sustainability & Environment 13 6186


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.

In Victoria, the role of the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) regarding residential noise is to provide advice. The police and your local Council can be called upon to deal directly with the problem.

EPA Information Centre 9695 2722


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.

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).

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) 9224 2222
RSPCA e-mail
RSPCA website

Meeting people and communicating

When meeting someone for the first time, it is usual 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 meeting.

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. However, you should be aware 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.

Unless you have been introduced to someone by their first name, or unless you are asked to call them by their first name, it is usual to address them using their title and family name, (eg. Mr Wong, Ms Smith, Mrs Brown, Dr Lee). In the workplace and with friends, Australians usually call each other by their first names.

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.


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.

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.

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