New Zealand saw a new record net gain in migrants of 65,900 in the year to January, driven by increased arrivals from Asia and Australia.

The annual gain in migrants has set records for the past 18 months. Arrivals rose 10 per cent to 123,000 in the January 2016 year from the January 2015 year, while departures fell 1 per cent to 57,100, Statistics New Zealand said.

There was a seasonally adjusted net gain of 6,100 migrants in the month, slightly higher than the average of 5,900 over the past six months and just shy of the 6,200 all-time high in November.

"Ongoing low departures and strength in arrivals will push New Zealand's annual population growth rate to reach its highest pace since 1974," Westpac Banking Corp New Zealand senior economist Anne Boniface said in a note.


"High population growth is helping to maintain a semblance of strong GDP (economic) growth. But at the same time, the preponderance of people in the labour market is keeping wage growth lower than it would otherwise be."

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Strong inbound migration has baffled economic forecasters over the past year, exceeding their expectations and helping underpin consumer spending and housing demand.

The net inflow of migrants from Australia continued with a net gain of 300 in January, the 10th month in a row. Before April 2015, the last time there had been net gain in migrants from Australia was June 1991. Over the year to January, New Zealand has gained a net 1,300 migrants from Australia, the first time it's breached 1,000 since the year to October 1991.

Of all migrant arrivals in the January year, 25,700 were from Australia. Fewer New Zealand citizens left for Australia, with departures down 8 per cent to 24,400 over the year, about half the peak departures set in 2010.

The increase in Australian arrivals was from both New Zealand and non-New Zealand citizens, with the median age of migrants coming from Australia at 28, compared with 25 for all other migrant arrivals.

Migrants on work visas made up 31 per cent of all arrivals, with a 13 per cent increase in migrants on working visas to 38,200 in the year. The biggest group on working visas came from the United Kingdom, with 6,393 arrivals, a 3.6 per cent increase on the year to January 2015.

Meanwhile, migrants on student visas rose 17 per cent to 27,900 in the year. Three quarters of the 14,200 arrivals from India had student visas, while there were 11,300 migrants from China and 5,400 from the Philippines, with about half the migrants from both countries having student visas. Student visa arrivals from the Philippines increased 77 per cent from the January 2015 year.

There was a 2.9 per cent gain in migrants on residence visas in the month, to 14,133. The biggest group came from China, up 6.9 per cent in the year to 2,647, with Samoa also up 15 per cent to 1,325 while migrants from the UK on residence visas dropped back 14 per cent to 1,562.

"We expect that net immigration will remain strong for some time yet, but the current strength will eventually moderate," Westpac's Boniface said.

"Many of those who arrived on student and temporary work visas will start to leave over the coming years. In addition, the balance of trans-Tasman job opportunities is now shifting, with Australia reporting strong jobs growth and a lower unemployment rate than New Zealand. If this trend continues, New Zealand will eventually become a relatively less attractive destination."

Tourism is continuing to boom, with overseas visitor arrivals hitting the highest-ever annual total of 3.17 million for the January year, up 11 per cent on the prior year.

Australia was the biggest source of visitors at 1.3 million followed by China at 371,100 and the US at 247,500. Those three countries also recorded the biggest increases on last year with China up 110,700, Australia by 72,500 and the US up 26,000.

Visitor arrivals for January rose 14 per cent to 343,300, a record for a January month. The Lunar New Year holiday supported inbound tourism with the highest ever number of Chinese visitors for a January month, up 59 per cent from the same month in 2015. Most of the increase was over the last week of January, in the lead up to the celebration in early February which is a popular time for travel, Statistics NZ said.

See the latest travel and migration stats here: