Which New Zealand Island Best Suits You?

Abel Tasman.jpg

So, you’ve decided to move to New Zealand.  Your visa has been approved, your departure date is set, and you’re about to book a flight.  You stop short in your tracks and think, “Wait a second, which island am I moving to?” realizing that New Zealand has three main islands that make up its beautiful landscape.

Hold on.  Three?

I would not be doing my due diligence if I didn’t share with you information about the North Island, the South Island, and the often-overlooked, Stewart Island.  Stewart Island is, essentially, the Tasmania of New Zealand. 

  Stewart Island  from above

Stewart Island from above

Situated 30 kilometers/ 19 miles south of the South Island, Stewart Island is the home of many native kiwi birds, the famous Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks), and a dainty, no-drama town called Oban.

Aside from the three “main” islands I’ve just mentioned, there are other inhabited islands that make up New Zealand’s 600-island archipelago. 

Excluding territories or islands within the realm of New Zealand around the South Pacific, the other populated islands around the kiwi main frame are Waiheke Island, Chatham Island, Great Barrier Island, D’Urville Island, Arapaoa Island, Pitt Island, Matakana Island, Raoul Island, Kawau Island, and Motiti Island.

The populations of these islands can range from six to 9,520 inhabitants.

In this article, I’ll give you a summary of highlights, breakdown of towns/cities, and expected job opportunities of the top five most populated islands to assist you in your decision of which New Zealand island may be best for your move.

 My friend Adam loving the snow on Cardrona from all angles

My friend Adam loving the snow on Cardrona from all angles

Keep in mind, if you move to one of these islands at the start of your time here and it doesn’t fit what you’re looking for, you can always relocate across the island or move to another one.


The North Island of New Zealand is quite special for many reasons.  Most known for its Maori culture, volcanic activity, cosmopolitan cities, and natural beauty, the North Island has a diverse setup and unique personality. 

 Wellington's wonderful Cuba Street

Wellington's wonderful Cuba Street

The North Island is 113,729 square kilometers and is inhabited by approximately 3,677,200 people (more than half of New Zealand’s population overall –77% to be exact).  It is also likely the warmest of the islands.

There are twelve main urban areas that make up the North Island: Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Napier, Hastings, Whanganui, Palmerston North, and Wellington.

Some of the most iconic natural features of the North Island are the Bay of Islands, Bay of Plenty, Ninety Mile Beach, Hauraki Gulf, Hawkes Bay, Lake Taupo, Northland Peninsula, Cape Palliser, Cape Reinga, Tongariro National Park, Whanganui National Park, Waitomo Caves, Mount Ruapehu, Mount Taranaki, and Volcanic Plateau.  With so many beautiful features, the North Island is never short of places to explore or nooks to settle in.

 Hobbiton -- a North Island fairy tale

Hobbiton -- a North Island fairy tale

The job variety on the North Island is incredibly vast and mostly covers all bases no matter what you’re looking to do during your time here.  If you’re interested in living the more corporate city-life with employment as a lawyer, doctor, nurse, accountant, architect, or businessperson, Auckland may be best suited for you.

If you are more of a creative person interested in a career as a tattoo artist, museum curator, painter, actor, dancer, singer, graphic designer, or street performer, you may be inclined to check out Wellington.  My lists are generalizations; you can surely be a nurse in Wellington or near Lake Taupo or a tattoo artist in the Bay of Plenty.  I simply hope to provide a guideline for you in your move-related decisions.

 Wellington at Night

Wellington at Night

If you are interested in a tourism-based job and know the North Island is for you, I’d recommend checking out Lake Taupo, Rotorua, or Waitomo Caves as they include regularly visited sites for international and domestic tourists.

Lastly, if farm work or viticulture calls to you, there are places you can find a job learning about farming and agriculture across the island in places like Hawkes Bay and Martinborough.  For work on a farm, check out this website for a list of employment opportunities that may suit you.

 One of the many stunning beaches near Whangarei

One of the many stunning beaches near Whangarei


Although lower in population, the South Island has no shortage of stunning landscapes to feed your adventurist soul.  Life on the South Island, in comparison to the North, is a bit slower and even more spread out.

 Reeds blowing in the wind of peaceful Akaraoa

Reeds blowing in the wind of peaceful Akaraoa

You’ll often find shops are shut during random times on random days if the storeowner needs to run out and do something or closing time will be earlier than you expect.

Not all places on the South Island are that laid back, but it’s nothing like the hustle & bustle of the Auckland metropolis.

The South Island includes approximately 150,437 square kilometers of stunning landscape as well as 1,115,800 inhabitants.  Its largest city is Christchurch with a population of less than half a million people.

Christchurch Trolley.jpg

If you’re interested in skiing, snowboarding, hiking, surfing, and adventure-sports, you’ll likely gravitate towards the South Island.

Being colder in the winter than the North Island, the South Island is home of many ski resorts for snow-loving travelers and seasonal workers.

There are also endless amounts of trails on the South Island that are often a magnet for hikers, bikers, and fresh-air-likers.

 The Remarkables standing tall next to my home, Queenstown

The Remarkables standing tall next to my home, Queenstown

The main cities and towns that people settle in are Christchurch, Nelson, Blenheim, Wanaka, Queenstown, Invercargill, and Dunedin.  There are tons of other places that aren’t as populated (but can be regularly visited by tourists) like Mount Cook, Te Anau, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, Motueka, and Marahau that may pull you in with their humble small-town vibes.

In regards to work, you may find the South Island appealing for tourism-related jobs, winery/vineyard positions, construction or building opportunities, ski field jobs, marine-related careers (for all the sounds and lakes), or hotel/hostel gigs.

 The Routeburn Track captured beautifully by the one and only, Mac Boucher

The Routeburn Track captured beautifully by the one and only, Mac Boucher

On both islands, you can, of course, find endless hospitality jobs, au pair positions, retail work, nature enthusiast opportunities (DOC guides and wardens), and surely other employment setups I have missed.

New Zealand in general is a very active, adventurous country.  As the birthplace of bungy jumping and the home of the adventure capital of the world (Queenstown), New Zealand has made a name for itself in thrill-seeking activities.

If you plan to come here on a working holiday visa, I recommend getting a unique job with a company that has an exciting product that’ll get your adrenaline flowing.  You likely won’t have the chance anywhere else.

Let this chapter include your most unique work experience!

 I can 100% say working at a Bungy jumping company has been one of my most unique jobs yet

I can 100% say working at a Bungy jumping company has been one of my most unique jobs yet


If you want to live on an island that essentially resembles a mini New Zealand, move to Waiheke Island.  Located just off the coast of Auckland, Waiheke is inhabited by approximately 9,500 people and it is total paradise.

 My friend Jonathan soaking in the beauty of Waiheke

My friend Jonathan soaking in the beauty of Waiheke

Covered in vines for some of the best winemaking, lined by 40 kilometers (25 miles) of stunning beaches, and residence to several humble neighborhoods, Waiheke Island is both a holiday and a home all in one.

Waiheke Island is 19.3km long (12 miles west to east) and 9.65km (6 miles) at its widest point, so it’s not massive, but the population is quite dense there.  Don’t worry about that, though, it’s nothing compared to Auckland’s hustle just 21.5km (13.4) away.

 Check out the Tourism Waiheke  website  for more information on the island

Check out the Tourism Waiheke website for more information on the island

What you may not know about Waiheke Island is that it’s been voted fourth and fifth best island in the world by Condé Nast Traveler and Lonely Planet respectively.  If you can see yourself in a winery/vineyard type of job (that includes chefs!), any hospitality, retail, gardening, landscaping, teaching, construction, or even traffic controlling jobs, you can find something on Waiheke.

If you know what Montauk is in the United States, you can understand Condé Nast Traveler’s comparison of it to Waiheke Island.  Check out their article here.  To read what Lonely Planet has to say, check out their post about Waiheke Island as well.

 My favorite winery on Waiheke Island, Cable Bay

My favorite winery on Waiheke Island, Cable Bay

I’ve visited Waiheke three times now and I’ve loved every minute of my visits.  I’m not going to oversell it to you like it’s the most lively of islands in the world, but if you’re looking for a place to ride your bike to work, go to the beach on your weekends, or even pop over to Auckland for a sporadic night out (or some solid clothes shopping), Waiheke could be a great fit for you.

When I’m eventually blogging full time (yes, that’s the goal) I’ll surely spend a few months chilling out on Waiheke welcoming the warm seabreeze and delicious wine into my life.

 If you have a passion for wine,  Waiheke Island  is the place for you

If you have a passion for wine, Waiheke Island is the place for you


Stewart Island is, metaphorically, the wild little sister of the North and South Islands.  Home to the Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s great walks) and a port for several other smaller, vibrant, and uninhabited islands, Stewart Island is an incredibly special little spot.

 A snap from our flight into Oban

A snap from our flight into Oban

Oban, the main settlement on Stewart Island has one of most things – one main restaurant, one post office, one convenient store (in the same place as the post office – ha!), one cinema, and one main harbor.  I’m pretty sure there are two hostels; they splurged there.

Stewart Island is a place that most kiwis don’t visit simply because “it’s always there” and they’ll “get to it one day.” It’s sort of like Tasmania to Australians, but far smaller and far less to do.  If you’re interested in an even more low key lifestyle than Waiheke Island, Stewart Island may pique your interest.

Of the jobs available on the island, you can look for a cleaner or concierge-type gig at the aforementioned hostels (this one and this one), you can be a DOC warden on the track (you’ll probably need previous experience), or get yourself a boaters license and take people visiting on family holidays, stag parties (aka bachelor parties), or nature explorers out on boating excursions.

 Shot during our stay at  Bunker Backpackers

Shot during our stay at Bunker Backpackers

Before you book a one-way ticket to Stewart Island, definitely do some investigating if you plan to live there long term and need a job.  If you don’t need a paid employer on the island or you work remotely, you may find satisfaction in the quiet atmosphere Stewart Island fosters.

It also can get quite cold on Stewart Island in the winter and mildly hot in the summer, so make sure you time your arrival based on the seasons you may prefer to experience there.

 Great shot of one of Stewart Island's many beautiful beaches from  Gotta Love NZ

Great shot of one of Stewart Island's many beautiful beaches from Gotta Love NZ


Okay, we’re starting to get even more remote here, but I know some people are after that type of setting, so I’ll indulge your interests for sure.  Great Barrier Island is located 100km (62 miles) northeast of central Auckland and hosts 850-900 inhabitants.

I can’t say Great Barrier Island would be the most lucrative spot, but it would be incredibly peaceful and suit the wild wanderers looking to get off the beaten path.

I’ve never been to Great Barrier Island, but two of my close friends lived there for four very chilled out months and they fell in love with the place.  They house-sat, did some building and landscaping, and enjoyed the beachy bungalow vibes of the island every day they were there.

If you can find a job house sitting, pet sitting, WOFing, landscaping or building jobs in advance, go live there!  Otherwise, this 285 square kilometer (110 square miles) island isn’t somewhere you can roam around with your resume looking for a bar job.  With only 850ish people living there, most of the jobs at restaurants and beach-side pubs are likely taken.

 If  Bayley's  sells properties there, you know it's a sought after place to be

If Bayley's sells properties there, you know it's a sought after place to be

This is the kind of island you post up at when you’re writing a book, getting away from an ex, or just having an extended holiday with yourself.

 That is  pure New Zealand  for sure.

That is pure New Zealand for sure.

Well, there you have it!

Hopefully those brief outlines of New Zealand’s most populated islands will help you make a decision on which one is right for you on your big move here.

I haven’t been to every part of every island, but I can tell you that if you’re considering moving to any of the ones belonging to New Zealand, you’re on the way to paradise.

Please leave questions or comments below if this article was helpful.

I can’t wait to see you exploring the beautiful landscapes of Aotearoa; you won’t regret it.

Good luck!

Source: Stats NZ

Kelsey PowellComment