The area that became South Australia was settled by British colonists in 1836 and was made a crown colony in 1842. (It is the only Australian state where settlement by convicts was prohibited.) Heavy immigration gave the colony sufficient population by 1850 to apply for self-government, which was granted by the British Parliament in 1856. After several decades of political dissension, followed by an economic depression, stable government was achieved in the 1880's. In 1894, the state became the first in Australia to grant voting rights to women.

South Australia was federated with other Australian states into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The Northern Territory, placed under South Australian administration in 1863, was made a separate federal territory in 1911.

A heavy dependence on agricultural exports, especially wheat, made South Australia particularly vulnerable to the Depression of the 1930's. Recovery was achieved largely through the efforts of Sir Thomas Playford, the premier from 1938 until 1965. During Playford's administration, agriculture was diversified and manufacturing industries were brought into the state. Since World War II, development has been aided by an influx of large numbers of immigrants. In 1976, South Australia became the first Australian state to have an aborigine governor.