What Are the Most Common Last Names in the World?

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
common last names
Each continent has its own list of popular last names. Some even cross continents. HowStuffWorks

While the Chinese have been using surnames since 2852 B.C.E., they're a modern invention elsewhere. Europeans adopted them in roughly the 15th century, while Turkey only started requiring them in 1934.

Scholars say cultures that use surnames generally employed them to describe one of five characteristics:


  • patronymics (names that tell who your father or ancestors are — Johnson literally means John's son)
  • occupations (the last name Miller tells you the person is descended from millers)
  • toponymics (home region — e.g., Monte is Portuguese for mountain)
  • personal characteristics (personality or appearance, like Short, Long or Daft)
  • clans or tribes

Yet not every last name fits into one of these categories. Enslaved people were often forced to take the surnames of their subjugators, which is why many Blacks in the U.S. have European surnames such as Williams, Davis or Jackson. In fact, when you look at the most common surnames around the globe, you'll see they reflect the world's most dominant colonizers: the English, Spanish, Chinese and Muslims.

In English-speaking cultures, it's long been the custom for women to change their birth last name to their husband's upon marriage. (That practice has been on the decline since the 19th-century feminist movements, though.) And in Mexico, people are given two surnames: the father's surname followed by the mother's (for example, Catalina González Martínez.) When addressing someone, though, the protocol is to use only the father's surname, so Catalina would be called Catalina González.

Then there's the issue of migration. When people migrate to another country or culture, they may alter their surname to better match that of their new homeland. Take 20th-century immigrants to the U.S. Many Anglicized their surnames to better assimilate into U.S. culture, or simplified them because their surnames were difficult for Americans to spell or pronounce. So a Polish surname such as Ziolkowski, for example, might have been shortened to Zill. Other times, illiterate immigrants didn't realize a clerk, census worker or other official had misspelled their surname. Thus, a Joseph Heyer may have unwittingly become Joseph Hire.

Despite all of these complexities, or sometimes because of them, certain surnames dominate various corners of the globe. Yet there's no doubt about which surname is the most popular in the world: Wang. More than 106 million people have the surname Wang, a Mandarin term for prince or king. It's not too surprising that the top surname is Chinese, as China has the world's largest population. As of 2022, it was home to 1.45 billion people, or 18.5 percent of the world's total.

The reason Wang tops all other Chinese last names may be traced to the Xin dynasty, which began in 9 C.E. and was headed by Emperor Wang Mang. Mang and his Xin dynasty took away power from the Liu family, who were successors of the Han dynasty, so many royal families adopted this surname to protect their lives and wealth. From there, the name greatly proliferated throughout the centuries.

Now let's take a look at the most common surnames in each populated continent, according to genealogy website Forebears.


Most Common Last Names in Asia

  1. Wang
  2. Li
  3. Zhang
  4. Chen
  5. Liu

Wang is the most popular surname in the world, as we just noted, which means it's also No. 1 in Asia. Li comes in a close second, though, with 105 million people having that surname.


Most Common Last Names in Africa

  1. Mohamed
  2. Ali
  3. Ahmed
  4. Ibrahim
  5. Mohammed

In Africa, the most common last name is Mohamed, with 7.5 million people carrying this name. But coming in fifth place is Mohammed (4.9 million). No. 17 is Muhammed (1.8 million) and No. 74 is Mahamat (829,000) so essentially this surname is held by some 15 million folks. Many African surnames reflect the widespread colonialism that occurred on this continent, and one major group of colonizers were the Muslims.


Most Common Last Names in Europe

  1. García
  2. Martin
  3. Müller
  4. Rodríguez
  5. Fernández

In Europe, the top surname is García, a name held by 1.7 million folks and is the most popular last name in Spain. Garcia is believed to be originally Basque and to mean "bear." Müller (the Germanic version of Miller) is the most popular occupational surname in many German-speaking countries. It's also the most popular occupational last name in Spain (as Molina) and in Ukraine (as Melnik), possibly because these countries grow a lot of grain and the surname refers to one who milled grain.


Most Common Last Names in North America

  1. Hernández
  2. García
  3. Martínez
  4. López
  5. González

Many people are surprised that the most common surnames in North America are all of Spanish origin. That's because while the U.S. and Canada are part of this continent, so are Mexico and all of the nations and territories in Central America and the Caribbean — nations and territories that were largely colonized by the Spanish.

If you look solely at Canada and the U.S., Smith comes out on top as the most common last name in both nations. In the U.S., Smith is followed by Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones, all names that can be traced to the English, Scottish and Welsh — the country's early European colonizers. Smith is also tops in England and refers to someone who is a skilled craftsman (like a blacksmith).


But Hispanic surnames are surging in the U.S. and will likely soon overtake some or all of the top spots. García, for example, is No. 6, and spots 9 through 13 are all Hispanic names. Hernández means "son of Hernan", and Martinez means "son of Martin" and so forth.


Most Popular Last Names in South America

  1. da Silva
  2. dos Santos
  3. Pereira
  4. Ferreira
  5. Alves

You may be bracing for another raft of Hispanic surnames here since so many people in South America speak Spanish. But the continent's largest country, Brazil, is home to roughly half of the continent's population. And Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, so Portuguese surnames reign. Interestingly, Ferreira means "blacksmith" while da Silva is a person from the woodlands.


Most Popular Names in Oceania

  1. John
  2. Smith
  3. Peter
  4. Thomas
  5. James

Oceania encompasses all the islands in the Pacific Ocean between Asia and North America, including the Australia continent. But some 30 million of Oceania's 43 million residents live in Australia and New Zealand, which were colonized by the English. So, you might be thinking the most popular surnames will be names typical English last names. Apart from Smith, you'd be wrong.

In this part of the world, many tribal peoples had no tradition of using surnames. Instead of adopting (or being forced to adopt) their colonizers' surnames, as occurred elsewhere, they developed a tradition of taking surnames based on the first names given to their ancestors by their conquerors.