A jubilant Julian Assange has embraced his wife Stella on his emotional return to Australia as a free man and convicted US criminal.

Assange arrived in wintry Canberra accompanied by U.S ambassador Kevin Rudd and UK High Commissioner Stephen Smith.

After more than a day of travel and a court hearing in Saipan he raised his fist as he emerged from a private jet, giving a thumbs up and waving to a small group of waiting supporters and media.

He then strode across the tarmac where he embraced his wife Stella, giving her a passionate kiss before hugging his father John Shipton.

For almost 15 years the Australian has been evading authorities seeking to bring him to American soil on spying charges after he leaked troves of secret state information.

He spent almost seven years holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy before being detained for five years in a maximum-security UK prison where he fought his extradition.

On Wednesday, the 52-year-old secured his freedom by pleading guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents and was sentenced to 62 months – time he has already served.

A few hours later, he left court a free man on the US Pacific territory of Saipan and boarded a chartered flight bound for Canberra.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was pleased the ordeal was now over, and welcomed Assange home.

“I do want to express my appreciation to the United States and the United Kingdom for their efforts in making this possible,” he said.

“There was nothing to be gained by the further incarceration of Assange and we wanted him brought home tonight.

“That has happened, we have got this done.”

Albanese said Assange described his return to Australia as a “surreal a happy moment” during a conversation they had but would not be drawn as to whether he would meet.

Albanese directly raised the issue with U.S President Joe Biden and in September politicians from across Australia’s political spectrum converged on Washington DC to lobby U.S decision-makers.

U.S Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy said the U.S was grateful to the Australian government for its commitment and assistance throughout the process.

“The return of Julian Assange to Australia brings this longstanding and difficult case to a close,” she said in a statement.

Opposition finance spokeswoman Jane Hume said Assange was “no hero” of hers but welcomed his return.

“He put lives in danger, not just of counter-intelligence agents in the U.S but also of innocent and helpful Iraqi and Afghan citizens who were helping coalition forces,” she said.

After the hearing, Assange’s lawyer Barry Pollack said the court had “determined that no harm was caused by Assange’s publications”.

Jennifer Robinson, another leading member of his legal team, said the outcome was a “huge relief” and she thanked the Australian government and her client’s supporters.

“I hope that the fact that we’ve been able to free Julian Assange today, against all the odds and against one of the most powerful governments in the world, will give hope to all journalists and publishers who are imprisoned,” she told reporters outside court.

For his supporters, it was a moment of jubilation.

“It’s a great victory for freedom of expression and also justice,” Australian Assange Campaign legal adviser Greg Barns told AAP.

“Julian faced the prospect of over 170 years in a US. jail if he’d been convicted of the charges for which the Americans were seeking to extradite him.”

Assange’s family are also celebrating his release, with his father John Shipton praising the Australian government for its efforts.