Background It is unclear how global developments in management of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) have affected survival of Australian patients. This study aimed to determine trends in survival of PDAC over the last three decades in South Australia and to compare survival based on cancer location (head and uncinate process versus body and tail). Methods A retrospective observational cohort study to include all cases of PDAC reported to the South Australian (state) Cancer Registry from 1990 to 2017. Results A total of 1051 patients diagnosed with PDAC between 1990 and 2017 were included. An overall increase in number of reported PDAC cases over time with more than a doubling in the crude rate from 1.73 to 3.50 per 100 000 persons between the decades 1990–1999 and 2010–2017 (P < 0.001) was noted. Overall median survival for PDAC was 7.4 months (95% confidence interval 6.8–8.0 months) and this has improved in recent decades. Overall median survival for PDAC affecting head and uncinate process of pancreas was significantly higher compared to body and tail (7.6 months versus 4.1 months; P < 0.001). Conclusions This study from South Australia demonstrates an increased reporting of PDAC over the last three decades. Although overall survival for patients with PDAC remains low, there has been a modest improvement in recent decades. The overall survival is significantly lower for patients with PDAC involving the body and tail compared to the head and uncinate process of pancreas. Risk factors for poor survival include the male gender and advancing age (>70 years).