The magnitude 6.3 quake struck the country's lower North Island at just before 4pm local time and rattled the capital Wellington.
Many residents of the city were at home because it was a public holiday.
There were no initial reports of major damage or injuries, although the quake was strong enough to damage some homes, trigger rockslides and road closures, and knock items from shelves.
The eagle sculpture in the Wellington Airport was placed there in recent months to promote director Peter Jackson's second movie in his popular trilogy. It fell from its overhead perch to the floor.
The United States Geological Survey estimated the quake was centred about 24 miles north east of the town of Masterton at a depth of 17 miles.
New Zealand lies on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of earthquake and volcanic activity that stretches around the Pacific Rim.
An earthquake in the city of Christchurch in 2011 destroyed much of the central area and killed 185 people.