The majority of reef-building corals acquire their obligate algal symbionts (Symbiodinium) from the environment. However, factors shaping the initial establishment of coral–algal symbioses, including parental effects, local environmental conditions and local availability of symbionts, are not well understood. This study monitored the uptake and maintenance of Symbiodinium in juveniles of two common corals, Acropora tenuis and Acropora millepora, that were reciprocally explanted between sites where adult colonies host different types of Symbiodinium. We found that coral juveniles were rapidly dominated by type D Symbiodinium, even though this type is not found in adult colonies (including the parental colonies) in four out of the five study populations. Furthermore, type D Symbiodinium was found in less than one-third of a wide range of coral species (n > 50) sampled at the two main study sites, suggesting that its dominance in the acroporid juveniles is not because it is the most abundant local endosymbiotic type. Moreover, dominance by type D was observed irrespective of the light intensity to which juveniles were exposed in a field study. In summary, despite its relatively low abundance in coral assemblages at the study sites and irrespective of the surrounding light environment, type D Symbiodinium is the main symbiont type initially acquired by juveniles of A. millepora and A. tenuis. We conclude that during early ontogeny in these corals, there are few barriers to the uptake of Symbiodinium types which differ from those found in parental colonies, resulting in dominance by a highly infectious and potentially opportunistic symbiont.