Over the last six months, COVID-19 has managed to upend what traveling means for everyone – be it domestically and internationally.  Foreigners now wishing to enter (or re-enter) Australia have found the process much more onerous and the current regime has left many thousands stranded abroad.

Under the Biosecurity Act, all travel in and out of Australia is essentially prohibited.  From being a constitutional right, traveling is (for the most part) considered a health hazard.

What is the travel ban?

The travel ban is part of the implementation of all-encompassing border measures aimed to safeguard the health of the Australian community.

In addition, the States have imposed a daily cap on the number of people allowed to enter a port, and movement is subject to approval by the Australian Border Force (ABF).  The Australian Health Principal Protection Committee reviews the ban regularly.

Countless stories of temporary visa holders who are unable to reunite with their families and resume their working arrangements in the country have surfaced online.  The travel ban has certainly made entering and re-entering the country very difficult.

What are the exemptions to the travel ban?

Automatic travel ban exemptions are given to:

  • citizens of Australia
  • permanent residents of Australia
  • immediate family members of an Australian citizen or permanent resident
  • New Zealand citizens who usually reside in Australia with their immediate family members
  • diplomats accredited to Australia with visa subclass 995
  • travelers passing through Australia for less than 72 hours
  • Airline crew
  • recruited under the Government approved Seasonal Worker Program or Pacific Labour Scheme
  • Maritime crew, marine pilots included
  • holders of a Business Innovation and Investment (subclass 188) visa

What if you don’t fall under any of the categories in the list and still want to travel?  Does this mean you cannot enter Australia?

If you do not fall within the circumstances above, you must seek a travel ban exemption from the Australian Border Force.

The application process for travel ban exemptions

Foreigners will have to apply for a travel ban exemption to enter or re-enter the country.  Broadly speaking, each request is assessed by the Department of Home Affairs on a case-to-case basis.  Certain documents are required to be able to apply including:

  • traveler details: name, DOB, visa type and number, passport number, proposed residential address, and phone number in Australia
  • reasons for travel: why your request should be considered for Commissioner discretion/exemption
  • supporting statement: setting out how you meet one of the critical skills/critical sector grounds for exemption
  • accompanying evidence: the request should be accompanied by supporting evidence, such as a letter from a business involved in the provision of critical goods and services, Australian Government or state and territory government authority advising why your travel is critical at this time

The application must be submitted at least two weeks but not more than three months before your scheduled flight.

Those who are greenlighted to come to Australia are quarantined for 14 days at their own expense, and must also comply with other State and Territory travel restrictions.

That said, the Commonwealth Government has placed many deterrents making travel an arduous pursuit with recent statistics showing that only 25% of requests are approved.

Having been criticised early on for being unclear and arbitrary, the application process now has definite parameters.  In recent weeks, the ABF has been approving travel exemptions at a higher rate than earlier in the pandemic and responding to applications more quickly.  As of September, there had been a total of 40,830 exemptions since restrictions began in March.

Top 5 things to consider when applying for an inbound travel ban exemption:

The ABF has set a list of categories of non-Australian citizens who may enter the country.  For anyone wishing to expedite the process and do away with sending multiple applications, a good starting point would be to compile all the legal documents you have and ask yourself the questions listed below.

Having a positive answer to at least one of the questions will set you on track for potentially meeting one of the exemptions:

1. Are you a person employed in a critical sector and/or with a critical skill?

The ABF may grant an individual exemption if you are a non-citizen:

  • with critical skills required to maintain the supply of essential goods and services (such as in medical technology, critical infrastructure, telecommunications, engineering and mining, supply chain logistics, aged care, agriculture, primary industry, food production, and the maritime industry)
  • delivering services in sectors critical to Australia’s economic recovery (such as financial technology, large scale manufacturing, film, media and television production, and emerging technology), where no Australian worker is available
  • providing critical skills in religious or theology fields

2. Do you offer specialist medical services?

Your entry to the country is possible if you are a paramedic offering critical or specialist medical services such as medical evacuations, air ambulance, delivering critical medical supplies, or capability and license to perform medical procedures that are not available in Australia.  Typically, this will be granted on the basis of a direct invitation by a State health department.

3. Did you receive an invitation or a travel approval from the Australian government, state, or territory to help in the national response to the pandemic or serve the national interest?

As suggested this applies to persons with a specific invitation from the Australian Government.

4. Are you an employee-sponsored by an Australian company whose occupation falls under the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation list?

Priority is given to a non-Australian whose occupation is:

  • Chief Executive or Managing Director (111111)
  • Construction Project Manager (133111)
  • Mechanical Engineer (233512)
  • General Practitioner (253111)
  • Resident Medical Officer (253112)
  • Psychiatrist (253411)
  • Medical Practitioner nec (253999)
  • Midwife (254111)
  • Registered Nurse (Aged Care) (254412)
  • Registered Nurse (Critical Care and Emergency) (254415)
  • Registered Nurse (Medical) (254418)
  • Registered Nurse (Mental Health) (254422)
  • Registered Nurse (Perioperative) (254423)
  • Registered Nurses nec (254499)
  • Developer Programmer (261312)
  • Software Engineer (261313)
  • Maintenance Planner (312911)

5. Do you have compelling and compassionate reasons to travel?

Supporting documentation verifying family relationships is needed to back your compelling and compassionate reasons which could help strengthen your case.  Such reasons may include but are not limited to:

  • being an immediate family member of an Australian citizen or permanent resident
  • needing to travel due to the death or critical illness of a close family member in Australia
  • extreme family circumstances or medical issues requiring your presence

Here is the caveat: compelling and compassionate reasons are subject to further scrutiny by the ABF.  You may or may not get approved for this alone.  You will improve your chances at an exemption if you have kin or a legal partner that qualifies the four prior points of consideration mentioned in this article and may require your presence for practical reasons.

Other individual exemptions include people who are:

  • military personnel
  • a student completing year 11 and 12, with support from the relevant Australian State or Territory government health authority and education department

Bottom line

The restrictions are said to remain in place until December 2020, and potentially then this could be pushed back further subject to how the infection rate is being controlled.

While keeping the community safe, it seems that we are now recognizing the risk presented by COVID-19 and we are cognizant of the socio-economic effect of the travel restrictions and lockdown laws.  We expect further announcements over the next few months as the Australian Government works towards normalizing the economy and the road to recovery.