First published May 15, 2020, last updated July 14, 2020
Australia’s international borders are currently closed to anyone other than citizens, residents, and their immediate family members. There are also strict quarantine measures in place for those returning to the country from overseas.
Anyone who has arrived in Australia by air or sea since March 29, 2020, has been isolated in government-mandated quarantine facilities for 14 days. This means that your first port of entry to the country is where you will carry out your quarantine period.
So travellers flying from Los Angeles’ LAX to Sydney International Airport, with a connecting flight to Perth or Adelaide (for example), would need to first spend 14 days in Sydney under quarantine. They would then be able to make the next leg of their journey.
We spoke to holidayers and expats who had completed or were in the middle of their quarantine in Australia to find out what you can expect if you are planning to return home.
Visiting Australia during COVID-19
But first, let’s answer some questions about the process of getting into Australia to begin with.
Who can enter Australia from abroad?
The main categories of people who are able to enter Australia, despite it’s “closed border” status, are citizens and permanent residents. The immediate families of citizens and permanent residents are also eligible.
Australian citizens who do not have a valid passport will only be admitted to the country in “exceptional circumstances”. Those travelling without a valid Australian passport should tell airline staff that you do not need a visa to enter the country. The airline will then contact Australian Border Force to ensure your citizenship claim is correct. If you fall into this category, arrive at the airport early, so that there is ample time to jump through these hurdles.
Permanent residents are those who hold a permanent visa in Australia (such as a Resident Return visa). New Zealand citizens who usually live in Australia (eg on a sublcasss 444 visa), are also able to enter the country, as long as they have proof of residence, such as a driver’s license.
Immediate family members of an Australian citizen or permanent resident will still need to apply for a visa to enter Australia, and provide proof of their relationship to the Australian citizen or permanent resident.
Only the following relationship categories are classified as “immediate” family:
- de facto partner
- dependent children
- legal guardian
See the Home Affairs website for more information, including the definition of a legal guardian, and details on applying for an exemption.
How many people can enter Australia daily?
The Australian Federal Government has recently institute a cap on the number of people who can fly into the country.
It has told airlines to cut the number of flights and seats available from Monday, July 13, so that 4,000 people per day could enter the country.
Previously, as many as 6,500 people were able to enter on any given day. What does this look like in practice? The following states will be allowed to receive a certain number of international arrivals per day:
- Sydney: 450 per day
- Brisbane: 500 per day
- Perth: 525 per day
- Melbourne: No arrivals currently, due to it’s wave of infections
If you already have flights booked, please check with your airline to confirm that they remain in place under these new rules.
What kind of visa do I need to apply for?
The issuing of Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) visas is currently suspended. Australian citizens obviously do not need a visa to enter the country, and permanent residents should be travelling on their pre-issued visas.
But the immediate family members of citizens and permanent residents will need to apply for a Visitor Visa (subclass 600), under the sponsored family stream. This visa allows up to 12 months stay (pending approval), and costs AUD145.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, online visitor visa (subclass 600) will be processed faster than other methods of applications. You can apply here.
When will Australia’s borders reopen to tourists?
How long is a piece of string? The answer to this question is really anyone’s guess. The government released it’s “3-step framework for COVID Safe Australia” on May 8, 2020. It outlines plans for slowly easing “shelter in place” restrictions, including information on domestic travel, and mentions travel for international students in step three.
Australia is currently in “Step 1” of this plan, and there are no set dates for the progression to the next two steps. In this stage, only local and regional travel is allowed for “recreation”, and all travel is subject to state and territory border restrictions.
Step 2 may allow for interstate “recreational” travel, but it all depends on the health situation in each separate state and territory. Step 3 is where interstate travel really opens up. And the government will also consider allowing international students into the country at this time. It will also consider allowing travel to New Zealand.
COVID-19 Quarantine for travellers to Australia
If you have successfully navigated your way through the above hoops and are confident of being able to return to Australia, you’re ready to learn about the quarantine process. We spoke to five travellers who returned to Australia from holidays or stints living abroad, about their quarantine experiences. Answers to the following questions are garnered from their experiences, as well as official information provided by the Federal Government.
As mentioned above, if you arrive in the country by sea or air, you must attend a mandatory 14 day quarantine immediately after arrival. The Health Department website mentions the phrase “with few exceptions”. The cynicist in me suspected that caveat was there for the Kerry Stokes’ of the world, who would prefer to quarantine themselves in Perth mansions rather than slum it in the same hotels as everyone else.
But it turns out there are a list of people who are “recommended” to be exempted by the federal government, although the states and territories can make their own judgments.
Who is exempted from quarantine?
The list is short and sweet, but you might want to know who may not necessarily have to quarantine after arriving in Australia:
- International flight crews (including foreign nationals)
- Domestic flight crews
- Medevac and air ambulance crews
- International maritime crews (excluding cruise ships)
- Unaccompanied minors will be allowed to travel domestically to self-quarantine with parents or a guardian at their home
- Those exempted on compassionate or medical grounds (apply here)
Where will I be quarantined and will I be charged?
Most of the travellers we spoke to were quarantined in pre-arranged hotels and serviced apartments. Note that you will not get to choose your quarantine hotel, however changes can be requested in some circumstances. Adelaide resident Michelle, had returned to Adelaide from Bali on March 22 (before this quarantine process was in place), and she was able to quarantine at home. Since this form of quarantine is no longer the norm, I haven’t included information about Michelle’s experience under the subheading questions below, but you can find out about her experience at the end of this post.
Kate travelled from San Francisco to Sydney with her husband and two children aged 7 and 9. They were originally given two connecting rooms at the Intercontinental hotel, but requested to be moved to Adina Apartments so they could have a kitchen and prepare their own meals.
The Department of Health had stipulated that all designated accommodation for isolation is free of charge for travellers. However, more than 60,000 people have been quarantined since late March, at a cost of more than $118 million, which is resulting in a push to charge people for their stay in quarantine.
So far, the following states and territories are charging travellers for their stay in hotel-based quarantine:
- Queensland: $2,800 per individual, $3,710 for two adults, or $4,620 for two adults and two children. You will receive an invoce at the end of your quarantine period and can apply to have that fee waived.
- Northern Territory: $2,500 per individual, or $5,000 for family groups of two or more people in shared accommodation. This rate covers the full 14 days.
Those who are on low incomes ($52,706 for individuals and $68,894 for families) may be eligible for lower rates of $1,250 per individual, or $2,500 per family.
- New South Wales: From midnight, Saturday, July 18, those undertaking hotel-based quarantine in NSW will be charged, $3,000 for the first adult, an extra $1,000 for each subsequent adult, and $500 per child aged three and over. Children under three are free.
Those who bought their flights before 11:59PM AEST on July 12 will NOT have to pay quarantine fees.
- Victoria: No international flights are currently landing in the state.
- South Australia: From Saturday, July 18 quarantine fees will cost $3,000 for the first adult, an extra $1,000 for each subsequent adult, and $500 per child aged three and over. Children under three are free.
- Western Australia: From Friday, July 17 quarantine fees will cost $2,520 for one adult, $3,360 for two adults, and $5,040 for a family of four (two adults, two children). Children under six will not be charged the “meal” component of the fee. This is all of the information that is available for Western Australia at this time.
- Australian Capital Territory: Has not yet announced costs.
- Tasmania: Is still paying for non-residents to quarantine in “government provided accommodation”. Tasmanian residents must quarantine in their own homes.
How will I be transported to my quarantine accommodations?
Each state and territory will arrange for you to be taken from your port of entry to your quarantine accommodation.
Paul returned to Sydney from Nadi, Fiji on April 7, and said he was ushered by Border Force to a waiting room before being taken to a bus. Passengers were allowed to board the bus in twos or on their own, depending on their own personal travel groups. He mentioned a “substantial” presence of police and members of the Army Reserves, but that they were “characterised by courtesy, empathy, and smiles”.
Kate said that her family, which also arrived at Sydney International Airport, were put on a bus as soon as they collected their bags, but not told where they were being taken. “Masks were provided and our temperatures were taken straight after getting off the plane,” she said. They arrived on April 14.
Ian also arrived in Sydney from Chicago (with a stop in Auckland), a day after quarantine had been set up. He was put on a series of buses, also without being told where he was being taken, and was told not to communicate with the driver. He was quarantined at the Hilton Hotel.
Felicity and her husband arrived in Sydney from Manchester in the UK, on May 9. They were in the UK to renew an E3 visa, and were not able to return directly to the US from Europe.
They are quarantining in Sydney before attempting to return to San Francisco. She said they disembarked from their flight wearing masks and had their temperatures taken, before a nurse asked them whether they were experiencing symptoms, or had been in contact with anyone who had been diagnosed with the virus. After handing their boarding passes to a staff member and navigating passport control, the pair picked up their bags and went through customs.
“Outside someone assigns you to one of five buses…Once the bus has the allocated amount of people they tell the bus driver the name of the hotel and he announces it,” Felicity said.
“When arriving at the hotel the military come on and give you a form to fill out and tell you that you will be staying in the hotel for 14 days.”
What are the rules of quarantine?
The ‘rules’ of quarantine are as expected really. No one is allowed to enter your hotel room/apartment, and you are not able to step outside the door of your room/apartment. You will also not be able to open any windows (if your room even has opening windows). Although this last rule seems to vary.
Ian experienced this form of quarantine in it’s infancy – he arrived a day after it was instituted. He said that the rules changed daily and that each morning a piece of paper with any pertinent instructions was dropped off with his breakfast.
Felicity and her husband were quarantined at the Radisson Blu, and said the rules included no smoking, and having a security guard posted outside the room 24/7. The couple have received daily calls from a nurse to ask about any COVID symptoms, and about their mental health. The Red Cross also called to ask how quarantine could be improved. Felicity and her husband are allowed to open windows in their room.
On Day 10 of your stay, you will be tested for COVID, and should receive your results in a couple of days. Those who test positive will have to undergo another 14-day quarantine period.
What entertainment options are available?
You’re going to a hotel, so the full gamut of entertainment options you can expect are TV and the internet.
Paul stayed at the Ibis Darling Harbor and had access to a 55-inch television, and WiFi speeds “comparable to my good fibre to premesis ones at home”. He was able to use his laptop to access his own subscriptions to Netflix and Foxtel.
Felicity said the Radisson Blu offered free-to-air TV and a few exercise channels, and internet that “fluctuates from being terrible to brilliant”.
What kind of food is available?
The food situation really depends on the hotel you end up at. Food is provided at some, although you don’t always have a choice of what you get. Otherwise you can order from a grocery store or a delivery service.
Kate described the food provided as “ordinary” and mentioned that her youngest child required a gluten and dairy free diet, and wasn’t given a kid’s meal option. Being pregnant, Kate was worried about eating food that was delivered cold, and the family was moved to Adina Apartments (with a kitchen) after one night.
Paul, at the Ibis Darling Harbor, was able to order from UberEats: “For lunch and dinner you were given a menu sheet and asked to choose between two options, but for logistics reasons having choice arrive didn’t kick in until third day. Meal arrival times would vary substantially, which is understandable because it way way outside the normal logistics.”
Ian, at the Hilton Hotel, was given three meals a day, but compared it to airline food and he rated it at three out of 10. He asked a friend to bring him a care package of snacks, but the wine included was confiscated.
Felicity’s friends also bought the couple two bags of food and their wine was not confiscated. The Radisson Blu offers three meals a day, with options to choose from.
Tips from quarantiners
This is probably the section that you’re really here for. What advice do people who have already been through quarantine, have for you?
Let’s start with a little video project created by Kate’s son Archie, who is 9-years-old. It’s a one minute look at their stay in quarantine.
- If you have kids and need an apartment, push for it and they will move you.
- Bear in mind the cops, NSW Health officials and ADF personnel are on your side.
- Think about a project you can work on during business hours. It might be personal; it might be professional.
- As always when travelling, pack a power board.
- Take as many things to keep you entertained as possible.
- I read a lot, spent time on the phone (internet was pretty lousy) and set myself a daily exercise schedule.
- Talk to friends and get them to drop you care packages. I would have had my espresso machine dropped off on day one If I did it again.
- Sit at the front of the bus, and you’ll be one of the first to check into the hotel. (Three people are checked in at a time, and everyone else must wait on the bus).
- Download movies/series before you come onto your laptop or on the Netflix app (the internet isn’t consistent).
- We are working so the days fly by – I download my work files I need in the morning as that’s when the internet seems to be the best.
- Bring snacks you like (such as biscuits/chocolate etc.) or ask friends to bring you things. My friend brought us green juices, nut milk, strawberries, nuts, coconut yoghurt, and wine. It makes all the difference to jazz up the meals – especially breakfast!
Quarantine at home
As mentioned previously, some people are able to quarantine at home, in exceptional circumstances. Michelle arrived in Adelaide from a trip to Bali on March 22, before the hotel-based quarantine period began.
She was not granted quarantine at home because of exceptional circumstances, but rather because that’s how quarantine was handled in early March. So while her experience may not match entirely with those at-home quarantining today, it is a good indicator of what to expect.
Michelle quarantined at home with her teenage children, who did not travel with her, although her quarantine stretched from her house to her yard. “I was not allowed to leave the confines of my house/yard, unless for medical attention,” she said.
Getting groceries to feed herself and her children, was a little trickier though.
“As it was near the start of the lockdown measures imposed, supermarket home delivery was temporarily unavailable, so I couldn’t get groceries delivered,” she said.
“So I had my ex husband take one of our children shopping in the first week. When I was able to get groceries delivered from Woolworths (Coles online was still unavailable), it took 4 days from time of order to the first available delivery slot, so it ended up being delivered in the last couple of days of my isolation. I was able to order food from Uber Eats and Menulog though.”
The police called to check up on Michelle around day nine, asking her to bring a photo ID out to her driveway so they could check that she was complying with the quarantine.
Michelle’s advice is to try to keep in contact with friends and family over the phone and video chat, while you’re in quarantine.
“…isolation can have an impact on mental health (I would usually spend my day off with my mum, having lunch, doing shopping etc, so we continued to ‘meet’ on that day of the week, by having a coffee together on video chat). Try and find things to keep you physically active also, because isolation boredom leads to constant over-eating,” she said.
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