The ongoing closure of Australia’s borders means that most Australian residents require government permission to travel overseas – and for many applicants, getting that authorisation hasn’t proven an easy task.
While some requests have been processed promptly, other applicants say they've received no response at all from the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force, even after the international flights they’d booked had long departed.
Over 1,000 people have shared their ‘travel ban’ experience with Executive Traveller since the restrictions took effect in March 2020 – a hefty number, given less than 3,000 exemptions had been granted by the government as of mid-May.
Here are just some of the stories and experiences Executive Traveller readers have shared, including their tips for lodging a successful application.
You may not need an exemption to travel overseas
When applying for permission to depart Australia, the Department of Home Affairs’ website outlines that people who “ordinarily reside” in a country outside Australia do not need a pre-approved exemption.
However, the definition of ‘ordinary residency’ can be open to interpretation or confusion – particularly for those who spend large chunks of time in multiple countries.
As Executive Traveller reader Alan Rawlinson shares from his recent travels: “At the airport, an immigration officer explained to me that the definition of ‘not resident’ was anyone who, in the last 12 months prior to departure date, had spent more days outside Australia than in.”
“So, if you've spent the majority of that time in Australia, then an exemption is needed.”
As an overseas resident, Rawlinson didn’t need to apply for an exemption before planning to travel: but when he did venture to the airport for an international flight, Border Force officers verified his ‘ordinary residency’ by checking Australia’s passenger movement records.
“An officer spent a long time on the phone checking my status… I made it by nine days.”
Had Rawlinson attempted to travel just two weeks later – meaning he'd have spent more time in Australia than abroad – he may have needed an exemption, as Border Force may then have considered him an ‘ordinary resident’ of Australia.
But, by travelling when he did, Rawlinson was permitted to depart Australia without a pre-approved exemption.
Need an exemption? It might arrive quickly
Of those who’ve applied for permission to travel overseas, some report very quick turnaround times in having their application assessed and their authorisation to travel confirmed.
“I was granted approval within an hour. I have never seen a government work this quickly!” shares Kate Dimitrevic, who applied under compassionate grounds as an Australian citizen, but with UK residency arrangements that may not have automatically qualified for the exemption waiver above.
Mike Jury adds, “I applied for an exemption under personal grounds, and had an email the next morning confirming my travel is authorised from Brisbane to the UK, (valid) any time I choose, provided the departure port stays the same.”
Jury suspects his request was processed quickly as he “wasn't long-winded… I kept it to the point, succinct, and about me.”
Executive Traveller is also aware of an exemption request lodged by a member of the Australian media, who sought to travel overseas to generate timely news coverage relevant to the coronavirus crisis and the closing of international borders.
That request was submitted on a Friday afternoon, and within 48 hours, Border Force had contacted the referee listed in the application to confirm its nature, and then gave authorisation to travel.
Approval is never guaranteed
Under the figures most recently released by the government, approximately one quarter of applications for overseas travel are declined – and of the approvals given, less than 7% have been for business travellers.
That’s something Ed Woodley learned the hard way. As an Australian permanent resident, Woodley’s request for travel to the UK was denied, even though he holds UK citizenship and is not an Australian citizen.
“I'm currently sat in Sydney Airport having missed my flight, waiting to be picked up as my application has been rejected and I'm not allowed to leave Australia,” Woodley shared with Executive Traveller.
“I have a business in the UK, and I (normally) travel back a couple of times a year. The business is in trouble, but apparently that isn't enough to let me leave to the country I am a citizen of and pay taxes in. Absolutely ridiculous situation!”
Because Woodley is an Australian permanent resident, the ‘travel ban’ applies despite his citizenship status – meaning an exemption must be granted before he, or those like him, can travel overseas.
Seemingly, some applications get no attention by Border Force
Many Executive Traveller readers report lodging requests to travel well before their flight’s planned departure date, only to receive 'radio silence' from the Australian Government and with no way to follow-up on their request.
“I applied for and exemption to fly the following week, Michael Wieczorek said, “but did not hear back before my intended travel date.”
“I have no indication how long I'll have to wait: I might end up waiting a month and getting rejected!”
Derek Li echoes those sentiments: “I have sent seven requests so far and had to keep pushing back my departure date, yet still no response. They just don't seem to care!”
Georgina Morey adds, “I received no response nine hours before my flight was due to leave. I immediately put in another form for that same flight with more supporting documents, and still had no response.”
To try and get the ball moving, “I put in a third form for a travel date two weeks away… but even two days after that planned departure date, I’d still heard nothing.”
When a travel exemption request is lodged online, a unique reference number is provided to the applicant – but those hoping to follow-up on their application by phone are routinely advised that this is not possible, and to wait for an email response.
Australian Border Force responds
Executive Traveller contacted the Australian Border Force to ask why some applications appear to be slipping through the cracks.
An ABF spokesperson advised that while “the Department and the ABF seek to process exemption requests as quickly as possible ... the Department does not comment on individual cases.”
"Each case is unique and considered individually based on the information and supporting evidence provided in the application," the spokesperson added.
"Due to high volumes, travel exemption requests are prioritised based on the intended date of travel and any compelling or compassionate circumstances for travel and where all the supporting evidence is provided."
Many Executive Traveller readers confirm that where an exemption has been granted, they were typically notified shortly before departure, often within 72 hours of their flight's departure time.
Some readers also confirm that applications without enough supporting evidence are often rejected quickly – with the ABF advising that more evidence is required before the request is submitted again – while those that are on-track for approval may not receive any response until just before departure, as above.
The Australian Border Force declined to provide updated figures on travel exemption approvals and rejections when requested by Executive Traveller.
Tips for lodging a successful application
Although some applicants have found success with succinct travel requests, others routinely report being asked for additional documentation to support their situation.
The documents requested vary between applications, depending on the reason given for travel and the nature of the exemption.
Here are a few examples shared by Executive Traveller readers, which may help speed-up the approval process for other applicants.
Additional documents for compassionate travel requests
Hoping to travel to the United States to spend time with a fiancée requiring medical care, Ayelet Bren’s first application for travel wasn’t granted: instead, Bren was asked to supply additional information to support the claim, and to then re-submit the request as a new application.
In this instance, “they were looking for proof of relationship, plus a letter from a medical professional, hospital records, and evidence that no other family in the country can provide the same level of support.”
Bren had originally planned to visit the US in March 2020, but the Australian Government’s travel ban saw an exemption become necessary.
Additional documents for workers in critical industries
When Anne Monteau’s husband received a job offer in France and the pair planned to travel overseas to begin that journey, an exemption was sought under the ‘worker in a critical industry’ category, as the job offer related to agriculture and food processing.
“We submitted the following documents: passports, proof of marriage/relationship, an employer letter explaining why my husband was critical, proof of permanent residency, flight tickets, proof of end of lease here, and my resignation letter.”
After these documents were assessed, the application to travel was authorised by Border Force.
Additional documents for others moving overseas
Planning to move to the United States where members of their family already resided, Kashish Mahajan’s first exemption request was denied, but after submitting the same request with a broader range of supporting documents, permission to travel was granted.
“In my first attempt, I submitted documents proving relationships with my family in the US, plus my birth certificate, US driving licences (mine and my parents’) proving residence at the same address, US green card, and Australian passport.”
“The second time, I attached termination of my house lease agreement and job resignation (from Australia), job acceptance (in the US), car sale, airplane ticket, and the documents I submitted the first time.”
When seeking a similar exemption, Mahajan recommends submitting as many documents as you can to demonstrate that you don’t intend to return to Australia any time soon.
Keep an eye on your inbox, in case your exemption is revoked
One Executive Traveller reader claims that after applying for – and being granted – a travel exemption to move overseas, the Australian Border Force overturned its previous decision without warning.
As Aliya Imam shares, “we applied for exemption and they first granted us the permit,” but just as the Imam family were about to book flights, “they said that it was an error: we weren’t granted the permit.”
The family re-applied for permission and added documents to support their application, but were again denied an exemption – three times.
Based on this experience, it’s wise to keep an eye on your email inbox, just in case the status of your own exemption changes for any reason. Emails relating to travel exemptions are usually sent by [email protected], so add this to your whitelist.
What happens at the airport if you are cleared to fly?
Whether you have your exemption in-hand or don’t require one – such as by being ‘ordinarily resident’ in another country – the airport experience on departure from Australia will be different to what you’re used to.
Just to get into the terminal building, you’ll need to produce your passport and a confirmed travel itinerary at the door, so have these handy.
Then, there’s a new Border Force checkpoint to get past, located before the airline check-in desks where your permission to fly will be verified, as Stuart Duncan shares.
“If you don't have your exemption in-hand, they will make a phone call to check their database. The database is simply a list of names, passport numbers, and departure ports for those who are approved to travel. If you are not on it (and are an Australian resident), it is game over,” says Duncan.
Even if you’ve applied for an exemption and haven’t received a response in time for your flight, “they have no way of checking on your application,” Duncan adds, sharing that in such circumstances, you may be allowed to wait at the airport, in case it comes through in time.
“I did this: sat and waited on the off chance it would turn up. It did not, so I was able to get my flight changed at the airport service desk before heading home.”
Travelling with that exemption in-hand
Duncan was later granted permission to travel, returning to the airport on the day of his revised flight with a printed copy of the ‘exemption granted’ email, ready to present to Border Force officers.
After handing it over, the officer “will fill out a form for you, get it signed by a manager, then you can go to check in.”
“At check-in, they check this form against your travel details, then make a phone call to Immigration for formal approval. This took about 20 minutes,” after which, check-in could be completed and the usual airport formalities of security screening and passport control could be cleared ahead of departure.
As such, if you are travelling overseas from Australia, arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare before your flight: ideally, when check-in opens three hours before departure.