Trips are now measured in dollars, days and the number of PCR tests you have to do.
Anyone entering Australia from abroad has to have a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before departure. Once you’re in the country, NSW and Victoria both require two more tests within a week of arrival.
For those who are permanently based elsewhere, the return trip out of Australia is also likely to require a pre-departure test. And often one more when you land.
Mark’s undoing wasn’t the test, though. It was a failure to realise his flight back to Singapore, booked by his employer, had been nominated as a “vaccinated travel lane” flight.
The Singaporean government requires non-Singapore citizens travelling on VTL flights to apply for a VT pass (VTP). Mark hadn’t done that. He could – and did – apply for the VTP from Sydney airport, once he realised it was a requirement, but the system requires the entry to be booked a week in advance.
“I had permission to return – but not on a VTL flight, and there was just no flexibility,” he says. “The airline staff told me I wasn’t the first – in fact, there was one other person on my flight who was in the same situation.”
Mark says the realisation that he wasn’t going to be able to leave that day was horrible.
“I spent hours online scouring the various state government websites to see if I could transit on to a flight in the next day or so, only to realise that wasn’t going to work and I would have to re-apply to leave on the next non-VTL flight from Sydney that I could get a seat on,” Mark told AFR Weekend on Thursday after successfully checking in to a Singapore-bound flight – four days later than his planned return.
“I think what people need to remember is that everything is still quite fluid. And if there is a change in status, the bureaucracy will not change your paperwork – you will be caught out.”
For the first time in close to two years, many expats can finally make a long-awaited trip to what many still call home. The irony is that after years of trying to get back into Australia, now they have to be careful they can get back out again.
In many countries, the rules are different for permanent citizens and those residing on long-stay visas. Airlines have to make sure everything is in order before they can wave travellers through the departure gate.
David Davies split his time between Thailand and Australia for years until the pandemic left him unable to leave Thailand. He is now booked to fly to Sydney on Monday and will return to Thailand on December 21. He says the biggest issue has been securing the Thai Pass needed for the return trip – although getting everything sorted to get into Australia has taken some time as well.
On the vaccination front, he obtained a certificate from the Thai government that documented, in English, details of his two AstraZeneca vaccinations. He sent this on to his Sydney GP, who loaded the information on to the Australian Immunisation Register.
This is the only way to get the government’s international COVID-19 certificate, which appears to be necessary for Australians when they leave the country – even for those who normally live overseas.
Of course, you can wait till you get back to Australia to do this, but doing it remotely means you can land with proof of vaccination already stored in check-in apps.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners says there is some consideration being given to a simpler way but, for now, Australians overseas are dusting off Medicare cards and asking GPs for help.
Davies reports he has some difficulty with the Australia Travel Declaration that has to be obtained between seven and three days of arrival.
“I spent a couple of hours on the Home Affairs website and answered all questions clearly and completely, but three times after clicking ‘submit’, I was either logged out or the application was rejected for no apparent reason,” he says.
“Eventually the application was accepted. There was something wrong with the system – maybe it was overloaded. It was quite frustrating.”
Securing the COVID-19 insurance necessary to get back into Thailand was a challenge. The Thai government requires a minimum of $US50,000 ($69,700) cover. The major insurers were asking up to 45,000 Thai baht ($1870) for this type of policy, but after shopping around, Davies found one for 14,000 baht.
There was also one night’s accommodation to book at an approved quarantine hotel on arrival in Bangkok, and some uncertainty over what vaccination certificate the Thai government will accept – another reason to get the Australian certificate, he says.
At the time of writing, Davies was still waiting to hear his Thai Pass had been approved. He hopes the process will become easier over time. “I will be returning to Sydney quite often now – I’m sure that having gone through this process will make it easier for future trips.”
But Neuman Vong has some good news for the thousands of Australians intent on getting home for Christmas. “It wasn’t as bad as we thought. My advice is, don’t stress, just dive in and get it done.”
If you’re planing a trip, now could be a good time to buy a printer. Governments and airlines suggest it’s useful (though not mandatory) to have hard and soft copies of test results, vaccination certificates and travel declarations.
On the bright side, the result is very much worth the effort, says Vong who, together with his partner Lindsay, had spent months trying unsuccessfully to get to Australia before the blanket requirement for home quarantine was lifted on November 1. Now they are happily ensconced in Vong’s apartment in Melbourne, with his family nearby.
The couple flew from Singapore to the United States for a week before flying to Sydney and then on to Melbourne. In addition to PCR departure tests and the Australia travel declaration, they also had to obtain a permit from the Victorian government to fly into Melbourne.
Along the way there were airline staff who knew less than the travellers did (in LA they seemed to think Australia still had a cap on international arrivals) and friendly but strict form checkers. These included those waiting on the tarmac at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport to view the border permit.
The couple were taken aback when they realised there was a queue around the clock when they went to get their day five PCR test, but on the plus side, all venues have accepted Singapore-issued proof of vaccination.
“It’s super-nice here.” Vong says. “I can see us living in Melbourne. People have been so welcoming too, even immigration. My partner is American and when they saw her passport they were laughing, saying ‘wow, we haven’t seen one of these for a while’.”
*Name has been changed