Borders, travel restrictions and COVID-19 – update

By Mark Dunphy and Kristopher Kunasingam

As businesses and state borders open up, there is one key issue we are coming across. When will international borders open up? This article discusses the current restrictions and circumstances when a person can travel, despite the general ban.

What are the current restrictions for citizens and permanent residents?

Currently, movement in and out of Australia is being controlled by the Australian Border Force Commissioner.

Citizens or permanent residents wishing to depart must seek permission from the Commissioner and unless there are exceptional reasons, they will be denied permission to depart. This is to reduce the likelihood of imported COVID-19 cases and to minimise the quarantine cost on return. At the start of the restrictions in April, a large number of requests were denied but we understand there is now a more balanced approach.

For those looking to enter Australia, these individuals/they are also required to obtain permission to travel prior to boarding an aircraft but should face minimal issues on entry. Partners, children or guardians of citizens or permanent residents are also permitted entry but proof of their relationship with the main individual must be provided.

What are the current restrictions for New Zealand citizens?

New Zealand citizens who are usual residents of Australia are permitted to travel to Australia. If someone was not living in Australia when the travel ban was introduced, they will not be permitted entry just because they are a New Zealand citizen. Instead, proof of their residence in Australia (eg drivers licence, payslips, employment contracts, rental agreements) will need to be provided to gain a travel exemption.

However, we understand that the government plans on easing restrictions shortly for all New Zealand citizens to encourage trade between both countries.

What about everyone else (non-citizens, permanent residents and New Zealand citizens)?

Travel restrictions still remain in place for everyone else, unless there are exceptional circumstances. This is a very high threshold to satisfy and common exemptions we have assisted with include:

  • individuals who possess a unique and technical skill. This can include professionals who are involved in a project and need to be physically in Australia to continue working. A submission capturing the contributions of that person to the project and the detrimental effects of them not being here must be presented to the Commissioner;
  • someone who is going to be directly involved in COVID-19 relief work. Common examples are nurses, doctors and other health professionals involved in this space. Being a health professional on its own does not guarantee entry – instead, they need to prove their work will be related to relief work; and
  • business leaders required to be physically in Australia to manage the daily operations. The individual will need to explain to the Commissioner why they are unable to perform their role remotely and highlight the impact of them not being here on the business.

In approaching this, one should consider the impact of these individuals not being allowed to work here will have on the Australian economy and why they cannot perform the role remotely. If someone is travelling for of work, there is an expectation that the business offers to cover the quarantine cost over the two week period.

How long will this continue?

When the travel restriction was first introduced, Australia had barred anyone travelling from Iran, China and Korea from entering. This was subsequently rolled out to all countries in March. We think the government may consider a similar reopening strategy that would allow those based in countries that have a low infection rate to travel to Australia.

In the long term, unrestricted movement in and out of Australia will depend on how things develop globally. At the time of publication, the Australian government is taking a conservative approach and has not made an announcement on when borders will open. Anyone looking to travel to Australia now will need to consider submitting an exemption request, which is something our office will be able to assist with.


Mark Dunphy

Mark is an employment lawyer experienced in litigious and non-litigious applications of employment and industrial relations law.

Kristopher Kunasingam

Kristopher leads the firm's migration practice. He specialises in employment-related migration to Australia.

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