Travelling to Australia during the pandemic

Photo by Fidel Fernando on Unsplash

Soon after the coronavirus was proclaimed a global pandemic by the WHO in March 2020, Australia moved quickly to fortify its borders. Now, over a year on, this has culminated in a variety of border restrictions and biosecurity measures for people wanting to visit (or leave) the country.

In short, only Australian citizens and permanent residents and their immediate families, or others with a special exemption, can enter from overseas and there are capped numbers of people allowed into the country each week. Anyone entering Australia must quarantine in a hotel or other designated facility for 14 days to control entry of the virus into the country and prevent its spread into the community (regardless of whether you are vaccinated or not). In addition, Australians wanting to leave the country must apply for a special exemption to do so.

I recently arrived in Sydney after months of preparation to visit a family member being treated for a serious illness. I am an Australian citizen and reside in Tallinn, Estonia. This article sets out some of the steps I took to get here. I am now 9 days into hotel quarantine so will post another article over the weekend with some tips on how to stay sane while locked up!

This article is not intended to cover the specific legalities of the border restrictions — for these, take a look at the Australian Department for Home Affairs covid-19 website. I also won’t cover the above-mentioned exemptions for entry for non-Australian citizens or residents. And, I am definitely not getting into the firestorm of politics surrounding Australia’s strict border response to the pandemic — I will leave that to political commentators and your opinionated Aunty Sharon.

Planning to travel

Travelling to Australia is tough at the moment. The overseas arrival caps were halved last week. Now, only about 3000 people are allowed into the country per week. So, my first advice is to really think hard about whether now is the time to travel to Australia. I know you probably haven’t seen family in a while and miss your friends and homeland. But if it’s not super essential, perhaps consider waiting until next year when the Government has indicated the caps will rise again.

If you really do need to travel, then the first thing to do is to provide your details on the DFAT COVID-19 Register on the Smarttraveller website. Registering will not guarantee your return to Australia but it will provide DFAT with information about who is trying to get home and help them plan. They are prioritising vulnerable people so make sure you provide as much information about your specific situation as possible, such as any medical or other vulnerabilities affecting you or your family members.

The second thing to do, especially if you are a vulnerable person or need to travel to Australia on compassionate grounds, is to contact your closest Australian consular representation — which you can find here. Speak to them about flagging you as a vulnerable case and they might indicate this in the DFAT Covid-19 Register. They can also provide more details on how to get financial assistance and direct you to information about facilitated commercial repatriation flights.

Once you have registered, then it’s time to find a flight. Contact airlines directly and don’t use flight comparison websites like Skyscanner or online travel platforms like eDreams. Try several airlines for different quotes and itineraries. You’ll be better off if you book a few months in advance and are flexible with your travel dates.

I directly contacted the Singapore Airlines ticketing office for Europe and I think having a real human person to help with my travel booking made all the difference as I could check with them from time to time to make sure everything was confirmed. I paid a little extra for a Premium Economy ticket as I had heard that the airlines are more likely to bump cheaper fares.

I understand there are a number of Facebook groups for Australians stranded overseas, where you can ask questions or read the experiences of others — e.g. this one. I didn’t join them as I think hearing the horror stories would have stressed me out. But I’m raising it here as another potentially helpful step for you!

And another thing that might help is to contact your local Federal or State members of parliament for assistance or, if your situation requires amplification and some lobbying, the Australian media. Commercial television breakfast shows like Today or Sunrise are sympathetic to stranded Aussies in difficult situations and may be able to help you if necessary.

Preparing to fly and international travel

First up is to check the covid-related travel requirements of all the countries through which you will be transiting and/or staying in. The rules will differ depending on the country you are departing from. Some countries might require you to fill in an arrival form or show proof of vaccination or a negative covid test, even if you are simply transiting through the airport.

For Australia, you’ll need to get a COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within 72 hours of your scheduled departure and a certificate showing that you have tested negative (even if you are fully vaccinated). The certificate must be in English and contain your full name, date of birth, passport number, a clear indication that the test result was negative, the type of test, and the time and date when the sample was collected. You’ll need to show this certificate at check-in and possibly during transit. I had a digital certificate on my phone, which I showed at the Lufthansa check-in counter in Tallinn and at the Singapore Airlines transit counter in Frankfurt.

You will also need to submit an online Australian Travel Declaration at least 72 hours before you fly. Through the declaration, the Australian government collects your contact details in Australia, flight details, quarantine requirements, and your health status. You’ll need to show this at check-in, during transit, and upon arrival in Australia as well.

Masks must be worn on all international flights, including in airports, so make sure you have a good supply in your hand luggage. Most airlines and airports require you to use surgical or N95/FFP2 masks. Airline staff will check before you board the flight and ask you to swap your homemade or other fabric masks out for the medical standard ones mentioned.

Due to ongoing travel restrictions around the world, flights are almost empty and airports are not fully open. Whilst sad for international trade and movement, it does mean that the usual stresses of long queues, flight delays, and crowded departure gates are not really a thing. My experience of travel was very smooth, if a bit eerie. Just follow the instructions of flight attendants and airport ground staff and the whole journey should pass by in a quiet and orderly manner.

Singapore Airlines provided a full in-flight service so I didn’t need to bring snacks or drinks with me, and the in-flight entertainment system was working normally. But check with your airline about what services they are providing or not and plan accordingly (especially if you are travelling with kids)!

More information for international travel is available at the Australian Department of Health website:

Arrival in Australia

Regarding arrival in Australia, it’s important to note here that each State and Territory has different requirements regarding health regulations and procedures so make sure you familiarise yourself with the relevant ones before you arrive. I arrived at Sydney Airport so the following information relates to the State of NSW.

Upon arrival, my fellow passengers and I were escorted through the airport by ground staff. First, we had to show our Australian Travel Declarations. We were then screened for covid symptoms by a representative of the NSW Health Board. Once they were satisfied that I was healthy and had no symptoms, I was allowed to proceed through immigration, collect my luggage, and go through customs. If you have ever arrived at Sydney Airport before, you will know this process can take up to an hour or more at particularly busy times. Well, this time it took about 10 minutes!

Following customs, we waited in a holding pen for a bus to take us to our quarantine hotels. Once the bus arrived, we were escorted onto the bus by members of the Australian Defence Force and NSW Police. Once all passengers from the flight were on the bus, we were driven to our quarantine hotel. NSW Police and ADF members greeted our bus at the hotel, gave instructions to us about the procedure and requirements, and escorted each of us through the check-in process and eventually to our rooms for our mandatory 14-day quarantine.

More information about quarantine is on the NSW Government website:

I will publish another article over the weekend about my experience in hotel quarantine and my tips on what to pack and how to get through it.

In the meantime, feel free to comment below your own experiences with travelling to Australia in the last year or post any questions you might have!



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