Every year, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection receives thousands of work, family, student and migrant visas – many will be successful, but thousands will be knocked back.
Some applications will be refused because of fraud or ineligibility, but a number are denied due to innocent mistakes, inconsistencies or misunderstandings.
Applying for a business, partner, family, study or work visa can be a complex, demanding process – and it’s important to get it right.
“People can end up wasting thousands of dollars on migration fees, and six to eight months of their time,” says migration agent Zeke Bentley, who runs The Migration Place in Brisbane.
Glenn Rayner, from My Migration Agent in Adelaide, says the Department of Immigration has become much stricter since 9/11 in 2001.
“It can be difficult to communicate with the Department to resolve issues,” he says, “you used to be able to call the assessors up and have a chat, now you can’t do that.”
Fellow migration agent Rowena Prasad from Migration Downunder in Sydney, says that submitting the forms is just a small part of the process, and it’s important to be aware of exactly what the Department is looking for and how the system works.
After years of experience and hundreds of clients, here's their advice for giving yourself the best chance at success:
1 – Evidence is crucial
Work, family and business visas in particular can require a lot of substantiating evidence.
Relationships have to be proved, qualifications and work histories have to be demonstrated and asset holdings need to be shown.
The migration agents we spoke to said that everything you claim has to be demonstrated with evidence.
“It’s not just your word – information needs to be independently verifiable,” Prasad says.
“I look at it in the same way I look at going to court,” Bentley says, “it’s all about addressing the evidence to make sure it’s all clean and all consistent and won’t raise any questions.”
Some sources of evidence can be more influential than others, Rayner says.
“Third party documentation is very important – particularly if you’re self-employed,” he says, “and government-level documents are going to carry more weight than private level documents.”
Group certificates, tax returns, bank records and pay-slips are effective for proving employment.
“If you’re trying to prove that you’ve worked for 52 weeks, give them 52 pay-slips and 52 weeks of bank statements showing the deposits,” he says.
“If you’ve applied for a skill but haven’t received the certification yet, you still need to give evidence that you have applied – like your receipts and dates which it was lodged,” Bentley says.
Wealthy applicants applying for business visas can run into trouble if they have complex company or trust arrangements.
“In order to lodge a business visa, you have to show that you’re wealthy, but you can’t do that if your money is in trust or not in your name,” Bentley says.
“You have to pay attention to that sort of thing, and will need a migration lawyer familiar with trust and company structures,” he says.
For partnership visas, the Immigration Department will demand evidence of a genuine, lasting relationship.
Joint bills and joint accounts can help with this, but given that some married couples don’t even have joint accounts, other forms of evidence are also acceptable.
“Written accounts from friends and relatives can be used as evidence, but the trick is to make them as detailed and accurate as possible,” Bentley says.
“Searching through email and Facebook records to nail down dates and other details is advisable, and all statements should be cross-referenced for consistency,” he says.
For the partnership visa applicants, Glenn recommends periodically updating your evidence as it sits in the queue.
Update it with Christmas photos, matching travel records – all will add weight to your claim.
“That sends a very strong message to the case officer that you care about the visa and you care about the relationship,” he says.
2 – Be consistent
The Immigration Department will cross-check all of the information submitted, as well as bring up previous visa applications and government records to check for consistency.
Clearing up an inconsistency, even if it was innocent or accidental, can delay the process, cost money for professional advice, and potentially risk a denial.
Glenn Rayner tells us the Immigration Department appears to be increasingly vigilant, and doesn’t hesitate to raise issues.
He also notes that inconsistencies don’t necessarily indicate dishonesty.
“We had a case with one applicant who stated he separated from his partner in December 2010, but in an unrelated application said he was married until early 2011,” Rayner says, “the Department wrote back to say they’d caught him out.”
At the time he lodged the first application, the client was actually trying to reconcile the relationship.
“We had to explain that you can only pick from a drop down list on the form, so you can only be either married or separated in the document, when in reality you can be both,” he says.
“The lesson is to keep your old forms and applications so that you can be consistent by referring back to your previous documents,” he says.
Some migration paths involve multiple applications and multiple visas – such as the path from student, to graduate, to permanent resident – so ensuring all details on the applications remain consistent is vital.
3 – Be accurate
The importance of accuracy is something all three agents agree on.
“We’re seeing a lot more applications getting picked up because of small, often very innocent mistakes,” Glenn Rayner tells us.
It’s important for applicants and it’s important for agents, Rowena Prasad says.
“We always have other co-workers check over our work here,” she says, “you can’t afford to be 99% correct.”
Zeke Bentley agrees, he says it’s important to check everything.
“Someone who’s never been through it before won’t necessarily know how easy it is to make an inadvertent error or oversight.”
“One of the things that we look at is their visa history, to make sure it marries up with the dates they’ve included on their forms.”
“We also ask clients to make searches through their email history and Facebook page to double-check dates and details,” he says.
Sometimes Bentley even gets clients to bring their computers into his office so staff can search through their records to nail down every precise detail.
Being as detailed and accurate as possible – and cross-checking for consistency – will make your application process much smoother.
4 – Be honest
Acting with total honesty and integrity throughout the process is important, and if you get caught out the consequences can be serious.
The Department can issue bans on lodging further applications, and it will reflect poorly on your character for all future attempts.
“My advice to all my clients is to be honest, full stop,” Rayner tells us.
“You’re much more likely to have a visa refused for trying to hide something than disclosing it – and obviously with the government now there’s a massive cache of data they share to catch out omissions,” he says.
That’s particularly important for Form 80, the identity and character assessment form.
“People have a tendency to think ‘oh, that’ll be fine, we’ll skip that address because we’ve got no paperwork’ – but that can cause problems,” Rayner says.
Prasad and Bentley emphasise the importance of disclosing all prior convictions.
“You have to disclose anything relevant to your character, which means you have to disclose something as minor as a drink driving charge which occurred 20 years ago when you were eighteen,” Bentley says, “and failing to do so can jeopardise the entire application.”
“If you lie about who you are, you can potentially be banned from applying for 10 years – if you lie about other important information you can be banned from applying for three years,” Prasad says.
The bans can be overturned in certain circumstances, but once you are issued a ban notice, it’s quite difficult to turn it around.
Zeke Bentley says it’s also important to make sure your information is presented in context, to avoid misinterpretation.
“You’ve got to be candid and you’ve got to be forthright,” Bentley says, “but by the same token, you can give too much emphasis to over-explaining minor issues which could raise their concerns.”
He gives the example of a couple providing a relationship history which involves a brief separation – he says you should take care in how you characterise that sort of thing, so a minor issue doesn’t sound more major than it was.
“You have to be really careful that you don’t give a misleading impression,” he says.
Providing fraudulent documents will earn you a quick, well-deserved denial, the agents said.
“Immigration is fairly quick to hand out a 4020 letter requesting you comment on or withdraw an application for providing misleading information,” Rayner says.
In his time, he’s seen fake English language certificates which are indistinguishable from the originals, but the Department still catches people out – they check scores and registration numbers with the original assessors to verify a certificate’s accuracy.
“It’s the Australian government, they’re not idiots, they can often work these things out,” Rayner says.
5 – Be organised
Being organised and laying out your documents logically and coherently can make the application process faster and easier for both the applicant and the assessor.
Highlighting relevant sections in documents, making sure they’re in chronological order, and that files are orientated the right way round is advisable.
You should make sure anything that requires translating is submitted with both the original and the translation.
“If you can make your application as pretty as possible – for want of a better word - and as easy to understand and digest for the case officer, you’re going to make life easier for yourself,” Rayner says.
“There’s nothing worse than when you get forms in all sorts of different forms and file types, it can take an hour just to get them into some sort of order,” he says.
Digital files should be uploaded and named with a description – ‘Passport’, ‘Police Certificate’, ‘Medical Certificate’ etc.
This will also assist you with your own record-keeping and locating documents if they need to be re-submitted or used for later applications.
“It’s important to keep a record of what you’ve submitted and when,” Rowena Prasad tells us.
This is important for resolving any potential disputes and keeping track of what you have already submitted.
6 – Be aware of inconsistent public records and social media profiles
Applicants should be aware that the Department will search through public records and social media profiles, and verify educational records with the original institutions.
“Be aware of other information that could be out there that people could draw assumptions from,” Zeke Bentley says.
There are legitimate reasons for some inconsistencies, but anticipating them and pre-emptively explaining potential concerns is the best approach.
“We had a case of a gay couple who did not put their relationship on Facebook because they were concerned about homophobia,” Bentley says.
“The Department raised that as an issue because they assumed a legitimate relationship would have been listed on Facebook – so that sort of inconsistency needs to be explained up front before the question is raised,” he says.
Rayner tells us he had a similar issue.
“I had a case of a Hindu guy and a Muslim girl – and the family doesn’t even know they are together – but Immigration sent people to the village and nosied around up there asking people if they could confirm the relationship,” he says.
In another case he tells us the Department raised concerns over wedding photos that appeared to be photo-shopped.
A brother had been unable to attend the wedding, so the photographer had edited him into the images – but the Immigration Department noted that he was dressed casually and appeared larger than others in the frame.
That issue cost the applicant time and legal fees to resolve.
In a recent case which went to Federal Court, an asylum seeker was denied his visa based partly on his Facebook profile.
On his profile he described himself as Muslim, while in his application he said he had converted to Christianity.
7 – Abide by timing and deadline rules
Being aware of timings and submission rules is important, as the Department can be quite inflexible.
For example, there’s a requirement for some visas that you pass an English test and submit the results in the first part of the application.
“Even if you pass the test with flying colours, you can be refused because you didn’t submit the exam results at the same time as the rest of the application,” Bentley says.
You should not only be aware of deadlines, but also expiration dates.
Partnership visas can take upwards of 12 months to process, but require recent medical certificates at the time of processing.
“If it’s a skilled visa, I would try to get the medical done as soon as possible, whereas if its spouse visa you might say hold off for a few months so it won’t be out of date by the time it gets to processing,” Rayner says.
Missing a deadline even by a small margin can void an entire application, but in a small number of cases there can be ways around it.
“I had one person miss a deadline by just one day, but we were able to still get that in because the deadline fell on a weekend – it’s one of those tips that most applicants won’t know,” Bentley says.
8 – Pay attention to detail
“Not paying attention to detail is one of those crucial things that can lead to adverse outcomes, if you’re not correct on dates for example and your information to the Department is not consistent,” Rowena Prasad says.
It’s important when it comes to accuracy, but it’s also important when it comes to following instructions and abiding by a process which can – at times – be counter-intuitive.
Zeke Bentley says that one area in skilled visas which can trip people up is the categorisation of a skill or occupation.
There can be several, similar headings – and the right one may not be the most intuitive one, so it’s important to check.
“Both employers and employees can get this wrong,” Bentley says.
9 – Make sure you use the right visa
It may sound pretty basic, but this one has tripped up more than a few people.
If you’re entering the country with the intention of staying long-term, you need to use the right visa at the first point of entry, or make sure you're eligible for a bridging visa.
“If you’re coming in to stay permanently, you shouldn’t come in on a tourist visa,” Bentley says, “you can’t come into a country intending to breach the visa you came in on.”
That could lead to your tourist visa being cancelled, or not being allowed in the country – and if that happens then it could have implications for future applications he says.
Rowena Prasad says people need to take care to understand the specific rules under the visa they’re applying for.
Some allow you to stay in Australia while they are being processed, others do not.
Prasad mentioned a recent case where someone thought they were lawfully in Australia waiting for their visa to be processed, but they weren’t actually eligible for the visa, and hadn’t checked to see its status.
“[That] led to a negative immigration history and a long period of unlawfulness in Australia,” Prasad tells us.
10 – Using a Migration Agent
A registered Migration Agent will be able to provide advice on which visa is most appropriate, assist with lodging a well-prepared application, and will know about immigration laws and procedures.
The Department says that using an agent can make the whole process easier and faster, but it is not a requirement.
Unsurprisingly – given they’d be out of a job without their clients – most migration agents recommend seeking professional advice and assistance.
“We would recommend you look for a registered migration agent or find a lawyer that specialises in migration matters to can give you legal migration advice,” Prasad says.
“A migration agent would never say to you just go to the Department’s website and research – because it can be quite complex, and it’s not necessarily designed in a clear, easy-to-understand format,” she says.
The Department of Immigration runs a register of Migration Agents and binds them to a code of conduct.
They are required to charge reasonable fees and perform with competence and professionalism.
The Department also allows you to make formal complaints against officially registered agents, which is why record-keeping is important
You can check to see if an agent is officially registered online, and you should ask for their registration number.
The Department says that unregistered agents have been known to defraud clients and lose important paperwork.