• Not all visas are created equal. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Not all visas are created equal: eight visa types from the platinum to the poor.
Daisy Dumas

27 Mar 2018 - 12:23 PM  UPDATED 28 Mar 2018 - 10:18 AM

We’ve boundless plains to share - so the Australian national anthem goes - but sharing comes with some heavy caveats.

Australia is set to reach a population of 40 million by 2050, thanks in large part to immigration policy. But the nation can feel like a closed shop to many. Navigating Australia’s complex and mercurial visa system takes time - and often, a lot of money. (In 2016-17, the Department of Home Affairs took $2 billion in visa application charges alone.)

When it comes to visas, what matters most is the individual: as immigration lawyer Peter Papadopolous put it to SBS, it doesn’t necessarily matter which visa you have, what counts are the conditions attached to those visas. The luckiest have access to visas that lead to permanent residency and allow dependents, work and healthcare rights. At the other end of the spectrum are humanitarian protection arrangements that are so insecure and limited they have been criticised by the UNHCR.

13,760 humanitarian visas were granted in 2016-17. Syria, Iraq and Myanmar were the largest source countries.

“My observation is the Government is moving more towards a ‘let’s protect our borders approach’ than ‘let’s let everybody in' approach, for various reasons,” says Leanne Stevens, a migration agent and national vice president of the Migration Institute of Australia.

She says that an increasing complexity and cost of visas means that the system can be fraught. If in doubt, her advice is to contact a registered migration agent to help decipher the best visa path for the individual.

“What appears to be linear,” says Stevens, “might not be.”

Here are eight visa options, from best to worst.

SKILLED INDEPENDENT visa, subclass 189

This permanent visa is “the platinum ticket”, says Leanne Stevens.

“A successful applicant is given a five year multiple entry visa to live and work in Australia,” she explains. “You only need to live in Australia for two of the five years to have the visa reissued for a further five years. Alternatively, you can spend four consecutive years in Australia and be eligible for citizenship.”

Those who qualify for the 189 - applicants must be under age 45 and are invited and points-tested - can arrive with their family and start working immediately.

189s have become harder to come by since the skilled occupation list was shortened, but many electricians, carpenters, engineers, nurses, doctors and IT professionals come to Australia this way.

Cost: from $3670. Processing time: Up to 12 months


PARTNER visa, subclass 801

With excellent conditions and tallying relatively inexpensively, by Australian standards, the partner visa’s only real requirement is to have a lasting and genuine relationship. Indeed, the beauty of the 801 is that it doesn’t rely on having a skilled occupation, or even to work at all, says Stevens.

There’s a long wait - and a very personally detailed application process - but if applied for onshore, applicants are eligible for a bridging visa.  

Changes to the partner visa are expected this year, Stevens says, as authorities react to domestic violence-related protection issues.

Cost: From $7000. Processing time: About 23 months.

SIGNIFICANT INVESTOR visa, subclass 188

The rarefied “billionaire’s visa” requires a cool $5 million but that princely sum only buys the applicant a provisional visa.

To comply with the 188, wealthy individuals (China is a target market) must park a $5 million investment in Australia for four years and three months, after which time they may be able to apply for permanent residency.

While doing business is a must - the value of the investment must be maintained at $5 million - bringing family is possible and unrestricted travel is no problem, it goes without saying that the merits of the 188 depend on perspective.

“For some countries, if you are resident of another country, you may well be taxed in both countries. Some are happy not to have permanent residency but to live here provisionally,” explains Stevens.

Cost: $585. And a $5 million investment fund. Processing time: Unavailable.

Life on a bridging visa
Experts claim Australia’s future economic prosperity inevitably depends on increasing its intake of skilled migrants, but those already living and working here remain powerless over their own.

PERMANENT PROTECTION visa, subclass 866

“If asylum seekers arrive by plane, they are eligible for a Permanent Protection Visa,” says Kon Karapanagiotidis, chief executive and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. “They’ve got the best scenario. They have the right to sponsor family, permanent protection, a pathway to citizenship, full access to settlement services and entitlements any Australian would have access to. There’s your gold standard.”  

The problem is that roughly 90 per cent of people seeking asylum in Australia arrive by sea and so only have access to a temporary visa if found to be a refugee - see below.

Cost: From $35. Processing time: Varies, though lengthy.


Its predecessor, the popular 457 visa, would have been higher up our list had the visa system not changed this week. But the replacement TSS is more stringent, expensive and narrow in range - particularly if an individual’s skill is on the new Short-term Skilled Occupation List, which grants a two year temporary visa with no pathway to permanent residency. Those who have skills on the Medium and Long-Term Strategic Skills List can apply for a more secure version of the 482. 

“It’s going to be a lot harder to get PR and there are much higher costs to the employer” than the 457, says Stevens. “And everything else remains to be seen.”

Cost: From $1150, plus $750 and a levy of up to $1800 per year charged to employer. Processing time: Unknown, as yet.

REMAINING RELATIVE visa, subclass 115

This permanent visa is for people who have no near relatives anywhere except Australia. It sounds a smart option for, for example, a parent who would like to move to be with their child, but the waiting time, says Stevens, can be up to an astonishing 56 years. What’s more, those who apply onshore don’t get automatic work rights, meaning that they must be supported by their Australian relative/s for what could turn out to be a very long time.

“I rarely recommend that one,” says Stevens.

Cost: From $3945. Processing time: Very lengthy, up to 56 years

VISITOR visa, subclass 651

If it’s speed you’re after, the tourist visa a good bet. Processing time for a 651 eVisitor visa is just one business day. It doesn’t, however, come with any conditions that help an individual's case for staying in Australia long term. Nor is it easy to access for those from high risk countries. With a duration of three months, and no chance to work or live here, it’ll get a holder onto Australian soil - and then soon off it again.

Cost: Free. Processing time: 24 hour

TEMPORARY PROTECTION visa, subclass 785

For asylum seekers who arrive by boat, options are limited to the controversial TPV and Safe Haven Enterprise Visa. The simple difference between the two is that the TPV is a three year visa, while the SHEV is five years and has incentives to work in designated regional areas of Australia.

The TPV has absolutely no pathway to permanent protection. It does not offer family reunion. Benefits are limited. Travel is highly restricted.

Asylum seekers who arrived by boat after 12 August, 2012 and before 1 January, 2014 had to be invited to apply for the TPV. The wait for an invitation could take up to 1600 days. And because the visa is temporary, holders need to reapply and go through the whole process time and time again, meaning that individuals can live in limbo for many years, says Karapanagioditis. “These visas are setting people up to fail.”

Cost: $35. Waiting time: Varies.

In 2016-17, Australia's top ten source migration countries were:

India 38,894

China 28,293

UK 17,038

Philippines 12,209

Pakistan 6,556

Vietnam 5,493

South Africa 4,589

Nepal 4,290

Malaysia 4,049

Ireland 3,855

(Excludes NZ)


Thriller Safe Harbour airs over four weeks, exploring issues facing asylum seekers once they settle in Australia. All episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #SafeHarbour. Watch episode one now:

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