International arrivals area at Sydney Airport in November 2021
International arrivals area at Sydney Airport in November 2021. Photo: Matt Graham.

NSW, Victoria and the ACT have removed quarantine for vaccinated Australians returning from overseas. So, what are the requirements to return to Australia now without quarantine and what’s it like flying to Australia in November 2021?

After being stuck in New Zealand for months, I flew from Auckland to Sydney in early November 2021. This was my personal experience of returning to Australia following the end of the COVID-19 travel ban…

The requirements to fly quarantine-free to Sydney

Flying to Australia in November 2021 is not the same as it was before COVID-19. It’s no longer quite as simple as turning up at the airport and getting on the plane!

In order to fly to NSW (or Victoria) without having to quarantine, passengers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with a vaccine approved or recognised by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). There are some exemptions for children or people with legitimate medical conditions.

Theoretically, up to 210 unvaccinated people could fly to NSW each week and enter hotel quarantine. But Air New Zealand is currently the only airline offering flights from New Zealand to Australia, and like many other airlines, they will not carry unvaccinated passengers who are not exempt from hotel quarantine requirements.

In general, only Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members are currently allowed to fly to Australia. However, this particular restriction does not apply to flights from New Zealand. I noticed that a lot of the passengers on my flight had New Zealand passports.

Other requirements to travel quarantine-free from overseas to Australia include:

  • Complete an Australia Travel Declaration between 7 days and 72 hours prior to departure
  • Obtain an Australian or approved foreign COVID-19 vaccination certificate
  • Get a COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of your flight’s scheduled departure time

The New Zealand government is not yet issuing COVID-19 vaccination certificates, which makes it a little difficult for people vaccinated in New Zealand to obtain a foreign vaccination certificate! Luckily, official “Confirmation of COVID-19 Vaccination” letters from the New Zealand Ministry of Health seemed to be accepted – but not the cardboard vaccination cards normally issued as proof of vaccination in New Zealand.

Getting a COVID-19 test in New Zealand

Getting a pre-departure COVID-19 test in Auckland was actually the hardest part about getting home. There are no pathology providers in Auckland that guarantee a turnaround time of less than 72 hours, which could be a huge problem as the Australian government requires a pre-flight test within 72 hours of departure!

Getting a COVID-19 test in New Zealand is also expensive. While free community testing is available to New Zealanders with COVID-19 symptoms, I had to pay NZD260 (~AU$250) for a pre-departure test for the purpose of travel. (Another doctor quoted NZD335!) This cost almost as much as the flight to Australia.

In addition, I had to drive my own swab from the GP clinic to the pathology lab on the other side of Auckland! While a courier service was offered, this would have incurred an additional charge and given the lengthy test processing times, the pathology provider highly recommends that travellers drop off their own swabs as this reduces the transit time.

COVID-19 test swab in New Zealand
I had to drive my own COVID-19 test swab across Auckland. Photo: Matt Graham.

My COVID-19 test was marked as “urgent” and clearly labelled as being required for travel. When I dropped off my swab, I was also asked if the test was for travel. When I said “yes”, the lady placed it in a different pile for priority processing. It still took around 50 hours to get my certificate showing a negative test result.

The Australian government does have a list of countries where PCR tests regularly take a long time to be processed, and therefore pre-departure swabs may be taken up to 96 hours before departure. Given the lack of fast-turnaround testing availability, New Zealand probably ought to be added to that list.

This goes without saying, but you will not be allowed to board the flight if your COVID-19 test result is positive, inconclusive or doesn’t get processed in time.

Checking in at Auckland Airport

When I arrived at Auckland Airport on the morning of my flight, I had to show my passport and ticket just to enter the terminal! At check-in, I was then asked for my Australia Travel Declaration, proof of vaccination and proof of a negative COVID-19 test result. I handed over the pile of paperwork to the check-in agent who seemed satisfied that my documents were in order.

As Auckland is currently still in lockdown, all of the lounges and most shops at Auckland Airport were closed. I have never seen the airport so quiet – it was eerie.

Auckland Airport international departures
Entering the international departures area in a very quiet Auckland Airport in November 2021. Photo: Matt Graham.

Arriving in Sydney

My Air New Zealand flight across the Tasman was completely full and the plane erupted in applause when we landed. Many of the passengers on board had been trying to get home for months, so there was excitement and relief in the air.

On arrival in Sydney, everyone had to remain seated while we waited for an Australian Border Force official to make a generic announcement about checking the quarantine requirements for your final destination and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms.

When disembarking the flight, everyone was handed an A4 sheet of paper with general information for international travellers from the Australian government.

Information given to travellers disembarking at Sydney Airport in early November 2021.
Information given to travellers disembarking at Sydney Airport in early November 2021.

The NSW government requires travellers arriving from overseas to get another COVID-19 PCR test within 24 hours of arrival, and then a final test on or after 7 days. Bizarrely, nobody mentioned this requirement at any point and this document from the NSW government was not handed out. If I had not checked the NSW government website, I would not know of this requirement and to be honest, I’m not sure that anyone is actually checking for compliance.

Duty-free shopping was not available on arrival in Sydney, but the SmartGates were open. From this point on, the only thing that was different to the pre-COVID arrival procedure was that after clearing the SmartGate, a Border Force officer checked my passport and asked me if I had been vaccinated. I said “yes”, and that was it. I then collected my luggage, cleared customs as usual and was out of the airport within 20 minutes!

It was uncomfortably warm inside the Sydney Airport terminal, as if the air conditioning was switched off. The airport wasn’t very busy, but things are slowly returning to life. Some of the shops and eateries in Terminal 1 have started to reopen, which was nice to see.

Sydney Airport has come back to life, but Terminal 1 was still very quiet in early November 2021
Sydney Airport has come back to life, but Terminal 1 was still very quiet in early November 2021. Photo: Matt Graham.

Just one week ago, passengers arriving in Sydney Airport would be rounded up into buses and sent off to hotels to quarantine for 14 days at a cost of around $3,000 per passenger. Now, arriving in Sydney is almost as easy as it was before COVID-19. That’s not to say that flying into Australia is now easy (or cheap), but most of the checks take place before you board the flight.

I turned up at my local drive-through community testing site the following morning and got my “day 1” COVID-19 test without any issues. The negative result arrived 18 hours later, so I now just have to get a final COVID-19 test on day 7. While this is a slight inconvenience, it’s now the price of admission into Australia. Considering the old price of admission, I’m willing to pay it.

It’s good to be home.

________________________

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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]

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IAN W HARLAND

After clearing the Sydney or Melbourne border entry can you then transfer to the domestic terminal and catch a flight to Brisbane?

Ian Clement

Thanks for this info…. it will be interesting to see how this will work from Queenstown in NZ. We want to go there in late February 2022 and the question is does Quweenstown have these type of pathology services. More homework to be done before we book I guess….. 🙂

Shawn Hassall

Hi Ian – when you get more info re – Queenstown can you please update post.

John Blom

It’s a joke that PCR tests for travel are different to the free ones which are good enough for every other purpose. You basically pay $50 for the test and $200 for the paperwork. It’s a total rort. Surely being double vaccinated should be enough, and to all the people who say you can still catch and transmit covid even if you’re fully vaxed, I do know that, and to them I say you can also test negative 72 hours before a flight and still be positive by the time you board. Cheap rapid-rapid-antigen testing in the hours before traveling… Read more »

Keith Clarkson

good to read , I’m flying from the UK on QF2 LHR to SYD via Darwin next week & checking details of what is required to come back in has been a minefield the last 2 weeks with rules changing every few days . Sydney Airport was a ghost town at the end of October when i left Australia (compassionate exemption to travel for my fathers passing ) , no lounges & only 1 cafe open, only 12 people on my flight to Hong Kong, 4 in J , at least Cathay were still running the wing lounge only but… Read more »

Keith Clarkson

79 Pounds for a 72Hr Pre Flight PCR test at Boots ! happy that once in AUS we can use our local free Testing stations for our 24Hr & 7 days tests . Day 2 rapid test in UK was 25 pounds from Dante Labs , where most online suppliers are charging 45-50 pounds .