Vaccinations, declarations and testing: Everything you need to visit Australia now
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The last time I visited Australia was for a month at the end of 2019. I spent two weeks road tripping around Tasmania, flew to Christmas Island to scuba dive with hammerhead sharks, hopped on a new luxury train route called the Great Southern from Brisbane to Adelaide and caught up with friends in Sydney.
At the time, I had no idea it would be more than two years before my next visit. But COVID-19 caused the government to shut the country’s borders in March 2020 and institute some of the world’s most rigorous travel restrictions.
Even so, cities such as Melbourne faced repeated lockdowns amid case clusters. Then, with the omicron variant surging around the world, it seemed like the country might not reopen until 2023.
Earlier this month, however, news came that Australia would once again begin welcoming international travelers in a meaningful way as of Feb. 21. The country has instituted a new set of travel regulations that are making it (relatively) easy for non-Australians to visit, and I wanted to be among the first to arrive.
Here are the steps I had to take in order to make my trip to Australia a reality, and how smoothly it ended up going.
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Australia traveler checklist
When Australia announced it would reopen to international visitors, the country’s Department of Home Affairs posted a handy traveler checklist to help would-be visitors prepare for the multistep process prior to arrival.
Among the steps you must undertake are:
- Check to make sure you are exempt from the country’s travel restrictions with an approved COVID-19 vaccination.
- Obtain a vaccination certificate from the country in which you received your vaccination or proof of the medical reasons you cannot be vaccinated.
- Complete the Australia Travel Declaration form at least 72 hours before your flight (more on this below).
Secure in the knowledge that I would be eligible to travel without having to obtain any sort of waiver or exemption, I waited until the Australian Digital Passenger Declaration went live on Feb. 15 — a mere four days before I was planning to depart the U.S. — and then I started filling it out piece by piece as I gathered my documentation.
Digital Passenger Declaration
For travel after the opening date of Feb. 21, the Australian Home Affairs office launched a new Digital Passenger Declaration portal.
Incoming travelers can start their DPD up to seven days before their flight but must submit it within 72 hours prior to their departure to Australia. Confusing, right? Start a week before flying, but don’t finish it too fast!
The reason for this timing is that you have to provide health information, including your vaccination status plus a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours of departure in the case of PCR tests, or 24 hours for antigen tests.
Among the pieces of information you need to provide or agree to on the form are:
- Provide contact details for your stay, including an Australian phone number.
- Provide your travel history from the 14 days prior to departure (if you plan to visit other countries).
- Agree to a legally binding declaration in relation to your vaccination status.
- Agree to a declaration that you are aware of the quarantine and testing requirements that apply in the state or territory where you are landing.
- Acknowledge that you will present a negative PCR test taken within three days of your flight’s scheduled departure or a medical certificate of a negative rapid antigen test taken under medical supervision within 24 hours of your flight’s scheduled departure to Australia.
You must create an online account through which you can manage current and future declarations as well.
In order to begin, you should have the following information on hand:
- Your arrival flight number. In my case, I had to provide details on both my flights, from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) and then on to Sydney Airport (SYD).
- Valid passport.
- Destination and quarantine arrangements if required. For this, I just listed my first hotel in Sydney, including the address and phone number.
- COVID-19 vaccination record, or acceptable proof that you cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
- A negative COVID-19 PCR test result within three days of your flight’s scheduled departure to Australia, or a medical certificate as evidence of a negative rapid antigen test taken under medical supervision within 24 hours before the flight’s scheduled departure.
I began my DPD on Feb. 15, aiming to fill out as much of it as possible ahead of time. The form was relatively easy to navigate, and it even auto-filled the information fields from a photo of my passport. I just had to wait until Feb. 17 to take my PCR test, and once I had the negative results from it later that day, I was able to upload a PDF of the results to the DPD and submitted it.
The webpage suggested I save both a digital version (a PDF) of my DPD and print one out to have on hand, so I did both. Completing the DPD does not mean you have permission to enter Australia, it simply signifies that you have provided all the information required to do so. Still, I didn’t run into any snafus, so I was hopeful.
As I mentioned, I had to take a predeparture COVID-19 test for the DPD. I could have opted for either a PCR test or an antigen test, but I went for the former since it gave me a longer window before travel, and would be easier for me to attain.
To be eligible for entry into Australia, your test must include the following information:
- Traveler name and date of birth (age at time of test or passport number are also accepted).
- The test result.
- The method of test taken (i.e., PCR or antigen).
- The brand and make for rapid antigen tests.
- The date of the specimen collected.
- That the specimen was collected and the test was carried out by or under the supervision of an authorized entity, such as a laboratory or medical practitioner.
In general, any supervised COVID-19 test you take should include this information when the lab emails, texts or uploads the results to an app.
I went to a Sameday Health clinic near my home the morning of Feb. 17 and paid $75 for a PCR test with a 24-hour turnaround. I received my results the same afternoon.
There are some exemptions to predeparture testing, including children 4 and younger at the time of check-in, people with certain medical conditions and people who can prove they’ve recovered from COVID-19 within 30 days of departure with a certificate from a medical practitioner.
Australia ETA visa
There was one final step to getting into Australia: U.S. citizens are eligible to enter the country for up to 90 days, but they must obtain a visa to do so ahead of time.
I navigated to Australia’s electronic travel authorization visa site for online applications and found the following notice: “Important: Australia reopens to international travel on February 21, 2022. Fully vaccinated tourists can now apply for the ETA visa online.”
However, when I actually navigated to the application page, it said U.S. citizens were not eligible to apply and that I should contact the nearest embassy or consulate.
I called the Australian Consulate in New York and was routed to the visa office via the dial-in service … where the recording said that they could not process visa applications nor provide advice or guidance on them.
I wasn’t done yet, though. I pulled up the Australian Home Affairs office site again and found a page that said that some travelers might be able to use the ETA app instead, which is available for free in the Apple and Google Play stores.
I downloaded it and followed the instructions, which included scanning my passport photo page as well as the front cover for the chip that is embedded in it. That auto-filled the information fields.
I also had to take a photo of myself while applying to prove I was the applicant and allow the app to track my current location one time so that I could prove I was outside of Australia at the time of application.
Then, after filling out the rest of my personal information and paying the fee of 20 Australian dollars (about $14), I submitted my application. It was approved within two minutes and I received an email with a PDF of the outcome.
I printed that out to take with me to the airport, too.
Next, I had to think about what I needed to do to travel freely once I reached Australia. I was arriving in New South Wales, and its traveler information page said I would need to get a self-administered rapid antigen test when I arrived and quarantine until I had a negative result.
That seemed easy enough to comply with since I had over-the-counter rapid antigen tests from CVS. I brought some extra BinaxNow PCR tests with me, too, since I would need one to reenter the United States after my trip anyway, and I would get the results emailed to me for verification.
The one confusing part was that there was no entity with which I was required to submit my results. Still, with tests in hand, I thought I could figure it out when I landed.
One of my overriding concerns was whether it would be possible to travel to other states easily during my visit since each Australian state and territory has its own entry requirements, which I was able to find here.
Looking through the individual government pages, though, it seemed like I would be fine having cleared entry into New South Wales internationally and testing negative upon arrival. Tasmania, for instance, says that fully vaccinated travelers (I qualify as one of those) do not need to register to enter Tasmania or get a COVID-19 test before arrival.
Queensland’s site suggests you download the Qld app, where you can upload proof of vaccination so that you can enter certain venues.
For me, the important part was making sure I could go from state to state without any onerous testing requirements or other restrictions, and based on what I read, I would be fine.
At the airport
I arrived at the airport in San Francisco about two hours prior to my 9:30 a.m. departure. The agents at Singapore Airlines’ counter asked me for my passport, vaccination card (I could have provided this with a photo on my phone), my Australian ETA visa and my Australian DPD form.
I had printed everything out, so I handed it all over, and within about three minutes, the agent had entered all the necessary information into the airline’s system. It took a few more minutes to print out my boarding pass (probably because of the new Australian entry requirements) but I soon had my boarding passes for my flights to both Singapore and Sydney in hand and was on my way to the Polaris Lounge at SFO.
I had a five-hour layover in Singapore, during which I visited Singapore Airlines’ SilverKris Lounge, but no one checked anything other than my boarding pass. I just waited for my flight to Sydney and boarded like it was any other flight.
Arriving in Sydney
When I landed in Sydney, I deplaned with the other passengers and walked through the terminal to the immigration counters. There were signs welcoming travelers back to Australia and noting the new entry requirements, though if you had gotten this far, I imagine you had your papers in order.
No other flights arrived at the same time, so I got to a border agent within a minute. She looked at my passport and arriving passenger card for customs, then waved me through. Before I passed, I asked her about the testing requirement and she said that I needed to head to my hotel or accommodation and test myself there. I asked if there was someone I needed to report the results to, and she said she did not think so but to check the New South Wales international travel page to see if it had been updated.
It had not, so I figured I’d go to my hotel and ask there. In the meantime, I breezed through the customs line, simply handing over my form, just like I did before the pandemic, called an Uber and was whisked away to the city in a matter of minutes.
My Uber ride to the Park Hyatt Sydney only took around 20 minutes, and a bellman took my suitcase while I went inside to check in. The masked front-desk agent noted my reservation and asked to see my passport and a record of my vaccination. Then she explained I would need to go to my room alone and conduct a COVID-19 test, either a rapid PCR or antigen test, and then just call back down with the results. Presuming I was negative (I was), I could then move about freely and my room could be serviced with housekeeping, in-room dining and other services.
I headed upstairs, took a self-swab antigen test and had a negative result 15 minutes later. I promptly called back down to the front desk, where the agent thanked me for letting them know and told me to enjoy my time in Sydney.
That was it!
After changing into shorts (the weather was pretty balmy), I headed outside to take some pictures of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Then I walked through Circular Quay over to the Opera House to see how many tourists were out and about.
Not many, it turns out. At least, not yet.
Hopefully, as the country continues to reopen, travelers will start to arrive in greater numbers. For now, I’m just enjoying how easy it is to take a tourist-free selfie at the city’s major landmarks. But check TPG for more on that — and what it’s like traveling in Australia right now — soon.
Featured photo by Steve Heap/Getty Images.
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