Visas, Safety, and Spiders: Your first-time guide to backpacking Australia
Before I traveled to Australia on my Work and Holiday visa, I spent months reading every blog, government website, and solo travel article I could get my hands on. I was overwhelmed by my to-do list to sort out my visa paperwork, bank cards, phone number, taxes, and insurance; let alone figuring out how to travel this beautiful country! I kept wishing there was an article that included it all, so I decided to write one myself.
Here are your pre-Australia ‘Need to Knows’:
If you’re aged 18-30 and are from an eligible country, you can head off to Australia for a year to work and travel on a Working Holiday (417) or Work and Holiday (462) visa! Some travellers will choose to settle down and work, while others may travel for the entire year. Both visas are similar and cost $450 AUD to apply for, but vary slightly in their age requirements and second-year work specifications.
To get a second year on your Working Holiday or Work and Holiday visa, you must complete 88 days of specified work: for the 417 visa, you have to do farm work while for the 462 visa, you have the option to do farm work or hospitality/tourism but it must be above the Tropic of Capricorn. In either situation, check with your employer and the zip codes listed on the website to ensure your days count towards a second year.
A tourist visa gives you permission to be in Australia for up to 3 months but you do not have any form of work authorization. It costs roughly $140 AUD to apply for.
Though paperwork needs vary by visa and the country your passport is from, generally you need copies of your passport, passport photos, maybe a drivers license, proof you can speak English, proof that you have access to $5000 AUD, proof of a flight ticket home or the funds to pay for one, and a copy of your birth certificate. Check the exact requirements at the websites linked above.
If you aren’t sure exactly how long you’ll be in Australia and want the freedom to change your coverage, prepaid phone plans are your new best friend! You can recharge from the app and select different amounts of data depending on your needs for the month. No contract and no commitment necessary. I started on Vodafone prepaid for my first two months in Australia, switched to Optus prepaid for two months when I found a great deal, and just switched to a Telstra contract so that I have coverage on the West Coast and in the Outback. Here’s my wrap up of them all:
The most expensive carrier in Australia also happens to have the best coverage, even in the tiniest of towns. If you’re travelling the West Coast, Outback, or live in remote areas, Telstra will likely be the only provider to have service.
A great provider with decent coverage and decent prices. It has a little less coverage than Telstra and costs a little more than Vodafone, but might be exactly what you’re looking for.
By far the cheapest carrier, Vodafone is great in any major city! However, be aware that they have less coverage than Optus and Telstra so much of the East Coast will have spotty reception.
If you want to keep your phone number at home, check out Google Voice to see if you’re from an eligible country. I paid $20 and can still see texts from my family and friends who message or call my US number, and when I head back home I can use the number again with a regular service provider.
Commonwealth and ANZ are the most prevalent banks in the country. A huge perk of Commonwealth is its prevalence among backpackers and the ability to pay people through the app. I recommend getting a debit account with a card and savings account so you can earn interest on your money while it’s waiting to be used for more travelling. I chose Commonwealth because I could set up my account from home, transfer funds so they’d be ready when I arrived, selected a bank near Wake Up! Sydney to pick up my debit card without having to wait for it to be mailed.
When transferring funds to your Australian account, you have a few options. The most expensive in terms of fees and exchange rate, but also the safest option, is to transfer directly from your main account to your Australian account. I wanted a better exchange rate and used OFX to transfer my funds. It worked out without a glitch for me, but it’s a personal decision whether to take the risk and use a service such as Transferwise or OFX.
Tax File Number
Apply for your Tax File Number (TFN) as soon as you enter Australia. A TFN is unique to each individual and ensures you are taxed at the right rate. Unfortunately, you can’t apply for your TFN before you arrive and it takes about 2-4 weeks for your TFN to arrive by mail. If it doesn’t arrive or you want to start working sooner than that, you can call to see if your TFN is ready. You’ll also need to provide your bank with your TFN.
In some cases, you may need to get an Australian Business Number (ABN). An ABN means you are a contractor and/or have your own business. If you’re doing remote work for a company or working in a field such as carpentry, your employer may require one. Check out this website for more information:
Some countries have a reciprocal health care agreement with Australia. If you’re from one of those countries, you have Medicare. If you aren’t from one of these countries, I strongly recommend purchasing travel insurance that will cover you in medical emergencies.
Travel Insurance can cover you in medical emergencies if you don’t have Medicare in Australia, provide support if you lose your baggage, help with flight and tour cancellations, and coordinate your evacuation if deemed necessary from a natural disaster or terrorist attack. The company you choose will depend on where you are from. I chose World Nomads because I can extend on the go and receive medical coverage at hospitals if something happens to me while I’m away.
Thoroughly read and understand your policy so you know when and where you are covered and don’t hesitate to call them with any questions. When I hurt my foot and thought it might be infected, I called to ask where I would be insured in Cairns. They told me which hospital to go to (Luckily, I didn’t end up going). If I hadn’t called, I wouldn’t have known that my coverage only worked at hospitals because I didn’t read my full policy before travelling.
Keep These Things in Mind
A few other logistical nightmares I dealt with before leaving involved figuring out:
- How to vote from abroad (this varies significantly by country, state, and even city so plan ahead!)
- Pausing my car insurance
- Notifying my bank, credit card company, University, phone company, and health insurance
- Getting a credit card with no foreign transaction fees
- Ensuring I had someone at home to take care of my taxes when it was time to file
- Setting up automatic payments for Spotify, newspaper subscriptions and even Apple Cloud Storage
- Backing up my computer and photos,
- Storing my belongings at a family member’s home
- And of course, getting a few vaccines in case I decided to travel somewhere beyond Australia before returning home.
Some Extra Advice…
Your hostel can make or break your experience at any given place. The cleanliness, social scene, and location are my top 3 factors for booking. Hostelworld and Trip Advisor are my favourite sites for accurate reviews and pictures of hostels because there’s an abundance of filters to choose from. Budget wise, the cheapest way to book I’ve found is always directly with the hostels website.
After your stay, be sure to share your own advice and opinion for future travellers! On Hostelworld, Wake Up! Sydney was just voted the most popular hostel in Sydney for the 4th year in a row!
The East Coast is easily the most common trip that a backpacker in Australia will take. Starting in Melbourne, Sydney, or Cairns, the typical trip hits a series of must-see spots along the East Coast of Australia. Many backpackers also visit Perth and the West Coast, the Outback, Adelaide, and Darwin. I felt clueless and nervous to do the trip without any guidance, so I headed to Backpackers World Travel the first time I stayed at Wake Up! Bondi Beach for some advice. Within just a few hours, my entire East Coast trip was planned and I was ready to leave a few days later! Booking with an agency is, at times, a bit more expensive than booking on your own. But it was more than worth it to me because I never had to stress about choosing the right hostel or the best tour, it was all done for me!
If you’re staying at Wake Up! Sydney, Travel Up! is a fantastic agency to book with; if you’re staying at Wake Up! Bondi Beach, Backpackers World Travel is just downstairs; and finally, if you’re staying at Wake Up! Byron Bay, Peterpans is across from reception.
Surviving the Wildlife
As far as spiders, snakes, sharks, crocodiles, spiders, stingrays, deadly jellyfish, and spiders go, I may not be the ideal person to ask for advice. The last time I saw a spider I screamed and jumped on a stool, refusing to move until the spider was gone. On my Whitsundays tour in Australia, one of my tour guides gave me the best advice:
“Don’t. Touch. Anything. Because if you do, it will touch you back and touch you a whole lot harder.”
Finding a Job
Common jobs for backpackers are in the hospitality industry and include bartenders, promotions staff, travel agents, baristas, café and restaurant employees, and hostel employees.
Since you’re limited to 6 months with an employer (this limit renews when you begin your second year), it is challenging to find office work. Before you’re hired, you’ll likely be asked to do a trial shift where you’re put on the job for a few hours so the employer can see you in action. Some great ways to find jobs include websites such as Indeed, Jora, and Seek. Or better yet, hand out your CV in person.
So far in Australia, I’ve worked as an event promoter for a bar, as a kitchen hand, and as a travel writer! Once you decide where to settle for a while, head to the reception area of your favourite hostel and ask if there are any openings they know of!
Australia is renowned for its phenomenal backpacker culture. Your year (or two) in Australia will be one of the best in your life. You’ll experience the highest highs, a few lows, and make memories to last a lifetime. This guide covers all of the questions and concerns that I had before arriving, and I hope it helps you, too!
by Janine Denney-Mazzilli
Hi there! My name is Janine and I am a self-professed, travel obsessed foodie from Seattle. I recently graduated the University of Washington and am now living my Australian dream on a working holiday! Follow along on @janini133