How to get started on your Work and Holiday visa in Australia

In Australia, the job market is strong and the wages are high, making it an attractive place to work temporarily while experiencing a new culture. The “Work and Holiday” or “Working Holiday” visa (depending on what country you’re from) is an easy and common way for young people to earn money and travel.

There are lots of working holiday travelers in Australia, but not many of them are American. It isn’t a strong part of American culture to travel long-term as working age adults; we travel perhaps as part of a university foreign exchange program, but infrequently take a gap year let alone extended time off from work once you start a career. Before two years ago, I didn’t even know it was possible to live and work in another country virtually unrestricted for a year! But programs like Australia’s Work and Holiday visa are excellent options for young people to explore living in a new culture while making money but without the hurdle of employer-sponsored longterm visas. I encourage you–especially if you’re American–to consider giving it a try and to spread the word within the states.

The thought of attempting to find work in another country can be daunting. I heard stories from other travelers about the high cost of living (Australia is the 6th most expensive country in the world, after all) and was nervous about how it would be to a job. Fortunately, now four months in, I have found employment fairly easy to get and am greatly enjoying living and working in Perth, Western Australia. Now I feel I shouldn’t have been so nervous!

So how should *you* get started?

Step 1: Get your temporary work visa
A Work and Holiday visa allows young people ages 18-30 to temporarily work any job in Australia as long as no job with a single employer is longer than 6 months. Americans are eligible for a Work and Holiday visa (subclass 462); Europeans, Canadians, and other countries can receive a Working Holiday visa (subclass 417) that is essentially the same but allows for a second year if you complete rural work. It costs about $400USD for the visa and is very easy to apply, using the links above. After putting in my application online, I received my visa by email within 36 hours. Once you get your visa, you have one year to enter Australia and then one year after you arrive to live and work in the country.

Step 2: Book a plane ticket and go to Australia
So you’re headed to Australia. But it’s a big place… where specifically? I found choosing where to go one of the most difficult decisions. Melbourne is very popular, as is Sydney, and offer the most vibrant cultural scene in Australia and (I assume) a healthy traveller population. I however chose Perth because I had Australian friends living there, so had a solid start to a support network and a place to stay. This choice was key to my experience, and my friends were invaluable with giving emotional support, sorting out logistics, introducing me to new people, explaining cultural differences, and just being all around super-incredibly-awesome. With their help, I integrated into living more like an Australian, rather than a tourist.

Hello from Perth!

Once you decide where, now time to pull out your wallet and buy a one-way ticket. Flights to Australia can be expensive, but you can reduce that with a little research. Currently, I’m really digging momondo and adioso for finding international flights as they include a great variety of airlines and seems very comprehensive search engines. It can often be cheaper to fly long-haul from the US to Asia and then take a cheap flight to Australia. On my most recent flight in 2015, I found a $480USD flight from Seattle to Bali, and then grabbed a $100USD flight from Bali to Perth. Easily enough savings to warrant a mini-holiday en route! 😛

The following steps are to be done in country. It may feel scary to just make a leap without having a job waiting for you or for all the pieces in place, but you can do it! I recommend travelers actually having that $5,000 in your bank account that the Australian government requires for Working Holiday visa folks… there are initial costs and it takes a little time to get settled (I got my first job approximately 4 weeks in). Having some cushion money to live off of makes the process far less stressful. You will make it back.

Step 3: Get your tax file number (TFN)
This is your Australian tax ID number and while you can work without one, if you don’t have one you will pay monstrously more tax. Get one. It takes 2 minutes to apply for online. I did this one day one, and it came in the mail in about one week. You can start working without a TFN and then submit it to your employer within 30 days to receive the tax benefits.

Step 4: Open an Australian bank account
Easy to do, just walk into banks and ask around. Most Australian banks offer a free basic account. I have a NAB Classic Bank Account that has no fees plus all the usual bells and whistles of a debit account. Alongside, I have free savings account that earns 3.5% interest (unheard of is the US but standard in Australia) and I can move money between the two accounts instantly. Included in my welcome packet were letters to give employers on how to pay me through my new account. I dug the optimism.

Step 4B: Get an Australian phone number
This perhaps isn’t necessary, but sure does help if people are trying to contact you and offer a job! Mobile plans are cheap and easy if your phone accepts SIM cards. Most carriers offer $30/month prepaid plans with varying benefits. Telstra is known as having the best overall coverage but is the most expensive. I have a monthly prepaid plan with Optus, one of the other major carriers, and for $30/mo get 1G data, unlimited domestic texting, 350 minutes domestic talk, and a $5 extras credit that I can use for 250 minutes of call time to America. Score.

Step 5: Start looking for work!
I highly recommend initially using a temp agency. Even though the visa is *supposed* to be for any job, realistically Work and Holiday/Working Holiday candidates are hired as lower level labour: wait staff, receptionists, fruit pickers, au pairs, manual labour, et cetera. Many job postings on Seek (the local job board of choice, but I haven’t found it particularly useful) specify the position is for Australians only, even for temp work.

For my entrance to the job market, I determined office work was probably my best bet because a) I’m currently living in a city, b) it’s probably my highest earning potential, and c) I wanted day shifts that matched most of my friends’ schedules.

I was referred by a friend to a recruiting agent who could link me into temporary office work. Recruiting agencies are popular in Australia and I found they made my job search heaps less painful. I submitted a resume, went in for an interview, and took tests to measure my typing speed/accuracy and proficiency with MS Office. I was given pointers on how to tailor my resume to Australian employers, made edits, and out it went to potential employers. One week after my initial interview I accepted a full time temporary receptionist job, paying $25AUD/hr. Not my dream job, but a decent start to my shiny new Australian bank account! After my establishing some professional street cred, I’ve had luck easily securing new temp jobs through the same agency. Using a temp agency was a great choice for me, and I’d highly recommend other travelers check them out.

I’ve also picked up a few independent one-off jobs: being a Christmas fairy at a local mall (obtained through friend of a friend of a friend who heard I was looking for work) and working weekend staff at a music festival (I emailed the festival past their deadline but asked for paid work anyway and got an offer right away). I’ve also volunteered for cultural events that get me in to see shows for free. Businesses really do seem to need workers here, so it’s work simply contacting a place you like and seeing if they’re hiring.

Once you have the building blocks sorted, it’s fairly stress-free to continue picking up jobs and sustaining your year (or two) in Australia. So come on in, the water’s fine… take the plunge!

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