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Australia’s 1.6 million temporary migrants will continue to be barred from returning to Australia if they leave – unless they secure an exemption.

«It just feels like it’s an endless waiting game,» says Emma Reed, who is originally from the United Kingdom. 

Emma Reed with her mother and stepfather during a visit to Australia.

Source: Supplied/Emma Reed

Ms Reed moved to Australia two-and-a-half years ago on a Temporary Skill Shortage visa with her husband and two sons. The Melbourne-based 39-year-old was visited by her mother twice before the COVID-19 pandemic hit but she longs to visit family in the UK.

«My mum’s husband is not very well,» she says. «So it’s been really difficult not being able to get back to support my mum and to see him.»

«It is also upsetting for the kids as well because they really miss family.»

«It feels like we are never going to be in a position to be able to go back to the UK.»

What is changing with Australia’s international border in November?

From a yet-to-be-confirmed date in November, when 80 per cent of the Australian population is vaccinated against COVID-19, Australian citizens and permanent residents will be able to fly in and out of the country under Phase C of the National Plan to reopen Australia.

Those who are fully vaccinated will be subject to seven days of home quarantine when coming into Australia.

Those who are unvaccinated will be required to undertake 14 days of managed quarantine, with caps on the number of arrivals in this group.

The eased restrictions do not apply to temporary visa holders.

The Reed family on the first day of the school year.

Source: Supplied

«Our government has been finalising plans so Australian families can be reunited, Australian workers can travel in and out of our country, and we can work towards welcoming tourists back to our shores,» Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement earlier this month. 

«Within weeks, large parts of the country will be moving to Phase B and then to Phase C of the National Plan to safely reopen Australia and to stay safely open. Under Phase C, international travel is on track to reopen safely to fully vaccinated Australian travellers.»

Temporary visa holders, tourists and other non-citizens will have to wait until Phase D of the National Plan to be able to enter the country.

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In Phase D, Australia may «open international borders … Allow uncapped inbound arrivals for all vaccinated persons, without quarantine; and allow uncapped arrivals of non-vaccinated travellers subject to pre-flight and on arrival testing,» according to the National Plan.

There is no firm timeline for when that will kick in.

«It seems a little bit unfair, obviously, because we pay taxes, we paid for our visa to come here,» Ms Reed says.

«They have not specifically given a reason why we are not allowed.»

«It feels like we are never going to be given an opportunity, or there is no foreseeable date for us to be able to do that.»

Emma Reed's sons during an outing with their grandad.

Source: Supplied

Temporary visa holders and non-citizens can leave Australian shores at any time. But currently, they are generally not permitted to return. Individuals need to apply for exemptions to re-enter Australia.

«There is no guarantee that we will be allowed to come back,» Ms Reed says.

«But we would also have to do the 14 days quarantine in a hotel rather than at home, and for us, that is just not practical with two boys.»

Should I book a flight for sometime next year in the hope I can fly?

Ms Reed and her husband, Robin, have considered speculatively booking flights.

«We have talked about going back [to the UK] in Easter next year for a few weeks,» she says. 

«It is obviously something that we desperately want to do. I want to see my family; I want to see my friends.»

But, she says, «the risk [is] that we would not be able to travel still».

The Reed family enjoying the cricket.

Source: Supplied

Australia’s peak body for travel agents, the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), expects the timelines for when strict inbound travel restrictions will ease to become clear in December.

«I wish I had a crystal ball in front of me,» AFTA’s executive chairman Tom Manwaring says. 

«We are all dying to have certainty about the information.»

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Recent media reports also quote those in the industry warning of “ghost flights”, which sees airlines allow future bookings without there actually being a flight scheduled, leading to customers being bumped off flights at the last minute.

The term has also previously been used to refer to the practice of airlines continuing to fly certain routes despite having no passengers on board so they can retain their airport slots – something European authorities made moves to clamp down on last year.

While Ms Reed says her family has thousands of dollars of airfare credit from cancelled holidays they are keen to use, they have decided to hold off making a booking for now.

«I do not think we are willing to take the risk at the moment.» 

I still want to book a flight. How do I protect myself?

Before booking a flight, the consumer organisation Choice recommends people read the terms and conditions; make sure they have a valid passport and visa, and check what travel restrictions apply to them.

«We do need to be careful and make sure that we have all the ducks lined up really,» says Choice travel expert Jodi Bird.

«If you are thinking about travelling overseas and you have a temporary visa, just make sure that if you do book something now that you are entitled to get your money back if you have to cancel it for whatever reason.»

Ms Bird also recommends people «check out [government travel website] Smart Traveller to see the status of where you are travelling to». 

«Check if you can get travel insurance for where you are travelling to. You cannot presume it is going to cover you for COVID.»

Tom Manwaring from the Australian Federation of Travel Agents.

Source: Supplied

AFTA says travel agents will also look to give customers the most up-to-date advice. 

«Knowledge is everything at the moment,» Mr Manwaring says. «All jurisdictions at the moment have generally different types of COVID advice.»

«Conditions of entry, the number of rapid tests you have to have, the type of documentation you require, the acceptance of digital health certificates for Australians in various countries … Things are going to happen and change very quickly.»

Will the cost of flights skyrocket when international borders reopen?

Prospective travellers who are fearful that high demand for international flights will drive ticket prices through the roof though need not worry, according to some aviation industry experts.

«If there is a good uptake in demand then, of course, you know prices will rise,» says aviation expert at Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting, Matthew Findlay.

«But in the same instance, that will also be a signal to the airlines to add more capacity.»

«So, you know, potentially there will be good pockets of relatively affordable flights for passengers to pick up a pretty good bargain on occasions.»

Matthew Findlay says demand for flights will prompt airlines to increase capacity.

Source: Supplied

And while the idea of travelling to foreign shores again has its appeal, it is not clear how many people will seize the opportunity, he says. 

«Take for instance the Tasman bubble … When it first opened, there was a lot of positivity about that and a lot of excitement.»

«But, when it came to the actual numbers, there was not the same sort of uptake you would have expected from all the hype that was leading into that.»

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He expects businesspeople and those visiting family to be the first to travel, with holidaymakers taking a bit more time to make a booking.

Outside of the peak Christmas period, AFTA expects prices to be similar to pre-pandemic levels.

«If the uptake of customers booking is slower and the airlines are wanting more people on those planes to break even or make some profit, you’ll find there will be some very aggressive campaigns coming from the airlines,» Mr Manwaring says.

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