Australian visitor visa wait times have blown out for tourists and business travellers

Australian visitor visa wait times revealed
  • New report shows Chinese tourists waited four months for visas.
  • Visitor numbers are also well down compared to pre-COVID levels.
Travellers eager to visit Australia this year waited months to get their visas approved, with most Chinese citizens left in limbo for four months, a new report shows.
The paints a stark picture of the delays in the system after Australia’s international borders were re-opened on 1 November 2021. It also shows significant changes in the numbers of tourists and business visitors applying to come to Australia – and where they are coming from – compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest report details processing times between 1 April and 30 June 2022 and has only recently been released. It shows that 75 per cent of requests for tourist visas (subclass 600 and 676) were processed within 59 calendar days, 269 per cent longer than the 16 calendar days it took in 2019.
The processing of business visas (short stay, subclass 456) and (business visitor, subclass 600) also grew to 15 days, compared to a processing time of seven days before the emergence of COVID-19 and the shutdown of Australia’s international borders on 20 March 2020.

The blowout in processing times has happened despite the number of visa applications being much lower.

Bar graph showing 75 per cent of tourist visas processed in less than 20 days

Around 75 per cent of tourist visas were processed in 59 calendar days. Source: SBS News

In 2019, around 1.3 million visitor visa applications (including both tourist and business visas) were lodged between April-June, compared to just 695,343 in the same period this year.

Why have the wait times increased?

The report reveals data from April-June, mostly covering the period prior to the Albanese Government winning the federal election on 21 May.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told SBS News in a statement that “processing times will take some time to improve as we work through older applications in the backlog”.
The spokesperson said the department was implementing policy changes to allow more streamlined processing of visas.
“The department is managing risks carefully, targeting applicants who warrant it, while efficiently deciding applications for everyone else.”
They said almost 2.8 million temporary and migration visas had been processed since 1 June, including more than 1.5 million visitor, 199,000 student and 43,000 temporary skilled applications.
The Albanese Government has announced it would provide an . About 20 per cent of those positions had been filled by the end of September.

The department also recruited an additional 260 staff into roles supporting temporary and migration visa processing from the start of May, and officers previously focused on travel exemptions have been redirected to visa processing. But it’s unclear whether staffing levels have returned to pre-COVID levels.

A woman pulling a suitcase on wheels is silhouetted against a window showing planes outside

Some travellers wanting to visit Australia have waited months to get their visas approved.

Former Department of Immigration secretary Abul Rizvi said he didn’t think there would be a recovery in processing times until the next report covering July-September, at the earliest.

“They should be being processed faster now, but I suspect the improvement will be gradual, it won’t be sudden,” he said.
, which was last updated in August, advises travellers that processing of the tourist subclass 600 visa is taking around 63 days for 75 per cent of applicants – even longer than the average wait times seen earlier this year.

Certain countries experiencing longer delays

Processing times have been even longer for citizens of certain countries, with around 75 per cent of tourist visas from China taking 120 days to finalise in April-June this year. During the same period in 2019 most were processed in nine days.
The department did not address questions about why these visas were taking so much longer to get through the system.
Mr Rizvi said China’s strict COVID-19 restrictions, including widespread lockdowns, could be making the processing of visas more difficult. Officials could also be taking a more cautious attitude towards processing visas from China, he said, pointing to a recent Nine investigation that exposed alleged visa rorting linked to criminal syndicates.

Mr Rizvi said it was likely the Australian government was aware of scams operating out of China, as well as other countries, and was scrutinising visitor visas more carefully.

A line of people wearing face masks with luggage at an airport

The Australian Government may be scrutinising Chinese travellers more carefully. Source: AAP

When it comes to business visas, about 75 per cent of US citizens have been waiting 52 days for them to be processed, much longer than the average of 15 days.

But processing times have improved compared to April-June last year when most tourism visas took 160 days to process, and business visas were taking 342 days.

Arrivals are still a long way from pre-pandemic levels

The number of visitors arriving in Australia, including both tourists and business travellers, are still well down on pre-COVID-19 levels. Around 699,725 people visited Australia in 2021/22, more than nine times lower than the 6.5 million people in 2018/19.
Around 17 per cent of those travellers were from India, 15 per cent from the UK and 12 per cent from Singapore.

Back in 2018/19, 17 per cent were from China, 11 per cent from the US and 10 per cent from the UK. China now only makes up 2.3 per cent of arrivals in Australia, with just 15,855 travelling to the country in 2021/22 compared to one million travellers three years ago.

A graph showing visitor visa arrivals to Australia has dropped.

The number of visitors to Australia has dropped dramatically. Source: SBS News

However, more recent numbers show tourism could be starting to improve. In June this year, there were 219,607 visitor visa holders in Australia, only around 100,000 less than the 316,469 travellers in the country on the same date in 2019.

The number of visitor holders in Australia has increased by 396 per cent in the period from 17 December 2021, the week the borders opened to some fully vaccinated travellers, until 14 October this year.

Change in the origin of tourists

When it comes to visa approvals for tourists, there has also been a significant change in the source countries.
In 2018/19, before the emergence of COVID-19, the top source country was China, with 856,110 tourist visa applications granted, making up 17 per cent of the 5.2 million approvals. It was followed by the US, UK, Japan and Malaysia. India came in sixth with 250,874 visas approved.

China’s numbers have since seen a dramatic drop of 95 per cent, to just 36,150 visas granted in 2021/22. India’s numbers have remained fairly steady on 190,605 visas, making it the top country of origin. It made up 19 per cent of the one million tourist visas granted, followed by the UK, Singapore, US, Malaysia and China.

Two bar graphs showing top five countries for visa applications in 2018/19 and 2021/22

China was once the top country for the lodgement of visitor visas to Australia, but demand has dropped dramatically from tourists and business travellers. Source: SBS News

Singapore has risen from eighth position to third, despite approved visas dropping by 59 per cent, from 208,480 in 2018/19, to 84,792 in 2021/22.

Mr Rivzi said Australia may have remained a popular destination for Singaporeans compared to China, Hong Kong and Japan due to their strict COVID-19 restrictions.
“Singaporeans have got to spend their money holidaying somewhere and I think we’re benefiting because we’re seen as a relatively safe destination from a COVID perspective,” he said.

The number of subclass 600 tourist visa applications granted under the Approved Destination Status from China also dropped to zero in 2020/21 and 2021/22, after being at 200,038 in 2018/19. Mr Rivzi said those visas were generally used by trusted tour groups and so may have been impacted by the lack of travel from China during the pandemic.

Business visa approvals drop by 320 per cent

The report also shows a significant shift in approvals for business visas. Back in 2018/19, around 504,782 business visas were granted. The top country was China, which had 82,026 visas approved (making up 16 per cent of the total) followed by US, UK, Japan and India.
Three years later, China has dropped to sixth on the list, with just 8,198 business visas granted. Overall 120,103 visas were approved in 2021/22.

The top country is now the US, making up 11 per cent of business visas approved in 2021/22, despite the number being four times lower than in 2018/19. The number of visas granted to the US dropped from 65,325 in 2018/19, to 13,444. The US is followed by Singapore, UK, India and South Korea.

Countries finding it harder to get visas approved

Between April-June this year, Australia approved 91.9 per cent of visitor visa applications (including tourism and business visas) compared to 94.6 per cent during the same period in 2019.
It’s understood the finalisation of visa applications lodged before or during the pandemic may have impacted the grant rate, as some applicants may have experienced a change in circumstances, and may no longer have wanted to travel to Australia.
COVID-19-related travel restrictions have also continued to impact the ability of Chinese nationals to travel internationally for tourism purposes.
Approval rates can vary widely between countries. Just 66 per cent of tourist visa 600 and 676 applications from Thailand were approved in April-June, compared to 95 per cent of those from the US.
Back in 2019, Thailand’s grant rate for tourist visas was 82 per cent in the same period. Fiji had the lowest approval rate of 76 per cent while the highest rate was for Chile at 96 per cent.

This does not include figures for the 651 eVisitor visa, an electronic visa that only certain countries including the UK and other European countries, can apply for.

Table showing visa approval rates for different countries

Australia approved around 83 per cent of tourist visas between April-June this year but grant rates for Thailand were much lower, at just 66 per cent. Source: SBS News

Meanwhile, approval rates for business visa 600 also dropped. Previously, most countries had high approval rates (of more than 90 per cent) for these visas in April-June 2019, and there was an overall approval rate of 94 per cent. This has now dropped to 91 per cent. In particular, China’s approval rate for business visas dropped from 93 per cent in April-June 2019, to only 83 per cent this year.

By contrast, approval rates for sponsored tourist visa 600 improved from 81 per cent in April-June 2019, to 88 per cent this year. Indonesia boasted the highest grant rate of 94 per cent, a vast improvement from its 2019 approval rate of just 78 per cent.
Lebanon had the lowest approval rate of 71 per cent, although this was an improvement on its 2019 number of 55 per cent. Previously, the highest grant rate in 2019 was for Bangladesh citizens on 92 per cent.

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