New international travel rules: Quarantine, visas, airlines and more [UPDATED]

Posted: 15 October 2021 8:00 pm
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When do flights resume? What are the quarantine rules? Can I get travel insurance? Expert answers to all your questions.

After 18 months of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, international travel from Australia will slowly resume from November 2021, with NSW taking the lead on eliminating quarantine and Qantas fast-tracking flights. But what are the rules, where can you go and how can you minimise the risks? Here's what has been officially confirmed so far. New information is emerging regularly, so we'll keep this guide updated as fresh details appear.

1. Who is allowed to travel to and from Australia?

Under new rules announced in early October 2021, Australian citizens and permanent residents who have been double-vaccinated will be able to travel to and from Australia once their state of residence has more than 80% of residents double-vaccinated against COVID-19 and has implemented rules allowing travel.

The borders effectively remain closed for anyone who isn't a citizen or permanent resident. There's no word yet on whether temporary visa holders living and working in Australia will be able to return if they leave the country. We don't yet have a date for when international tourists can return, or for international students, though universities are working on limited trials to bring back some students in NSW and the ACT.

That remains the case even after NSW announced plans on 15 October to allow double-vaccinated residents to return without requiring any quarantine from 1 November. Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted in a press conference the same day that those rules only applied to citizens and permanent residents:

We are not opening up to everyone coming back to Australia at the moment. I want to be clear about that. We will take this forward in a staged way as we have done in all these things. We are only extending this to Australian residents, citizens and their immediate families.

Vaccination status will be tracked by an "internationally recognised proof of vaccination document", the government says, to be known as the "International COVID-19 Vaccine Certificate". It's possible that this will eventually be linked to your passport for travel into and out of Australia, but you may well require a printed document too to meet regulations in other countries.

When will international travel open up in each state?

These are the estimated dates that each state or territory will reach the 80% vaccination level required to open up, as calculated by the ABC:

State/territoryDate
New South Wales18 October 2021
Victoria8 November 2021
Queensland3 December 2021
Western Australia11 December 2021
South Australia1 December 2021
Tasmania8 November 2021
Australian Capital Territory18 October 2021
Northern Territory24 December 2021

The exact dates will vary depending on how vaccination progresses across the rest of the year. Each state also gets to set its own quarantine rules, so reaching that milestone doesn't automatically trigger the availability of travel. In particular, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia are yet to confirm what their rules will be and may take a tougher approach.

The dates airlines launch services will vary, with many only planning flights from late December 2021, when most states are expected to have crossed the 80% target.

2. What quarantine rules will apply when I return to Australia?

Man and dog working from home
The broad regulations announced by the Federal government stipulated that travellers would have to quarantine at home for 7 days after returning to Australia.

However, state approaches vary. In NSW from 1 November 2021, hotel quarantine is being eliminated entirely for people who have two vaccinations. Travellers will be required to take a PCR test and return a negative result before boarding their return flight. If you haven't been double-vaccinated, you'll still need to use hotel quarantine (and pay $3,000 for the privilege).

Details of the quarantine rules are yet to be clarified for other states, including how people will be allowed to travel from the airport to their home for quarantine; what will be done for residents of regional areas; how people in quarantine will be tracked; what kinds of negative COVID tests will be needed before quarantine ends; whether results from home testing kits will be acceptable; and whether travellers will have to pay for testing. We'll continue updating this guide as more details become available.

While all states have broadly signed on to the scheme to open up, each state will set its own quarantine rules and there are expected to be variations.

What rules will I have to follow while I'm overseas?

On top of Australia's own rules, you'll also need to follow the pandemic travel rules for your destination country. These could include requiring pre-flight tests; tests when you land; evidence of return flight plans; and core requirements such as visas which existed before the pandemic.

The key source for Australians for information on travel advice and requirements is Smartraveller, which is run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Smartraveller issues guidance on 177 destinations and ranks the level of risk associated with them. At this writing, all destinations are set to level 4 ("do not travel"), with the exception of New Zealand (though New Zealand remains largely closed to Australian travellers anyway).

As more countries open up, those warnings are likely to become more nuanced. It's important to always check DFAT warnings before booking a trip, as those warnings can impact travel insurance.

3. When will international flights restart?

Airport departure board
This date keeps moving forward. After originally planning to start in late December then shifting to mid-November, Qantas now intends to commence "up to five return flights a week from Sydney to London and up to four return flights a week from Sydney to Los Angeles" from 1 November 2020.

Those will be the first regular international commercial flights running from Australia in 2022, outside of the ones which ran during the limited Australia-New Zealand travel bubble earlier in the year.

"Bringing forward the reopening of Australia to the world and removing quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated travelers entering New South Wales is a massive step towards life as we knew it," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said.

Which airlines are restarting flights from Australia?

All these airlines are currently selling tickets on some international routes from Australia from January 2022, with a handful starting earlier in 2021:

To score the best deal, it's worth comparing pricing and deals with sites such as KAYAK, Skyscanner or Agoda.

Once you've compared you may choose to book directly with the airline or hotel, or through a travel agent like Flight Centre. Remember: if you book through a third party such as a travel agent, you'll also have to deal with them for any refund or change requests.

Don't miss out on flight deals as international borders open. Check out our full list of all the latest flight sales.

4. Can I get a refund if I have to cancel my international travel?

Dollar sign on empty beach.
Your options to change flights without paying extra or to get a refund will vary depending on your airline and your fare type.

"Look through each travel provider's terms and conditions, paying close attention to their wording on cancellations and refunds," says consumer advocate Adam Glezer, adding:
"If your terms and conditions are live on a website, make sure you print a copy for your records. In the event of a cancellation, you'll have the relevant evidence of your entitlements."

During the pandemic, most major airlines have been allowing fee-free changes to existing bookings. For instance, Qantas says it won't charge change fees for international flight bookings made up until 28 February 2022.

Under Australian consumer law, you're entitled to a refund if your flight is cancelled altogether. However, the process may be time-consuming, and airlines have generally made it easier to get a travel credit for future use than an outright refund.

"At this stage, if you're not happy to receive a credit if the flight doesn't happen, booking an international trip is probably too risky," says Finder's travel expert Angus Kidman.

Paying by credit card can offer some additional protection, as you can apply for a credit card chargeback to reverse a transaction if something goes wrong. Keep in mind though that a chargeback may be denied if you can make an insurance claim.

5. What will (and won't) travel insurance cover me for?

Lots of suitcases
Travel insurance can offer essential protection in case you get sick or injured while you're abroad, including medical repatriation to Australia if required. It can cover the costs of your luggage being lost or stolen and trip cancellations not related to COVID.

Some insurers are offering limited cover for COVID – but those that do will probably only cover medical, quarantine and trip curtailment costs if you, a fellow traveller or the person you're due to stay with tests positive to COVID. You'll want to check your terms as cover may not be available for all destinations.

Crucially, travel insurance policies won't cover you for cancellation if you can't travel due to a government-imposed snap border closure or lockdown.

Will travel insurance cost more now that travelling is "riskier" amid a pandemic?

Time will tell. Theoretically, as COVID is considered a "known event", prices may not be impacted too much as – unfortunately – the consumer now takes on much of the risk of COVID-related travel woes. That said, low demand for policies isn't great news for competitive pricing.

Shop around and compare travel insurance cover so you get a good deal.

Which brands currently offer insurance for international travel?

We've identified 6 partner brands that are currently offering policies for international trips, and have some cover for COVID-related expenses.

BrandCOVID-19 expensesCooling off periodOverseas medical expensesTheft or damage to luggageStandard excessApply
Southern Cross LogoSCTI
  • Some cover
14 days
Up to $15,000$100Get quote
Fast Cover Logo
  • Optional
14 days
Up to $15,000$200Get quote
Covermore logo
  • Some cover
21 days
Up to $15,000$250Get quote
Travel Insurance Saver
  • Some cover
21 days
Up to $12,000$250More info
Medibank Travel Insurance
  • Some cover
21 days
Up to $15,000$250More info
ahm life insurance
  • Some cover
21 days
Up to $8,000$250More info

Dylan Crismale contributed to this report.

Note: We updated this article on 15 October to add details of the new approach to quarantine in NSW and ongoing national restrictions, and Qantas and Singapore's flight plans.

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