Back in 2017, I took a flight from Bangkok to Melbourne, Australia. Accompanying me was my trusty, tatty backpack – predominantly filled with swimming shorts, duty-free whiskey and sand – two thousand Australian dollars, a slightly pink glow from the 6 sweltering months I had just spent in South East Asia and a crinkled print-out of my shiny new visa – subclass 417, or the Australian Working Holiday Visa.
I recall the hollow feeling in my stomach as my plane landed. I’d never lived and worked anywhere other than my home city, London, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Backpacking through Asia was one thing, but setting up a new life, entirely on my own, on the other side of the world was frankly terrifying.
Now, 5 years on – as a seasoned working holidayer and traveller – I wish I could speak to that anxious, sunburnt guy and offer some pearls of sage advice. But I can do the next best thing. If you’re thinking of embarking on your own Aussie adventure, here’s everything I wish I’d known before I got on that plane:
You can earn good money
If you’re working legally in Australia, you’re entitled to the minimum wage. Whether you’re working at a farm or in a restaurant, you should receive at least $18.93 an hour (£10.72 or 13.75 US$), which compares very favourably with many other countries.
There’s another potential bonus, too, for travellers looking for flexible work. If you’re a ‘casual’ employee, ie. one with no fixed, guaranteed working hours, you’re entitled to a ‘casual loading.’ This adds 25% onto your hourly rate, bringing your minimum wage up to $23.66. Not bad for a ‘tourist!’
As you probably know, in order for working holiday visa holders to get their second year visa, they must complete some form of agricultural work. People assume that this means fruit picking in the blazing sun, but there are plenty of other options out there, from cooking, to cleaning to mining.
You may have also heard a few horror stories surrounding the dangerous exploitation of Working Holiday Makers by unscrupulous farmers. Corruption and illegal abuses still continue, but the government has been cracking down in recent years. Check out the Visa bureau website for Specified Work Listings so you know the place that you work operates everything safely and fairly.
You don’t have to be a barista, either
Before embarking on my travels I worked as a copywriter in London. I did a few freelance gigs as I backpacked, but didn’t have much hope of proactively developing my career whilst down under. I assumed that the only places that would hire a nomadic Englishman were coffee shops, retail stores, bars or farms. But I also knew that it wouldn’t hurt to try and apply for positions more in line with my profession.
If you’re not looking for farm work or retail work, don’t be dissuaded by what you’ve heard about WHV jobs. Contract work is your friend, and in my experience as long as you speak English and have solid experience, you’ll be just as employable as you were back home. After two weeks of fretful searching I landed a copywriting job with one of the largest online retail companies in Australia, and spent 6 very enjoyable months working, saving and travelling. After that I worked at a leading creative agency where the work was fun, challenging, surprisingly well paid and contributed significantly to my C.V. The work’s out there if you keep a proactive attitude.
Sponsorship is also an option for those looking to stay permanently. If your employer likes your work, they may offer to sponsor you to stay in the country, which would ultimately earn you residency as long as you stick with the company for 2 to 4 years.
Make sure you’ve got enough in the bank to get started
As mentioned above, the wages in Australia are higher than many developed nations. The minimum wage is exceptional, and if you can get some temp work that’s more in line with your career then you’ll find it easy to save enough money for all of your adventures. That being said, Australia is an expensive place to live, and if you think it’s fine to turn up with a few hundred bucks because you know you’ll soon be finding work, think again. That money will disappear quickly and you’ll be left stranded. Eating out is always tempting in Australia but is extremely expensive – as, I’m afraid to say, is beer. Make sure you have a decent amount of money with you when you arrive, and always have an emergency fund for when you’re in between jobs.
Do a road trip
One of my biggest regrets when I arrived in Australia was not being able to drive a car. Growing up in London, I aways relied on public transport to get around, which was more convenient and cheaper than driving. I could legally drive a motorbike but this wasn’t exactly practical.
But Australia is vast, empty and beautiful, and unless you’re taking trams through the centre of a city, driving is best way to get from A to B. I still went on some memorable road trip adventures – cruising down the Great Ocean Road or camping in the Grampians – but it would have been nice to share the load so my friends weren’t always behind a wheel.
Speaking of which, why not take a Contiki trip across Australia? It’s a great way to see all the iconic sights without having to drive all those miles. (Plus you’ll meet plenty of new friends also on WHVs, so it’s perfect for getting set up in a foreign land).
Keep track of your super
Working Holiday Visas used to be a lot more financially favourable. In recent years the government – feeling the heat of immigration debates – has started to make it far more expensive to live and work in Australia temporarily. Currently the tax for Working Holiday Visa holders is a flat 15% when you earn up to $37,000, which isn’t too bad. Plus, your employer is legally obliged to pay ‘super’ or ‘superannuation’, which is a contribution to your pension or retirement fund. When you leave Australia you can claim this accumulated cash back, but unfortunately it’s taxed at a whopping 65%.
Still, it can be a significant amount of cash to come home with. If, like me, you’re working for many different employers, you’ll have different super funds that are difficult to keep track of, and a real nightmare to claim once you return home. Make sure you stay on top of all this as you go along. Make a note of your super membership numbers, or ask your bank to consolidate your supers into one fund. This will make claiming your money a breeze when you return home. I came back with a around $4000, which helped me get set up when I returned to London.
Explore other lands
Australia is a vast land packed with wonders and surprises for all types of travellers. Environmental diversity, fascinating animals, world class beaches and quirky cities make it a perfect place to explore over the course of two years. But you don’t have to limit yourself to Australia. Although widely regarded as being in the middle of nowhere, Australia is a perfect launching pad to explore Asia and Polynesia, particularly if you’ve come from America or Western Europe.
I saved and spent a month in New Zealand, which soon became one of my favourite destinations. That trip would have set me back thousands of pounds and countless air miles had I conducted it from the UK; but from Melbourne it was just a brief flight that cost about 200 bucks there and back again.
From Tasmania to Bali, there are plenty of interesting places to check out in this part of the world, so explore as much as you can.
It’s not always hot
Arriving in a wintry Melbourne from the smouldering cauldron of Bangkok was a bit of a shock to the system. Although never hitting the sub-zero temperatures of a British winter, Melbourne felt decidedly frosty compared the sun-drenched months I had just enjoyed.
It didn’t help that the only clothes I had on my person were vests and swimming shorts.
Unless you’re living it large on the Gold Coast you won’t be getting glorious weather all year round. Sydney and Melbourne are seasonal, with Melbourne in particular being victim to some relentless rainfall and winds. Pack accordingly.
But it mostly is
In England you don’t really get to live on the beach unless you are a millionaire or sleep in a shack. So when I arrived in Victoria I was stunned that you could find affordable beach properties. I lived for a while in a place called Bonbeach, where my garden consisted of stretching white sands and the sparkling sea. When I walked onto my balcony in the morning I could spot the silhouettes of dolphins arcing on the horizon, and when I returned from a long working day I was always guaranteed a spectacular sunset.
I think back to the guy who boarded that plane in Bangkok and how much I changed in just a year. Australia is a land of boundless adventures and opportunities, and is filled with gregarious, hilarious and welcoming people. I came home far more confident in myself, with a promising career (and a far better tan). So here’s my most pressing advice: if you think you want to do it, just do it. We can’t grow if we never do things that terrify us.