Mike Hayn, a Cape Town programmer who recently moved to Melbourne with his wife and children, details his experiences with Australian emigration, life as a South African in Australia and the struggles he faced changing countries during a global pandemic.
- Reasons for emigrating to Australia
- The Australian visa application process
- Getting into Australia during the pandemic
- How long the process took
- How the pandemic affected the move
- Finding a place to live
- The school system
- Culture shock
- The Australian people
- Was it all worth it?
Hi, I’m Mike. I’m a SQL database and application programmer and I recently left South Africa and moved to Melbourne, Australia with my wife and two children. I thought my experience could be of value to other South Africans thinking about moving to Australia, so here’s a breakdown of the whole experience.
Reason for emigrating to Australia
Our reason for moving abroad was, I suppose, quite cliched: the future of the kids.
If we didn't have kids, we'd probably still be in South Africa because both of us had really good jobs, we owned our house, we were established and everything was fine. It was just the kids we were really worried about. We worried it would be difficult for them to find work. We wanted them to be able to do what they’re passionate about, not just what they could to survive, and we thought moving abroad would probably give them that opportunity.
We wanted them to be able to do what they’re passionate about, not just what they could to survive, and we thought moving abroad would probably give them that opportunity.
We looked at a few countries. I have a German passport and the kids have German passports. So, we could have gone anywhere in the EU. The difficulty we found with that was the language barrier. When I looked in Germany, most of the jobs required that you speak German and, if you were looking in France, or Italy, you'd have to speak French or Italian.
I thought Australia was a good option because the culture is also very similar to the South African culture. Sport, barbecues, you know? They love doing that kind of stuff. It’s extremely close to the culture that we had back in South Africa.
The Australian visa application process
Once we decided to relocate, I started trying to find a work sponsor and I got a job offer. Then I had to do all the normal things involved in getting a visa like the medicals and police clearance. But I also had to do a skills assessment for ACS, the national governing body in Australia that determines whether or not your skill level is up to a standard that they are happy with.
The skills assessment was basically a thesis that I had to put together that described my qualifications, work experience and some projects that I worked on and what I did on those projects.
You can't just say, “Well, I wrote this code, and I did this.” You've got to explain, almost in layman's terms, what you did and how you did it – from what different methodologies we used to scope the projects, to how I interacted with clients, how I interacted with my peers, what involvement I had with making suggestions and how those suggestions were received, and whether or not the product was a success. That took quite a long time because I was obviously working full-time and putting it together in the evenings.
When I sent that off, it took about three weeks to get the results. Then I could begin my actual application.
Getting into Australia during the pandemic
I initially applied for a subclass 186 (Employer Nomination Scheme) visa. The Australian borders were still closed, so I expected to wait until they were open. But, about six months into that application process, my job (Developer Programmer 261312) was put onto the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL). Then the process went quickly. I got an answer in about three weeks.
I think Australia wants to get out of the recession that’s been created by Covid. A lot of the policies they have in place have protected the population, but have been very detrimental to the economy. I think my job description and skill set was deemed something that was required to try and kick start the economy again.
A lot of the policies they have in place have protected the population, but have been very detrimental to the economy.
I was fortunate, because if I’d gone through the normal route as I was originally planning, I’d still be waiting. I’m fortunate that the immigration agent advised we use that particular job title, because it was the most generic description of what I did, and the list of occupations or skills is quite a long list. In the IT industry, a lot of those skill sets crossover so it can be tricky to pick one.
See also: Want to move Down Under? We unpack all Australian visas
How long the Australian immigration process took
The decision to go to Australia probably took us about a year and a half, maybe two. It took four or five months from the time of getting the job offer to actually doing the application. Then the application itself was probably around seven months in total.
How the pandemic affected the move
The pandemic definitely complicated things and made it a lot more difficult than it normally would have been. We moved to Australia in February and, at the time, there were no domestic or international travel other than repatriation flights and those of us on special skills visas.
Trying to get a flight to Australia
Normally, when you’re planning to travel, you book your tickets and off you go.
When we went, only a limited number of people, on a limited number of flights, were allowed into the country. This number was determined by the capacity of the Australian quarantine system.
So, if five different carriers sold 30 seats on their flights and then the Australian government said, “We can only accept 15 people on your plane, because there's a whole bunch of other planes also coming in on the same day”, 15 of those people would be told, sorry, you’ll have to try another day.
We were moving our whole family, we’d packed everything up. There were all of these commitments we'd made to getting here. But the flights were just so variable that we didn't know, literally up until the day when we were standing at the gate with our tickets, whether we were actually going to be allowed to get on the flight.
We didn't know, literally up until the day when we were standing at the gate with our tickets, whether we were actually going to be allowed to get on the flight
What I did was, I did a bit of investigating before and I discovered that the airlines were prioritising the more expensive tickets. So, let's just say as an example a plane had to cut down its complement by 40 people, they would kick off all the economy class people first. Obviously, because all this is impacting their business and they want to make as much money as they can in the circumstances.
So, my wife and I discussed it and decided that, instead of taking the risk, we would rather book business class tickets. And that’s what we did. It cost us a lot of money and, under normal circumstances, we wouldn't have done it. Effectively, that money came out of our retirement savings that we’d withdrawn from South Africa and were going to invest in Australia.
But on both of our flights – from Joburg to Qatar and from Qatar to Melbourne – the plane was empty except for business class.
Australia’s hotel quarantine system
You don’t get to choose where you stay. It’s all set up by a government department that looks after the quarantine facilities, staff and how the whole process is managed.
You get off the plane, walk through a cordoned off area and you get a Covid test. Then they allocate you a hotel and you can go through border control and the usual customs process. From there, they put you onto a bus and you’re driven directly to the hotel where everybody’s in full on PPE.
Since there were four of us, we got adjoining rooms – one for the kids and one for me and my wife – and we were cooped up in that little box for two weeks. It was AUD 5,000 for the two weeks and, I mean, that covers food and everything, but it’s a lot when converted to Rands.
It was tough. I thought it would help with the jet lag and acclimatising to the new timezone, but it actually made it worse. The room had no balcony, no windows we could open, nothing.
There was wi-fi but it was pretty poor. Fortunately, I was able to purchase an eSIM for my phone, so I could start work, as there was no way to purchase a physical SIM.
The cost of moving from South Africa to Australia during the pandemic
The skills assessment cost about AUD 500. The visas were about AUD 8,000 for the four of us. That’s generally what you have to pay when you want to move to Australia.
But we worked it out and it ended up costing us about R80,000 - R90,000 more because of the pandemic. Firstly because of the hotel quarantine, but also because of the extra cost of the plane tickets to try and guarantee us a seat. Then, of course, because of the Covid tests for the whole family.
Finding a place to live
The best thing to do is visit the city before you move. But we’d never been to Melbourne before.
We were lucky to have South African friends who’d been living here for a few years and could help us out with their knowledge of the good areas. We were also able to stay with them once we were out of quarantine, while we looked for a place.
An average house in the area where we’re living costs AUD 1.6 – 1.9 million. Which is around R20 million.
Even though I started the search while experiencing sleepless jetlag nights in quarantine, it took us longer to find our rental because we could only start seeing places once we were out of quarantine and then, obviously, you can’t go in groups. You have to make a booking and then an agent will meet you and let you in to look around.
See also: Renting in Australia – what you can do in advance
The cost of property
Property prices in Australia are massive. An average house in the area where we’re living costs AUD 1.6 – 1.9 million. Which is around R20 million. So, there are a lot of rentals and also a lot of competition for rentals.
The closer you are to the city, the more expensive property is. Fortunately, Melbourne has a really good public transport system, but obviously if you live further from a train station, you might end up walking three or four kilometers.
Size of property
Properties are a bit smaller than South Africa, because Melbourne is very built up. Unless you have lots of money. Then you could get a really nice big place that’s close to town, but it will cost much more than it would in South Africa. You could also get a bigger place if you moved further afield, but then there’s the commute and schooling to consider.
There are a lot more schools here. There are private and semi-private schools, but the majority are government schools and, because there are so many schools, there’s literally a school every few kilometers and a school is zoned for an area.
So we had a bit of a catch-22 where we couldn’t put the boys straight in school without finding somewhere to live, as you need proof of residence to show you fall within the zone, but we couldn’t decide on where we were going to live without checking out the schools first.
See also: Australian public schools – who pays and who does not?
The Australian school system
Once we found our rental, we applied for the closest school and the boys are happy and very excited to be there.
At the time, we were half way through the first term, but the teachers recommended that the boys start immediately. It’s not like in Cape Town where the big four boys schools have waiting lists etc. They had space and their classes are smaller. They have between 20 to 25 people in the class and, at this particular school, the teachers actually set aside time for daily one-on-ones with each student.
See also: Moving to Australia: How to choose the right school for your children
Cars are a lot cheaper here than in South Africa and the interest rates are much lower. However, it’s still often more expensive to drive than to use public transport as most of the roads into the city are tolled.
I use the train to go into the office (about 20km away) and it costs me AUD 7 a day. If I drove it would cost me about AUD 18 in tolls.
You can ride a bicycle around most of the city without needing to use any main roads or deal with traffic.
What’s also super cool about Melbourne is they’ve got these public green areas called reserves and creeks and there are many of them and they’re almost all interlinked. So you can ride a bicycle around most of the city without needing to use any main roads or deal with traffic.
A lot of people commute to work that way. I’ve bought a bike and I’ll cycle in about once a week when we’re back at the office. It should take me about 40 minutes to get to work.
The cost of living in Melbourne
What we've found is that the essential goods are more or less on par with the prices in South Africa, but the non-essentials are definitely more expensive. We've found our monthly grocery spend is about the same as it was back in Cape Town for the four of us, but buying a few extra bits and bobs has definitely decreased because of the costs.
I have had some of the best beers I've ever had here.
Alcohol is much more expensive here, but the variety is huge (and there are drive-through bottle stores!). There is a massive “craft” culture in Melbourne, from beers to spirits like gin, rum and whiskey which is amazing. I have had some of the best beers I've ever had here.
Melbourne, in particular, is so similar to Cape Town that it really makes the transition a lot easier. When we left hotel quarantine and we drove through the city center for the first time, I said to my wife, “It feels like we’re driving down Long Street in Cape Town.”
The one thing that’s quite different is there is a lot of red tape here. Australia is quite a mommy state, I think it’s known for that.
For example, keeping an animal as a family pet is super regulated. The dog has to have a microchip. It has to be de-sexed. You have to register it with your local council. You have to pay a pet fee for it. And it’s enforced. If there’s an inspection of some kind at your house or the landlord discovers you have an animal, they can ask to see your permit and if you don’t have one you get a fine.
If there’s an inspection of some kind at your house or the landlord discovers you have an animal, they can ask to see your permit and if you don’t have one you get a fine.
We saw a brand new jacuzzi being given away on Facebook marketplace and I said to my friend who has a bigger property, “Why don’t you get it?” and he said, “Not a chance, mate. You know how many regulations and rules there are around a body of water?”
Even for a jacuzzi, there are so many things you have to apply for and regulations on how much water there is and the cleanliness of the water and whether or not it’s safe for children. He said the municipality wants you to empty the jacuzzi every time you’re not using it and refill it again when you want to use it. Back in South Africa it’s like, if you fill it and just put one of those lids on.
I’ve never been a crazy lawbreaker or rebel, but it’s a bit of a difference coming from South Africa, where things are more relaxed. But the thing is, even though the rules may be annoying, they’re the reason everything works so well here.
Other than that, there aren’t really that many differences.
The Australian people
We were pretty nervous when we first arrived here because our only experience of Australians was watching sports on TV and the fierce rivalry between South Africa and Australia. Aussies were always very confident, to the point of being arrogant, so I always anticipated we'd have that same hostility when we arrived. “What are you doing here? This is our country” kind of thing. But it wasn't like that at all.
It was such a relief and a surprise how welcoming the Australians are.
It was such a relief and a surprise how welcoming the Australians are. One of the guys that I've made friends with even said to me, when I told him how apprehensive and nervous we were about the reception we'd receive, “We’re proud of our country. We love the fact that you chose to live here.”
My eldest son, Oliver, had his eighth birthday in quarantine and the staff that were dealing with us obviously saw it was his birthday because the birthdates are on our documents. Out of their own pockets, they chipped in together and went and bought him toys for him for his birthday.
That was one of the first experiences we had with the warmth of the Australian people.
Moving to Australia from South Africa: Was it all worth it?
There are positives like having a good free schooling system, wonderful recreation areas and parks, Medicare, great transport infrastructure, less crime... but, because of Covid, we haven't really had an opportunity to explore much of Melbourne and make use of those wonderful facilities. All our friends and family are back in South Africa so we are kind of isolated here at the moment and that is tough.
I believe it will be worth it. The ultimate reason for the move, based on what our objectives were, will only really be realised once the kids get older and are out in the world working and, only once Australia starts opening up again, can we start enjoying some of the privileges it offers its residents.
Disclaimer: Mike is employed as a developer at Sable International’s Australian office.
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