Opening NZ’s Borders – The Devil in the Detail

Opinion piece Aaron Martin Immigration lawyer NZIL

The Government has just announced a five-step plan to reopen New Zealand’s borders, starting on 27 February. It’s great news that will bring a lot of relief to New Zealand citizens stuck overseas. However, like everything we’ve heard lately from this Government, it isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems, and the complexity within the details is going to cause frustration.

There’s been a lot of recent criticism of the Government’s approach to reopening the borders, and I feel that this plan is another classic example of a rushed and reactionary announcement that lacks vital detail.

Let’s take a closer look at the steps outlined in the announcement.


Fully vaccinated New Zealanders and other eligible travellers in Australia can enter New Zealand and self-isolate on arrival. Eligible travellers must have spent the previous 14 days in Australia and meet health requirements before they travel.

Read more about the eligibility criteria for Step 1.

Although this step doesn’t open a full travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, it is very good news for New Zealand citizens and permanent residents or resident visa holders who have been stuck in Australia for a frustratingly long period of time.

STEP 2 — FROM 13 MARCH, 11.59PM

Fully vaccinated New Zealanders and other eligible travellers from anywhere in the world can enter New Zealand and self-isolate on arrival. The following changes have been made to schemes and border exceptions: 

  • Working Holiday Schemes will reopen on a rolling basis (the staging and timing of individual schemes will be confirmed)
  • the income criteria for the Other Critical Worker border exception will be reduced to 1.5 times the median wage (NZD $84,240 a year or NZD $40.50 an hour) for roles longer than 6 months
  • the requirement for Other Critical Workers to demonstrate that the skills are not readily obtainable in New Zealand will be removed, and
  • the highly skilled family reunification border exception will be aligned with the 1.5 times the median wage bright line test for Other Critical Workers. 

Read more about the eligibility criteria for Step 2.

In the Government press conference, there was a lot of talk about New Zealand being in high demand. I think the Government has underestimated the damage that has been done to this country’s reputation through our COVID-19 management.

Given our recent history of essentially abandoning working tourists and leaving them with no income and no support, it’s going to take a lot of courage for people to decide to come to New Zealand and risk that happening again.

The exception of Other Critical Workers with a median wage reduced to $84,240 for roles longer than 6 months is going to be great, but if the Government doesn’t significantly change the definition of ‘Other Critical Worker’, then I don’t feel it will yield much benefit. What we need is a relaxation around the ability to get workers into New Zealand. It’s what’s needed for the development of business and to boost economic activity, and it’s what businesses want.

STEP 3: FROM 12 APRIL, 11.59PM

Temporary visa holders currently outside New Zealand and who have a valid visa can enter New Zealand as long as they still meet their visa requirements. Up to 5000 international students can enter New Zealand for semester 2. Workforce class exceptions and events, and government approved programme lists, will be extended and updated as needed.

The Government will provide more details about step 3 in the future, including the scope of new border exceptions, updates to exceptions and government approved lists.

At face value, this step looks good and gives the impression that lots of temporary visa holders will get some relief. But actually, most of them are probably not going to meet their visa requirements.

To say that there will be more details provided is just another meaningless announcement about an announcement – it doesn’t provide any certainty or clarity to anyone. And when people need to make plans, that just adds another level of frustration.


Our borders will open to:

  • Australian citizens, Australian permanent residents and other foreign nationals travelling from Australia
  • visitors from visa-waiver countries
  • Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) holders.

NOTE: The AEWV will mainly be limited to roles that pay above the New Zealand median wage. More information on this will be made available soon.

My question is, if you can allow visitors from visa-waiver countries in from July, why not allow visitors from any country? Why wait until October?

The note suggesting that the AEWV will mainly be limited to roles paying above the median wage suggests there will be some that won’t be. But again, there’s no clarity around this which makes it hard for employers to plan.


The border opens for all other New Zealand visa holders, including visitor and student visas, unless the visa is closed or paused.

Where we’re going wrong

Like many New Zealanders, I’ll be interested to see how the Government’s approach to managing Omicron changes as the borders open. Right now, it seems we have a dual approach which is out of step with the rest of the world. Other countries are learning to live with Omicron by opening the borders, relaxing restrictive conditions, and minimising self-isolating time. Yet visa holders entering New Zealand are still subject to restrictive COVID-related conditions including the potential for weeks of self-isolation with no income.

We need the borders to open, and it’s a relief to see that finally starting to happen. But, despite the Government’s assertion that New Zealand is an attractive option to migrant workers and tourists, I think they have overreached on that statement. They seem to think people’s views about international travel and the associated risks have somehow dramatically changed because New Zealand is opening its border? I just don’t see that as the reality.

Yes, we have great jobs on offer, but we also need to offer reassurance and confidence that New Zealand is a safe place to work and that international workers will be supported. If you’re asking people to pick up their lives and leave everything that gives them safety and security to relocate on the other side of the world, then you need to offer them a destination that makes them feel secure about their future. And the past treatment of migrant workers by this Government falls well short of that.

The Government is still operating under a pre-COVID mindset and until that changes, I don’t see a fast resolution to New Zealand’s desperate need for migrant workers.

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