New Zealand visas and immigration in 2020

What a year 2020 has been! For those living in New Zealand, life has more or less gone back to normal. There are people that tested positive in managed isolation, but there is no community transmission (at the time of writing, this can change). No lock-downs and no limits on what you can do. Yes, you do need to wear a mask on public transport in Auckland and on all domestic flights. And other measures such as keeping your distance and tracking where you have been are in place too. But compared to other places in the world we are very lucky.

Although as a country, we have done fairly well, COVID certainly has had an impact on specific industries and a lot of people’s lives. Some individual cases are quite heartbreaking. Immigrants’ lives have been in turmoil for the most part of the year. From people on temporary visas that were outside New Zealand when the borders closed who are still unable to return to temporary visas holders that lost their job and their income but had no way of leaving New Zealand. There was and is a lot of uncertainty and (mental) stress.

The economy is doing relatively well, but people have lost their jobs and unemployment is creeping up. There are several industries where there is a real shortage of people (such as agriculture and horticulture). Other industries have seen an overload of job applicants, which may mean work visas are not granted because there are suitable New Zealanders available. Work and income introduced an undersupply (not enough people) and an oversupply (too many people) list.

New Zealand visa and immigration in 2021

2021 looks to offer some hope with the introduction of vaccines. It will be a while though before the New Zealand borders are opened up again and international travel picks up. A lot of what will happen in 2021 with regards to the border and immigration policy remains unsure. Immigration New Zealand has made some announcements of what we can expect, but it is unsure what will change or when exactly the policy will be implemented.

Below is an overview of some of the expected changes in 2021.

1. Review of the Skilled Migrant Category resident visa

The Skilled Migrant Category resident visa process starts with an Expression of Interest (EOI). Each fortnight all EOI’s with 160 points or more are drawn from the pool of EOI’s and, after passing an initial check, an Invitation to Apply for residency is issued. EOI draws were suspended in mid-2020.

The positive of this is that there are very few new SMC resident visa applications are lodged. This means the backlog of applications is slowly disappearing. SMC applications submitted in June 2019 are allocated to Case Officers. The downside is that not many people that rely on their job to meet resident visa instructions can actually apply for a resident visa.

A review of the Skilled Migrant Category is planned for February 2021. After the review is completed a consultation period about proposed changes may take place. All in all, it may take a while for the EOI draws to resume. And when they resume, there is a high probability that the requirements have changed.

2. Work visa system overhaul

The overhaul of the work visa system was announced in 2019. Six different types of work visas are merged into one new work visa. There will be a new 3-pillar system: the employer pillar, the job pillar, and the applicant pillar. Due to COVID, the introduction of this new system is postponed to the 2nd half of 2021.

3. Median wage

The median wage, which is used as an income threshold for Essential Skills work visas and the SMC resident visa, among others, will go from $25.50 to $27 per hour. This change was planned for November this year but is postponed to 2021. Probably February, but no official announcement is made yet.

4. Border closures

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern mentioned at the end of November 2020 that the borders may stay closed for another 12 to 18 months. It will take time to vaccinate enough people in the population to allow borders to open. It is also unsure how long the vaccine protects. In addition, processes and rules must be developed to determine who can travel to New Zealand once borders open. It is also expected that the border will open in phases.

For now and most likely, the first part of 2021, it means that people on temporary visas, such as work visa holders and student visa holders cannot return to New Zealand. It is not possible to apply for a temporary visa if you are outside of New Zealand unless you fall under one of the exemption categories.

5. Automatic visa extensions

A select group of resident visa holders who are outside of New Zealand with expired travel conditions was granted a new resident visa about a month ago.

The automatic extension of work visas for select groups of work visa holders (and their dependents) that is currently in place ends on 31 December 2020. No announcement is made about whether the automatic extension will extend. As the situation in the world hasn’t really changed and the unemployment rate in New Zealand isn’t too bad the government may decide to continue this measure.

I do want to stress that no announcements are made yet around this at the time of writing. If your visa is about to expire make sure you stay on top of the news AND  submit a new visa application on time. With Immigration New Zealand you can never assume anything