Australia international border closures: Warning over passport processing delays

Caitlin Hoey, 33, of Cranebrook in Sydney had a big trip to Europe planned with her friends last year. Like most Australians' travel plans in 2020, it fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Hoey hopes to start planning the trip again and has just renewed her passport in anticipation of international borders reopening.

"As a travel enthusiast, I wanted to be ready and not have to then think about it once we have the green light," she says.

Hoey, who worked as a travel agent before the virus hit, says her optimism about international travel has returned in recent weeks after it took a knock with the collapse of the New Zealand travel bubble.

"I have a nephew I haven't met who's in New Zealand, so that was tough. But it feels like the green shoots are starting to show, with vaccination rates."

Hoey was surprised when she applied to renew her passport to have it back in a week, rather than the typical wait time the Passport Office cites - three weeks.

But with passport applications plummeting due to closed international borders, processing has taken as little as two days.

The Passport Office issued just 603,464 passports over the past year, compared with more than 1.7 million in the previous year. The means a large number of Australians have allowed their passports to expire, which could result in long wait times once borders reopen.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said that wait times are currently short, but applications had been gradually increasing since August.

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"Once international borders start to reopen, the department expects there will be high demand for passports," the spokesperson said.

"Recent experience in the United States and the United Kingdom has shown that there was a significant increase in applications ahead of international travel restrictions being lifted in these countries, resulting in long wait times for passports.

"While the department is doing everything it possibility can to prepare for a similar eventuality, longer-than-usual processing times cannot be ruled out."

Reports from the US put the wait time for processing at up to four and a half months, as Americans look to travel internationally again.

The Passport Office has also warned that many countries require visitors to have six months validity on the passport in order to be granted entry.

Claire Hiesler, 39, who runs a travel agency in the Darling Downs town of Dalby in Queensland, was shocked when her passport was processed in just three days.

"It was unbelievably quick," she said. "I was very happy I didn't pay for priority processing."

An Australian passport is among the world's most expensive, with the fee for a standard 10-year passport $301. Priority processing, which takes two days, costs an additional $220.

Ms Hiesler, who applied for her first Australian passport after becoming a citizen in May this year, wants to be ready to visit her native South Africa as soon as she can after her father suffered a stroke.

"He's fine but that terrified me a little bit so I want to make sure that I got everything I needed and was ready to go," she said.

She said her travel agency had experience a surge in inquiries and bookings in recent days as people become more confident about borders opening.

"It really has picked up. The whole vibe has changed," she said.

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