I arrived in Sydney almost a year ago, fresh out of China and propelled by the excitement of the previous two months and an openness to new experiences, ready for the unknown. I don’t know what I was expecting when I booked that flight, I don’t know if I was running from something or running towards it, but it had a few surprises which I would have liked to have seen coming. Here is just a short account of the things I wish I had known before I applied for a working holiday visa (Subclass 417) and spending a year in Australia.
1. Have a Driving License
I’d definitely recommend getting your driving license before coming to Australia. I didn’t plan to do much travelling at all; the plan was to stay in cities and use public transport. The reality is, as I’m sure any fellow travelling types will know, that plans will always change.
The country is huge and regardless of your purpose for being here, you’ll probably end up wanting to see it, or at least do your regional work in a remote area so you can stay another year. You’ll need a car or a bike to do these things, and it’s difficult and expensive to get your license out here so don’t make the same mistake I did, do it before you leave.
2. Backpacker Jobs
I walked into that travel agency back in Cardiff I had a clear image of what I wanted to do in Australia. I wanted to get experience working in a design studio and put my knowledge, university degree, and mostly my passion, to good use. I made this clear to the travel agent, salesman, probably on commission and boy did he get it, to which he responded, “Of course, it’s exactly the same as finding a job here in Wales.” He was wrong.
Australian employers generally have zero respect for backpackers, not to be negative… From what I have experienced and spoken to others about it seems that because of our limited time in the country and reputation as uncommitted party people, they see working holiday folk as disposable immigrants they can use and take advantage of, and there appears to be very little actual government…governing or regulation on the matter.
I hear horror stories all the time of backpackers trying to fulfil their visa requirements by working in the country, on farms and in fruit picking jobs, and being taken advantage of and often being put in quite dangerous situations. Even in the cities, when people find out you’re on a working holiday visa they won’t hire you, or they’ll steer you towards casual labour jobs instead of recognising your actual skillset. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I could have seen it coming, or if I had no intention of working a respectable job.
3. The Backpacker Bubble
I have been here a year now and by no intention of my own, made very few actual Aussie friends. I think it’s quite a common thing with travellers; you get caught up staying in hostels and/or chatting with people you can empathise with, who are also going through the same experiences of living in a foreign country and it’s very easy to slip into the backpacker bubble; where all your peers are travellers and you remain on the outskirts of society looking in. Staying in Air Bnbs or finding a more permanent residence if you’re planning to stay in one place for a few months works well but can get lonely if you’re not working a serious job or part of an Aussie group of some kind.
4. $5,000 dollars isn’t enough (for me)!
The required amount of money to enter Australia on a working holiday visa is $5000. I made sure I had just about this much, but Australia is such an expensive country to live in, I was just so stressed for the first few months, and quickly burned through my savings. Unless you find a job in the first month or two you’re going to spend $5000 much faster than you might expect (even if you’re like me and try your best not to indulge in many tourist traps and luxury items). I’d recommend coming with double that and having the freedom to explore some of the country, or just the city you’re living in, before you’re pressured to pick up the first not-so-awful-looking backpacker job you can find.
Airtasker has been great for getting some extra pocket money, it even meant when I was struggling to find work, I was able to stay in the country and keep trying. It meant I got to experience something a bit different; in April last year I spent a couple of long hot days delivering Easter egg packages to fancy office towers all over the city, which meant witnessing views from the 50th floor over Melbourne and getting to go inside the NAB building in Docklands which looks like an actual spaceship. I also did a cleaning job in a million dollar house and put my creative writing to use for an Australian labour company and did some photo editing for a personal training company. Like anywhere though, there are dickheads lurking, so be careful how much time and effort you put into a job before you’re certain you’ll be paid for it.
6. You’ll need to be certified for the less sh*t jobs
“They have a certificate for everything in this goddamn country”
It doesn’t matter what certificates or qualifications you have back home, you’ll need the Australian version too. You worked as a barista for five years? Don’t have Australian coffee making certificate? Not interested. Same with forklift licenses, machinery and childcare. Getting the accepted versions will be really expensive or really difficult, or both. I’d recommend either bringing a decent amount of money to invest in the certifications straight away and pay yourself back in the higher wages you’ll get as a result, or look for work in other areas.
7. Bank accounts and phone contracts
There is a strange dichotomy in Australia between being stuck in the past, clinging to out-of-date values of sexism, homophobia, racism, and reaching past the typically slow Western advancement in technology. Banking seems much more advanced in Australia than anywhere else I’ve been. The mobile banking apps are amazing and ATMs (please excuse the blatant nerdiness of this rant) are so futuristic and user friendly with their touchscreens and cardless cash systems, it’s difficult not to be impressed. People here wear rings to that can make payments, just like paypass or contactless cards. Phone plans are flexible and easily accessible and interchangeable. I’m sure there are endless examples of how Australia is kilometres ahead of its British counterparts.
8. Be ready to represent your country
Out here I meet new people every single day, and the number one question I am guaranteed to be asked, is where am I from? Hanging out with friends, there will always be something they pick up on that you do or say differently. You’ll always be the “Pommy Girl”, or The Germans, or The Yank. People will ask you questions about your culture and be disgraced that you don’t know that one piece of British trivia or recognise English actor names or songs. You’ll be stereotyped over and over again… “You’re British? British girls all just come here to get drunk and cheat on their boyfriends.” – something a colleague actually said to me.
9. Find closure BEFORE you leave.
This is a sensitive one I suppose. It’s easy to promise people that you’ll stay in touch, that you’ll be back, that there will always be more time. Unfortunately plans don’t always work out and I found myself unraveling from friendships and relationships, over an online chat; not really the most personal conversation space, and I wouldn’t say video calls on Skype or Facetime are the best platforms for telling someone you’re not coming back for them either. I think I have learnt for the last time that long distance relationships with people who do not share your ideals do not, and certainly shouldn’t, work. Staying in contact with friends back home is one thing, holding onto scraps of your history is inhibiting and can hold you back from fully experiencing the opportunities in the present day, in the present country, and pursuing the best future for you.
10. Stay humble but have high standards.
This one is the most important thing by far. I wish that I had been stronger and not fallen into the trap of short sighted backpacker logic; do what you must do to stay in the country, at almost any cost.
It got to the point today where I had to rush to the bathroom at work, shaking crying because of the way the foreman at this job treats me and the other women here, and the utter loneliness that accompanies this place. It’s so so important to know what you want and what you deserve, and to never settle for less. Never accept a job at a lower level than you are trained at, pay attention to the actions of the people you surround yourself with, your romantic interests, your family, and ask yourself “Is this really what I deserve…what I have worked this hard for…what I want for my future?”
I’m not saying you should be selfish or have unreasonable standards for people to adhere to, it is also very important to be humble and not expect the impossible. There is an all too common arrogance that surrounds travelling Westerners, often mis-quoting the saying that “the world is a book, those who do not travel read only one page.”
Something I have learned over the last year, that has finally been drilled into my head, is that the world owes you absolutely nothing. Whether you are a backpacker or citizen, young or old, black or white, rich or poor, so long as you’re putting negativity out into the world, that is all you will receive in return. That is definitely not to say that a positive mindset will yield positive results; wishing for an instant payout on karma for small gestures doesn’t work, the universe does what you need when you need it, despite what you think.
Trust in this, realise that you are one of many, part of a whole, all you can do is your best, you can only work towards what you believe to be the best for you, and prepare openly for the worst.
And above all else, strive for honesty, compassion and empathy. Happiness will come all on its own.