Pathway to a beach in Sydney, Australia

Becoming an Australian Citizen

In the Spring of 2012, I studied abroad at the University of Queensland – a decision that molded my future in more ways than I could have imagined. Things have come full-circle as I now send study abroad and exchange students to the University of Queensland as an Education Abroad Advisor at the University of Virginia. But this post isn’t about me! As it turns out, the decision to study abroad in ‘Straya was a defining moment for my friend, Cary, too. In the small world that it is, I met Cary Plott- another study abroad student from the University of South Carolina – in Brisbane, Australia through a series of mutual friends. She studied at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and we ran into one another in the city center and at everyone’s favorite pub, The RE (on a Wednesday night because Australians are wild.) While we both returned to USC after our semester abroad, she went on to do something so many only dream of – move back to Australia permanently. She took on the challenge of managing visas and jumping through hoops – this woman is a pro at accepting ambiguity. In May of 2020, Cary received her Australian citizenship. Here’s her story:


Two of the most common questions people ask me who are interested about my time in Australia are: 

1) Why did you move to Australia out of all places?

AND 

2) How’d you do it? 

Cary's virtual Australian Citizenship Ceremony
Spoiler alert: Cary just recently got her Australian citizenship!

The answer to the first question is pretty simple, and I usually answer in one word: curiosity. I moved to Sydney, Australia in September of 2013 after graduating from the University of South Carolina earlier that year in May. I worked in Charlotte, NC the summer after graduation in a temp position that was destined to become permanent, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I graduated with my communications degree with a focus in creative advertising. I wanted to work in an advertising agency, feel the creativity, and produce something that I could put credit to my name. 

But back to curiosity… I did have a leg up when it came to Australia as I studied abroad for 5 months in Brisbane in 2012 – I LOVED it. The weather, the (gorgeous) people, the food… everything. But when it came to moving back to Australia 1.5 years later, the only option was to move to Sydney – a city that I found daunting compared to Brisbane – an international city with massive spread and notoriously high cost of living. But what Sydney had that Brisbane didn’t have was the landscape. Sydney is situated on a harbour and rests upon a coastline of over 100 beaches. Yep,  you read that right, 100 beaches in Sydney alone. 

As an international city, Sydney was where all the big advertising agencies were. Melbourne (capital of the Australian state, Victoria) also had international advertising agencies, but only in the more recent years have they grown to what they are today.  Back in 2013, Sydney was my only option when it came to finding my first job in advertising. 

So, Sydney had what my rational-wanderlust heart needed – it scratched the itch of living abroad, and I could also find a job that fulfilled what I wanted to do. I was very curious about what my second Australian chapter would have in store for me. 

Onto the next question: How’d you do it? 

As I mentioned, I moved to Sydney in September of 2013. I am now going on my 8th year living in Sydney. Since I arrived fresh out of college, I’ve gone through all sorts of visas, a lot of paperwork, more paperwork (asking the same thing but for a different department), and was finally granted permanent residency. As of May of 2020, I’m an Australian citizen. 

Before going into too much detail about the process I went through, I want to hammer down that the hardest part about moving to Australia (or anywhere, for that matter) is changing your mindset from the thought of moving being “too hard”. It’s not too hard – sure, it may seem like a logistical nightmare, but the hardest step is booking the plane ticket with no return date. The best advice that I would give someone interested in moving to Australia would be to just do it, and start your job search once you get here. Unless you’re a C-Suite, jobs generally don’t hire abroad or look to transfer someone over to work in Australia. There are so many opportunities and it’s so much easier networking and interviewing in person that you’re bound to find the perfect opportunity for you. It’s a big mental hurdle, but the reward is worth it. 

When it comes to logistics, I was pretty lucky as I moved almost immediately after graduating college – a natural time for a big change. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the same regretful feeling about my big move. I was living with my parents rent-free, had a temp job at an up-and-coming tech company that had a promise of going full-time. I also remember I had met some boy at a bar and at the time felt like it could “go somewhere”… Basically, I had a lot of excuses. I told myself that I was going to give it one year and if things didn’t work out, then I’d come home with a year of living abroad under my belt if nothing else. What I didn’t realise was the love affair I was about to have with Sydney and the ravished appetite to grow further in my career in advertising. 

In terms of visas, back in 2013 there was a One Year Work Holiday Visa. What that visa did was provide me with the opportunity to work for any company for up to 6 months. After that six month period, I’d have to switch companies and work elsewhere for the remaining 6 months. If I were to stay in the same company, that company would have to “sponsor” me – in other words, invest in keeping me on by putting their name to my visa.

When I first got to Sydney, I was actually an unpaid intern at a small boutique fashion advertising agency for about 2 months. In this time I was able to prove myself as an asset to the company and after the 2 month unpaid stint, they hired me as a full time account executive. 

So, this is where my story gets a bit “right place, right time” … As a recent graduate with little work experience, I was not eligible to be sponsored. In order to be sponsored you have to be considered to be in a senior position, or have a special niche that an ordinary Australian citizen did not have. I am very grateful – I cannot stress this enough – for this first agency as they went through many legal hoops to have me sponsored. They positioned me as an advertising specialist with American insights into the fashion and advertising industry. After 6 months in the role of account executive, my visa changed from the “Working Holiday” to a “Sponsored Visa”. 

So the thing about being sponsored by a company is that you’re wedded to that company. There are always bad apples out there, and I’ve heard horror stories of how some companies abuse the power that they have over their sponsored employees. This is rare and there’s also government departments that regulate this. This wasn’t the case for me, but a part of me did feel guilty when I handed in my resignation letter 2.5 years after this agency sponsored me. In 2016, I was ready to head back to the states. Or so I thought… 

In 2016, five friends and I all quit our jobs and travelled South East Asia for three months with the intention of ending back in our home countries. I thought my Australia chapter was complete, and I was looking forward to seeing family and friends again. But then there was a moment of reflection I had on this beautiful secluded beach in the Philippines, and I realised that my Australian chapter wasn’t over. I wanted to see what else Sydney had in store for me with a different advertising agency, living with different people…. So while all my friends went back to the US, Canada and New Zealand, I went back to Sydney on my own. 

A boat anchoring by the shore in the Philippines
A scene from Cary’s trip to the Philippines.

By the time I got back to Sydney, I had accepted a job at a mid-sized advertising agency. They agreed to pick up my sponsorship, so I was in the same visa situation as my previous agency. After about six months, with the support from my agency, I decided to apply for permanent residency. My rationale was that I wanted the freedom to be able to work anywhere without having a company sponsor me – and why not? I loved Australia, so why not call it a second home. 

Spoiler: permanent residency (PR) is expensive and time consuming. It cost around $12K with the application and legal fees (my agency required us to use their lawyers – usually $6-8K if you do it yourself) and it took about 18-20 months to apply and receive my PR. It was an investment, to say the least. But when my agency lost its biggest revenue client in 2018 and had to make drastic cuts to the team, I was easily able to find a new job (in three business days) while a lot of my other international co-workers weren’t so lucky. Some of them searched for a job for months, while others decided to move back to their home countries. 

Now, it was February 2019 and I’d had permanent residency for a year (and I’d lived in Australia for over 4 consecutive years) – I could apply for citizenship. There’s not much of a difference when it comes to basic rights for permanent residents and citizens. Both get Medicare (aka free healthcare) and have the same employers rights, but with citizenship, you can vote. Also, you have to renew your permanent residency every five years, while citizenship is for life. I thought that I’d come this far, why not get citizenship – have it forever and be able to pass it down to my children? 

And this leads me to May 2020 when I received my citizenship, just over a year after applying. As it was during the heat of COVID-19, my ceremony was held virtually, but trust me when I say that I celebrated like a true Australian with my boyfriend and my few mates that were allowed to come over (complying with restrictions). I can truly say that I have not one day had any regrets in my decision to stay in Australia, and it felt like the biggest accomplishment to get my Australian citizenship. I did it for myself and grew my career at the same time, and to me it was all worth it. 

It’s important to mention here that since I started my journey to become a citizen, a lot has changed in the immigration legislation. You can’t apply for permanent residency as easily on a sponsored visa (you need to be on the most up-to-date skills list), and I’m sure there’s other new restrictions that I’m unaware of. But, it is possible and it is worth exploring if living abroad is something that interests you.

I will admit that there are some parts of my story that are “right place, right time” but I also worked hard to find a way to stay in this beautiful country that I can now call my own. Still to this day I meet people who just moved from overseas that decided to move on a whim and are making it work over here… it can be done. Nothing is ever “too hard.” 

Citizenship celebrations!

5 thoughts on “Becoming an Australian Citizen

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