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5 things to know about taking a gap year in Australia

Malia Obama might have put gap years on the front page, but the notion of suspending studies or work for an extended period remains a very foreign concept in the US. Here’s why it could be the best decision you ever make, and why Australia is the perfect place to spend your gap year.



What is a gap year?

When former First Daughter Malia Obama surprised America by deciding to push back her start at Harvard and take a gap year, millions of fellow high-school seniors asked the question: could that be me?

For the past 50 years, countless Australian, British and European ‘gappers’ have been saying “yes” to the idea of taking time out before starting college, or to broaden their experience while assessing their early career choices.

Far from an excuse for an endless spring break, a gap year is a chance for high-school graduates to perhaps work in areas related to their studies – to try before they buy. And, even if they’re not working towards a future career, it allows all gappers to gain new perspectives as they build an international contact list that could serve them well in the future.

Harvard admissions official Robert Clagett summed up the benefits when observing that students who take gap years “will frequently be more mature, more focused, and more aware of what they want to do with their college education”.

That opinion was bolstered by a recent American Gap Association survey that found gappers enjoyed shorter times to graduation, higher GPAs and greater job satisfaction relative to corresponding national averages.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Among their many virtues, gap years allow students or younger workers to figure out what they’re passionate about, far from the pressures of grades and deadlines.

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu, Northern Territory

Why Australia?

From its famed Great Barrier Reef to vibrant cities like Sydney, Australia’s charms are well known to Americans. What you might not know is that Australia has a special visa, under its Working Holiday Maker Program, that allows passport-holding American citizens aged 18-30 to spend a year in the country earning money as they travel.

Allowing holders to stay in one job for up to six months, the Work and Holiday (subclass 462) visa taps into a local economy in which short-term jobs are plentiful and seen by employer and employee alike as a legitimate way to finance flexible lifestyles.

That means all you need to save is enough money to cover a return airfare, travel insurance and some initial spending money as you will be able to earn enough to fund your travel and living expenses while in Australia.

If you can’t bear to leave the country when the year is up, there’s an option for a second year if you’ve worked a minimum of three months in northern Australia in tourism and hospitality or agriculture, forestry and fishing.

Finding work

Not only is finding work easy through online job boards like https://www.seek.com.au/ and http://www.backpackerjobboard.com.au/, but the pay is good. While minimum rates in the US are as low as US$2.13/hr for tipped workers, and the national minimum wage is US$7.25/hr, in Australia the comparable minimum rate is AU$17.70/hr (about US$13).

It’s your choice whether to unpack your bags and get beneath the skin of a new town for six months – maybe an internship with a prestigious local company? ­– or top up your travel funds with a series of jobs as you explore every corner of the country. If you’re keen on getting a start on your future while you travel, there are any number of temporary work agencies that can help you find professional placements. A less structured approach might mean you’re looking for hospitality work, seasonal fruit picking and packing in regional areas or laboring. You might even take advantage of the visa’s allowance to study for up to four months

Wallaman Falls, Whitsundays, Queensland

Applying for a visa

Applying for a Work and Holiday (subclass 462) visa is simple.

First, see an overview here and confirm your eligibility.

Chief considerations are that you must hold a US passport, be of good character, meet health criteria and cannot be accompanied by children.

Next, go to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection's online services and create an ImmiAccount.

Remember, you must apply for your visa before you arrive, but once you have it you can leave and re-enter Australia any number of times while the visa is valid.

The online application costs a non-refundable AU$440, with most processed within a week.

You'll receive an electronic visa that will register with your passport – there’s no need to send your passport away – and you just need to print out your approval email to show at immigration and when checking into your flight if you don’t have a return ticket.

Before you fly, you need health insurance for the length of your stay and to be able to show you have enough money to support yourself (about AU$5000). If you don’t have an onward or return air ticket, you must also have enough money to buy one.

What else you’ll need

Once in Australia, you will need a tax file number (TFN) – the Australian equivalent of a US social security number – and a bank account (you’ll need your passport). You can apply for a TFN online and it will be sent to the local address on your application within 28 days.

When starting work, give your employer a TFN declaration so they can work out how much tax to withhold, and details of your visa. The easiest way to keep your visa details is through the myVEVO app.

Note that the visa program starts on July 1 each year and there is an annual limit on the number of first Work and Holiday visas granted to each country. There is no limit on the number of second-year Work and Holiday visas.

For further information, click here.