Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. Australia is known for its incredible natural beauty, great quality of life and multicultural society. If you’re planning a move ‘down under’ (for some time after the pandemic, when borders are actually open again), blogger and teacher Courtney Alkek has some excellent advice to share.
She and her husband moved to Australia from the USA. They’ve had two kids in the country, have lived in two different cities: Brisbane and Adelaide, and are now going through the process of becoming Aussie citizens.
So, Courtney, how did you come to be living in Australia?
Courtney: My husband’s employer in Houston, Texas offered him a position in Brisbane, back in 2014. And within a couple of months, we had the job offer, the paperwork filled out, and the visa application in. And then, a few months later, we moved to Brisbane, in July 2014. So, it was a work sponsor that brought us over.
Carlie: And at a very quick turnaround. But it’s not the first time that you’ve lived abroad, is it?
Courtney: No, my dad’s employer, growing up, also moved us around every few years. And so, before I turned 13, I think I’d lived in nine countries, including Australia. I was only about a year and a half when I lived in Australia with my parents, and we lived in a small town in Western Australia, called Broome.
And I still have not even been back to Broome. That’s on my Australian bucket list. Eventually, I would like to go back and see where I lived as a child.
Carlie: So, there was no benefit of previous experience for this particular move with your husband. What did you consider to be the starkest difference between your life in the USA and your new life in Australia, when you and your husband first made the move?
Courtney: I think the biggest change in the quality of life in the US … And especially for us, because we lived in a city where a lot of our family, our friends, and the people we went to university with were living. People I had gone to high school with were in the same city. We had so many connections that we were busy, busy, busy. Every weekend was planned out.
We had plans with people, or we had to go visit family, or, you know, there was always something. It was like nonstop. And moving to Brisbane, we didn’t know a sing— Well, my husband knew one person from uni that was living there, but other than that, we didn’t know anyone. And so, the pace of life slowed down. We were able to just get out and explore.
In general, the work life balance, we find, in Australia is so much better than in the US. The US people tend to live to work. But yeah, the pace is so much slower, and people actually really see the benefit of taking time out and going on holidays and actually disconnecting. Whereas in the US, you get, what, two weeks’ vacation time a year?
Carlie: I find it really interesting, as an Aussie myself, to get other people’s perspectives on my home country. And, I guess, it’s definitely the case that you don’t really appreciate what you have until you possibly leave it and then hear from other people what they find great about Australia.
Courtney: Yes. And I feel funny educating you on your own culture, I suppose.
Carlie: No, but it is fascinating. Here in France, I do get asked the question every so often, ‘You’re in France … If you’re from Australia, why aren’t you there?’ But, you know, it’s all relative.
Courtney: Right now, it’s a pretty good place for us to be, I think, as far as everything that’s going on in the world.
Carlie: For sure. Well, I was going to say, you are pretty stuck at the moment, because they’re not really letting people leave many places in the world, at the moment.
Courtney: No. We’re permanent residents, so if we want to leave the country, we have to apply for permission from the government, which means we aren’t quite sure when we’ll get to see our family, in the near future, at least.
Carlie: That’s a really tough one for a lot of people. But the reason we’re here today is to look forward to happier at times when we are going to be traveling again. And we’re going to talk through some key points for people moving to Australia, talking through your experiences, and just providing some insight on some really important areas that you need to get sorted before you move, and then, you know, to get yourself settled in the country.
So, jumping into these practicalities, I’d like to know, first off, what visa did yourself and your husband come to Australia on?
Courtney: We applied in 2014, and at the time it was the 457 sponsor work visa. They discontinued that one. And now, I think, it’s the 482. It is when an employer brings you over. So, they actually take care of most of the paperwork and logistics and all of that.
We just had to gather the documents, fill out the forms, get a physical, and that type of thing, for the visa application. But they’re in-house immigration lawyers took care of the actual nitty gritty, I guess.
Carlie: And this one applied to your husband’s job opportunity. As his partner, what did the visa allow you to do in Australia?
Courtney: There weren’t any limitations, as far as working, for me. On that visa, as the spouse, once we were in Australia, I was free to apply for any jobs.
Carlie: And was there a time limit on that visa?
Courtney: It was four years, but before it expired, we applied for our permanent residency. So, as soon as that expired, it switched to a bridging visa, until our residency was approved.
Carlie: And in your time in Australia, have you applied for jobs and have you worked?
Courtney: Yes, actually. So, I was a schoolteacher back in Texas. And so, not long after we arrived in Brisbane, I went through the process of getting my Texas teacher’s certificate transferred to a Queensland state teaching certificate. And it was actually quite a tedious process, and they were very strict.
And luckily I didn’t have to go and take any more courses, but they did actually call my university and speak to someone in the department, and go through each course that I took to make sure they aligned with the University of Queensland state courses.
After about eight months of them going through everything and having to send it, and all different things, they finally gave me my teaching certificate. But I have heard of other Americans, from different states, having to go and take separate courses or whatever. So I was lucky, but it was quite a tedious and long process.
So, in those eight months, I wasn’t working. And then I worked as a relief teacher – we call it a substitute teacher in Texas – for a year. And then I was offered a job as a Year Four teacher. And I started that, but I fell pregnant with my first child. So, I actually ended up taking maternity leave halfway through and have yet to return to the workforce.
Carlie: You’re asked for references on job applications and training applications all the time, and you do wonder whether those people actually get a call.
Courtney: I find, in Australia, for the most part, they do.
Carlie: Word of warning: if you’re doing up your CV for Australia, make sure your references are legit.
Courtney: Yes, because they will check. Even with rental applications, not every time, but our references have been called for those as well.
Carlie: That was going to be my next question, actually. So, you move to Australia, you go through the process of getting your qualifications vetted, so that you can work in the country … What did your husband and yourself do about finding a place to live when you got to Queensland?
Courtney: When we first arrived in Brisbane, we actually had never been before. They didn’t send us to go scope it out, like some companies do. So, as soon as we landed there to live, that was our first time there. And they had a person from an immigration agency, I guess you’d call it, or a relocation agency, I’m not sure.
But this company hired a woman who was familiar with everything, and she took us around to look at different apartments. Everywhere she was showing us was from realestate.com.au, which is the main website that people post rentals on. So it wasn’t quite necessary.
The only benefit, I think, was … Because we didn’t have any type of history renting in Australia for the real estate companies to look at, apparently having a company like that, or someone like that, kind of helps improve your chances of getting approved. But I have no way of knowing if that’s really true or not.
But she took us around and helped us understand the different neighbourhoods and what to look for. But for the most part … I mean, I think the place we ended up moving to, we found online and showed her. So, it’s almost all online or on the apps nowadays.
And they’re all privately owned residences, too, which is different from in the US. Because in the US, if you are going to an apartment building – at least in Texas, where we’re from – usually all of those apartments in that apartment building are owned by the company that owns the apartments.
And you can go in there – even months in advance, sometimes – and figure out what’s going to be available when you need it and sign the lease there. And it’s all through that. Whereas here, every apartment unit is privately owned and then managed by real estate agencies. So, it’s a bit trickier, I’ve found, when looking at apartment units.
Carlie: Because the estate agents are not necessarily the same for the same apartment building. So you could have 20 apartments in one building and 20 different agencies looking after those apartments.
Courtney: Yeah, exactly. So, if you see one that you’re interested in one day, it’s not like you can say, ‘Oh, can I go look at the other one across the hall?’ Then you have to arrange an appointment with the other agency.
And then, you know, if something goes wrong or for maintenance, when I lived in Houston, we would just call the office of the apartment building and they’d send a maintenance person to come fix it. Whereas, when you’re going through the real estate agency, you have to wait for them to get back to you and them to contact the owner to make sure they can send somebody. It’s a little more of a process.
Carlie: Yeah, it definitely does sound like that. And were there any application differences when applying for somewhere to rent in Australia, that were different to what you were used to back home?
Courtney: I feel like we definitely had to put more references down, even personal references. You would understand employers or previous landlords, but even to put references of our friends down. I think only one apartment has called our friends in the time that we’ve rented, and this is the fourth place we’ve rented in Australia. So, you do have to provide quite a bit of information. But it’s been so long since I’ve rented in New York.
Carlie: One thing I found really interesting, coming from Australia to the UK initially, was that in London, they rent out apartments furnished, which was something I was not used to in Australia. And you walk in and there’s a bed in your room already. Sometimes, they even give you a pillow and sheets, which I found very strange.
And here in France, you rent an apartment, and it won’t necessarily come with a kitchen. You have to fit out your own oven and cooktops and all those different things. What was standard in Australia? And was that the same as what you were used to back home?
Courtney: We have furnished apartments back home. Like in uni, especially. That’s pretty common. Even unfurnished apartments in the US typically include a refrigerator, a washing machine, a dryer, a microwave – that kind of standard.
Whereas that’s something that caught us off guard coming into the apartments in Australia, because there’s no refrigerator, typically, and no washing machine or dryer. And sometimes, there are not even hook ups for a dryer. Coming from the US, where everyone dries their clothes. Honestly, some apartments didn’t even have a spot for a dryer. Definitely not on microwave or anything like that.
So, having to move the refrigerator from apartment to apartment is kind of a hassle. Washing machine and dryer as well. So, yes, that was definitely something we weren’t expecting.
Carlie: Yeah, you definitely want to make sure you have a lift in your building in that case.
Courtney: Yeah. The first place we lived in was like an old warehouse. We lived on the top floor, no lifts. And then it was a loft, like a two-story apartment, but luckily it came with a washing machine, because it was crammed in the bathroom almost behind the shower.
You would have actually had to take the shower apart to replace the washing machine or dryer, because they were tucked in there behind it. So we got lucky with that being our first place. We didn’t have to buy a washing machine or dryer.
Carlie: I want to circle back to when you were getting your qualifications legitimised for Australia. How did you then go about finding a teaching job?
Courtney: Well, since I started out just looking for supply work casually, I just got entered into the database. But that’s pretty much by chance, if you get a phone call one morning or not. But then, once I’d worked at a few schools and introduced myself … Actually, I did start bringing around my CV to a few schools in my area when I first started, hoping to get on their personal lists.
So, once they knew me personally, then they would just call me directly. And also, I had made another American friend who was a teacher, and she’d started working a few months before me.
She was able to introduce me into schools, because I have heard that even getting teaching jobs can be a bit tricky, because there’s so many people competing for not as many jobs. So, I think a lot of it here is knowing people and making those connections.
Carlie: And as I understand it, with teaching, there’s a season where they’re really hiring teachers every year, isn’t there?
Courtney: Yes. Towards the end of the school year, gearing up for the following school year, is when … To be perfectly honest, I worked casually for a year and was happy doing that, because I was able to travel when I wanted. And when we had visitors, we were able to pick up and go.
And at the end of that first year, a principal at one of the schools called me in and offered me a job for the next year. I didn’t actually apply. But then I thought, yeah, I couldn’t really turn down a full-time job. The flexibility of supply teaching was very nice.
Carlie: Moving on, Courtney, to health insurance … What did you and your husband do in that regard, when you moved to Australia?
Courtney: When we moved over, we weren’t eligible for Medicare, so we had Bupa private insurance that covered hospital and doctor’s appointments. Then we would just pay out of pocket for any medical expenses and then keep the receipt, take the receipt into a Bupa office or email it, and they would … If I took it into the office, right in front of me, they would put the money into our bank account. It was very easy and very inexpensive compared to healthcare in the United States.
Carlie: Yeah. I’ve heard some horror stories about US healthcare.
Courtney: Yes, that was the shock. When we realised, like, ‘Wait, this is the out-of-pocket … We’re paying full price right now.’ And it was still, you know, a scratch of what would be paid after insurance in the US.
Carlie: So, Medicare is Australia’s public health system. At what point, after you moved, were you eligible to enroll in the public health system?
Courtney: When we applied for our permanent residency, we were on a bridging visa. And once you’re on the bridging visa, you are eligible for Medicare. So once we were on that bridging visa, we were able to have Medicare. And then we were granted our permanent residency.
So now that’s what we have. But also, on top of Medicare, we have Buba, again, as just a supplemental private insurance.
Carlie: And that’s pretty standard from what I’ve always known in Australia, is that, yes, you have public health cover in Australia, but it’s kind of expected, unless maybe you’re a low income earner, that you also have a level of private coverage to fill that gap.
And I think, actually, Australia has tax incentives where you don’t pay as much, I believe, if you have public health cover from, like, before you’re 30 or something.
Courtney: Yeah, I think so. There’s like a Medicare levy that is on your taxes if you don’t have private. And then, also, if you don’t sign up before 31 for private, whenever you do choose to sign up for private, you are charged like a 2% premium for every year that you didn’t have the private before you were 31. I think that’s right.
Carlie: And so, you have had two children in Australia, from what I understand.
Carlie: You obviously don’t have something to compare that to in the USA specifically, but how did you find the experience of being pregnant and giving birth in Australia?
Courtney: Wonderful, actually. Obviously, I’ve only had kids in Brisbane in Australia, but having plenty of family and friends back home having children, it’s just very, very different. Also, because we didn’t have our residency when I had the kids, we were still just going through the private system, so I saw the same obstetrician.
So, I don’t have the experience in the public system, but I’ve also had plenty of friends go through public here as well, and I haven’t really heard any complaints. But I found it a lot more personal. Like, when I would go to the doctor, I would see my obstetrician. Whereas my friends in the United States would see nurses, and their doctor would pop in and out, while I dealt with my doctor.
And then, when I was in the hospital, with my first I was there six days, I think, and with my second, maybe four. Whereas in the United States, it’s more common for you to only stay a couple of days. And then, even after I went home from the hospital, I had midwives visiting every day for the first few days, and then a check-up here and there for the first few weeks.
They really catered to the new moms. They’re not expecting you to get out in your car a week after you’ve given birth to drive to the doctor. You know, they really work on working with new moms, and that’s something I don’t really think is the same, at least in most healthcare systems in the US.
And then, also, the maternity leave. I think that’s a huge, huge difference. I can’t imagine if I had had my kids in the US as a schoolteacher. I would have had zero paid maternity leave. I would’ve had to take disability or unpaid leave, I guess. And as a schoolteacher in Brisbane, because I had worked for over a year, I was able to have fully paid maternity leave (it was for either 12 or 14 weeks), which was something that you definitely wouldn’t have had.
And then the community, too, with new moms in Australia, as far as the government agencies organising groups for new moms to get together. And that’s where I met some of my best friends in Brisbane, that I’m still very good friends with four years later. That’s just not something that’s common in the United States.
Carlie: My sister has a little one, and I understand that those moms groups are just so important for having a support network, and in your local area, when you’ve just had a baby.
Courtney: Oh yes, definitely. I know some of my friends in the US have been like, ‘How did you meet all of these other moms with kids the same age?’ And, ‘I don’t know how to meet mom friends in my area.’
And it’s just something that you don’t even really have to think about. When you go to your doctor’s appointments, the nurses work with you or organise it. And there’s so many mums and bugs activities, because everyone is on maternity leave.
Whereas in the United States, people are returned to work so much sooner, so I don’t think there’s as much catered towards those early months, where you need so much support.
Carlie: And was your husband able to get paternity leave after you’d just had the baby?
Courtney: He didn’t have any paid paternity leave. And both times my mother and father flew down from the US, so they were staying with us. So, he did not take any, because his company is American and they did not offer any paid maternity leave. But I had plenty of support from family.
Carlie: And I just want to move into education, because you do have two children now. I don’t believe they’re quite school age, but since you’re a teacher, you can talk about schools as well, I’m guessing. When your kids reached the age to be able to go to childcare, what were your options?
Courtney: So, my daughter, actually, at this very moment, is in childcare nursery school, as it’s called, but we only started this year. When you are just on a visitor’s visa – you don’t have your permanent residency or citizenship – you have to pay full fees for childcare. And, in comparison, childcare fees are pretty high in Australia. I think because so many people do receive subsidised costs.
So it is quite expensive – which is part of the reason I haven’t returned to work for a while – to send your kids to childcare, if you are not a permanent resident or a citizen. But if you have your residency or citizenship, then, based on your income, the government will pay usually around 50% of your childcare costs, up to a certain income, of course.
So it makes it much more affordable, and also encouraging kids to go to preschool-type things. And then, the year before primary school is called kindy, and they have government kindies that are subsidised and can be affordable.
Right now, we’re in the application process for next year, already, to get a spot in our local kindy, because it’s quite competitive. And then, as far as school, there are the public and private systems, just like in the US. Only, if you are on a visa, you do have to pay a yearly fee, even for a public school.
Carlie: So, now that you’re permanent residents, you can choose to enroll your children in public school, if you choose to go that way, and just pay the same nominal amounts as Australian citizens?
Courtney: Yeah, I think pretty much, as far as everything is concerned, except for voting, permanent residents have the same rights, or same benefits, as citizens. So, yeah, it’s all the same now.
Carlie: So you could choose to buy a house, or you could choose to enroll in university study, and pay the same rates as citizens.
Courtney: Yeah, yeah. Do whatever you want. Whereas, I guess, whenever you are a temporary visitor or temporary resident, then there are some limitations, I think, on what you can buy. And there are extra fees that you have to pay. Your stamp duties, you have to pay. But as a permanent resident, you get treated the same as a citizen when it comes to all of that.
Carlie: Courtney, I’m curious, as a teacher yourself, how you find the quality of education and the curriculum in Australia, compared to what you know back in the States?
Courtney: I think it all kind of goes back to feeling like Australia is much more laid back. Whenever I was teaching in the United States, things towards the end were getting so stressful and all about testing. And rigorous – that was the word they always wanted to use. When talking about primary school age, everything was very intense.
And I had to be at the school at 7.30am for the kids to be there at 7.45am. And it was a long day, with one 20-minute or 30-minute break for them to play outside. Whereas I find Australia to be much more, I guess, laid back, but also more well-rounded. The kids have two breaks to eat and to play outside, and school doesn’t start until 9am. So they actually were awake when they showed up.
So, it just felt like they gave more opportunities for kids to be kids and be a little more well-rounded, and gave them time to leave the class to do a music lesson or something. Whereas in the US, everything was very go, go, go. And it didn’t give the kids as much time to just be kids.
The curriculum is similar but different. It’s just the terminology, things like that, which are different. And the grading system is quite different. I’m not sure if it’s like that in all the states, but in Queensland, it’s all based on rubrics, and in the US, it was more on a number scale.
Carlie: Speaking of terminology, obviously the language is the same in Australia and the USA, but I’m curious about language nuances that you’ve encountered in Australia, and if there was anything that really took you by surprise or took a while to get used to?
Courtney: I’ve tried to think really hard about this. It was more just the abbreviating everything. Even when I was teaching my students about community workers. We were learning about the postman, and the books that we read called him the posty, and then the electrician was Sparky, and there are lots of cutesy nicknames for everything. You get used to them. Now, I don’t know any different.
Carlie: I remember when I first brought my French boyfriend to Australia, who was so excited, and he’s like, ‘Am I going to see a surfy with a boardy?’ And I’m like, ‘You nearly have that right.’
Courtney: The worst one was when I first moved here, and I heard on the radio one time, someone saying, ‘Just check us out on Facey.’ Like, for Facebook.
Carlie: I would say that’s a phrase that I would type more than I would say.
Courtney: Yeah, when you say it out loud—
Carlie: It’s just a bit cringe-worthy, really.
Courtney: Yeah, it is.
Carlie: I wanted to end on another really practical piece. And that is: when you first came to Australia, how did you go about opening a bank account? What did you navigate in terms of choosing a bank to go with in Australia?
Courtney: We didn’t open a bank account before we moved here, but I have heard from my American friends here, since then, that apparently it’s very easy. You can get online and open your bank account while you’re still abroad, which is good to know. But we actually didn’t have too big of an issue.
We were told by people here that it’s best to go with a local Australian bank. I think more for convenience. So we just walked into a Westpac. We had to bring in all the different forms of identity, that the point system added up, but it was fairly straightforward.
Carlie: And in terms of order of life set-up, did you make sure that you had your house and your mobile phone number, and all that sort of thing, before you went into the bank and tried to open an account?
Courtney: I don’t think we had a house. I remember there was a lot of, ‘You need this to do this, but you don’t have this yet.’ As far as identification and the phone, you needed the bank. So, I can’t remember the exact order that it ended up working out.
But I think a few times we had to put down references or something, in place of having one of the different things set up, because it’s hard. They need all these different things, but you’re in a country where you don’t know anyone, and you haven’t signed a lease yet, because you need a bank account to sign the lease.
And so, it takes a little bit of working with the people, because there’s only so much you can do when you are in a new country, and you don’t know anyone.
Carlie: Here in France, what has surprised me the most about banking, is that every bank, basically, unless it’s a French online bank, will charge you a monthly fee. You get charged a fee for the privilege of having a debit card. There’s basically a fee for everything. Whereas in Australia, I was used to having a lot of the fees waived. It’s been a while since I lived in Australia. What sort of fees are you charged by the banks these days?
Courtney: I can’t think of anything, other than if you have a credit card that has a fee associated with it. But we definitely don’t get charged any fees just for holding our bank accounts. I think what I noticed, too, is how easy it is. Now, there are different apps for transferring money. But even six years ago, when we moved here, it was easy to transfer money to people.
Because everyone in Australia has a bank account that has a six- or seven-digit number, and then another six-digit number, maybe. All you have to do is type it into your phone and you can send money to someone, with no fees or anything. I’m not sure why the US hasn’t done this. It seems so easy. But I guess there are a lot more people, a lot more bank accounts.
Carlie: Lots more numbers needed or something.
Courtney: Yeah. That’s what I think. Our bank numbers in the US were so many numbers, whereas here, I’m like, ‘Wait, that’s it? That’s the whole thing?’ But banking here we have found to be really simple and a pretty easy process.
Carlie: You mentioned, Courtney, that you have applied for permanent residency now. Does that mean you’re planning to become Australian citizens?
Courtney: We, actually, as of a month ago, we have applied for our citizenship. So we are waiting to get our citizenship. And then, who knows? We figure our kids were born here. It’s the only place they’ve ever lived.
And they don’t have any citizenship, because when they were born, we were only on a visa, so they didn’t get citizenship. So, it would be good. And also, even if we moved back to the US one day, we might want to retire on the Gold Coast. Good to have that.
Carlie: Good to have options, definitely. And you started in Brisbane, and now you’re in Adelaide. I’m a Melbourne girl myself, so I’m a bit biased, in that I think Melbourne is pretty good. What are you liking about the different cities you’ve lived in?
Courtney: Seeing how different they are. I think, being in Brisbane only for the first almost five years, we just assumed that that’s how all of Australia is. And then, moving to Adelaide, it’s completely different. The climate is completely different. The houses are completely different. Even, you know, the suburbs are set up differently.
So, getting to experience different parts of Australia, and seeing different regions, is really nice. Adelaide is just like a small town; it feels much smaller than it even is. And getting to have a proper four seasons, which we didn’t really have in Texas, and we definitely didn’t have in Brisbane.
Carlie: Yeah, it must be nice. I remember when I lived in Brisbane in winter, and all I needed was a cardigan. It just remained so mild. I threw out all my winter coats..
Courtney: Yeah. We would go back to the United States every year at Christmas time, so [we’d spend] winter in Texas. And after the first year or so in Brisbane, I just left all my winter coats and boots in Texas. And I would just wear them when I was there.
So, when we found out we were moving to Adelaide, we loaded up all of our winter coats to bring them back to Adelaide, because it gets cold, and then it stays cold for a while.
Carlie: Courtney, I’d like to know, if you had your time again, moving to Australia, is there anything that you would do differently?
Courtney: We probably wouldn’t have put so much in storage, in a storage unit back home, because six years later, it’s all still there. Going into expat life, you never know how long you’re going to be somewhere. So not Australia-specific, but, you know, we thought, oh, we’ll be gone in a couple of years, and now it’s been six.
So, I guess, you never know how long you might actually end up being gone. Take everything that you want with you, instead of always thinking you’re going to go back, because you never know. And also, I was listening to your podcast, the interview about moving to France, and she was talking about going in with an open mind.
And I think some Americans come to Australia and they think, because people speak English and it kind of looks like America to them, that things are going to be the same, and they expect things to be the same. And I think, if you go in with that mindset, you’re always going to be disappointed. You have to realise that you are on the other side of the world.
You might not get the customer service you think you should have, because that’s how it is in America. You’re in a different country.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have questions for Courtney or want to share your own experience of life in Oz, head over to expatfocus.com. At the bottom of our homepage, you’ll find links to our Facebook groups.
Be sure to check out our other episodes. We interview expats, and experts, on all aspects of life abroad. If you like what we do, please leave us a review on your favourite podcast app, and I’ll catch you next time.