Thursday, June 14, 2012

Learn you some Sydney for great good!

From time to time I get questions from family and friends on pointers on what it's like to migrate to and live in Australia in general and Sydney in particular. After giving ad hoc advice and tips for quite some time, I decided to compile them into one nice package I'd like to call Learn you some Sydney for great good! If you or someone you know is thinking of migrating Down Under, I hope you'll find this handy.

Immigration and customs

Most expatriates arrive in Australia on one of the following visa classes:
  1. Temporary Long Stay Business visa (457) is a temporary visa where a company sponsors you to live and work in Australia for up to four years. Being on this visa also entitles your dependents to work and study (fees may apply in NSW and ACT) in Australia during your whole stay.
  2. Skilled Independent Migrant visa (175) is a permanent visa that allows you and your dependents to work, study and receive subsidized healthcare in Australia on a permanent basis. To be eligible for this visa, you have to have qualifications in at least one of the listed skilled occupations and be sufficiently proficient in English.
Australian Immigration uses an electronic visa system which means you don't have to have a physical visa page in your passport. To be on the safe side, it's probably worth having a copy of the e-visa ready in case the immigration officer asks for it.

If you are bringing anything organic like foodstuff and spices into Australia, make sure that you declare it in the entry form to avoid paying hefty fines. Australian Customs is very particular about these things.


One of the first things that you should probably do as soon as you arrive in Australia is to get an official ID card. Doing so allows you to avoid the hassle of having to bring along your passport, utility bills, bank statement, etc. to meet the 100 point check requirement to prove your identity when opening a bank account, applying for a bank loan or signing up for mobile or broadband services.

There are a couple options, both of which meet the 100 point check requirement:
  1. If you have a valid US (or any OECD country) driver's license, you can simply convert it to a NSW license.
  2. If you don't have a valid license from any of the recognized countries, things can be a bit tricky. I recommend opening a bank account and getting your first utility bill (as proof of address) before applying for a photo ID card.

The retail banking system in Australia is probably a bit more advanced than what you're used to in the US. For instance, most people don't really use checks anymore, but then again that's not saying much.

Most new expatriates in Australia tend to go with any of the big four banks for their financial needs. Personally, I prefer HSBC since I frequently repatriate funds back to Malaysia and having an HSBC account back home makes things much more convenient. HSBC also charges a relatively low fee ($8) for making global transfers and offers above average fixed deposit rates. Better yet, if you're an HSBC Premier account holder, you can even make global transfers for free and take advantage of a number of perks that they offer like being able to open an Australian account before you even arrive in Australia and a free Qantas club membership (totally worth it if you fly a lot), among other things.


This is probably the single biggest thing that's going to hit your pocket, especially if you have a family. Suffice it to say, housing here is among the most expensive in the world. Heck, even New York rents are considerably cheaper in comparison. Be prepared to fork out close to $700/week for an unfurnished 3-bedroom apartment in metropolitan Sydney. While you still can find fully furnished 4-bedroom houses in suburban Sydney for $400-500/week (which is considered really cheap by the way), bear in mind that anything beyond 20km radius is considered somewhat dodgy or ghetto here, at least in my opinion.

When house or apartment hunting, your best friend is the Domain website. It allows you to customize the search by specifying a comprehensive set of criteria such as whether the property has broadband access, built-in laundry or dishwasher and proximity to schools, shopping malls and train stations.

The North and North West suburbs are among the best places to live in Sydney. I prefer the North Shore due to its family friendliness, the excellent accessibility in terms of public transports, availability of all sorts of amenities and good schools, proximity to so many beautiful and pristine beaches, as well as its more affluent demographics, although the North West suburbs are not so bad either. Bear in mind that because of the aforementioned factors, properties on the North Shore are more expensive than those in the North West.

One of the best places to I live in Sydney is a suburb called Chatswood located 12km from the CBD. It's a lovely neighborhood with a lot of shopping malls, schools and a transport hub. On average, you only need to walk 5-10 minutes in any direction be it when grocery shopping, walking your kids to school or catching the train to go to work.

Another decent suburb is Rhodes. Located 15km from the city center, it's a fantastic bayside suburb with has recently been re-developed and boasts beautiful and modern low-rise apartments, a shopping mall, restaurants, IKEA (you can literally buy furniture and drag it across the street to your apartment) and a train station. There's also a public school about 15 minutes by foot and a few other decent schools a mere couple of train stops away in Strathfield. It's perfect for families who prefer someplace more quiet and want to avoid the hustle and bustle of Chatswood.

Getting around

Depending on where you live, public transport can go from excellent to 'meh'. In general, if you live in Sydney metro, chances are there's a train station a mere 5-10 minutes walk away. However, it's worth noting that some areas in Sydney metro are not covered by the rail network especially those that are close to the beaches, but even then buses frequently ply those routes.

If you decide to live in the suburbs, then you'll probably need a car. In general, cars here are a bit more expensive compared to what you'll find in the US. For instance, a brand new minivan or full-size sedan will probably set you back $35,000-45,000. Gasoline and maintenance are also more expensive thanks to higher labor costs.

That's exactly why I decided to live in metropolitan Sydney since everywhere is within walking distance. In the rare occasions when I need to use a car (like driving to the beach or countryside), there are car sharing services available. Just pay $9-29/month for membership and $5-8/hour plus mileage every time you drive one of their cars. I find it to be extremely convenient and hassle free, not to mention cost effective.


If you're a permanent resident, then you're entitled to the publicly funded universal health care system (Medicare). Bear in mind that you need to spend roughly 2% of your income on the Medicare levy to take advantage of it. However, you can avoid paying the levy if you sign up for a private health insurance. In that case, I recommend NIB as I know a number of friends who have been with them for many years and are very happy with their service.

If you're not a permanent resident, then you'll need to sign up for a private health insurance as part of your visa requirement. Depending on the package (basic to comprehensive), a typical health plan will probably set you back $300-500/month. I recommend IMAN which is a subsidiary of NIB that offers services to expatriates on working visas.

I'd say Medicare already provides fairly comprehensive coverage for most families. Bear in mind that there are a number of things that are not covered such as dental treatment, drugs, elective procedures, etc. In addition, Medicare typically only covers 70-80% of the costs for specialist consultation.

Having said that, even if you decide to sign up for a private health insurance, there are usually waiting periods of 6-12 months for extras and pre-existing conditions.


If you're a permanent resident, then you get to send your kids to public schools for free. You'll still need to pay for stationery, school uniforms and excursions though, but the costs involved are nominal compared to what your kids get in return.

In general the quality of public education in Sydney is pretty high. You don't need to send your kids to a private school to get quality education as the public schools here are just as good.

If you're into numbers, you can find a number of school rankings here. There's also a good website that profiles each school and provides comprehensive statistics on their academic performance.

Among the public primary schools in Sydney, Artarmon Public School is probably the best, while Chatswood is in the top 10. Hornsby North and Kirribilli aren't too bad either.

If you're not a permanent resident, then be prepared to spend $5,000/year per child to send her to a public school. If that's the case, then you probably want to consider sending your kids to a private Islamic or non-denominational school, some of which only charge $3,000-4,000/year.

Basic Islamic education is taught in public schools under the banner 'Scripture', although the availability depends on whether there are enough Muslim students there. If your kids require something more in-depth, there are a number of private Islamic schools in Sydney, although unfortunately most of them are situated in suburbs like Bankstown and Auburn which I consider to be somewhat dodgy.

Halal food and mosques

Halal food is really easy to find here. Most kebab parlors, Nando's and Indian restaurants, even some Oportos and KFCs serve halal meat. Just make sure to ask first if you're in doubt.

If you need to buy fresh halal meat, there are many halal butchers in Sydney. If you're feeling lazy and want the meat delivered to your door instead, check out this butcher. I usually go to a butcher in Asquith, a suburb 30km from Sydney CBD but is still convenient nonetheless since it's located just next to the Asquith train station.

Mosques and musallahs are also easy to find. If you work in the CBD, there are a few mosques that conduct Friday prayers. There's also a mosque in Artarmon close to where I live that conducts Friday and Eid prayers and has an active Muslim community.


When it comes to telecommunication, sadly things here aren't much better than in the US.

Mobile plan: Just skip the rest and go with Telstra. They are hands down the only reliable provider here. That said, reliability comes at a price, so you'll probably end up paying a bit more for a Telstra mobile plan, although the price gap is getting smaller by the day. If you already have a phone, just sign up for the $30 pre-paid plan that gives you 2 hours worth of talk time and a 'whopping' 500MB worth of data! Oh, and be prepared to be baffled by the pricing and marketing BS that's designed to confuse consumers. Just read between the lines and you'll be fine :).

Broadband: If broadband access were the only barometer for how developed a country is, then Australia would probably end up in the third world category. Most ISPs impose monthly bandwidth caps on broadband usage (typically 50-500GB/month), although some don't. Personally I find TPG to offer the best value for money. I currently pay $30/month for an unlimited ADSL2+ (up to 20Mbps) package and am very happy with it.

The Australian government is in the midst of deploying a nationwide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) infrastructure which promises to significantly improve the quality of broadband here. At the moment, the coverage is still few and far between and pricing somewhat unaffordable, although things will definitely improve over time.

Television: If you're NOT into sports, then you can just make do with digital free-to-air TV that offers a number of HD channels and quality programming (minus the lame reality shows). If you ARE into sports, then you really only have one option: Foxtel. They have total monopoly over paid TV here in Australia, so be prepared to spend around $100/month on a HD sports package.

Safety and security

In general, Sydney is a very safe and family-friendly place. In fact, Aussies are actually a very friendly and welcoming bunch, and there's a good mix of people from all sorts of ethnic groups living in harmony without any problem.

That said, it's still probably wise to avoid some of the dodgy suburbs, especially those in the inner west and south west sides of Sydney. Also, try to avoid the CBD and areas close to pubs on Friday and Saturday nights as some Aussies can be somewhat unruly when they're intoxicated.


The following table contains sample monthly expenditure for a family of four (2 adults and 2 children) in Sydney whose main provider is on a working visa (457). All figures are in AUD.

Rent (2 bedroom apartment)


Mobile pre-paid
Fixed line broadband
Pay TV

Private health insurance


Car loan
License and road tax
6-monthly service
Public transport

Eating out/lunches

Things to do

You may feel somewhat overwhelmed when you first set foot in Australia. It's normal for new expatriates to find it to be very daunting and confusing to settle down initially. There are so many things to figure out and tasks to juggle. For the sake of simplicity, I'd prioritize the tasks in the following order:
  1. Open a bank account
  2. Sign up for a mobile plan
  3. Medicare registration
  4. Apply for a tax file number
  5. Get a photo card or driver's license
  6. Attend job interviews
  7. Go apartment hunting
  8. School registration
  9. Get a broadband connection
Getting an ATM or debit card will earn you 20-30 points (towards the 100 point check), so that's definitely something that should happen on the first day if possible. Then you'll need a mobile number so that the authorities, landlord, service providers, etc can contact you.

You should also consider getting a job first before getting an apartment as most landlords and real estate agents require proof of income before they can even consider your application. You can start applying for jobs while still overseas and arrange for interviews when you're finally in Sydney.

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