If you are in a committed relationship with a New Zealander, you can get an exemption to be allowed to enter on a visa. Is it easy? It depends. Not all partners are created equal.
EOI and ITA
The general rule is that the border is closed to all non-New Zealanders. Most people need an exemption to be allowed to come in for a “critical purpose”. Employers who want to bring in “critical workers” make an online request to do so. For the rest, there is the Request for Travel process. Technically, it is called an Expression of Interest (“EOI”), and it plays an important part in what follows. Each EOI costs NZ$45 to put in.
The EOI is not a visa application. The online form gives you 3000 letters or numbers to explain why you should be allowed in. That’s not much space to tell the story of your relationship with your NZ life partner. People flunk the EOI, sometimes multiple times, even though their case is genuine.
If your EOI is successful, you then get an Invitation to Apply (“ITA”) for a visa, usually a 6-month Visitor Visa, and that is when you put in the visa application itself. Once you are in NZ, you can apply for a longer-term Partnership visa in the usual way.
So there is the two-step – the EOI, then the visa application itself. Depending on your situation, they may not necessarily go in that order.
Visa Waiver Countries
Prior to the COVID-19 emergency, people from “visa waiver countries” could come in without having to apply for a visa first. In recognition of their preferential status, and the perception that citizens of these countries are “low risk”, they can put in an EOI for the critical purpose of joining their partner. A whole piece of Immigration Instructions has been written just for them.
It only takes a few days to get an answer on an EOI. Things are fairly straightforward if they get the ITA. They put in the visa application and include documents to prove that they have been living with their other half, and have been keeping in touch with them. If that evidence is clear enough, then they get the visa.
However, EOI’s are rejected, or the visa application itself is declined. Apart from failing to make a good enough case that the relationship is genuine, there are other reasons why this could happen:
- A criminal record
- Bad past immigration history with NZ or another country
- Health issues
The problem with the EOI is that it doesn’t allow any supporting documents to be uploaded to back up what is said in the 3000-character explanation.
In such cases we have adopted an alternative approach, which is to file a full online Partnership visa application, and then afterwards lodge a Request for Travel EOI which refers back to the application. Firstly, this lets you put documents before Immigration to prove the relationship and address other problems you may have. Secondly, if the EOI is unsuccessful then you can still hang in there to get the result of the main application. This takes considerably longer – several months, usually – but is more certain than entering the EOI lottery.
In fact, it seems like Immigration may favour this approach, although they don’t advertise it. There is even a section of the COVID-19 Restricted Temporary Entry Instructions which states that a visa application can be assessed and granted without having filed an EOI, so long as the person is coming to NZ for a critical purpose – and joining one’s partner is of course one of those purposes.
Once the visa is granted – either through the EOI-visa two-step, or by an application on its own, then the person does not need to request an exemption at all. This is because partners of New Zealanders who are coming in on a visa based on that relationship are a specific class of people who are allowed in without the exemption.
What About the Others?
We still haven’t talked about people who are not from visa-waiver countries. There is no special policy for them, and the public information on the Immigration New Zealand website doesn’t encourage them to request an exemption.
On the EOI route, the only categories that are open to them are:
- Humanitarian grounds because of “exceptional circumstances”. This is a tough legal test to meet. Most Humanitarian EOIs are rejected; or
- Flying in together with the NZ partner. This still needs them to convince Immigration that they are in a genuine and stable relationship, with all the uncertainty of outcome that we have mentioned above.
Otherwise, their fall-back strategy is to file a Partner visa application in the usual way. Again, this ultimately delivers a more certain outcome than any of the others, although it takes longer.
It has been widely publicised that the processing of visa applications for offshore people has been put on hold. Partner visas are one of the exceptions, so that in that sense it is still business as usual. Inevitably, though, it will take longer than usual to get a decision. Immigration New Zealand’s advertised processing time for overseas partner visas is 8 months. Our experience, however, is that a thoroughly prepared application, with strong evidence of the relationship, can be approved considerably faster. This is where professional assistance can add real value for applicants.
The online Request for Travel EOI doesn’t stop partners who are not eligible from making the request anyway. In fact, it is possible to submit the form and pay the fee as the Partner of a New Zealander, no matter what country they are from. It is just that all those EOIs will be declined for the simple reason that there is no Partner exemption for those people.
For example, someone from a non-visa-waiver country could successfully get invited to apply for a visa if they are travelling here with the NZ partner. But if they are not, they can still put in the EOI and pay the fee without any hope of being successful.
In my view this is seriously misleading. If it were not for the fact that INZ has been struggling for months to adapt to the current situation, it could be called dishonest. It is true that the government website tries to make it clear that the border is essentially shut. However, the interim entry policies that have been put in place, and the chops and changes that go on almost weekly, make it confusing enough for those of us in the industry, let alone for others who don’t work in this area every day.
The reality is that the online systems that have been put in place to cover the COVID-19 exceptions have been thrown together in good faith, but in a hurry. The programming logic behind the online EOI needs to be tidied up now, in order to stop many people from making pointless Requests for Travel which will never be approved.