How To Survive on a Student Visa in Australia
I did the maths and shook my head in disbelief. The numbers didn't make sense. How do international students in Australia survive? How do you pay for college fees and rent without facing starvation?
Student visas allow us to work 40 hours per fortnight during the semester and full time during semester breaks. Most vocational colleges running Certificate III, Certificate IV, Diploma and Advanced Diploma courses follow the school term calendar, so have classes for 40 weeks of the year allowing us to work fulltime for the remaining 12 weeks of the year.
The minimum hourly wage in Australia is A$17.70 per hour or A$22.13 per hour with a 25% casual loading (no sick and annual leave). So we could earn about $24,000 per year. Qualifying for the tax-free threshold of $18,200 per year we would take home $23,000. That sounds good, doesn't it?
Vocational college fees amount to at least $6,000 per year ($3,000 per semester). That is the bottom line. Many courses are more expensive. A bedroom in a central area is about $250 to $400 per week. Sharing a bedroom reduces our rent to about $6,000 per year. So this leaves us $11,000 per year to cover food, clothing and transport. That is $30 per day. How do we survive on $30 a day in a country where beef costs $40/kg? A mystery to me. So I asked around.
# 1 Savings
Australian student visas require proof of sufficient funds, usually A$18,610 per year plus course fees plus return airfares. Yes, some people borrow the money, show proof and then pay it back, but every international student arriving in Australia brings some cash, even if not the full amount stipulated in the visa conditions, even if a lot less, but everybody brings some cash.
Before I came to Australia I sold everything. The apartment I had just inherited from my grandmother. My car. My furniture. I kept a small nest egg in Hungary, spent some on travelling to London and Indonesia and then transferred the rest to Australia. All up I had A$23,000 when I arrived. Even with me working part time it was gone within 18 months, spent on school fees and living - Lilla Magyari - Hungary
When I came to Australia two years ago I transferred some money as a safety net but haven’t touched it yet - Tobias Mahnert - Germany
# 2 Parents
Some students receive money from their parents, but usually not enough. So even if you are one of the lucky ones, you usually need to work as well to cover costs. But money from your parents means you don't have to survive on $30 a day.
# 3 Austerity
You can survive on $30 a day in Australia. You just have to be really, really frugal. No holiday. No travel. No car. No cinema. No restaurant. No pubs. No new clothes. No new books. Sometimes even no bed.
I arrived with school fees paid for a term, rent paid for a month, $2,000 cash and no English at all. It was very, very tough. I ended up couch surfing since I couldn't afford the rent - Name Withheld
# 4 Sharing
Many students share things to reduce their cost of living. Buy bulk quantities of everyday necessities in discount stores or wholesalers. Cook together. Share a room with not just one but two or more other students. Reuse things left behind. Help each other out.
# 5 Hours
If you legally work more than the hours stipulated in your visa, there is a trail of bank transfers and accounting records. If you get caught, you will probably need to leave the country. So almost nobody takes this risk. Nobody works officially more hours than stated in their visa. But what do students do when struggling to live on $30 a day? They work extra hours for cash. It is illegal - both the extra hours bit and the cash bit. But the reality is that many students do it.
I work 20 hours per week for $22.50 per hour plus super. And then another 12 hours per week for $21.15 per hour cash. All in the same business - Name Withheld
I babysit about 3 nights a week and work as a cleaner on Saturdays, both for $20 cash per hour - Name Withheld
Warning: You violate your visa conditions by working more hours than stipulated in your visa. And you commit tax fraud by not declaring your cash income in your annual income tax return.
# 6 Absence
This goes hand in hand with # 5. If you work a lot more than 40 hours per fortnight, sooner or later you will struggle to meet your attendance requirements at college. In the past you could miss most of your classes and just use your student visa to work. But rules around attendance have become a lot stricter. Most colleges will now report you if your attendance slips below a certain percentage, for example 80% and you risk having your visa cancelled. But there are exceptions. Some colleges are less strict allowing you to work extra hours to make ends meet.
The first year I attended most classes, but then the college changed my class timetable resulting in clashes with my work shifts. So at the moment I don't attend college at all and just submit my assignments when due and it is fine - Name Withheld
I told my agency that I was after a college that charges the lowest fees and is the least strict around attendance and they did - Name Withheld
# 7 Skilled
If you learned a trade or attained a qualification before arriving in Australia and if these skills are in high demand, you can earn a very good wage and hence find it relatively easy to get by in Australia.
Before coming to Australia I worked eight years as a chef in Germany. Chefs are in short supply in Australia, so I found it easy to find a job that pays well - Tobias Mahnert - Germany
I worked in Marketing for 5 years before coming to Australia. I earn a good wage at a marketing agency in Sydney - Amie Marshall - UK
So this is what I learned. Most students come with savings and/or get some cash from their parents and/or live really frugally and/or share and/or work extra hours for cash and/or have really sought after skills. So I no longer shake my head in disbelief. I can see how you survive. I just don't know whether I would have the guts.