The Journey West: A brief discussion concerning Australian partner visas for Thais and people from three other Asian countries

(A working draft as of 1 December 2011)

By Bruce Bickerstaff


Background to this paper


The primary focus of this paper is Thai nationals wishing to settle in Australia as the partner of an Australian citizen.  In writing this paper I set out to answer some questions concerning the issuing of Australian visas to Thais. I had no particular agenda or ‘axe to grind’, and my curiosity was sparked largely by my own experience of assisting my wife through the visa process in Bangkok. We found the process difficult and time-consuming although we have no complaints regarding the treatment we received from the staff we dealt with, and we did achieve the desired outcome.


I was initially interested in discovering:






As is often the case, no sooner had I set out to discover the answers to these questions than I found myself asking more, for example:





With the kind assistance of staff from the relevant Australian government department I found answers to some, but not all, of these questions. Without their help I would have floundered as the information available in the public domain is confusing and incomplete. This is particularly the case should a researcher require country-specific information and/or consistent data across a time-frame spanning several years (Refer Endnote 1). I encountered many discrepancies that presumably result from a combination of:



Introduction to Australia’s visa issuance process


Applications from those wishing to settle in Australia are considered within the context of a complex visa processing framework that caters for a wide variety of both temporary visitors and permanent settlers.  A good starting point in understanding this system is the latest annual report of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). (Refer Endnote 2)


Australia’s visa and migration program has seven separate streams, these being:



I want to zero in on the second dot point, the ‘Family’ stream, which encompasses the following visa categories:



According to DIAC, in 2009-10 the top ten source countries for visitors to, and settlers in, Australia were the Peoples Republic of China, India, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, UK, USA, and Vietnam. The ranking held by each of these countries depends on the type of visitor/settler under consideration. For example the Peoples Republic of China is the number one source country for both the family stream and for student visas, but is ranked in only third place for skilled workers, and fourth place for long-stay business visitors.


Whilst Thailand is not one of the top ten source countries for migrants to Australia overall, it does feature in the top ten in terms of settlers entering via the family stream.  Figure One shows the overall number of people settling in Australia (the top line), as well as settlers from Thailand and three other Asian countries.



In Figure Two I have altered the vertical scale by removing the data for all countries combined. This better illustrates the differences in numbers between Thailand, and the other Asian countries I have selected for comparison purposes. Remember that in these two charts we are looking at all visa types, and not just the family stream.



Figure Three illustrates the fact that most of the visas granted to Thais within Australia’s ‘family stream’ take the form of ‘partner’ visas. Since 1996/97, 17,626 partner visas have been issued to Thai nationals.  To put this into perspective, the number of Australian partner visas issued to all citizens of all countries combined during the same period was 511,642. The issuance of partner visas to Thais peaked at 1,987 per annum in 2008/09, dropping to 1,903 in 2009/19 and 1,754 in 2010/11. (Refer Endnote 3)




Partner visas


So let’s now turn our attention to partner visas. As noted earlier, this category includes people intending to get married (fiancé), and both married and unmarried partners (including same-sex couples). The vast majority of partner visas are granted for married partners.


Figure Four looks at the number of partner visas issued from 1996-97 to 2010-11, to people from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Peoples Republic of China. During this period the number of partner visas issued to Thais grew from 487 to 1,754 per annum. Despite that increase, the number of partner visas issued to Thais remained significantly lower than for the other three countries. Partner visas granted to people from the PRC are notable not just for the sheer numbers, but also for the strong rate of growth from 2003-04 onwards.



What then is the basis for this marked difference in partner visa issuance between these four Asian countries?


There are actually many factors at work, each one exerting influence to a greater or lesser extent.  While I don’t have access to the data that might allow us to quantify the degree to which each one shapes the final outcome, we can discuss some of these factors in general terms.


Social or demographic factors influencing uptake of partner visas


The first factor is the degree of opportunity for Australian citizens to meet nationals from the four countries in question. Two variables here are the numbers of Australians visiting those countries, and the numbers of nationals from those countries visiting Australia. The table that follows looks at visitor movements over twelve months. Based on this data alone, one would have expected a higher number of partner visas for Thais, so presumably other factors predominate.




Australians visiting each country

Foreign nationals  visiting Australia

Total of previous two columns





















Source: ABS, Arrivals and Departures (tables 5 & 9)

Note: The sample period used was October 2010 to October 2011


Another potentially significant variable is the number of people already living in Australia who were born in each of the four countries in question, or whose parents were born there. This is another dimension of interaction between the cultures, and additionally, some of the spouses settling in Australia will marry naturalized Australians of the same ethnicity. This data further explains the high number of partner visas issued to Chinese citizens.




Australians born overseas

Ancestry by country of birth of parents


Chinese (incl. PRC)














not listed separately

Source: 2006 ABS, National Census


Some of the other social or demographic factors that might play a role in increasing or decreasing the number of partners drawn from each country could include:


Possible political or bureaucratic factors influencing granting of partner visas

There are a number of means by which the Australian government might either facilitate or frustrate partner migration, both overall, or with respect to migrants from a particular country or countries.

Such an influence could result from deliberate strategies, or simply be the inadvertent outcome of (for example) under-resourcing of particular processing centres or bias on the part of relevant departmental staff.


Each year the government sets targets or quotas for each of the various types of immigrants. The limit of the Family Stream in 2010-11 was set at 54,550 places, of which about three quarters will take the form of Partner visas. It is unclear however as to whether there are specific limits imposed in relation to partner visas issued to nationals from each country.


DIAC also employs a system of “capping and queuing”, which is described at


Risk assessment


One would assume that DIAC’s assessment of risk for each specific country is likely to be a significant variable. Visa applications from countries that are considered high risk require more supporting paperwork, and are more closely vetted. Such applications may take longer to process and be more costly to secure, for example if an immigration agent is required. One would also assume that a higher percentage of these applications are rejected.


The overall national risk rating for each country is unknown, but the risk rating in relation to applications for student visas is publicly available information and can be accessed here:


For student visas at least, here are the results for Thailand and the other three countries:



Assessment level - Depending on visa sub-class / education sector


2 – 4


1 – 3


1 – 3


1 – 2

Note: A rating or assessment of 1 is the lowest risk rating, with 5 being the highest.

One of the factors upon which national risk assessments are based is the number of visa over-stayers and/or visa breaches from each country. The table below shows the number of “unlawful non-citizens” within Australia as at 30 June 2010




Number of people














Difficulty and delay related to the visa application process


Two other potentially significant factors, both related to risk assessment, are the degree of difficulty associated with preparing applications, and the time taken to subsequently process them.


DIAC informs prospective applicants that “Processing time for individual applications will vary and is dependant on a number of factors, including the complexity of the case, the planning levels and priority for the visa category and the number of applications lodged.”  (Refer Endnote 4)


One could safely assume that if you make the process difficult enough then a certain percentage of people will choose not to submit an application. Some of these people may then consider other options such as emigration to their partner’s country of residence. Others will commence the process but later withdraw, or make errors or omissions that result in the rejection of their application.


One area where I still lack information for all four countries is processing times. The current time frame for consideration of a partner visa for a Thai applying in Bangkok is reported to be around five months. It would be interesting to compare this to the time frame for processing a partner visa for a potential settler from the PRC, given the higher risk rating accorded to people from that country.


The following table was taken from the 2001-02 edition of DIAC’s annual Population Flow publication.  A similar table did not feature in subsequent years’ reports, perhaps due to its potential to embarrass specific Heads of Mission. This backlog of visa applications in Bangkok is said to have continued for many years, and may well have been a factor in the decision to outsource visa processing there to a private sector operator (VFS Thailand Ltd). The degree to which this initiative has speeded up processing is unclear, as is the extent to which processing delays may have resulted in a reduction in the numbers of partner visas granted to Thais.



Fig. 11: Unfinalised Caseloads by Region 


Success rate of visa applications


What then is the ratio of successful applications to withdrawn or unsuccessful applications, in each of the four countries? And can this be related to the factors previously discussed? The next table shows the number of applications for partner visas that were lodged in the last three years:






China, PRC
















Source: DIAC

Now let’s look at how many were subsequently approved. The next table shows the outcome of applications for the same three program years.  Note that because there is a lag between an application being lodged and a final decision - the column totals do not match between the two tables.  I was not able to obtain details concerning the reasons for applications being withdrawn or refused.


Source: DIAC


These statistics show us that in 2010/11 the percentage of rejected or withdrawn partner visa applications in each of the four countries was China/PRC (9.7%), Philippines (6.8%), Thailand (6.9%), and Vietnam (11.3%). This is consistent with the application of a higher risk rating for people from the Peoples Republic of China. The figures for Thailand are interesting though, in terms of the relatively high ratio of withdrawn applications, compared to those actually rejected in all three years.


Closing remarks


In closing, and perhaps on a somewhat divergent note, it is curious that there does not appear to have been a more comprehensive analysis of the effectiveness of the partner visa program. The only “Key Performance Indicator’ specifically related to the Family Stream is that “Family Migration is delivered in line with government planning levels”, which appears to be somewhat of an exercise in navel-gazing.


DIAC does undertake a follow-up survey based on a sampling of grantees, known as the ‘Continuous Survey of Australia’s Migrants’ (CSAM). The focus of this survey is however the extent to which migrants secure gainful employment, and their satisfaction with housing. (Refer Endnote 5) Given that they were granted residency based on their relationship, it would seem relevant to explore how well that relationship survived the transition.


A 2002 study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, drawing on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, confirmed the relatively high rates of divorce amongst many ethnically-mixed families. It makes for interesting reading. In the case of marriages between Australians and Chinese, and Australians and Vietnamese, the rate of divorce was almost twice that for marriages between Australian-born people. The situation with Filipinos was somewhat better, although the result varied greatly depending on whether the Filipino spouse was male or female. Unfortunately data was not available in relation to Thai-Australian families.


I would not suggest for a moment that cross-cultural marriages should be discouraged. At the same time though, given the considerable economic and social cost of broken homes, perhaps the government should do more to identify and address deficiencies in a situation that they themselves facilitate.


One suggestion might be to offer visa applicants information about Australian society early in the process, something along the lines of a more targeted version of the popular book ‘Thailand Fever’. (Refer Endnote 6) At the present time foreign nationals are only provided with information about Australia after they have been granted a spouse visa. Perhaps it’s a case of too little, too late?


Another topical issue, which might well be a worthy subject for a further paper, is the considerable difficulty faced by Australians who seek to adopt orphan from these and other countries. In particular, to explore the political or bureaucratic justification for imposing barriers and difficulties that are reportedly far greater than in the case of other settlers entering under the family stream.


(Bruce Bickerstaff is the author of "Your Investment Guide to Thailand", now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. Further details can be found at




1. I have a fair amount of experience with handling statistics yet I found the DIAC statistical methodology daunting. For example, there is not one simple measure when it comes to visas, but rather multiple measures including ‘outcomes’, ‘grants’, and ‘targets’.


Migration Program ‘outcomes’ are the number of migrant visas granted net of Business Skills visas cancelled under s134 of the Migration Act 1958 and net of places taken by provisional spouse fiance and interdependent visa holders who do not subsequently obtain permanent visas due to refusal or withdrawal. I was advised that, when looking at the result of a Migration Program, the primary reference was outcomes reported by citizenship. The charts in this paper (other than figures 1 & 2) relate to ‘outcomes’ reported by country of residence.


Another measurement that DIAC uses is 'Permanent additions'. This measure is a composite measure of Settler arrivals and the onshore program outcome - people who, in the reporting period, are already here in Australia as there is often a lag - up to a year between the arrival in Australia of a migrant and the grant of a visa. It usually is reported by country of birth but the facility is available to report by citizenship.


A recent DIAC initiative which is worthy of mention, is known as the ‘Settlement Reporting Facility’. This enables researchers to drill down into the available data via DIAC’s public web site. The drawback here though is that the data does not correlate with data in other DIAC reports, and the process of data manipulation and extraction is not particularly user-friendly. Details can be found here:


2. See

Look for Part 3 “Report of Performance”, and find Program 1.1. See also


3. These figures related to visa ‘outcomes’ rather than grants, and were provided to the author by email dated 25 October 2011.








Other reference material


The annual Population Flow reports, from which I extracted much of the data in this paper, can be accessed here:


Fact Sheet 29 - Overview of Family Stream Migration

Fact Sheet 30 - Family Stream Migration: Partners

Fact Sheet 21 - Managing the Migration Program

Settler arrivals by region/country of birth, 1990-91 to 1999-00

Settler arrivals by birthplace, 2000-01 to 2010-11

Australian Institute of Family Studies. Diversity and change in Australian families: Statistical profiles, Chapter 15 ‘Divorce and Separation’. Refer page 216/7

See also