• Insights

New Zealand’s immigration policy and the impact of COVID-19

New Zealand
Written by
Kiely Thompson Caisley, New Zealand’s leading boutique employment law firm.
This article briefly examines New Zealand’s immigration framework, put on hold by the measures implemented in response to COVID-19, and the categories of foreign nationals who may now enter New Zealand.

On 19 March 2020, New Zealand closed its border to almost all foreign nationals for the first time in the nation’s history. At the time of writing, New Zealand’s border remains closed, though as the weeks and months progress, the New Zealand government is gradually expanding the categories of travellers allowed to enter the country.  

New Zealand’s immigration framework 

New Zealand’s immigration framework is set out in the Immigration Act 2009, which provides for the creation of immigration instructions. Those immigration instructions set out the categories of visas available to foreign nationals; the objectives, conditions, and criteria for those visa categories; and the requirements for the grant of a visa and border entry. 

The immigration instructions provide for two broad classes of visa: residence class visas and temporary entry class visas.   

New Zealand’s residence programme aims to contribute to economic growth through enhancing human capability in New Zealand while maintaining a high level of social cohesion. Applicants are selected on the basis of either their family links to New Zealand or their skills and experience, with categories of residence visa including business/investmentbased visas, skilled migrant visas and visas based on family links. 

The objective of the immigration instructions for temporary entry class visas is to facilitate the entry of foreign nationals into New Zealand to address skills shortages, build strong international links and attract foreign exchange earnings. Categories of temporary entry class visas include visitor visas, student visas and work visas. Visitor visas are for travellers who are holidaying or visiting for certain other short-term purposes such as business consultations, conferences or medical treatment. Work visas provide the right to work in New Zealand including to individuals with job offers from accredited employers in New Zealand; individuals with job offers for roles unable to be filled by New Zealanders; and individuals seeking to undertake a specific purpose.   

Border closure 

New Zealand’s border closure has been implemented through a number of changes to the immigration instructions. 

The overarching objective of the border closure is to minimise the risks posed by COVID-19 to New Zealand.  There are five key considerations:  

  • risk to the health of New Zealanders;  
  • risk to the health of Pacific Island countries; 
  • readiness of Government agencies to operationalise measures; 
  • risks to foreign relations; 
  • risk of significant adverse economic impacts. 


Currently, New Zealand citizens, permanent residents and most resident class visa holders may enter the country.  However, border entry permission must be refused to holders of temporary entry class visas and holders of residence class visas granted offshore who would be entering New Zealand for the first time on that visa, unless they have been granted special permission to enter.   

But there are a number of exceptions.   

Immigration officers may grant entry permission to people who are considered to have a critical purpose for travelling to New Zealand. 

Generally, individuals must submit an expression of interest to come to New Zealand for a critical purpose and then be invited to apply for a Critical Purpose visitor visa, or for a variation of visa conditions allowing them to travel here.  

People coming to New Zealand for a critical purpose include critical health workers and their family and other critical workers and their family. Other critical workers are people with unique experience or specialist skills not readily obtainable in New Zealand, or who are coming to undertake a time-critical role for government approved projects, or who are coming to undertake work that will bring significant wider benefit to the economy, or who fall within approved classes of workers listed in the immigration instructions. 

Also considered to have a critical purpose are holders of temporary entry class visas ordinarily resident in New Zealand whose partners or dependent children are already in New Zealand on a work or student visa; people who hold visas due to a family relationship with a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident and who are ordinarily resident in New Zealand and travelling with the New Zealand resident or citizen; and people travelling for humanitarian reasons. 

Australian citizens or permanent residents whose primary place of established residence is New Zealand may be granted entry permission, as well as various diplomatic personnel.  

From early October the government began allowing some work visa holders to re-enter the country to return to ongoing employment or to the business they have been operating in New Zealand. The government also introduced immigration instructions designed to reunite New Zealand citizens and residents with their partners. People who are in a relationship with a New Zealand citizen or resident, and who are from listed visa-waiver countries, may now be invited to apply for a six-month relationship-based visitor visa.  

In early November the government granted permission for a limited number of foreign nationals, belonging to two defined classes of individual, to enter New Zealand: PhD and post-graduate students and individuals undertaking essential travel to or from certain Pacific nations.  

As at 12 October 2020, the government advised it had granted around 10,400 exceptions, granting entry for people such as essential health workers, other critical workers and family of New Zealand citizens or permanent residents. All passengers arriving in New Zealand are required to undergo a 14day quarantine period in a government managed facility.  

As New Zealand looks to rebuild and recover from the impacts of COVID-19 this year, it is highly likely the government will grant further exemptions to the border closure based on economic and social factors, rates of COVID-19 infection and quarantine facility capacity.  The immigration instructions are constantly changing and new announcements are currently issued several times each month so it is imperative that businesses, employers and visa holders and applicants follow the developing situation closely.  

Hannah King
Associate - New Zealand
Kiely Thompson Caisley