Australia's Permanent Migration Program: a quick guide

20 December 2021

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Harriet Spinks
Social Policy


As part of its planned Migration Program, the federal government allocates places each year for people wanting to migrate permanently to Australia. ‘Migration Program’ refers to the number of visas issued for permanent residence in skilled, family and special eligibility categories. Temporary entrants are not included in Migration Program figures. New Zealand citizens on a Special Category visa and entrants under the permanent Humanitarian Program are also not included.

The focus of the permanent Migration Program has changed since 1945 when the first federal immigration portfolio was created. Australia’s immigration policies have changed from attracting migrants (primarily from the United Kingdom) for the purpose of increasing Australia’s population, to attracting workers and temporary migrants in order to meet the labour market needs of the economy.

This quick guide briefly outlines the current Migration Program settings and discusses shifts in numbers and focus since 1945. Some impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Migration Program are also identified. This publication is focused on permanent migration and so does not discuss the range of temporary visa programs available, other than in the context of the links between temporary and permanent migration.

Migration Program statistics from 1984–85 to 2020–21 are provided in the Appendix.

Australia’s Migration Program

Australia first established a federal department dedicated to immigration in 1945. Since then, more than seven million permanent migrants have settled in Australia through either the Migration Program for skilled and family migrants or the Humanitarian Program for refugees and those in refugee-like situations.

By 1945, the government was keen to boost the Australian population in order to stimulate post-war economic development and to increase the numbers of people able to defend the country in the event of another war.[1] The intention was to increase the population by 1 per cent per annum through immigration, which alongside natural increase would achieve an overall annual growth rate of 2 per cent. As a result of the post-war government’s new focus, the proportion of the Australian population born overseas rapidly increased from 9.8 per cent in 1947 to 21 per cent in 1971. This figure has continued to grow, to just over one quarter (26 per cent) of Australia’s resident population born overseas according to the 2016 Census data.

Over the years, Migration Program planning numbers have fluctuated according to the priorities and economic and political considerations of the government of the day. For the last ten years, planning figures have fluctuated somewhere between 160,000 and 190,000. Between 2013–14 and 2018–19 the planning level was 190,000 places each year, but this was reduced to 160,000 in 2019–20. For the 2021–22 program year the planning figure remains 160,000. (It is worth noting that since 2015, the government has considered the Migration Program planning level as a ‘ceiling’ rather than a ‘target’.)

Current program settings

The permanent Migration Program is currently organised into four streams:

  • the skill stream, for people with skills in demand in Australia, designed to boost productivity and fill skills gaps in the labour market
  • the family stream, for family members (excluding child visas, which are a separate stream) of Australian citizens and permanent residents
  • the special eligibility stream, for those in special circumstances who do not fit into other streams, particularly former permanent residents returning to Australia (this stream is very small, with only a few hundred visas granted annually in recent years)
  • the child stream, for dependent children of Australian citizens or permanent residents. This stream is demand-driven, and so is not capped, but is estimated at around 3,000 places each year.

The skill stream and the family stream account for the majority of visas granted under the Migration Program. See the Appendix for visa grant statistics by stream from 1984-85 onwards. 

In 2020–21 there were 160,052 visa grants under the Migration Program. Table 1 shows the breakdown by stream and category.

Table 1: Migration Program visa grants by stream and category, 2020–21

Stream Category Visa grants
Skill Stream
  Employer sponsored 23,503
  Skilled Independent 7,213
  Regional 13,585
  State/Territory Nominated 14,268
  Business Innovation and Investment 11,198
  Global Talent 9,584
  Distinguished Talent 269
Total Skill 79,620
Family Stream  
  Partner 72,376
  Parent 4,500
  Other Family 496
Total Family 77,372
Special Eligibility 54
Child 3,006
Total 160,052

Source: Department of Home Affairs, 2020-21 Migration Program Report, (Canberra: Home Affairs, 2021); Parliamentary Library.

Skill stream

The skill stream of the Migration Program is designed to meet Australia’s economic and labour market needs through the admission of highly skilled, economically productive migrants. It currently includes the following categories:

There is some overlap in these categories—for example, applicants in regional category visas may be nominated by a state or territory, or sponsored by an employer. For most of the above visa categories, prospective skilled migrants to Australia must first submit an expression of interest via the SkillSelect website and wait for an invitation to apply for a visa. For many visas, applicants must also have an occupation on the relevant skilled occupation list. The lists aim to identify occupation gaps in the Australian labour market which could be filled using skilled migration, where Australian workers are not available. The combined Skilled Migration Occupation List is revised periodically by the National Skills Commission. It includes a Short-Term Skilled Occupation list, a Medium and Long-Term Strategic Skills List, and a Regional Occupation List with specific occupations for the regional visas. A Priority Migration Skilled Occupations List was introduced in September 2020 as a temporary measure to facilitate entry of workers in critical sectors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last two decades, changes to the skill stream of the Migration Program have been designed to shift the balance of the program away from independent skilled migrants, who do not have employment arranged in Australia prior to migration, towards sponsored skilled migrants, and those in the business and global talent categories. Each year the Australian Government sets priority categories for the skill stream, and in recent years the Business Innovation and Investment, Global Talent, and Employer Sponsored categories have been identified as the top three priority cohorts.

The Business Innovation and Investment Program offers visas to people who can demonstrate a history of business success and innovation, and are able to make certain investments in Australia’s economy. Visa holders in this category must first obtain a provisional visa, and then transition to a permanent visa after making the required qualifying investment or meeting the relevant business operation requirements. The Global Talent Program was introduced in 2018–19 as pilot scheme, offering a pathway to a permanent visa after an initial temporary visa for three years. In 2019–20, there were 5,000 places available under the scheme. In 2021–22, the program grew to 15,000 planned permanent places. In 2021–22, the Business Innovation and Investment and Global Talent Programs combined are expected to comprise over a third (36 per cent) of the total skill stream of the Migration Program. In 2020–21, the Employer sponsored category accounted for 30 per cent of the skill stream, while the Skilled Independent category accounted for 9 per cent. This represents a notable change from 2000–01, when 50 per cent of skill stream visas went to the Skilled Independent category, and 17 per cent went to the Employer Sponsored category.

Family stream

The family stream of the Migration Program provides for the migration of immediate family members of Australian citizens, permanent residents or eligible New Zealand citizens. Family members admitted under this stream include partners, parents, orphan relatives, aged dependent relatives and carers. There is no skills test or language requirement for family migration as there is for skilled migrants, however applicants must meet specified health and character requirements.

The family stream comprises three main categories:

Until 2015, child category visas were also counted within the family stream of the Migration Program, however these are now counted separately and are not subject to planning levels or caps. Relevant visa subclasses in the child category are Adoption visa (subclass 102), Child visa (offshore) (subclass 101) and Child visa (onshore) (subclass 802).

The largest category under the family stream is the Partner category, which comprised 94 per cent of the family stream in 2020–21 with 77,372 visa grants. This compares to 4,500 visas in the Parent category and 496 visas in the Other Family category for the same period.

Capping and queuing

Some family stream visas are subject to a process known as ‘capping and queueing’. Under section 85 of the Migration Act 1958 (the Act) the Minister may determine the maximum number of visas which may be granted in each financial year in certain visa classes. If a visa class is ‘capped’ then once the number of visas granted that year reaches the determined maximum number, no more visas of that class may be granted in that year. Remaining visa applications are then ‘queued’ for processing in the next financial year.

All Parent and Other Family visa subclasses are currently capped and queued, and demand for these visas significantly outstrips supply, resulting in very long processing times for these visas. At the time of writing, the Department of Home Affairs web site states that new applications for Contributory parent category visas are estimated to take at least 64 months to be released for final processing, and new applications for non-contributory Parent category visas will likely be queued for at least 30 years before being released for final processing. This difference in processing times is due to more places being allocated to contributory Parent category visas than to non-contributory ones—there were 3,600 contributory parent visas granted, compared to 900 non-contributory visas in 2020–21. While the contributory Parent and Aged Parent visas, have a shorter waiting time, they also have considerably higher visa application charges than the non-contributory visas, at around $48,000 for the former compared to around $6,500 for the latter.

Section 87 of the Act prevents Partner and Child visas from being capped. However, Partner visas are still subject to planning levels, and the Department states that there is ‘scope in administering the program to consider planning levels and prioritise processing accordingly’ (p. 29). Consequently, there is a significant ‘pipeline’ of Partner visa applications awaiting finalisation and it can take up to two years for an application to be finalised. The Government has responded to concerns over delays in Partner visa processing by making more places available in this category over the last two years (see below).

The use of planning figures and processing priorities to limit the number of Partner visas available each year has been criticised by a former senior Immigration Department official, and by Labor MP Julian Hill, as being unlawful on the basis that it operates as a de facto cap on Partner visas in breach of section 87 of the Act. Issues relating to the cost, fairness and timeliness of processing of Partner and other family visas are currently the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry, which is due to report in March 2022.

Trends in the Migration Program

Balance between skill and family streams

The emphasis of Australia’s Migration Program has changed from its original focus of attracting migrants to increase Australia’s population, to an emphasis on attracting skilled migrants to meet Australia’s labour market needs. This has resulted in notable differences in the balance of the program between the skill and family streams.

Historically, more permanent migrants arrived under the family stream than the skill stream, but since the mid-1990s the balance has shifted markedly in favour of the skill stream. In 1996 the Howard Government explained the reasons for this shift:

The Government has revamped the Migration (Non-Humanitarian) Programme to improve the focus on Australia's social and economic needs ... While maintaining an ongoing commitment to family reunion, the 1996–97 Programme of 74,000 incorporates a significant shift towards skilled migration. Skilled migrants make a particular contribution to Australia's economic development and their representation will be increased in the Programme.

In 1996–97, skilled migration made up 37 per cent of the Migration Program. The split between the two streams subsequently shifted in favour of the skill stream, and has been roughly two-thirds skill and one-third family. In 2019–20, the skill stream accounted for 70 per cent of the total Program. However, 2020–21 saw a return to a more equal balance between skilled and family migration due to a decision by Government to attempt to clear a significant backlog in Partner visa applications.

Figure 1: Migration Program 2011–12 to 2020–21, percentage of skill and family streams

Chart - Migration Program 2011–12 to 2020–21, percentage of skill and family streams

Source: Department of Home Affairs, Report on the Migration Program, (Canberra: Home Affairs, 2011 to 2021 editions); Parliamentary Library.

The increase in places for Partner visas is also designed to assist in meeting the Migration Program planning levels in the context of COVID-19, by granting visas to people already in Australia on temporary visas. This will somewhat alleviate the impact of border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which have significantly affected the ability of new migrants to enter Australia.

This more equal balance has been retained in the planning levels for 2021–22, although it is described by the Department of Home Affairs as a ‘temporary measure’. When announcing the 2020–21 planning levels the Government stated:

This will give more certainty to those wanting to settle in Australia with their partners and plan for their futures. It will address nearly all the present applicants awaiting finalisation of their visa. It is expected that 75 per cent of Partner visas will go to those already in Australia. 

It is important to note that reported totals of visas granted under the Migration Program (both skill and family streams) include both the primary applicant (that is, the person who applied to migrate) and secondary applicants (the primary applicant’s dependent family members). Thus, while most of the places under the Migration Program are allocated to the skill stream, many people granted visas under this stream are in fact family members of skilled migrants. Some of these family members may also have skills in demand in Australia, but the visa application process does not require this (and many secondary applicants are children). In 2019–20, less than half (46 per cent) of skill stream visas granted went to primary applicants, meaning more than half of skill stream visa grants went to secondary applicants.

Temporary to permanent migration

While fluctuations in the size and composition of the permanent Migration Program are significant, arguably the greatest change in immigration patterns to Australia in recent decades has been the growth of long-term temporary migration. Temporary migrants do not comprise part of the Migration Program, however temporary migration has  increasingly become the first step towards permanent settlement in Australia for many people.

This change has been facilitated by policy settings making it possible for temporary migrants to transition to permanent visas, which governments have at times encouraged as a means of optimising the skilled migrant intake. In 2014, for example, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison noted that the temporary skilled migrant visa program ‘enables us to handpick those migrants for permanent residency who have already demonstrated their ability to make a contribution - that is what our immigration program is supposed to be all about.’

The growth of ‘two-step’ migration is demonstrated by the changing composition of Australia’s permanent skilled migrant intake over the last ten years. Figure 2 shows the numbers of permanent skilled visas granted each year since 2004–05 to people who were offshore (outside Australia) at the time of application, and people who were onshore (in Australia on a temporary visa). As can be seen, the proportion of permanent skilled visas granted to people already in Australia has grown substantially. In 2004–05, onshore visa grants made up around 37 per cent of all permanent skilled visa grants. By 2013–14 this was up to almost 60 per cent, then hovered at around 55 to 58 per cent for several years. In the last two years the rate has been higher still, at around 70 per cent, pushed up by government efforts to deliver the Migration Program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 2: Permanent skilled visa grants to applicants by location (offshore and onshore), 2004–05 to 2020–21

Chart - Permanent skilled visa grants to applicants by location (offshore and onshore), 2004–05 to 2020–21

Source: Department of Home Affairs, Report on the Migration Program, (Canberra: Home Affairs, 2011 to 2021 editions); Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), Population Flows: Immigration Aspects, (Canberra: DIBP, 2005 to 2010 editions); Parliamentary Library.

Further reading

Appendix: Migration Program outcomes by stream, 1984–85 to 2020–21

Year Family stream1 Child visa2 Skill stream Special Eligibility Total
1984–85 43,000 1,200 10,100 200 54,500
1985–86 62,100 1,300 16,200 400 80,000
1986–87 70,700 1,900 28,500 600 101,700
1987–88 77,500 2,000 42,000 600 122,100
1988–89 70,400 2,300 51,200 800 124,700
1989–90 64,500 2,100 52,700 900 120,200
1990–91 59,300 2,000 49,800 1,200 112,200
1991–92 53,700 2,200 41,400 1,700 98,900
1992–93 42,600 2,700 21,300 1,400 67,900
1993–94 40,700 2,500 18,300 1,300 62,800
1994–95 42,000 2,500 30,400 1,600 76,500
1995–96 53,870 2,830 24,100 1,700 82,500
1996–97 34,993 2,183 34,676 1,735 73,587
1997–98 29,093 2,188 34,446 1,113 66,840
1998–99 29,967 2,071 34,895 888 67,821
1999–00 29,855 2,162 35,352 2,868 70,237
2000–01 31,337 2,124 44,721 2,415 80,597
2001–02 35,920 2,162 53,507 1,465 93,054
2002–03 38,113 2,681 66,053 1,225 108,072
2003–04 39,567 2,662 71,243 890 114,362
2004–05 39,245 2,491 77,878 450 120,064
2005–06 42,744 2,547 97,336 306 142,933
2006–07 47,071 3,008 97,922 199 148,200
2007–08 46,808 3,062 108,540 220 158,630
2008–09 53,128 3,238 114,777 175 171,318
2009–10 56,710 3,544 107,868 501 168,623
2010–11 51,243 3,300 113,725 417 168,685
2011–12 54,904 3,700 125,755 639 184,998
2012–13 56,335 3,850 128,973 842 190,000
2013–14 57,262 3,850 128,550 338 190,000
2014–15 56,950 4,135 127,774 238 189,097
2015–16 57,400 3,512 128,550 308 189,770
2016–17 56,220 3,400 123,567 421 183,608
2017–18 47,732 3,350 111,099 236 162,417
2018–19 47,247 3,248 109,713 115 160,323
2019–20 41,961 2,481 95,843 81 140,366
2020–21 77,372 3,006 79,620 54 160,052

Sources: Department of Home Affairs, Historical Migration Statistics and 2020–21 Migration Program Report.

  1. Excludes Child visas for comparative purposes.
  2. From 2015–16, Child visa outcomes (excluding Orphan Relative visas) are no longer part of the managed Migration Program.

[1].   J Jupp, The Australian People: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 62.


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