flying from Melbourne to Dili

As Australia’s international borders re-open, I want to put Timor-Leste on our radars as a relatively easy and nearby summer holiday destination, after my straightforward experience entering the country this week.

On 2 December 2021 I landed in Dili from Melbourne via Darwin. All I needed to arrive with was a negative COVID-19 test and proof of my full vaccination against the virus, and I walked free from the airport with no quarantine needed, hotel or otherwise. The flight was $300 (checked baggage included), and the visa $40, paid in cash on arrival. It’s not the most intuitive time of year to visit the tropics, but visiting Timor-Leste is easy, cheap, close by and pretty — and here’s how I did it.

Planning your trip

Until very recently, travellers to Timor-Leste have have specific, written approval from Timor-Leste’s Integrated Crisis Management Centre, which leads the COVID-19 response, to enter the country — the border was only open for citizens, their spouses, essential workers, diplomats, and people in some other very narrow categories. You had to write a letter explaining why you needed to enter the country, and receive signed approval from the Centre’s director, Brigadier General João Miranda. That rule appears to have ended this week.

An update at 15 December 2021 — Timor-Leste’s State of Emergency ended on 29 November, which ended the requirement for written permission to enter the country. Timor-Leste’s embassy in Australia has confirmed you only need proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a recent negative test to enter, not a letter.

I had my letter, but was not asked to produce it at any point. What I did need to do, as an Australian, was tell Timor-Leste’s Consul-General here in Darwin that I was planning on going to Timor-Leste — they needed to tell my airline that I had permission to board the aircraft (I’m not exactly clear if permission here means my letter, or just proof of my vaccination status and negative test result, but I wasn’t asked for my letter). Call (08) 8941 0068 or email to let them know you’re planning on going.

Pre-departure checklist

Once you’ve contacted the consulate, collect:

  • Proof of COVID-19 vaccination
  • A recent negative COVID-19 test
  • Any other materials to help you meet domestic travel requirements

That last point might not apply to you, depending on where in Australia you live (more on this in a minute).

Vaccination requirements for entering Timor-Leste

You must be at least partially vaccinated to enter Timor-Leste. (But note you must be fully vaccinated to fly with both of the airlines, Airnorth and Qantas, that currently fly from Australia to Dili).

If you’re partially vaccinated, you might do 14 days of hotel quarantine after entering the country; if you’re fully vaccinated and have a recent COVID-19 PCR negative test result, you likely won’t do anything. I don’t know exactly which vaccines Timor-Leste recognises, but at the very least they accept AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Sinovac — the vaccines they administer domestically.

Australian passport and visa holders can get an International Vaccine Certificate to prove our vaccination status — this is what the Australian Embassy recommends. I requested my certificate through my Medicare online account in MyGov and received a pdf instantly, which I showed Timor-Leste immigration on my phone at the terminal.

COVID-19 test requirements for entering Timor-Leste

To enter Timor-Leste you must show a negative COVID-19 PCR test result that was completed within five days of your arrival. The Government of Timor-Leste doesn’t specify how the test result needs to be presented — you could probably get away with a free swab in Australia and an SMS notification of your negative result. But I’m cautious, and I paid $150 for a specific international travel test, which just meant my result was displayed on a fancy pathology letterhead. Again, I showed this on my phone.

If you also pay for an international COVID-19 test, you pre-pay online, and then show up with your confirmation email at the pathology clinic for the test (no need to book an appointment). I went to 4Cyte Pathology in Melbourne for my test and had my result back in 24 hours.

Travel requirements within Australia

This year, I’ve been living in Melbourne — a city most Australian jurisdictions consider a COVID-19 danger zone. This limits what I can do and how I can move. For my trip, I travelled from Melbourne through Adelaide and Darwin, which meant I needed permission to enter two different Australian states.

To enter South Australia, I had to fill out a simple online border application form, which was approved instantly (automatically?). Entering the Northern Territory was a little more complicated — I had to fill out a border entry form that included an application for exemption from the 14-day hotel quarantine requirement for arrivals from Melbourne. I explained (to staff in the airport, after arriving) that I was in Darwin for transit only, and had 16 hours between my flights. I spent the night between in the Howard Springs quarantine facility, which I was expecting (I’d rung the COVID-19 hotline to ask what I’d do between flights), and my only cost from the whole experience was the $75 taxi trip back to the airport the next day.

I’ve since realised the weekly Qantas flight between Darwin and Dili actually originates in Sydney, and if I’d flown from Melbourne to Sydney to meet that flight I wouldn’t have had to leave the tarmac in the Northern Territory. This is what I’d recommend other Melbournians doing, as much fun as I had in Howard Springs.

Finding flights between Australia and Timor-Leste

For years, there has been only one airline, Airnorth, flying between Darwin and Dili. Happily, Qantas has now put on one flight per fortnight, which goes on a Wednesday and which costs around $300 (Airnorth prices range from $300 to $800, depending on the time of year and when you’re booking). That’s the flight I caught from Darwin to Dili, which I’ve since found out is actually a Sydney — Dili flight, which pauses in Darwin to collect more passengers. It was a dream of a 50-minute flight in a plane as big as whatever flies from Melbourne to Perth.

Airnorth flies weekly at the moment, also on a Wednesday, but pre-COVID-19 had been flying to Dili eight (?) times per week. I’d expect them to increase their schedule as entering the country becomes easier.

Visas and arriving in Timor-Leste

The plane from Darwin was met by Timorese health staff in full PPE, who sprayed our shoes and clothes and checked our temperatures before we entered the terminal. On arrival, we did the normal immigration paperwork, and showed our COVID-19 PCR test results and vaccination certificates. We then did a rapid COVID-19 test, and with the negative result on a piece of paper, bought our 30-day, USD 30 ($40) visas. Everything else then happened as normal — luggage collected and scanned and into the melee of that Dili arrival gate. I was met by my boyfriend and his sister and we were able to leave the airport immediately, with no extra requirements.

Final thoughts

I was surprised by how easy it was to enter Timor-Leste from Australia — and how relatively cheap and seamless travel was. It’s the wet season, which isn’t the most intuitive time to visit the tropics (travel blogs usually suggest visiting in the dry season, where the days are slightly cooler and roads won’t be bogged up with mud). But descending into Dili I couldn’t believe how lush and green the hills looked — so inviting after so long inside.

I do think I got very lucky with the time I arrived — the Government of Timor-Leste may reinstate the written permission rule to enter the country as it figures out how to deal with the Omicron variant. But for now, things feel straightforward, and I’d suggest it’s the right time to go.

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