A Singaporean Guide to a NZ Working Holiday

If you think it’s difficult for Singaporeans to travel long-term or work abroad, nothing could be further from the truth. Under New Zealand’s Work Exchange Programme, up to 200 Singaporeans between the ages of 18 and 30 may work and stay in the country for 6 months on a New Zealand Working Holiday visa, as long as they meet a few other criteria. Unlike other schemes that you might have seen, you can arrange it yourself without going through an agency or being tied to one employer.

There are worse decisions one could make than a New Zealand working holiday. It’s perfect if you have just graduated from the polytechnic or university. Get a change of scenery, live independently, discover your resourcefulness, deal with a foreign culture and see a bit of the world – there won’t be any lack of moments to share with everyone. I speak from personal experience (and I paid for everything – this post isn’t sponsored in any way).

In this guide, I’ve put together a few things that my friends and I learnt to make your journey smoother. Interested? Then read on.

(Updated April 2017)

Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

Getting started

That’s easy, actually:

  1. Set up an account with Immigration NZ;
  2. Fill in and submit the New Zealand Working Holiday application form;
  3. Pay the NZD165 fee. No visit to the embassy is required.

The approval takes up to ten days, but it’s often much quicker than that, so keep checking! The deadline to apply is whenever places run out. Nowadays, that’s within a few hours of the opening of applications every November.

When your visa is approved, you have up to 12 months to get to NZ. Your New Zealand working holiday begins the moment you first step foot in the country within that period, and the visa expires six months after that.

Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand fly from Singapore to Auckland (and Christchurch for SIA) in 10 – 11 hours. Other carriers such as Jetstar and Qantas have flights with a connection in Australia. A ticket for onward travel is not necessary if you hold a working holiday visa; book a one-way fare if you want to go to Australia or somewhere else before returning home. (Hint: you’re already halfway to Chile)

You’re all set once you’ve packed your bags, your passport and your visa. Perhaps you’d like to read the other post on The Yellow Underpants to minimise the culture shock. Be mindful of what you pack in your bags; New Zealand is nearly as strict as Australia when it comes to soil, food and other things of plant and animal origin.

Places to go

Like Singapore, New Zealand is an island nation, but the similarities end there. NZ has four seasons, and it’s 5 hours ahead of us (4 in the winter). Unlike Europe, Japan and North America, winter is in the middle of the year. Christmas is a great time for an outdoor barbeque, though!

The North Island is where you’ll find Auckland (the largest city), Wellington (the capital), Hawkes Bay (for the wine lovers), Matamata (“Hobbiton”) and Tongariro (“Mordor”). The South Island’s biggest city is Christchurch. It also boasts the spectacular peaks and glaciers of the Southern Alps, Marlborough’s mussels and vineyards, and the adventure tourism capital Queenstown (on the north shore of Lake Wakatipu in the map below).

Map of New Zealand from Wikimedia Commons; see page for author [Public domain]
While most of the people are of European descent, the indigenous Maori make up nearly 15% of the population. There are also significant numbers of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Did I mention the tourists, the cattle and the sheep?

English is used everywhere, though there are bilingual signs in Maori. The accent may take a little getting used to, and no, it’s not the same as the Australian accent.

Your IRD number

If you plan to work and get an income, you will need a tax number too. When you arrive, go to a New Zealand PostShop with a completed IR595 form (available from the counter), your passport, visa and either

  • your driving license (the temporary one doesn’t work as you need a photo on it), or
  • HANZ 18+ card, which can also be applied for at PostShops, or
  • an employment offer from a local employer on their company letterhead – this is a bit tricky as most companies ask for an IRD number with their application, creating a Catch-22 situation.

It takes two to three weeks to deliver a card to your address. You only need the number, so call the IRD services hotline anywhere in the country to get it. The tax rate starts at 11%; your employer deducts it from your pay automatically. You can get a refund when you leave the country, but it’s a lengthy process. Whether it’s worth your while depends on how much you earn while you’re there.

April 2016 Update: In Auckland, you can also go to the IRD offices in Manukau and Takapuna. Bring your passport, A4-sized bank statement (with at least one deposit and one withdrawal over multiple days) and your visa. Thanks to Daniella Ng and Yong Zi Xian for this info!

Money matters

When you get there, find a bank that lets you set up a starter account. That does not charge fees for every transaction for the first six months. Again, you’ll need your passport and a ‘proof of residence’ letter such as a utility bill, but you can use the address of the hostel or hotel that you’re staying at and they will print one for you. The bank will send a letter. Pick it up and take it back on your next visit.

I used ASB when I was there, and I was satisfied with their services. Electronic transfers between my account and my bank back in Singapore were fast (they took just a day), and it had a mobile banking app for every OS, including Windows. KiwiBank also comes recommended as it’s very convenient. You’ll find one wherever there is a PostShop.

You’ll rarely need to use cash other than at farmers markets and some small hostels – many places accept payment by EFTPOS, the equivalent of NETS. If you need to change money, the Travel Money bureaus at Flight Centres in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown offer the best rates.

April 2016 update

You can open a Go Account with ANZ Bank online before your trip using your Singapore address and a local bank statement from the last three months. You can deposit money from home but can only withdraw it there after they have verified your identity. Thanks to Daniella Ng for this!

Rotorua, New Zealand working holiday
Waking up to a sight like this = Priceless.

Mobile phones

Get a SIM card from one of the four major carriers: 2Degrees, Spark (formerly Telecom), Vodafone and Skinny (available at departmental stores). All three have plans which are priced similarly. You can use the stored value to purchase the cheapest prepaid option – it’s between NZD 16 and NZD19 a month (excluding the cost of the SIM card) and comes with 500MB of data. The barrier of entry to a data plan may be lower than in Singapore, but a 2GB/month plan costs much more.

To add value to the card the manual way, go to a dairy (a grocery store) to purchase a code and follow the instructions on the receipt. Chances are you won’t be spending a lot of time on Stewart Island, but if you end up there, you’ll won’t get a signal from 2Degrees.

Finding work

Most working holidaymakers work on farms, in places of accommodation and tourist attractions, for construction firms and in factories. Office jobs are harder to come by for those on a short stay, but if you look around you may get short-term projects. Go to Seek, Trademe (the Kiwi equivalent of eBay), Backpackerboard, BBH, or pick up the papers on a Wednesday or Saturday.

It’s not advisable to apply for a position before you arrive as employers often ask for a local bank account and an IRD number. You’re not tied to a single employer for the duration of your stay, so work in a few places if you want to.

Read: 60 ‘Made in NZ’ Memories

Working in exchange for accommodation and other benefits is common especially at hostels. This was the route I took. Some people combine cleaning duties in the morning with an evening job at a second workplace. HelpX and WWOOF are the sites where you can find similar opportunities on small farms and in private homes.

Work on orchards and vineyards depends on the season and the crop involved. (See PickNZ for the type of crop that is prevalent in each region and season) Employers may pay by the hour or by contract, i.e. you get paid $X for each kg or barrel of fruit harvested, each vine pole set up, etc.). Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and neither is easier than the other. However, you can extend your stay in New Zealand by up to 3 months if you work on a farm or in a food packing factory for 12 weeks. You need the paychecks to prove it (work exchange does not count).

new zealand working holiday vineyard
Backpackers often work on vineyards like this one on Waiheke

A few things to note

Doing a New Zealand working holiday is not the best way to learn animal husbandry because farmers prefer experienced hands. Farms are rarely located near the major cities or even the hostels where workers stay. Having a car or someone to share a ride with is a plus for such jobs. In the winter, there are fewer opportunities on farms and some attractions shut their doors, so the competition for work at ski resorts, kiwifruit packing factories, mussel-shucking facilities and the other remaining places will be intense.

New Zealand has a minimum wage of NZD15.25 per hour as of April 2016, which applies even if one is paid by contract, and rules governing working hours and breaks are in place. There have been cases of unscrupulous employers who withheld payment from backpacking workers, and some hostels make it difficult to get a deposit back. Do a little research, keep a paper, email and text trail as if your life depended on it, and in the event of a dispute, get help from the Department of Labour.

Getting around

If you possess a Singapore driving license, you can use it on your New Zealand working holiday for up to a year. Second-hand cars and camper vans are cheap and former can be purchased from NZD1000 onwards on Trademe, BBH and Backpackerboard. Caveat emptor, of course, if you choose a car that cheap. Another option is to enter a buy-back agreement with a dealership when you buy a car from them.

You can sell your vehicle at the end of a trip and recoup at least part of the costs. However, the insurance, registration fee, warrant of fitness and fuel costs can add up. It’s not the cheapest way to get around, but it’s sometimes the only way to get to hard-to-reach farms and attractions.

For more on road trips, read my other post, Pacenotes: Driving in New Zealand

New Zealand camper van
I snapped this just for the meme-worthy license plate.

Buses are the least expensive way to get around NZ. If you book early enough, there are NZD1 fares up for grabs on Naked Bus and Mana Bus services. Intercity and Atomic Shuttles (South Island) are also other options to get from one town to another. Bear in mind that the driver may not take the most direct route to your destination. That would explain the disparity between Google’s driving times and your actual trip time.

Ferries run by Interislander and Bluebridge ply the Cook Strait between Wellington and Picton on the South Island. The aforementioned bus companies will get you to the piers to make the 3-hour cruise. Tickets get snapped up very quickly especially in the peak season so book ahead, especially if you’re taking your vehicle across with you.

Grabaseat is a good place to look for cheap domestic airfares on Air New Zealand. Its network connects even the smaller airports in places like Taupo, Napier and Invercargill. The website tends to favour those who can book in advance, but it’s useful for those who are in a rush.

The New Zealand working holiday visa is a multiple-entry visa. You can fly to Australia, Fiji, Tonga and other neighbouring territories for a well-earned break, then resume working in NZ on your return. You can also use Grabaseat to book fares to these destinations.

Money-saving tips

Cook! Shop at a Pak n Save, the cheapest of the supermarket chains, or at a farmers market if you have more exotic tastes. Other backpackers with no skills usually cook rice or pasta. They often leave leftovers that you can use when they depart.

Join a hostel network such as BBH or YHA. Both will get you better daily and long term rates if you stay in their affiliated hostels. Sometimes free wifi is thrown in as well. BBH also gives a phone card which you can use to call home, in case the wifi is down, or you just don’t want to face people on Skype.

If you’re 26 years old or younger, get an ISIC Youth Card from STA Travel in Singapore. It’s good for discounts and offers on dining, shopping, admission and accommodation. You can use it in many places at home and around the world too!

For tips on saving money at attractions and on a road trip, see my Yellow Underpants and Pacenotes posts.

Now you’re ready to enjoy your New Zealand working holiday. Have fun and make the most of the opportunity!

*I’d like to express my thanks to my friends Nat, Ummar, Nikki and the Expat Kiwis for their tips. You should thank them too.