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Support Australians overseas

Australians are travelling overseas in unprecedented numbers—and supporting them is one of the department’s most important responsibilities. Demand for our passport and consular services has increased substantially, and providing them has become more complex. We are committed to providing efficient and responsive services to facilitate travel. We also help Australians who get into difficulty overseas, and require government assistance.

Departmental officer Charles Thursby-Pelham surveying damage caused by earthquakes in North Lombok, Indonesia [DFAT/Piter Edward]
The department’s Charles Thursby-Pelham surveys damage caused by a series of earthquakes that struck North Lombok in July and August 2018 [DFAT/Piter Edward]


Two-thirds of all Australians have used the department’s passport services. Most applications are made through our agent—Australia Post—which accepts applications at outlets across the country. The department also accepts applications at our passport offices in state and territory capitals from clients with a compassionate or compelling need for emergency travel. Blank passports are printed by a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank—Note Printing Australia—on the same equipment used to print banknotes. We then personalise more than 8,000 passports every business day, at printing sites in Melbourne, before shipping them to clients around Australia and the world.

Efficiency and integrity of passport system

Performance measuresHow we rate our performance*
The department maintains a high standard in processing passport applications, investigating and prosecuting fraud:
95 per cent of passports are processed within 10 business daysNot on track
98 per cent of priority passports are processed within two business daysAchieved
100 per cent of identified high-risk passport applications are scrutinised by specialist staffAchieved
90 per cent of administrative investigations are finalised within five business daysAchieved
95 per cent of referrals to prosecuting authorities are accepted for prosecution.Achieved

Source: Corporate Plan 2018–19 p. 20, PBS program 2.2 p. 41 | Funding: PBS 2018–19 program 2.2

Our performance

Demand for passports continued to rise in 2018–19, a long-term trend. We issued 2,117,518 passports in total. This was a new record and 39 per cent more than a decade ago.

Due to this higher demand, we failed to meet some of our service standards. Although we processed 98 per cent of priority applications within two business days, we only finalised 86 per cent of routine applications within 10 business days, falling short of our 95 per cent performance target.

To address these challenges, we continued to innovate during the year to process passports more efficiently. In October we installed a new, more accurate face recognition algorithm that directs a greater proportion of passport renewal applications to a low-risk workflow with less manual handling. This helped us to manage turnaround times and devote more resources to high-risk and complex applications. We also developed a new IT system to underpin our face comparison algorithms. This helped to streamline our identity verification and passport processing. The new system went live in October reducing the complexity and support needs of the IT infrastructure we use for face comparison.

We do not allow our search for efficiency to compromise passport integrity. All high-risk applications are individually scrutinised by specialist staff. In 2018–19 our systems led to 35,655 passport applications being referred to our face comparison experts for manual assessment. We identified six cases of passport identity fraud—two related to new applications and four were historic.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs cancelled 78 passports, refused seven passports and suspended two passports in 2018–19 for national security and law enforcement reasons other than in relation to child sex offenders (see below).

Administrative investigations were completed promptly, in less than a day on average. Most investigations related to forged parental consent for child passports—with 106 cases confirmed in 2018–19.

The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions accepted all five referrals from the department. Three of these were accepted for prosecution, one remains under consideration, and in the other case prosecutors decided not to proceed.

Combating child sex tourism

In 2018–19 the Foreign Minister cancelled 157 passports of reportable sex offenders, bringing the number of cancellations to 169 under new legislation that started in December 2017.

At 30 June police and other authorities had requested a further 3,220 offenders be refused an Australian passport if they were to apply for one.

Australia was the first country to introduce laws to deny passports to reportable sex offenders. Under the Passports Legislation Amendment (Overseas Travel by Child Sex Offenders) Act 2017—administered by the department—the Minister for Foreign Affairs must deny passports to reportable offenders when a competent authority (usually state or territory police) requests this. The Act also makes it a Commonwealth offence for reportable offenders to attempt to leave Australia without permission from a competent authority.

Figure 16: 2018–19 passport statistics

Client satisfaction

Performance measuresHow we rate our performance*
Clients are satisfied with passport services—including online services—and the department’s security standards:
70 per cent of applications are completed onlineNot on track
85 per cent satisfaction rate with Australian Passport Information Service from a client surveyNot on track
85 per cent satisfaction rate of overall passport services from client survey.Achieved

Source: Corporate Plan 2018–19 p. 21, PBS program 2.2 p. 41 | Funding: PBS 2018–19 program 2.2

Our performance

The department places a high priority on client satisfaction with its passport services. To measure our performance more rigorously, we moved from annual to quarterly independent surveys conducted by a new provider, ORIMA Research.

Overall 90 per cent of respondents rated the department’s passport services as satisfactory or highly satisfactory, exceeding our target of 85 per cent. However, the survey showed that only 80 per cent of clients who telephoned the Australian Passport Information Service (APIS) were satisfied or highly satisfied with its performance. This was below our 85 per cent target.

The department is working closely with the Department of Human Services (which manages APIS) to improve client satisfaction. With our encouragement, the Department of Human Services is boosting APIS staff levels to better cope with call volumes and reduce wait times.

Uptake of our online application service is a key measure of its value as an alternative to paper forms. The proportion of clients using online passport applications increased from 61 per cent in 2017–18 to 68 per cent in 2018–19. This was just short of our ambitious 70 per cent target.

Serving remote Indigenous communities

Australians in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can face unique challenges when applying for a passport, such as limited internet access and difficulty obtaining documents to prove identity.

We accommodate these needs, for example accepting alternative documentary evidence in place of birth certificates. The Darwin Passport Office works with Australia Post, schools and community organisations to serve Australians in remote locations. It accepts emailed applications from remote applicants to get pre-assessment checks under way more quickly.

Ashlee Sevior from the Darwin Passport Office flew to Groote Island to help six Indigenous students with their passport applications. As part of a Northern Territory Police initiative—and in recognition of their improved school attendance—the students were travelling to Calgary, Canada, to attend the International Association of Women Police Conference.

Passport officer Ashlee Sevior assisting passport applicant Chinelle Bara and her mother Mary-Jane Bara at Alyangula post office [Northern Territory Police Fire and Emergency Services/Debra Blackwell]
Passport officer Ashlee Sevior and Chinelle Bara with her mother Mary-Jane Bara at Alyangula post office [Northern Territory Police Fire and Emergency Services/Debra Blackwell]

Emergency passports

We issued 8,603 emergency passports during the year, helping travellers whose passports had been lost or stolen to continue their journey and to get home safely. Passport services for Australians overseas are a vital part of the department’s operations.

Figure 17: Top five cities in which emergency passports were issued

World-leading security

Performance measureHow we rate our performance*
Australian passport security remains world-leading, including through the delivery of the Passport Series R by 2020–21.On track

Source: Corporate Plan 2018–19 p. 21 | Funding: PBS 2018–19 program 2.2

Our performance

Australia’s current P series passport contains world-leading security features to deter and prevent forgeries, and to detect any alterations.

We are on track to deliver the next generation of Australian passports, called the R series, in 2020–21. It will use new types of material, construction techniques and personalisation equipment to provide greater security and durability. The visa pages will display iconic Australian landscapes and places.


The department aims to deliver a responsive consular service—helping Australians most in need overseas and providing up-to-date and accessible travel advice. When there are crises overseas, we are prepared and manage Australia’s response.

We provide a broad range of consular services to Australians who encounter difficulties overseas—depending on individual circumstances and the resources available. With more Australians travelling the world, we encourage self-reliance and direct our resources to those who need them most. We continue to work closely with industry and government partners to identify and respond to new travel trends.

We are extending our consular reach by opening new diplomatic posts around the world. Cooperating with international partners extends this further.

Helping Australians in trouble

Performance measureHow we rate our performance*
Timely, effective delivery of consular services to Australians overseas, including during crises.On track

Source: Corporate Plan 2018–19 p. 21, PBS program 2.1 p. 40 | Funding: PBS 2018–19 programs 2.1

Our performance

Despite the significant numbers of Australians travelling or living overseas, the vast majority do not require government assistance. This year the department managed a total of 13,715 consular cases, or about 1,400 cases on any given day of Australians in difficulty overseas.

Our Consular Emergency Centre is an important point of contact—managing more than 48,000 calls during the year from Australians at home and overseas. This was down from 62,000 in 2017–18. We delivered 201,522 notarial services, such as the legalisation of documents, to Australians overseas.

Our diplomats often work quietly behind the scenes, across government and with international partners to help Australians in difficult situations. We manage most cases without any media attention. Sometimes cases will attract public interest. This year our high-level consular capability was demonstrated with the safe repatriation of eight unaccompanied children from internally displaced persons camps in Syria, and the safe release of an Australian citizen from detention in North Korea. While we do not publish performance information in relation to individual cases for privacy reasons, these high-profile consular cases are examples of the department’s complex consular work.

Over 75 per cent of feedback received in our consular mailbox was from members of the public who appreciated the professional and caring treatment provided by the department. Negative feedback mostly related to concerns about the cost or inconvenience of notarial services while overseas.

Table 1: Consular services provided to Australians
Australian resident departures110,228,00010,756,89010,756,89011,231,700
Cases of Australians hospitalised given general welfare and guidance1,6671,7011,5851,506
Cases of Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes2514710
Cases of next of kin of Australians who died overseas given guidance or assistance1,5161,6531,6711,695
Cases of Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance51524423
Enquiries made on Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin5,5822,5462,5104,9572
Cases of Australians arrested overseas1,5511,6411,5401,572
Cases of Australians in prison3913703863713
Cases of Australians given general welfare and guidance4,9574,4774,1373,5734
Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty who received consular assistance15,74012,45411,88013,715
Notarial acts232,600219,463199,448201,5225
Total assistance – total number of cases of Australians provided with consular services248,340231,917211,328215,237
Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds197211180149
Figure 18: Infographic depicting the top five countries for consular assistance in 2018–19

Informing travellers

Performance measureHow we rate our performance*
Timely and accurate information provided to the public, including on responding to incidents and updates to travel advice.Achieved

Source: Corporate Plan 2018–19 p. 21, PBS program 2.1 p. 40 | Funding: PBS 2018–19 program 2.1

Our performance

The Smartraveller service is our primary tool to encourage and empower Australians to prepare well and travel safely. The website contains well-informed, local advice and information for 177 destinations. This helps Australians decide where and when to travel, and is often the first source of information for Australians affected by a major incident overseas. The department has a 24/7 capability to update Smartraveller advice. We rate ourselves as having ‘achieved’ our objective of providing timely and accurate information to the public.

During the year we issued 475 updates to our destination travel advisories and five special event bulletins such as for Anzac Day and the Caribbean hurricane season. Following the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka in April, we updated the Sri Lanka travel advice nine times—in addition to eight Facebook and 12 Twitter posts—as new information became available. In March after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, we provided advice through our social media channels to Australians—within two hours of the attack. We updated the New Zealand travel advice on the Smartraveller website within three hours of the attack.

Figure 19: Smartraveller website use

We are upgrading our Smartraveller website to make travel advisories easier to read and more accessible. We are also introducing an SMS service to allow subscribers to receive critical updates as quickly as possible, regardless of their location. These improvements are due in November 2019. The department has partnered with industry groups, including the Cruise Line Industry Association and accredited travel agents, to develop an online learning module to promote smarter travel and the services we provide.

We published the 2017–18 Consular State of Play report (–18) on the number and types of consular situations managed by the department. The report is a valuable resource for the media and the public on our work and its limits. We responded to 1,411 media enquiries on consular matters—over half of the total number of media enquiries received by the department.

Responding to crises overseas

Australia is a trusted and reliable partner—helping our neighbours when they need it the most. Our crisis response efforts make an important contribution to regional stability.

Performance measureHow we rate our performance*
Timely, effective and well-coordinated implementation of whole-of-government responses to large-scale crises overseas.Achieved

Source: Corporate Plan 2018–19 p. 21, PBS program 2.1 p. 40 | Funding: PBS 2018–19 program 2.1

Our performance

The department leads Australia’s whole-of-government responses to overseas crises. We ensure we are prepared to provide best-practice, timely and effective responses. The department’s Global Watch Office provides a world-class 24/7 capability to monitor and respond to international events affecting Australia and our national interests.

A comprehensive $1.9 million upgrade of our crisis centre during the year has strengthened Australia’s response and coordination capabilities. We reviewed and tested more than 200 crisis action plans across our global network. The Crisis Preparedness Assurance Team visited Japan, Thailand, Solomon Islands, Bangladesh, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste.

Our Crisis Cadre, based in Australia, responds rapidly to international crises affecting Australians or our neighbourhood. This year cadre members were in the crisis centre and ready to respond within 45 minutes of:

  • a dam collapse and flooding in Laos
  • an earthquake in Lombok, Indonesia
  • an earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia
  • the terror attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The department’s Crisis Response Team is a pool of highly trained staff with humanitarian response expertise who can be deployed overseas at short notice. We deployed the team eight times during the year to provide humanitarian, ICT, logistics and administrative and foreign policy expertise. The team provided timely responses to the incidents just listed as well as for the:

  • Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue in Thailand
  • Solomon Trader oil spill in Solomon Islands
  • Anzac Day commemorations in Turkey and France.

The Crisis Response Team participated in more than 30 joint exercises, including the Australian Joint Warfighting Series and Exercise ARGONAUT in Cyprus, which rehearsed the department’s capability and tested the preparedness and skills of our staff. Held annually, ARGONAUT is one of the world’s largest exercises of its kind, involving core member states and observers from 40 countries.

Lombok earthquake response

The series of major earthquakes which struck the popular holiday island of Lombok in Indonesia in July and August resulted in more than 500 deaths and displaced 430,000 people.

When the strongest earthquake (magnitude 7.0) occurred on 5 August, the department’s Consular Emergency Centre fielded more than 90 calls within two hours and over 250 enquiries in total.

The department provided consular assistance to Australians and Canadians who were evacuated from the neighbouring Gili Islands to Lombok by Indonesian authorities. Consular officers from Jakarta and Surabaya were deployed to Lombok Airport to assist.

We led a coordinated inter-agency response, working with Emergency Management Australia to deploy a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), which included engineers and other specialists to undertake structural assessments of public buildings.

We also deployed a Crisis Response Team member to liaise with and support the DART.

Australia was the first donor to lend support through local partners at Indonesia’s request. The department’s assistance to the United Nations Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation helped over 14,000 people. We supported the Indonesian Red Cross to provide essential health services for more than 12,000 people and to build emergency shelters for over 40,000 people.

Australian-funded development programs deployed engineers to mentor and coach 55 Indonesian engineers. They helped assess 123 buildings, including schools and hospitals. The department’s programs supported people to regain legal identity documents so they could access government services, and helped local governments to reprioritise their budgets to pay for reconstruction efforts.

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