Understanding English Language Requirements for sponsored visas

by 10 Oct 2011
Many Australian employers will need to hire foreign workers at some point, and understanding the rules around visas is vital. The English language skills requirements can be particularly confusing, and can lead to delays in recruitment and visa preparation. The information below explains these language requirements and the issues for some of the more commonly sponsored visas.
Not all visa applicants will need to demonstrate their English language ability. People who hold a passport from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, New Zealand and Republic of Ireland are exempt on the basis that they are native English speakers. For everyone else English language ability is usually demonstrated by sitting a specified test, or demonstrating that a certain amount of education was undertaken in English.
The most commonly used and cited test is The International English Language Testing System (IELTS). IELTS tests a candidate’s listening, reading, writing and speaking ability and awards a score for each component on a scale of one to nine, with nine being an “expert user”. The Occupational English Language Test (OET) is an alternative test; however, it is designed predominantly for workers in the medical and health professions. Both tests are offered in Australia and overseas and can be taken multiple times. 
Subclass 457 Visa
Applicants for this visa (the most commonly used visa for temporary foreign workers); will need to demonstrate Vocational English unless they are exempt from the requirement. An applicant is exempt if they are being sponsored into a managerial or professional occupation. Also exempt are applicants who will be earning a guaranteed salary of at least AUD88,410 who do not require licensing.  Where a person’s occupation requires registration, licensing or membership the visa applicant must demonstrate proficiency at the level required by the profession.
Vocational English is defined as a score of at least 5 in each component of IELTS on a test taken within the past 12 months. IELTS considers a person with this score to be a “modest user” of English with partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning but still making mistakes. In lieu of satisfactory IELTS results, a visa applicant may be able to satisfy the requirement by providing evidence of passing the OET, or evidence of an older IELTS test followed by employment in an English speaking country.      
In practical terms this means that only certain tradespeople and technicians will need to demonstrate that they have vocational English.
Permanent Visa under the Employer Nomination Scheme
Applicants for these visas must also demonstrate Vocational English, unless the role is considered exceptional. An exceptional role is one where Vocational English is not required to perform all of the duties or where the applicant may transfer their skills to other employers or where the applicant can demonstrate the ability to understand and comply with OH&S requirements. For employees who did not have to prove their English language ability at the temporary visa stage, this requirement may cause difficulties or delays and sometimes the applicant may need further time to improve their English language skills before applying for the permanent visa.
Permanent Visa under the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme
This visa option is somewhat less stringent and only requires applicants to demonstrate Functional English. This is a 4.5 average across the IELTS test components, on a test taken in the past 12 months.   Functional English can also be evidenced by showing that a certain amount of an applicant’s primary and secondary education was conducted in English, or that the applicant has completed at least one year of full time tertiary study in Australia. Again, the English language requirement is not necessary if the appointment is considered exceptional.
Occupational Trainees under the Subclass 442 Visa

There is no regulated requirement for English language proficiency when applying for this visa. However, under the visa policy, English language skills may be considered in assessing whether the person is a genuine applicant for the visa. The reason for this is to ensure that the applicant has sufficient English to undertake the training program offered and can understand and meet occupational health and safety standards. Although there is no restriction on how a 442 visa applicant could demonstrate their English skills, the simplest way is to provide one or a combination of the above mentioned evidence, as this is more easily recognised and accepted by the government.




Ron Kessels
Special Counsel
+61 2 8224 8528  

Other topics:
  • Centre for International Employment and Migration (CENTIEM) – a Fragomen initiative and business unit within Fragomen Australia www.centiem.com 


  • by Kym McInerney, Quantumpeople 18/10/2011 10:21:45 AM

    I have been running workshops in Malaysia for the past 12 months with a range of degree qualified and 10+ years experienced PR granted Malaysians who aspire to migrate to Oz. The key issue those I work with must understand is that the Australian employers demand a very high level of English proficiency and this precludes many from successfully gaining employment, regardless of their experience in the much publicised areas of skills shortage occupations, particularly engineering. From my perspective, a high EILTS score still amounts to a fair gap in what the employers require vs how the candidates perform, hence my constant pushing for migrants to subscribe to local media and social media to better assimilate between the verbal expressions and grammar. It is a challenge compounded by a seeming lack of initiative to better understand the local standards, rules etc. However, I am hopeful that our skills shortage growth and the availability of well qualified candidates to fill those roles will soon outweigh the reticence to employ these enthusiastic and committed Malaysian migrants.