A Guide to Getting a Work Visa in New Zealand for Americans

How to Get a Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand for Americans

SECURING A ONE YEAR WORK VISA DOWN UNDER CAN BE AS EASY AS FILLING OUT AN ONLINE FORM IN 15 MINUTES.

My second installment on how to secure a work visa down under for Americans, this is my New Zealand edition!

Last time, I talked about how easy it can be to get a work visa for Australia, but if you also want to work & travel to that place from The Lord of the Rings, keep reading to see how it’s even easier (and much cheaper!) for New Zealand.

As I mentioned in my last visa post, Americans hardly ever get work visas abroad because our immigration and work visa status for foreigners in the US is pretty unwelcoming.

Most times, if you want to live abroad as an American, you have to either go to school in another country, teach English, or have a unique skill in the workforce that can’t be replicated easily by locals.

And if you do have a unique skill, your employer usually has to prove to the government why you’re the best man (or woman) for the job, out of the hundreds, thousands, or millions of other people from that nationality.

In other words, it’s hard to do unless you have a highly specialized skill or a connection that already gives you a foot in the door.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
A hospo party at Tuatara Brewery with my Wellington coworkers.

However, because Kiwis are super friendly, their working holiday visa program extends to Americans as well as a lot of other nations. The one caveat is that you have to be between the ages of 18 and 30.

If you haven’t hit your 31st birthday yet, you can generally secure a working holiday visa in New Zealand within 24 hours without much work. If you’re over that age, there are still visas that you can apply for, but they’re nowhere near as easy to acquire as the working holiday visa.

This post is for those who want to apply for a working holiday visa in New Zealand and are under the age of 30. Although it’s a good look at expat life in New Zealand as well, if you’re interested in learning more about that too!

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
Coworkers, housemates, and traveler friends at my 24th birthday – two months after I arrived to Wellington knowing no one.

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New Zealand

The Working Holiday Visa has the following requirements:

  • 18-30 years of age
  • US passport holder
  • Ability to prove sufficient funds, ($4,200 NZD). Although this is an official requirement, I was never asked for my specific bank account details on my application, or verified proof of this. I recommend having over this amount before moving to New Zealand, but if you only have around $2,000-$3,000 and you’re just itching to go, a credit card that has a $5,000+ limit should suffice as well. Not ideal, but it will get you there and allow you to start working in New Zealand.
  • Be in good health and of good character 
  • Ability to pay the visa application fee – $208 NZD
  • Not accompanied by dependent children
  • Must have a ticket to leave New Zealand at the end of the visa or enough money to buy one  
  • Have not previously entered New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa 
  • Have adequate health insurance for the duration of your stay in New Zealand. It’s easy to get inexpensive travel insurance, like World Nomads, for a year or two. Or if you’re under 26, you may still be under your parents’ health insurance that you can use abroad.
  • Be outside of New Zealand when you apply for and are granted the visa

If you meet these requirements, you can apply for the visa here. Make sure to read below about the other commonly asked questions concerning this visa.

Okay, your visa was approved. Congrats! But that’s only the beginning.

THE “HOLIDAY” IN WORKING HOLIDAY VISA

First off, the point of the working holiday visa is to give you the opportunity to travel around New Zealand and support yourself as you do it. You don’t have to have a trust fund or even that much money, just an understanding that you’ll have to find a job, or have enough money to buy a plane ticket home if that doesn’t happen.

Lake Tekapo - South Island, New Zealand
On my two week vacation, checking out Lake Tekapo in the South Island.

If you already have a lot of money saved up and you simply want to live abroad for a year without working, you don’t have to work. It’s just nice to have the option in case you do need more money, because New Zealand ain’t cheap.

With this said, even if you do have the money, I would recommend working at least for a small part of your stay. Getting to know the New Zealand work culture and making local friends through work is all part of the experience.

If you want to base yourself in just one city for a whole year, it’s much easier to do so with the New Zealand Work Visa than it is in Australia. Unlike, Australia, there’s no limit to how long you can work in any given job for the 12 months you’re in the country.

I based myself in Wellington for a year, and because New Zealanders understands why people come here, for a working holiday, they tend to be open to the idea of regular vacations (especially for hospitality).

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Taupo
I was able to do stuff like climb around Mt. Doom with my coworker Mats on my weekends off.

I found New Zealand to be so much more manageable to travel around than Australia. The transport was often much cheaper (Naked Bus anyone?), and the travel times were much shorter.

I was able to explore most of the country in a year. I did a lot of weekend trips or simply took a couple of weeks off here and there to go on bigger trips down to the South Island.

WHAT DO I NEED TO DO BEFORE I GET A JOB?

Because I’d already started my life over in two separate cities in Australia, I had a good idea of what to expect before I arrived in New Zealand.

I also realized by this point that I could probably start over in any new city around the world and be okay. The joys of independent travel and life abroad, people – so many life lessons and skills learned!

The checklist of what you need to do when you’re first settling down in a new place is pretty similar no matter where you go. This was my checklist for New Zealand.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington - Halloween
One of my favorite memories at work – convincing everyone to dress up like 1920s zombie bartenders for Halloween.

Figure out where you want to live – you don’t have to do this right away, hostel life is a great starting point to make new friends and figure out your game plan. It’s also a safe bet in case you aren’t able to find a job and need to head home without any responsibilities like a sublease.

When I first arrived in Wellington, I stayed at the Dwellington for the first few weeks until I had a job secured, which funnily enough is right across the street from the US embassy. Staying in a hostel for those first few weeks allowed me to just focus on finding work and to worry about the rest later.

It allowed me to take my time finding a lease with locals I connected with. I was going to be there for a year, after all, I wanted to make sure I lived with people who’s company I enjoyed.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
With my lovely Kiwi housemate, Olivia, who I got along with swimmingly.

Another hostel that comes recommended for long-term stays is Worldwide Backpackers, and it’s located right near the CBD. Although the Dwellington is definitely a nicer and cleaner set-up, I found the clientele to be a bit snooty at times as well.

Once I did find a long-term share house, I ended up living in the hipster suburb called Newtown, just outside the city with a group of four other Kiwi girls. I had my own room and only paid about $550 NZD a month.

It was wonderful.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Cape Palliser
Exploring Cape Palliser on a day off from work.

And the best part about Wellington is that it’s so walkable. Even though Newtown is a suburb that is further outside the city, it only took 20-25 minutes to walk into work, which was located in the CBD near the waterfront.

I used trademe.co.nz (the Kiwi version of Craigslist but way less sketchy) to find a house to live in.

Another option, for Wellington at least, is a Facebook group called Vic Deals that often posts about openings in share houses among other items for sale in the city. I’m sure other cities around New Zealand have similar Facebook groups if you search for it.

Apply for an Inland Revenue Department (IRD) Number – You’ll need this before you can start work. Your IRD is basically the equivalent of your social security number and you can apply for it online here. It’ll be sent to you within two days by email/text or 12 days by mail after you apply.

Open up a New Zealand bank account – Do some research on the banks in New Zealand and how prevalent different ones are where you’ll be based. Try and open up an New Zealand bank account your first week in the country.

You’ll need to bring your passport, your IRD, and proof of a physical address (any hostel or hotel address will do). I opened an account with ANZ (Australia New Zealand Bank) since they don’t require a minimum, and they are one of the bigger banks located throughout the country that has good reviews.

Get yourself a prepaid sim card – It’s a good idea to have a way for people to contact you, especially if you’re applying for jobs. Make sure your phone is unlocked before you arrive, or you’ll have to figure out a way to unlock it or purchase a phone once you get over to New Zealand.

I originally used Telecom phone service, but after a horrible customer service experience that left me in tears (it was a rough day), I vowed to never use them again. I immediately switched to 2Degrees Mobile and I was so pleased about the customer service I had every time I went in to top up or ask a question.

All you need is a pre-paid plan that you put money into each month. Mine was only around $25/month and I could recharge my account online. Just walk into any location of the phone company of your choosing and they’ll easily set you up with a sim card.

*Optional* get your Licence Controller Certification (LCQ) if you’re managing – Unlike Australia with the RSA, if you’re planning on bartending or waitressing while you’re in New Zealand, you don’t need any kind of special certification. The only exception is if you plan on becoming a duty manager or higher, and usually your work will help set that up if so.

I took my LCQ because I was hired to be a duty manager from the beginning, but if I’d just been a bartender, I wouldn’t have needed to go to that eight hour class on my birthday (womp womp).

However, you shouldn’t take that to mean that New Zealand doesn’t take their liquor laws seriously. Quite the opposite actually. There are many legal implications that can get you into big trouble if you’re serving intoxicated patrons, even if you’re not the manager.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
At a beer tasting competition in Wellington with my Kiwi boyfriend who I met through work.

Basically the law in New Zealand is if a drunk person leaves your bar, goes and does something stupid like drives a vehicle, you’ll be held responsible if they kill themselves or injure other people. That is, if it can be proven that they got intoxicated in your bar.

It definitely makes you think before pouring that 4th or 5th pint of beer. I cut off and kicked out many people during my time as manager for being too drunk.

I even cut off my own boyfriend who was a manager above me. That at least was a hilarious story though, because I cut off the owner of the bar that night too, who was just as smashed from a wine/beer/whisky tasting event.

WILL I ACTUALLY FIND A JOB THOUGH?

This is the question I get asked most often by Americans who are wanting to know more about the visa. The short answer is if you have a friendly attitude and are quick to learn new things, yes you will find a job!

Unlike American work culture where it is unlikely you’ll find a job unless can make a long-term commitment, New Zealand is used to the working holidayers coming in and finding temporary work.

One aspect to note is that the minimum wage is quite a bit lower in New Zealand  than it is in Australia. I was making significantly less money, even as a manager ($17.50/hour), than I was as just a bartender in Australia ($20-$24/hour).

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
4th of July & birthday celebrations at The Bruhaus! (I decked the whole bar out with red, white, and blue and forced everyone to celebrate America’s independence with me).

You can definitely make more money in Australia doing hospitality type jobs, which may be a deciding factor if you can only choose one country and want to save as much money as possible.

Obviously, the best jobs for temporary work are going to be in the service industry which has high turn over – think bartender, barista, waitress, etc. There are also a lot of call center jobs because most people avoid that kind of work.

If you have bartending or barista experience, you should easily be able to find a job, especially in a city like Wellington that has more bars & cafes per capita than Paris or New York City. And even if you have another more specific skill, such as marketing, there are opportunities for that as well.

There are plenty of foreigners who come in and apply for jobs with a unique skill set. They end up staying in the country much longer than the original work visa limit because they get sponsored by a company. So if that’s your end goal, to live in New Zealand indefinitely, that dream is a possibility if you luck out with the right boss and work place.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
Spending Christmas in New Zealand with coworkers and friends.

It’s all about what you want from your visa experience. I knew that I really enjoyed the work culture and clientele at the bartending jobs I had in Australia. I knew I still wanted a social job to meet people since I had moved to Wellington by myself and didn’t know anyone yet

I found a bartending job in Wellington within my first week in the city, and I had my pick from three different jobs that wanted me. I ended up going with The Bruhaus because they offered me the best pay, the best hours, and a management position. Win-win-win.

I mainly focused on applying at craft beer bars since that was where my experience was. I generally enjoy the atmosphere at those types of bars as well, as opposed to cocktail bars, and Wellington has a fantastic craft beer scene.

Craft Beer 101 - The Atlas Heart
Craft Beer in Wellington – Hellz yes. (Although I’m drinking my favorite craft beer of all time from San Diego in this picture – Sculpin IPA – lol.)

Whereas in Australia I felt a lot more temporary as a worker, in New Zealand I didn’t really feel that at all. I felt like I had a solid place at my work and in Kiwi culture as a whole.

That may have been due to the fact that I was one of the only managers at the bar, I was dating a local, and I stayed in one job for the whole year instead of bouncing around. I personally assimilated a bit better in New Zealand, but I think it’ll always be different depending on the work place and coworkers you have.

WHERE SHOULD I WORK & LIVE?

This is another question I get asked often and the easy answer is that it depends on your personality and what you want to see in New Zealand. I was really happy with living my whole year in Wellington.

Although the city was a tad dismal weather-wise and way too windy most days, Wellington has a vibrancy and energy that’s hard to match (even in Auckland). It’s also perfectly located, situated right between the bulk of the two islands, at the southern tip of the North Island.

People love going out in Wellington. You’d see bars packed on Courtenay Place every night of the week. There was always plenty to do around the city, but it was small enough to not feel overwhelming. The waterfront was stunningly gorgeous and nature was never too far away.

I usually went on hikes either by myself or with my boyfriend once a week. And, as I mentioned before, the epicenter of the craft beer scene in New Zealand is in Wellington. It was a city that fit a lot of aspects of my personality well.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
Going hiking on a day off to the Wellington Wind Turbine.

Other popular spots for working holiday travelers are Auckland, Queenstown, and Christchurch.

I could see Queenstown being another great place to live. It’s definitely social and the scenery is the epitome of epic, but there is so much tourism there as well that it can feel kitschy at times.

Christchurch I found to be a depressing place, which I explain in this post here. And there really doesn’t seem to be much happening there, so I don’t know if I’d recommend it for someone on a Working Holiday Visa.

Auckland, well, is just another big city. To Auckland’s credit, I didn’t spend much time there, but if you meet any other Kiwis who aren’t from Auckland, you’ll pretty much only hear negative things about the city. Not to mention, most Kiwis use the term “Jafa” when talking about Aucklanders.

One Tree Hill - Auckland, New Zealand
Hiking around Auckland, New Zealand

To Aucklanders, it means “Just another friendly Aucklander.” To anyone not from Auckland, it means “Just another fucking Aucklander.”

Time and time again I was told that Auckland is not the real New Zealand. It’s a different culture in the big city than what you’ll find in the rest of the country, and I personally don’t think it gives you as good of an idea of Kiwi culture. But that’s just my opinion.

Other lesser known but potential options would be Wanaka, Dunedin, Rotorua, and Nelson.

Queenstown, New Zealand
There’s no denying that Queenstown is stunning.

Do your research and see if any of those places (or maybe others I haven’t mentioned) sound like a good fit to you. And it never hurts to do a quick 2-3 week trip around the country when you first get there, to get a feel for these places yourself.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO MOVE TO NEW ZEALAND?

This depends on where you decide to settle down in the country, but in general the shoulder season before high season is the best time to move to New Zealand and look for a job. Remember that New Zealand has opposite seasons to America. The high season in New Zealand is during their summer, also known as our winter. Therefore, the best time to usually find a job is in our fall – September, October, November.

If you settle down on the North Island, the weather is fairly temperate. It’s even subtropical up north of Auckland. But Wellington can be bitingly cold with antarctic winds that come through the Cook Strait, so make sure to bring layers if you’re staying through winter.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Milford Sound
Exploring Milford Sound in the South Island – it was a bit chilly!

The South Island can be quite cold as well with much more snow and winter wonderland type temperatures in the winter. The summers are quite nice in New Zealand as a whole and is always a good time to travel and be near the water.

HOW DO I FILE TAXES IF I WORK ABROAD?

This is not a question I thought about when I moved abroad for two years, and I ended up having to file back taxes when I came back to the States and started researching taxes for my business.

Fun fact my fellow Americans, we live in one of the only countries that taxes their citizens instead of solely on where they work. So, even if you work abroad you’re still expected to file taxes at home by the tax deadline in April.

The good news is that depending on the country, you won’t be double taxed if you can prove that you’ve been outside of the US for a certain amount of time and have had to pay taxes in another country, such as New Zealand.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
A picture of pretty flowers in Wellington because taxes suck.

Note that even if you don’t think you have to pay taxes, you still have to file your taxes in America. You have to prove your foreign earned income, and that you had a ‘tax home’ in a foreign country. You also have to prove that you were physically present outside the US for at least 330 days out of a 365-day period.

In New Zealand, you only get a small portion (if any) of your taxes back, not the whole lot like in Australia. It’s a good idea to fill out a New Zealand tax return the next year to see if you get anything back, just in case!

Now, that wasn’t too overwhelming or confusing, was it? I’d love to hear, have you thought of living abroad? Would you move to New Zealand now that you know it’s this easy?

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A Guide to Working in New Zealand for Americans

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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