Boat-people have dominated Australia’s immigration debate since John Howard’s famous “we will decide” election cry. But left out was the biggest slice of Australia’s migrant pie.

Who are the plane-people? What are the circumstances in which they can immigrate?

Most of Australia’s immigrants arrive on planes. These people usually hold tourist, student or working-holiday visas before applying for long-stay visas that can be made permanent. Katie Daniels is a 24-year-old personal trainer from Victoria, Canada. In 2008, she applied for a working-holiday visa (417) in Australia.

“That visa gave me a year here, but I couldn’t work at the same job for more than six months,” she told Crikey.

During her stay, Katie began dating an Australian citizen, John. Now, she is applying for the de facto relationship visa 801, which would entitle her to remain in Australian for as long as her relationship with John is deemed “genuine, continuing, and mutually exclusive”.

“To get the de facto visa, you have to prove that you’re a real couple. You have to have lived together and shared a bank account for a year,” she said.

The process is arduous and a red flush of frustration surfaces on Katie’s cheeks as she discusses the money and time she’s invested into her application.

Katie had to submit utility bills, bank statements, hundreds of pages of paperwork including a written summary of her relationship history, statutory declarations, police checks, medical tests, intimate letters, Facebook history, Video Ezy account details and anything else that might prove her relationship to John is genuine.

“Basically, you have to submit everything short of a s-x tape,” she said.

Alan Mitchell is an Englishman who’s been granted a de facto relationship visa in Australia. But instead of dating an Australian, Alan has recently become engaged to a New Zealander, Haley.

Alan applied for visa 461 from his home in London in February 2009. This entitles him to five years of unrestricted residency as long as he remains in a genuine relationship with a New Zealand citizen who lives in Australia. Alan met Haley in Canada, and they lived together in London before moving to Australia.

“Kiwis have an indefinite right to remain in Australia, and you can get an Australian visa pretty easily if you’re dating one,” Alan said. “The criteria is similar to those who apply with an Australian partner, but it’s a lot easier and quicker. I had to submit tenancy agreements and utility bills and bank statements; but it only took maybe three weeks and cost me $100.”

Alan plans to apply for permanent residency four years into his visa. If successful, he will be allowed to stay indefinitely and will actually have more rights than his partner.

“That’s the funny thing,” he said. “If I get residency, then Haley will be able to apply for it because she’s, by that stage, married to a resident. We can build on each other’s visas. In the end, you’re better off with a Kiwi than an Australian in Australia. I think people are starting to figure that out and use that avenue. There are websites and forums where people get together and swap tips on the various parts of getting a visa.”

The other common form of immigration is through the long-stay business visa (457), allowing the holder to live and work in Australia for four years.

Paul Watson, 28, came to Australia on a working-holiday visa. He was employed by the AOT Group as a search-engine marketing specialist. He had skills from his English training that were beyond Australian specialists. His employers agreed to sponsor his application.

Paul’s visa is, however, temporary and he is subject to restrictions. He can’t change employer freely and even a promotion within AOT group would need assessment. Paul is now halfway through his visa, but also plans on becoming a resident. There is an avenue through his work sponsorship, but it is laborious.

“I’m still looking into it, but I think it will be easier to apply for a de facto visa with Sarah [his Australian girlfriend] and in the long run, residency on that basis,” Paul said.

According to the annual report from the Department of Immigration, 183,000 working-holiday visas were granted last year, with the UK being the No.1 country of origin (followed by China and India).

The department records that 107,500 temporary economic visas were granted, alongside 41,000 permanent economic visas, 17,000 non-economic resident visas, 68,000 long-stay business visas (Paul’s visa) who have an average base salary of $86,400, and 1600 grants for people in relationships with New Zealand citizens (Alan’s visa). These numbers loom large over another: 5173 refugee visa grants over the same period. Of these refugee grants, 17% still arrived by plane.