Thousands of Australians stranded overseas are desperate to return home, but thousands of others are swimming against the stream and departing the country.

Under the federal government’s travel ban Australian citizens and permanent residents can only leave the country for six reasons, including for urgent personal business and compassionate reasons. In addition, Australians who have spent the majority of the past two years overseas are considered foreign residents and get an automatic exemption.

On Wednesday Australian couple Sav and Tara Ratu flew from Melbourne Airport back to the UK where they have work visas until January. They are among the 6451 people granted travel exemptions by Border Force officials in the last two weeks of August alone, for a total of 40,830 exemptions since restrictions began in March.

The Ratus first moved to London in January 2019 before returning for a family emergency a year ago. Their plan to fly back to the UK in April this year was scuppered due to COVID-19.

As high school teachers, their skills are in demand with casual and contract work readily available.

“We are excited,” Mr Ratu said. “It seems that most of Europe is open for business and the UK is starting to get back to normal.”

Their Border Force exemption to the travel ban was granted in just two hours, with visas, a tenancy agreement and bank accounts deemed sufficient proof.

“We found the approval process pretty straightforward and easy to navigate. As long as you have the correct documentation and evidence of moving overseas for an extended period of time, you get the exemption,” Mr Ratu said.

While feeling slightly apprehensive about the possibility of borders remaining closed when their visas expire in January, Mr Ratu said they can always apply for a sponsored or tourist visa.

“Our families are supportive and excited for our move overseas but also a little anxious about the current situation overseas with the pandemic and Brexit,” he said.

Frances Buckland-Willis is another Australian who secured an exemption to leave the country this week. The radio astronomy PhD student departed Sydney Airport for France on Tuesday to begin a three-year research position at Universite Paris-Saclay.

“It’s definitely a big decision,” the 23-year-old said.

“You see the case numbers [and] a lot of countries having second waves. It’s quite scary to think it could get as bad as it was.”

Ms Buckland-Willis said she expects to feel homesick although she knows some people in Europe so she won’t be completely on her own.

“But it’s quite scary I can’t come back on a whim,” she said.

Border Force has been approving travel exemptions at a higher rate in recent weeks than earlier in the pandemic, while also responding to applications more quickly.

Between March 25 and August 31, there were 116,520 travel exemption applications, which can cover multiple people and be lodged multiple times. Officials have cleared 40,830 citizens and residents to leave, while denying another 13,310 people. The remaining applications were “otherwise finalised”, Border Force said. That includes withdrawn requests and those without sufficient information for consideration.

A Border Force spokesperson said the top three categories with the most applications are: compassionate or humanitarian grounds; urgent and unavoidable personal business; and conduct of critical industries and business, including exports and imports.

See also: The countries open to Australian tourists (but we’re not allowed to go)

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