Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed the border will fully reopen from the end of July, including for cruise ships and international students.
It comes with a range of other immigration announcements, including sector-specific agreements to support a shift away from low-skilled migrant labour, and a new 'Green list' of 85 hard-to-fill high-skill roles that provides a priority pathway to residency.
The Green List would include roles in sectors like construction engineering, trades, health workers and tech.
A second work-to-residence pathway requires two years in the job before migrants become eligible for residency. This would also apply to specific roles in health, education, trades, teachers in particular specialisations like science and maths, early childhood teachers, and registered plumbers.
Visas for some 20,000 migrants already in the country are also being extended, and there will be new restrictions on students being able to work.
Ardern, who is isolating with her partner at home, has announced the move virtually at a Business NZ lunch in Auckland this afternoon, with Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi and Minister of Education Chris Hipkins at the event in person.
While the border is already open to New Zealand citizens and residents and visitors from visa-waiver countries, people from countries that need to get a visa to travel to New Zealand had been told it would be October before they could book flights.
The government has long signalled it intended to bring that date forward, however, and Ardern confirmed it would kick in from 11.59pm on 31 July - bringing the opening forward two months - allowing tourists with visas to begin arriving from August.
She also signalled pre-departure testing would likely be gone before the full border reopening.
Ardern said today's announcement was a simplification of immigration settings that would address immediate skills shortages and speed up the economic recovery from Covid-19.
"By helping to relieve urgent skills shortages, opening up tourism and putting our immigration settings on a more secure footing, we are building on our proven plan to secure New Zealand's economic future," she said.
"This follows our previous reconnecting work which has seen approvals granted for over 29,000 critical workers, 5000 students, working holidaymakers, Australian tourists, and visa-waiver visitors already able to enter the country."
She said immigration pressures were bringing the cost of living to the fore for New Zealanders on an individual level, but "we are well positioned to accelerate our economic recovery."
None of the economic results - record low unemployment of 3.2 percent, economic activity higher than before the pandemic - were an accident, she said, rather the result of investment in training, the wage subsidy, resurgence support, business loan scheme, and job support schemes.
"It is a plan that has worked but there is a lot more to do."
She said the biggest economic difficulty being faced and also the biggest economic solution right now was getting the right workers into the right job.
The previous National government's lack of investment in training after the global financial crisis saw the economy revert to seeking workers from offshore, she said.
"This often resulted in labour that drove down wages and productivity across the country, while also depriving migrant workers of the experience they deserved here in New Zealand. It was a situation that was letting everyone down, and the numbers tell that story."
Ardern said the Accredited Employer Work Visa, which has been delayed twice and begins rolling out on 4 July, was central to the reprioritisation.
The system allows employers to become accredited for a year or two, covering multiple visa applications, and requires 10 working days for accreditation checks, a further 10 for job checks, and 20 for a migrant check.
"For an employer this will cut the processing time from up to 80 days pre-Covid to less than 30 ... we're ready to kick off in just eight weeks, with the processing of these visas from 4th of July," Ardern said.
She said it came with a median wage requirement which would be $27.76 by the time the border opened.
Faafoi said it would allow employers to use their own recruitment processes to prove New Zealanders were unavailable to fill roles.
He said it would reduce six visa categories down to one, and was designed to support an economy less reliant on lower-paid migrant workers; better at addressing productivity and meeting skills and infrastructure challenges; and increasing the overall skill level of migrants coming to New Zealand.
"We expect this change to impact about a quarter of migrant workers based on previous income information. It's important to emphasise that employers will still be able to hire migrants with open work rights such as working holiday makers, students and existing work visa holders - for jobs below the median wage.
"They can also hire those who soon will become residents thanks to the 2021 residence visa."
He signalled an overall shift away from relying on low-paid migrant workers, however, with new sector-specific agreements to ease the way for this shift, providing lower-paid migrant labour in the short term.
These would cover the care; construction and infrastructure; meat processing; seafood; and seasonal snow and adventure tourism sectors. The agreements would "in some cases" be temporary, he said.
"Each of these sectors will be provided limited exceptions to the median-wage requirement in exchange for ongoing improvements, and the length of these exceptions will be different for each sector."
"This follows the recent $27 per hour border exception that was granted around certain snow season roles to help the sector prepare for winter tourists."
About 20,000 visas expiring before 2023 would also be granted six-month or a two-year extension with open work conditions, to keep skills in the country, Faafoi said.
"For highly skilled workers in a global shortage it will ensure New Zealand is an attractive destination with fast-track pathways to residence and simplified application processes. These new settings will encourage employers to offer competitive wages and consider hiring more New Zealanders and train them and work together as sectors to showcase employment opportunities and career pathways."
He said Immigration New Zealand would have capacity to handle all the visas.
"We did recently shut down some offshore offices but we have hired about 230 extra staff and will continue to hire extra staff to ensure we can get through the processing.
"There's also a new immigration online platform which has come on board which we used for the second phase of the resident visa ... people will see a smarter and simpler immigration system, it will allow us to be dynamic in how we respond."
Hipkins said the reopening would help the international education sector rebuild, but with a new focus that would shut what he called a backdoor to lower-paid migrant workers who were then at risk of exploitation.
"From the end of July, all international students who meet normal entry criteria can enrol for study here ... but the future will be different, we won't be going back to National's volume over value approach."
Some students currently were able to work for up to three years in New Zealand after just 30 weeks of study, Hipkins said.
He said New Zealand's record on Covid-19 would be a boon in attracting more international students.
"Our Covid response is actually a very good marketing thing for us around the world for international students. Their parents see New Zealand as a very safe place to send their young people and that can be a huge leverage for us."