The government has announced a new category that will allow 250 international PhD and postgraduate students to enter New Zealand, with the first expected to arrive next month.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said in a statement the exception was a "balanced decision" that recognised the role international students will play in the recovery of New Zealand.
"It will enable us to welcome back a good portion of those PhD and Masters students who are caught off-shore, and who need to be in New Zealand to complete their work.
"These are students who hold or held a visa for 2020, and whose long-term commitment to study here was disrupted by COVID-19. Priority will be given first to those who need to be in the country for the practical components of their research and study."
The first students are likely to arrive next month, but most won't arrive until early next year.
All students will have to stay in managed isolation for 14 days and will be charged for their stay. Their entry will be managed so that it does not impact on returning New Zealand citizens and residents, the statement said.
"The number of international students we are granting exceptions for is a very small proportion compared to the numbers we are used to. I acknowledge that other international education providers, such as schools and Private Training Establishments, will be disappointed that their students are not a part of this border exception group," Hipkins said.
"Our approach is pragmatic and allows us to carefully manage the demand on our quarantine facilities and the complex nature of bringing students back into the country."
Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said the organisation welcomed the decision.
"Prioritising PhD and Masters students who are already committed to studying in New Zealand is a sensible first step to bringing our international students back," Whelan said.
"We look forward to extending this as soon as possible to all our international students who remain overseas."
Hipkins said the government would review other possible border exceptions, as and when it was safe to do so.
So far, about 10,400 exceptions have been granted for non-New Zealand citizens and residents. They include essential health workers and other critical workers and family of New Zealand citizens or permanent residents.