“Beware of the leopard”: finding a way through the UK Visa information labyrinth

“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

(Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

I think of this quote regularly these days, as I advise clients about submitting an application for a UK visa. As a summary of opaque bureaucracy it is hard to beat.

After completing and submitting an online application form, UK visa applicants are directed to attend a biometrics appointment and provide their supporting documents. In most cases this means using one of two “commercial partners”: VFS Global or Teleperformance.

VFS and Teleperformance are also responsible for providing chargeable services such as priority processing (or as VFS puts it, “specially crafted optional services to ease your visa application process”).

In order to complete the application process, an applicant must go to the website of the relevant business, and try to determine the process the process to use. This is easier said than done.

In earlier times, most visa applicants would be expected to bring their supporting documents to their biometric appointment, and submit them over the counter. The documents would be examined by a local entry clearance team, or sent to officers in the UK. In these cases, an applicant would have to arrange for all the necessary documents to be in their possession in their home country before submitting the application.

Later, some offices started to require applicants to post their own documents to the UK. This process allowed applicants to choose whether to gather their documents together in their home country, or to send them to a UK sponsor or representative.

Now that document scanning is being phased in, a further variable has been added to the list of application options.

It’s obviously important that applicants know what their visa application process is going to involve so that they can plan document provision, finances and travel. Unfortunately, in my experience the information available from VFS and Teleperformance is unclear, difficult to navigate, and subject to frequent and unannounced changes.

As a recent example, I have a client applying for a UK partner visa from China. Having initially started to advise her some time ago, we planned that her supporting documents would be posted to UKVI in the UK. She also wanted to pay for the “settlement priority service” which is effectively a queue-jumping mechanism intended to speed up the decision-making process.

The “commercial partner” in China is VFS. At the time my client submitted her online application, the VFS website was completely silent on the matter of a settlement priority service. Complaints to VFS and UKVI on this point were fruitless, and a (chargeable) phone call to the UKVI telephone helpline disclosed that the operator on the other end was merely reading from the same VFS website as me.

My client resigned herself to a non-priority application and we looked for the correct UK submission address for her documents. Unfortunately, in the time that had elapsed since we started to plan her application, the submission process had changed and the postal option had been removed. Had my client gathered her documents in China, she could have had them scanned there without charge. However, from the UK the scanning option now involved a visit to the VFS office in London, and a charge of £75.00.

We opted for the latter, and I attended the VFS office. The service was quick and friendly, but involved an unexpected additional £20.00 charge to return documents to me by courier.

This experience might be unusual, but it is still unacceptable. Applicants managing their own applications can easily make a mistake in sending their documents to the wrong place, or in failing to have the correct documents available at their biometric appointment. Information should be clear, unambiguous, and stable, whether “specially crafted” or not.



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