If you are a resident of the USA and want to obtain a visa for the UK, then you will face what is, quite frankly, a confused mess of a system. In the first of this two-part series I will look at the application process for applying for visas generally. Settlement visas will follow in Part 2.
In brief, here is why the USA application process is now so confusing:
- There is now a choice of two online applications forms which you can complete.
- There are two different types of application centres, run by different bodies, to choose from: Application Support Centres and Premium Application Centres. One of these application centres, run by VFS Global, received such levels of dissatisfaction that it spawned the Twitter account VFS Global Complaints.
- There are many different methods by which you can submit your supporting documents.
- There are countless additional services you can buy, the availability of which depends on the type of application centre you opt for.
An already testing situation was further exacerbated by the wholesale suspension of services at all Application Support Centres in late March this year for a number of weeks. Apparently this was due to the British government missing a payment to the Department of Homeland Security.
The information around the application process is opaque, sometimes plain wrong, and spread across the various websites of the various parties involved in the process. However, having spent an inordinate amount of time deciphering the application process and options available, I can now bring you a condensed guide to help you to navigate this muddled system.
- Application Support Centre or Premium Application Centre?
You must first decide which type of visa application centre to go for. It is important to understand that, whilst the Home Office will ultimately determine the visa application, there are two completely separate organisations which will handle the general processing of your application.
One of these is the Department for Homeland Security, which operates Application Support Centres across a wide range of US locations.
Alternatively you can submit your application through VFS Global, who operate far fewer Premium Application Centres. As I explain in more detail below, it is important to understand the different ‘additional services’ available through each.
- Which online application do I use?
Up until recently all applications were submitted through the visa4uk website. However, there is now a new Access UK website through which applications from the USA to the UK can be made. The Access UK website is the future, as it will allow for supporting documents to be uploaded to the website.
But the Home Office never make things easy. The visa4uk website is clearly on its way out, yet when you visit this website you are greeted by the message: ‘This is the new UK visa application website...’
Furthermore, if you follow the Home Office’s own interactive guidance on the Gov.uk website, you are directed to the old website and in fact it is not easy to locate the Access UK website through a standard Google search (but here it is again).
- Additional services
If you choose an Application Support Centre then you can purchase various add on services. These include services to expedite your decision. There is the Priority Visa service, which for $291 claims to buy you a decision on your application within five working days of submitting your biometric information.
However, you are cautioned against using this service if your case is not ‘straightforward’, which includes if you have previously had a visa refused for the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand or the Schengen countries.
If using an Application Support Centre you could instead opt for the Super Priority Visa service, at $1,265. This will give you a decision within 24 hours of you submitting your biometric information. Again, however, you are cautioned not to use this service if your case is not ‘straightforward’.
It is a whole different add-on-ball game, however, if you have chosen a Premium Application Centre, in which case you will be offered a dizzying array of services, many strange and more still at eye watering prices. These services can be purchased individually or as part of a package.
There is the Health Concierge service, with the offer to be able to ‘see a doctor by video link within the hour’. This service is unpriced and it is not clear how long you are covered for – but presumably your ordeal attendance at the Premium Application Centre is included – peace of mind for when those palpitations set in, as you wait for a decision on your visa.
Also on offer is the Luxury Car Service Sedan, which promises a peaceful journey to and from your Premium Application Centre ($130), or you can opt for the SUV ($150). VFS will even come to your home to collect the required documents and biometric information, if you purchase the On Demand Mobile Visa ($1995).
Frustratingly, if you select a Premium Application Centre you cannot buy as standalone products what in my view are likely to be the most useful: the Priority Visa service or Super Priority Visa service. Instead, if you want these you are forced into buying a VFS suite of products: Bronze ($410); Silver ($875); or Gold ($1,900).
Whilst the cheapest package, the Bronze service is particularly lacking in any value and does not even buy you any expediting service. Silver buys you the Priority Visa service but at $584 more than if you bought the Priority Visa service as a standalone product. Gold buys you the Super Priority visa, but at $635 more than the Super Priority visa standalone product (although VFS throws in the dubious Health Concierge service into the bargain!).
If you need your application to be expedited, then the Application Support Centre is by far the cheaper option.
- Providing your supporting documents
The Immigration Rules were amended in November 2018 so that original documents no longer need to be provided in support of applications (although outdated Home Office guidance on individual visa areas are still littered with demands that originals be provided). The exception to this rule is that original passports must still be submitted.
Once you have attended your appointment to enrol your biometrics, then you are given five days to submit your supporting evidence. If you have managed to upload your documents then your only remaining task is to provide your passport – unless you shelled out for the Keep My Passport When Applying service.
Given the astronomical fees charged by both the Home Office, through its fees and charges, and by the likes of VFS through additional services, there really is no excuse for the present shambles.
At least when you apply from the USA there is something of a choice, given that you can choose to have your application processed by the Department of Homeland Security, rather than VFS.
However, when applying for a UK visa from most countries (and VFS is now engaged in 139 countries) choosing VFS is obligatory. VFS operates as a near monopoly company in the visa processing market. This means that, rather than an aspirational marketing slogan, VFS’ new hashtag EveryJourneyBeginsWithVFSGlobal feels more like an edict.
Unfortunately, the Home Office and VFS probably do have a captive market. Moving to a new country is a life-changing decision but often the visa application is an afterthought. But there is always a breaking point. The hassle of navigating the visa process from the USA is increasingly becoming a significant factor when weighing up the merits of moving to the UK, threatening the concept of a Global Britain.