Perhaps it is the Trump Effect, but since I moved back up to work as an immigration solicitor in Leeds over a year ago, I have assisted a particularly high number of USA nationals join their loved ones in the Yorkshire region.
I have been making sense of a user-unfriendly system and, in the second of a two-part series blog on applying for a UK visa from the USA, I will now discuss the specific process of applying for a ‘settlement’ visa from the USA.
This visa category has unique absurdities features you need to be aware of. You can read about the process of applying for a USA visa in any other category here.
Settlement, Appendix FM or Partner?
Whilst completing my most recent settlement application from the USA, I was struck by the bewildering array of terms to choose from.
My non-British client was looking to join her husband in the UK on a permanent basis; this is commonly referred to as a ‘spouse application’. However, as I navigated the various drop down menus of websites associated with the application, the terms ‘settlement’, ‘Appendix FM’ and ‘Partner’ all appeared.
Settlement typically means ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and is a form of permanent residence status. However, in the context of applying for a visa from abroad, it means a family based application. Somewhat confusingly, if successful you are not normally issued with ‘indefinite leave to remain’, but with time-limited leave – normally 33 months.
However, as these applications are also made under a section of the Immigration Rules called Appendix FM, the Home Office or VFS will occasionally refer to these as Appendix FM applications.
Note that whether you are applying as a spouse, civil partner, fiancé or unmarried partner, under the Immigration Rules these all come under the single definition of ‘Partner’. Thus you might also need to select the option of applying as a ‘Partner under Appendix FM’.
The application process
- Application Support Centre or Premium Application Centre?
When making a settlement application, you can apply through either an Application Support Centre, run by the Department for Homeland Security, or a Premium Application Centre, which is run by VFS Global.
It is important to appreciate that different services and packages are available from the two types of centre – something which is not immediately clear from any website.
- Extra services
As I explained in my earlier blog, there is now a truly bewildering array of ‘additional services’ advertised, particularly by VFS. However, settlement applications have their own array of niche additional services.
The product which, in my experience, is of most practical use is the Priority Visa for Settlement service. This should bring you a decision within 30 working days from the date you submit your biometric information.
However, you are advised not to use this service if your case is not ‘straightforward’. Your case is not ‘straightforward’ if, for example, you have previously had a visa refused for the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand or the Schengen countries.
You can only buy this as a standalone product if you are processing your visa through an Application Support Centre. The fee for this service is $747.
However, if you elect to process your application through a Premium Application Centre then you are prevented from buying this as a single product. Instead, if you want this service then you are forced to purchase the Settlement Premium Package.
Granted, the Settlement Premium Package does also buy you services such as ‘Form Filling Assistance’ and ‘Application and Document Checks’, which might be of use to some individuals, although this service falls well short of legal advice.
Also included in the bundle is the ‘Keep Your Passport When Applying’ service, as well as a courier service to get your passport delivered to your home or office (which contradicts somewhat the ‘Keep My Passport When Applying’ feature).
You also get an SMS Service which provides instant visa application updates to your phone. Yet none of these services seem to justify the astonishing costs for this package, which is $2,000. You therefore pay an extra $1,253 compared to the standalone Priority Visa for Settlement service, for services which you probably do not need.
- Which form?
The application must be submitted online and at present there are two separate portals through which you can submit your application.
As I explained in my previous blog, you are best off using the new Access UK website. This site has a more intuitive feel compared to the visa4uk website and the new site will shortly allow for supporting documents to be uploaded.
- How to provide supporting documents
Once you have submitted your form online, you must attend your chosen visa application centre to enrol your biometrics. You then have various options regarding how to submit your documents and have five days from the date of your appointment to do so.
If you have lodged with VFS, your documents will be uploaded by VFS staff at the time of your biometric appointment.
You can also send your supporting documents by post. Until recently, there was conflicting information regarding whether to send the documents directly to the decision-making centre in Sheffield, UK, or to a scanning hub in New York. The New York address is correct, despite what you might read online.
In terms of providing your supporting documents, the final option is for your UK based sponsor (or agent) to submit the documents on your behalf to a scanning centre in the UK. The fee for this is service is £75 per application. I have never used this service as it seems a rather pointless and time consuming extra step.
- How long does it take to process the visa?
The Home Office has a fairly lax service level agreement in respect of the processing times for settlement applications generally. It aims to process 98.5% of applications within 12 weeks of the application date and 100% of application within 24 weeks.
These long-stop statistics do not indicate how quickly applications are processed in practice.
My client recently attended a visa application centre to enrol her biometrics. She was told that, in spite of using the Priority Settlement service, that it could take 45 working days to process her application – so nine weeks!
Expensive and slow
In my Part 1 blog I lamented the eye-watering fees and useless additional services pushed on you at every opportunity, particularly by VFS.
Unfortunately the experience is no different when applying for settlement. But in a visa category which is arguably the most important one of all, involving the unification of loves ones, we have the added dismal feature of a great delays in obtaining your visa.