Friday, 24 September 2010

Visa Application Process Review

If you want to visit the UK and you need a Visa, chances are you're going to come across "WorldBridge", a commercial organisation botching the job working in partnership with the UK Border Agency.

My husband, our 2 kids aged 3 and 18 months and I set off for our appointment at the VAC (Visa Application Centre) in Munich today at 9am and got there for just before 11am. We went on a bus to the town square, an S Bahn to Hauptbahnhof, a Ubahn to Hohenzollernplatz and then a Tram to Barbarastr.

Wait... how come we had to go there? Can't you apply online? "Applying online" means you fill in the form on an online form and you can PAY online, but you have to actually physically go there to record the Biometrical Data

What is Biometrical Data? Fingerprint scans and a Photograph. You have to take a passport photo with you, so they can check to see if it still looks like you when they take a photo with their own camera.

What if you already had your fingerprints scanned there, last time you applied for a visa?
You still have to have your fingerprints scanned in again in case you have grown new fingertips or got weird fingerprint enhancement surgery.

Wait... if you already had the fingerprints scanned in, does that mean you already had a Visa approved last time? Yes

So can't you just renew the last visa? You'd think.

First impressions:
We were greeted by a nice lady on the front desk. This time was better than last time in that the appointment we'd booked online was real and not just a figment of my imagination like last time. So our "name was on the list" as opposed to last time when the "name wasn't on the list".

We didn't have to wait very long before we were asked to go down the corridor to the infamous Room 6, a room with 2 photography white backdrops, 2 desks and a few chairs and just enough room for the PushChair to squeeze in if you scrape against the camera equipment. 2 visa applications can be attempted at the same time in Room 6.

We printed our Visa Application out at home and paid for it online (86 Euros for a 6 month family visit)

Wait, you're going to the UK for 6 months? No, no, no, just 2 weeks. But a 6 month Visa is the minimum length of time you can apply for.

Visa4uk (AKA The Vicious Circle) is the online visa application website. You fill in the form and keep saving it and re-logging in and filling in another section. You go through it painstakingly, question after question about your past, your present, your future, what colour undies you've got on. You get asked questions like "How much of your income do you spend on your family?" You get used to it. The Visa4UK form is systematic in its invasiveness and its tedium is exceeded only by its superfluousness.

You have to get your "Supporting Documents" together which include the usual expected items such as Passport and Residency permit, but then it is the responsibilty of the applicant to provide the documents they feel is evidence to prove the information in the application is true. For example a birth certificate to show you have indeed been born. And an itinerary showing booked excursions and evidence of the tickets to prove you will be doing what you said you would be doing. (Because everyone knows if you buy tickets for "Got Tu Go Disco" featuring Studio 54's actual doorman, you're definitely not going to miss that one...) You can even include print-outs of emails to show you have been corresponding with your friend or loved one, and chatting with earnst and enthusiasm about having tea and cakes with Aunt Mildred.

But they do warn you that you should not book your flights until your Visa has been approved. So you can book your tickets for your day-trip to the disused Oil Refinery on the Isle of Grain, and plan your excursion to the Poseidon Fisheries in Grimsby. But don't waste money on plane tickets to the UK until the Visa has been approved. Sound advice seeing as the likelihood of the Visa being approved without the helping hand of a Legal Eagle (or a Bribe) is slim to none.

The WorldBridge appointment booking form for the VAC (Visa Application Centre) is decidedly less user friendly. It is incredulous and frustrating to have to use it. Especially after you have been filling in dates in the format DD MMM YYYY on The Vicious Circle, WorldBridge go and change the format to YYYY MM DD on their bit, just to throw you off the scent.

Back to Room 6, the WorldBridge employee dealing with our visa application told us within 30 seconds of us handing him the visa application that he could not accept it. He said there was something missing from the page - the header and the Visa Application number.

I betrayed my cool exterior and went into hysterics. I was too gobsmacked to speak and just laughed insanely, thinking "this has got to be a joke". I actually thought Jeremy Beadle was going to pop out and award me with a "You've Been Framed" Trophy or maybe even Ashton Kutcher was Punking me.

But no. No film crew, no sighs of relief, and rolling of eyes and thumping of shoulders and vows of revenge. Oh I tell a lie on that last one.

The man instructed me to log into my account with the visa application number and my user name and password (which I had already done about 5 times while I was in the middle of the application because I kept saving and coming back to it) and then to click print. Well duh, isn't that what I already did at home?!

But he didn't want to do it there at his desk, so he sent us off to an internet cafe and said we could come back before 4pm. Which was very gracious of him seeing as last time they sent us away because we didn't have a REAL appointment and they made us go back home and re-book online for the next day.

So off we trundled to find an internet cafe, which we found after a trip to Mcdonalds for DS3. Then we logged on to the visa account and there was a message saying that the application was "Now Available to print", (So when I printed it at home, it wasn't available to print.) So I printed it and this time it was 10 pages long instead of the 6 that I'd printed at home.

Quite mysterious.

Wait a minute! How can the application be 6 pages when I print it at home and 10 pages when I print it in an internet cafe? Maybe by turning up for the appointment activated something or the man did something to it. Who knows.

So then we had to wait til 12.45pm because they are on lunch from 11.30am to 12.45pm. Yeah. Really.

Then we were sent into a "waiting room" which was really a meeting and presentation room and were finally seen at 2pm. (I got really good at drawing Spongebob and Gary)

This time we were asked to go to the second desk, to the other employee. He looked at the freshly printed Visa Application Form and said "Applications have to be made within 3 months of the travel date"

"Yes" I nodded, waiting for his cogs to turn and for him to realise it is 3 months until the travel date of 21st Dec.

"Oh" he said. And then "Oh, erm, YES BUT.... ! The application was made online on the 19th of September." I think he got the evil eye from me then.

He checked with his colleague (the first man) who nodded to say it would be ok.

Suspiciously similar to the "routine" from last time isn't it. Remarkably and unnaturally so.......

DS18 months woke up and SCREAMED the whole building down while we were trying to explain what the supporting documents were. In a mixture of Shouty German and Broken English.

Finally everything we wanted to send was put into an envelope and then we saved 10 Euros by posting it at the post office ourselves instead of paying 15 Euros for them to send it (what a crock), but we still had to pay 15 Euros (in CASH!!!) so they can send the "decision" back to us. It could take up to 15 working days apparently. Well that would be nice seeing as last time it took nearly 4 months.

Then we did the 4 modes of transport to come back home. Good job we had our travel cards already because there was a ticket controller on the bus back home! "Schwarzfahren" (travelling without a valid ticket) is a penalty of 40 Euros.

If I never have to go through this again in my life it will be too soon. I would rather stick pins in my eyes.

We finally got home at 4.30pm.

I think today is a perfect example of why having a car would make life a bit easier! And having an EU Passport would make visiting Great Uncle Bert less of a nightmare.

We survived to tell the tale.... so it can't be all that bad can it!

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