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UK visa renewal rant

UK visa renewal rant

Old Nov 5, 2013, 11:09 am
  #1  
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Angry UK visa renewal rant

The purpose of this post is just to rant. Not seeking advice. Not giving information. Just sharing some annoyance over a very expensive bureaucratic process that demands huge volumes of paper and then uses the volumes of paper as the excuse for messing up.

Some background here.

I'm an Indian citizen. 30-something. Financially fairly secure. Spend my life working in strange places (currently living in Somalia) doing stuff that most sane people think impossible.

I've been traveling to the UK since before I was born. Really. My mother was pregnant with me when she lived in the UK and came home to India a couple of months before I arrived. My second ever passport stamp is from Heathrow on 7th July 1979 (the first was departure from Bombay the previous night). I spent much of my developing years in London when my dad was posted there during the late 70s and early 80s.

I've had a UK visa pretty much continuously for the last 25 years (they were only introduced for Indian citizens in 1988). 11 visas in total I believe. Issued everywhere from Atlanta to Ottawa to Mumbai to Accra. I've also entered the UK as an airline crew member, on a temporary work permit and on one memorable occasion flew into-and-out of Gatwick without my passport or other paperwork (but that's another story for another day). I've done stuff to help out folks at the FCO, UKBA and Met that they probably can't talk about (and to be fair, they've helped me out more than a few times too). I've held full airside passes for Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, had more background checks than I probably applied for and have been the designated airline representative to the DfT, FCO, HMRC and UKBA.

Summary - I've been to the UK a shed load of times since longer than I can remember and they know pretty much everything there is to know about me.

So now its time to renew my UK visa. Not a complex residence visa or work visa or anything like that. Just a simple visitor visa. The type that allows me to fly in to the UK on a long weekend to catch up with some mates over a few beers and kebabs. Sounds simple doesn't it?

HAH!

I say again, HAH!

First of all, there is no UK Embassy in Somalia. Well, there officially is one, but the folks that work there are actually in Nairobi (confused yet? this is only the beginning) and maintain a "virtual presence post" in Mogadishu. So residents of Somalia have to go to Nairobi in person and then spend 3 weeks bumming around town while their passport sits in a stack of papers in an office. Of course, to actually get 3 spare weeks to be able to do this would require me to quit my job, which would in turn probably get my visa refused for being unemployed. Catch-22 eh? No wonder most Somalis just show up and claim asylum.

So I decided to apply for a visa renewal when I was back home in India on leave, even though my visa had not yet expired. It was due to expire within 90 days though, so according to the UKBA regulations my new visa should be valid from the date of expiry of the previous visa. Keep this point in mind as it will be relevant later.

So I go to the website to apply for the visa. I am confronted by the form to end all forms. Seriously. The guidance notes alone take up almost 15 pages. Ok, well, let's get on with it. At least applying in India allows me to use the online version of the form rather than having to sacrifice a few trees by printing everything out.

And then the questions. Ah, the questions. Where do I begin?

My first problem comes up with question 2.7

Please give details of any previous passports, covering the last 10 years, including where these passports are now.

A seemingly innocuous question. Except that I've had 8 passports valid at various times during the last 10 years and the text box only accepts 200 characters. So this question is answered with a "see additional sheet" comment (again, watch for a trend to emerge).

Then question 6.1

Have you travelled to the UK in the last 10 years? Please provide
details (full address, telephone number and email address of all the places where you stayed during your visit, including hotels) of all your trips to the UK over the last 10 years.


Oh dear. This could be a problem. Since 2003, I have traveled on 215 occasions to the UK and spent 331 nights there. Still, I have retained all my old IRIS receipts and have combed through my passports to have every single one of these trips documented. I even managed to compile the list of the various hotels I've stayed at over the years (PS. Did you know that the Yotel doesn't actually have a published phone number?). All of this in a total of 200 characters or less. (see additional sheet(s))

Whew. That has got to be the most time consuming question right?

WRONG!

Question 6.2

Have you travelled outside your country of residence, excluding to the UK, in the last 10 years? You should include travel for study, training, business trips etc. When giving this information please provide details of all your trips abroad that you have not described in answer to question 6.1.

I won't lie to you. I cried. The enormity of the task facing me drove a grown man living in Mogadishu to tears. Nonetheless, I would not be cowed. Excluding the UK and India, I have only entered 62 other countries a total of 571 times since 2003. How hard could that be to document? (That's sarcasm in case you couldn't figure that out over the interwebs). Still, I manage to come up with a fairly comprehensive list of singularly unmemorable hotels I spent isolated nights in over the years. From the Transit Hotel at Incheon Airport in South Korea to the Park Inn in Bratislava, Slovakia to the Asia Hotel in Vientane, Laos to Rug-San Hotel in Garowe, Somalia and some dodgy place in Sanya, Hainan Province, China whose name I never actually found out in English, these diverse lodgings were united in a common history on the pages of my Excel spreadsheet.

Did I mention yet that I have to fill this out in 200 characters or less?

Oh yeah, see additional sheet(s).

And yes, there were other questions too. Stuff like having to fill out a supplementary disclosure about "income from media sources" in question 5.9 because I make a few dollars in royalties from a book I've written. I disclosed all my traffic offences in question 6.9, including the time that I got Dorset Police to drop a speeding fine because the guy didn't know how to process a ticket for an Indian citizen working in Ghana driving on a Canadian driving license in a rental car. And dozens of others that I would usually find to be a waste of time, except that they took me less than a week to answer so I really can't complain in comparison.

I told the truth about everything, except question 6.14.

Have you engaged in any other activities that might indicate that you may not be considered a person of good character?

I answered "no". Partly out of frustration by this point, but more because I was a bit worried about my fiance finding a copy of my response lying around and subjecting me to the n-th degree. Is nothing sacred anymore? Can a man have no secrets from his bachelor days? For shame...

I did answer "no" to question 6.13 as well, although after I'm done with this post, I'm not sure it will still hold true.

Have you ever, by any means or medium, expressed views that justify or glorify violence or that may encourage others to commit violent acts?


Yeah, I want to f...ing throttle the w.nk.r who came up with this form. Does that count?

Did I forget question 8.8? The fabulously open ended one.

Do you have any friends in the UK? If ‘Yes’, please provide the full name, nationality, address, telephone number and documents verifying their permission to stay in the UK.


Yes, they want me to list ALL my friends in the UK. Not just anyone that I plan to visit or stay with. EVERYONE THAT I KNOW IN THE UK. Let's see. There's my former boss and her daughter. And my fiancee's cousins (that should take care of about 40 names straight up). And the CEO of the leasing company I used to lease a plane from. And the General Manager of the Hilton Gatwick. And the delivery boy from the Chinese restaurant in Crawley. And Geoffrey Boycott and Henry Blofeld and David Gower (long story there). And the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan (although he's a bit persona non grata nowadays). And.... well, you get the drift. Not quite that simple to drop a line to Sir Geoffrey and ask him for a copy of his passport to prove he is legally in the UK. I just said "yes" and put "Too many to itemise." in the comment box. On the bright side, this actually fit within the 200 character limit.

Anyway, I'm done with the form now. I just need to drop it off then? Nope, I have to make an online appointment. But I can't do that until I pay the application fee.

How much is the application fee? Well, that will be 737 including tax. Or US$1263.42 if you want to pay by credit card online (at least I get miles for it then!). Approximately ten and a half times the per capita GDP in Somalia. Once again, a gentle reminder that this for a tourist visa.

So I make my appointment online. And I receive a nice little email confirmation telling me about the ADDITIONAL documents that I need to bring with me when submitting the application. As if the 200-ish pages that I had already generated were not enough. No, they would like to see salary slips for the last 6 months, copies of ALL my bank statements for the last 6 months, a detailed itinerary of my planned travel dates and a letter from my employer. Ok, easy peasy. Thank God for online banking.

The day comes around. I tootle off to the VFS application center (Mumbai North) with 321 sheets of paper neatly bound together and contained in a transparent plastic bag. For alleged security reasons, opaque plastic bags are not permitted. I believe this allows the security staff to see the anguish on face of the staff member I am choking to death with the transparent bag and hence intervene - because with an opaque plastic bag they might think that I was just greeting them or something.

The application center is quite nice actually. It alternates posters for British tourism with warnings about the penalties for committing visa fraud. I am invited to a pre-screening desk where a polite young lady asks me a bunch of questions to see if I qualify to actually apply for the visa.

"When were you last in the UK?"
"Yesterday"
"Oh"

Then again, she could have just looked at page 168 out of 321 and found that out for herself.

I am invited to take a seat while she leafs through the rest of the package.

Suddenly a security guard appears at my shoulder.

"Sir, please come with me"

Oh noes! I knew I should have paid that speeding ticket in Dorset...

Nope, it's not that. Whew. Turns out that (and I swear I'm not making this up) the passport size picture I submitted with my application is only 62% covered by my face and the minimum specification required is 70%. I will therefore have to re-take my passport picture at the overpriced photographer conveniently located next to the cash desk.

Right-o. My papers are pre-screened and I now move on to have them screened. Only after they have been pre-screened and screened are they actually forwarded to the Embassy for someone to screen. Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud.

The screening desk. Uh oh. Another problem. The girl sees that I am resident in Somalia. I should apply there instead. I'd love to, say I, but there is nowhere to apply there. Ah. A supervisor is summoned. He makes some calls. I am asked to sign a disclaimer that warns me that they have warned me that I should apply at the non-existent Embassy in Somalia instead and that they may forward my application to the non-existent visa section at the non-existent Embassy for further processing. I sign it without further comment.

Next problem. I have listed my proposed travel dates as February 2014. The supervisor says that this is too far in the future. Well, say I, that is when I intend to travel next. He suggests that perhaps I should change the dates to show something more imminent.

"So basically you are encouraging me to provide false information on the visa application form?"
"No, no, sir. I am just asking you to change your travel date on the application form."
"But if that is not the date I plan to travel, wouldn't that be providing false information?"

He sees my point. It appears he has never actually thought of it in those terms before. Upon further introspection, I fear that he may begin to feel like either the dog or the pony in the proverbial dog and pony show and may need some counselling. Once again, I am asked to sign a disclaimer that warns me that they have warned me that my travel dates were quite far into the future and that they may ask me to re-apply instead closer to my travel dates, although I will be in Somalia between now and then and I cannot apply at the non-existent visa section of the non-existent Embassy there.

Finally, I am offered "Fast Track" service, where I can cough up even more money (only ~$80 extra) and have my application processed in 2 business days. Otherwise it may take up to 3 weeks due to heavy volume. Oh all right. How about an extra $10 to send your passport home via courier and save you a trip to pick it up. Yes, good. And for an extra $1.50 we can send you a tracking alert via email or SMS whenever your passport is scanned during the application process. Michael O'Leary would be pleased with the "ancillary revenues" being generated here. I half expected them to drag out a scale and start weighing my carry-on bag!

But wait! My package of 321 pages (plus 2 disclaimer forms and 3 of my 7 expired passports) is placed in an envelope, sealed and guess what? They WEIGH IT!!! Yes, they actually WEIGH the packages once they seal them so that it can be determined whether they have been tampered with at any point before the visa officer actually receives it. The Ryanair experience is officially complete. (Ed note : my application package weighed 1.108 kg, well within the 7kg limit imposed by Ryanair).

Alas, my application experience is still not complete. It is time to provide my biometrics. I go to the biometrics booth where I have to stand like a convict in front of a CCTV camera while holding up my sealed application package with its barcode visible. I waved at the camera the first time around and pulled a silly face. I was suitably chided and asked to do it again. Then I provided my fingerprints and was photographed yet again (3rd time in 20 minutes if you're keeping track). I also have to sign yet another disclaimer consenting that my biometrics may be collected and stored in line with EU privacy regulations. And then yet another disclaimer (4th one if you're keeping track) that consents to allow VFS to forward my application to the Embassy for actual visa processing. Hmm, let me think about that one...

And finally, I'm done. I go home and wait. At 837am the next morning, I get a notification that my passport has arrived at the Embassy. At 943am, I get a notification that my application package has been opened by a visa officer. At 1001am, I get a notification that a decision has been reached. At 245pm, the passport is handed over to the courier. I receive it at home the next morning.

Opening the passport, I scan through the pages until I see the new visa sticker. To my chagrin, the validity of the visa begins the previous day and not from the date of expiry of the previous visa. I have therefore received a visa with effective validity of 9 years, 11 months and 2 days rather than the 10 years that I paid for. I demand a prorated refund of 5.91 !

I call VFS and ask them what happened. The girl at the call center tells me that the visa officer probably did not have enough time during the 18 minutes between opening my package and issuing the visa to read through all the 321 pages and 2 disclaimers and 3 passports that were enclosed with the application, so he/she did not realise that I already had a valid visa.

So let me get this straight. You ask for over 1 kg of junk paperwork and then use that as an excuse for not noticing one of the few relevant documents that was actually included in the pack? Ah, British bureaucracy. The one thing that Britain still leads the world in...

Sorry for the rant everyone. It's been one of those experiences that would eat away at me inside if I didn't just let it out. Not seeking advice. Not giving information. Just sharing some annoyance over a very expensive bureaucratic process.
B747-437B is offline  
Old Nov 5, 2013, 11:42 am
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Wow, what an ordeal. Thanks for writing it up so thoroughly and entertainingly.

You've documented the opposite of a first-world problem -- except that the cost means it's a problem which, as you pointed out, is absolutely out of reach of nearly everyone in the third world. There's a catch-22^2 for you: you've lived through an ordeal which, by virtue of its legal applicability, is available (I suppose) only to citizens of non-first-world countries, of whom only a tiny minority can afford to experience it. Does that thought make you value the sterling you dropped on it as money well spent? I didn't think so.

First- or third-world problem, I'm counting my lucky stars (and my mother's and paternal grandparents' foresight) that, as an American, I'm exempt from it.

Last edited by ajGoes; Nov 5, 2013 at 11:44 am Reason: Killed a smiley
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Old Nov 5, 2013, 11:45 am
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Wow. One of the best forum posts I've read for ages. I laughed, and can totally understand why you might have cried.

I'm heading off this evening to a commemoration of a guy who was so annoyed with the English establishment he wanted to blow a bit of it up. Perhaps he has your sympathies... (I wouldn't put that on the additional sheet though!)
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Old Nov 5, 2013, 11:55 am
  #4  
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+1 on the above posts.

Still, if it really had been British Civil Service in fine form, they'd have found an error and asked you to resubmit

I'm tempted to copy it into an email to my MP and ask what is going on. But I know what is going - it's fear of UKIP and my MP, while a decent chap, is the wrong variety to do anything about it And I also don't want to get B747 into any more bureaucratic trouble (that 6.13 may come back to bite him )
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Old Nov 5, 2013, 3:20 pm
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Whilst you have been properly mucked around, at least your rant is a wonderful humourous description of pointless bureaucracy for the rest of us.

... and I will pass it on to an MP friend!

Thank you for posting, it gave me a huge laugh ^
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Old Nov 6, 2013, 2:28 am
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B747-437B, you and many others go through these indignities on a daily basis. These things are not meant to be fair, nor designed to be sensible. They are simply there to make sure that all eventualities have been covered and to ensure that there is a paper trail.....in your case a paper 8 lane highway!

From a purely personal point of view, I thank you for having such an "interesting" life and for living it to the full. You are so far outside the norms of the visa application process that you have inevitably built up a greater knowledge of the system and procedure than most of those running it. It is this in-depth level of knowledge that makes you such a fantastic contributor to FlyerTalk, especially in the area of UK immigration law.

I would understand it if India retaliates (if it hasn't done so already) in the way that the Russians have by requiring exactly the same questions when Brits apply for their visas.

Thank you for making me smile today.
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Old Nov 6, 2013, 3:41 am
  #7  
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Originally Posted by gnarly
B747-437B, you and many others go through these indignities on a daily basis. These things are not meant to be fair, nor designed to be sensible. They are simply there to make sure that all eventualities have been covered and to ensure that there is a paper trail.....in your case a paper 8 lane highway!

From a purely personal point of view, I thank you for having such an "interesting" life and for living it to the full. You are so far outside the norms of the visa application process that you have inevitably built up a greater knowledge of the system and procedure than most of those running it. It is this in-depth level of knowledge that makes you such a fantastic contributor to FlyerTalk, especially in the area of UK immigration law.

I would understand it if India retaliates (if it hasn't done so already) in the way that the Russians have by requiring exactly the same questions when Brits apply for their visas.

Thank you for making me smile today.
B747-437B's experience is hilariously kafka-esque and provides fertile ground for his deliciously dry and caustic humour.

To be fair, though, his somewhat uncommon life trajectory is a significant factor in compounding the obstacles he encountered and gives those obstacles their especially surreal aspect.

Secondly, and as to retaliation, few countries offer the kind of visa (long-term 10 year validity visitor visa) that B747-437B applied for. Many (most?) countries will ask you to reapply each year or on each visit. As regards India itself, you cannot get a long-term entry visa unless you are of Indian origin and, even then, the visa is for 5 years, not 10 years.
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Old Nov 6, 2013, 5:48 am
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Great post. Sorry about the hassles. If it makes you feel any better (misery loving company and all), I went through almost the same process earlier this year, though in glamorous Croydon. I did same day processing, so got my ILR on the day. As in your case, not sure how anyone could have read through all the documentation I provided in the time period between it being passed to a case officer and my approval.

The only question I was asked by anyone during the entire process was "And how will you be paying today?"

At least that was applying for my Indefinite Leave to Remain, so I shouldn't have to do it again. That said, I haven't looked up the process for moving from ILR to citizenship, which I am sure are probably equally inane.
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Old Nov 6, 2013, 6:30 am
  #9  
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Originally Posted by GregWTravels
At least that was applying for my Indefinite Leave to Remain, so I shouldn't have to do it again. That said, I haven't looked up the process for moving from ILR to citizenship, which I am sure are probably equally inane.
At least they let you do it in one day. And the Croydon office looks much nicer than it used to... hey, they have a Costa inside!

Citizenship requires a wait of at least 4 weeks, usually longer. I think this is because they want to run a police check and that's how long it takes. You get to keep your passport if you pay an extra 50 to your local council.
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Old Nov 7, 2013, 10:41 am
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One of the best stories I have ever read on FT ... I don't know whether to laugh or cry!
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Old Nov 7, 2013, 11:16 am
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Crikey. Presumably when your application is over a certain weight, they assume that if you've gone to that much effort, you can't possibly be making it up.

I hope you got some catharsis from writing all that - I certainly enjoyed reading it!

Incidentally, for those of you who've not previously encountered B747's writings, take some time out to read TEMPo 15025G35KT 0100 +SN FZFG OVC000 SNOCLO. Or spend the 77p to get it on Kindle, and cause further pain for him next time he has to answer question 5.9
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Old Nov 7, 2013, 11:20 am
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Originally Posted by teflon
Incidentally, for those of you who've not previously encountered B747's writings, take some time out to read TEMPo 15025G35KT 0100 +SN FZFG OVC000 SNOCLO. Or spend the 77p to get it on Kindle, and cause further pain for him next time he has to answer question 5.9
+1. TR writing at its very best.
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Old Nov 7, 2013, 2:28 pm
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Originally Posted by B747-437B
The day comes around. I tootle off to the VFS application center (Mumbai North) with 321 sheets of paper neatly bound together and contained in a transparent plastic bag. For alleged security reasons, opaque plastic bags are not permitted. I believe this allows the security staff to see the anguish on face of the staff member I am choking to death with the transparent bag and hence intervene - because with an opaque plastic bag they might think that I was just greeting them or something.
This is one of the best posts I have ever read on FT (B747-437B's trip report mentioned above being another) and the line above is absolutely marvellous.

I thought my ongoing problem with trying to prove to the Indian High Commission that I am of Indian origin was bad, but this really does put matters into perspective!
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Old Nov 8, 2013, 9:33 am
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well thanks! I just spent a day reading this, the TR, and other writings on your site!

Excellent, hilarious, stuff!
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Old Nov 8, 2013, 12:39 pm
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Well, there's only one conclusion: The UK don't want you. Simple as that.
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