A Simple Process
Prior to November 2018, applications for study, work, settlement and citizenship visas could be made my downloading the relevant application form from the Gov.UK website. Immigration practitioners would be able to seamlessly navigate through forms, completing only the sections that would be relevant to the client, ignoring inapplicable sections and skipping through pending questions, which would require further information and returning to them at a later date. Once completed, the applications could be posted in a single package in conjunction with the application fee and the client’s supporting documents to the relevant Home Office body for consideration.
The New System
In November 2018, UK Visa’s and Immigration introduced an online application process that completely replaced the former paper-based application system. The online process was accompanied by the establishment of various Visa and Citizenship Application Service Centers’ (UKVCAS), throughout the UK.
In the words of immigration Minister Caroline Nokes, the new system was designed with the aim of “delivering a modern, convenient and easy to use service for UKVI customers” which would not only support applicants but would also give them a “peace of mind” as applicants would no longer be compelled to depart from valuable documentation for the purposes of making a visa application.
A two-tier application process has been introduced, whereby applicants must complete an online application form and make payment of the application fee on either the Access UK or Visa4UK website. Akin to the previous process, the payment of IHS remains similar and applicants must provide the payment reference number within the application form.
After completing the online application form, applicants are redirected to third party websites such as Sopra Steria (for UK based applications only) who are a leading technology practice that the Home Office have partnered with to provide a platform to book UKVCAS appointments and manage documentation. Through the system applicants must chose and book an appointment to attend a UKVCAS center to enroll their biometric information. The Sopra Steria website further enables applicants to scan and upload their documentation to the Home Office as opposed to sending supporting documents by post, thus enabling them to retain valuable documentation. Alternatively, applicants can choose to take their documents to the UKVCAS appointment to have them digitized, following which the application will be submitted to UKVI for consideration.
Disadvantages of the Online Application System
Whilst the Home Office has lessened their burden by outsourcing work to third parties, the online system has become a source of frustration for practitioners who are compelled to deal with a system that is riddled with errors, which are prevalent at each stage of the application process.
The primary problem with the online system stems from the overcomplicated and unclear format of the application forms themselves, which contain several unclear and poorly phrased questions that could easily confuse an applicant with no legal background and could result in the application being refused or even worse the applicant being accused of deception if wrongly answered. Moreover, practitioners can no longer advance to other parts of the application form whilst awaiting information from applicant’s or skip irrelevant questions resulting in the need to clarify such answers to the Home Office by way of a cover letter making the process extremely time consuming.
Not only has the Home Office outsourced it’s work to third parties, the new system shifts the burden of arranging and uploading documentation wholly on applicant’s and practitioners who are compelled to spend excessive time scanning and uploading individual documents onto the online system. In family applications, practitioners are often forced to upload the same documents for each application, which is wholly unnecessary. Although applicants are given the choice to take their documents to the UKVCAS appointment, the latter significantly increases the duration of the appointment and can be highly stressful for applicant’s who are forced to separate their documents in a manner, which is highly confusing and distressing for them.
A further disadvantage of the online system is the method of submitting biometric information to the Home Office. Whereas applicants could previously attend any local Post Office Ltd branch to submit their biometric information in a fast and effective manner; applicants are now forced to visit UKVCAS centers in order to enroll their biometric information. The numbers of UKVCAS centers are limited in comparison to Post Offices and can be far to travel causing a great inconvenience to applicants. Moreover, the ability to book appointments are severely limited, which in many instances has led to applicants incurring a further charge to obtain an appointment within the stipulated time period to avoid having their application invalidated. In addition to the unavailability of appointments, there have been several incidents of biometrics being improperly captured by the Sopra Steria system resulting in further delays, as applicants are required to attend further appointments in order to submit their biometric information.
A Flawed Process
From a distance the online application process looks promising, offering applicants a simple and user-friendly application experience, which can be completed without the need to instruct a legal professional. In reality, however, the online system is far from user-friendly. The online process has proven to be complex, confusing and extremely time-consuming, making it even more necessary to instruct legal professionals to navigate the system and causing applicants to unjustly incur further expenses.