UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) recently introduced changes to the way in which immigration applications submitted in the UK are processed.
The key changes introduced are:
- A move to online applications. Most paper forms have now been withdrawn and remain available only where there is no online form. Paper forms have historically been lengthy with sections that are irrelevant to an applicant’s individual circumstances. This is a welcome change.
- The requirement to provide original documents has been removed. This is a significant change and under the new process applicants are able to upload copies of their supporting documents after submitting their online form instead.
UK Visa and Citizenship Application Service (UK VCAS) centres
The new front-end service is operated by Sopra Steria, the Home Office’s commercial partner.
The Premium Service Centres where applicants previously attended appointments were closed at the end of November 2018. These were replaced by six centres in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and Croydon offering free appointments. The six core centres are supported by an additional 50 service points located in libraries across the UK offering paid for appointments.
The application process
After submitting the forms online, applicants are directed to the Sopra Steria website to register an account and book an appointment to attend a centre to provide their biometrics (finger scans and digital photograph). Copies of documents in support of the application are also uploaded on the Sopra Steria site. Additional services, such as out of hours appointments, can also be purchased on this site if required.
There are four levels of services for the processing of applications:
- Standard – processing times are between eight weeks and three months (depending on the type of application);
- Priority – processing times are within 10 working days; and
- Super Priority – applications should be processed by the next working day. It is no longer possible to attend an appointment and obtain a decision on the same day.
- On demand service – where a mobile van comes to a location of the applicant’s choice to take their biometrics.
The aim of the new system is to have a more streamlined process, introducing straightforward and more intuitive online forms and to allow applicants to keep valuable original documents instead of sending these to UKVI. However, there have been some serious problems during the initial roll out.
Removing the requirement to submit original documents promised to be a sensible development. However, there have been issues with documents uploaded onto the Sopra Steria website not being visible on the system at the UK VCAS appointments. In practice, applicants should therefore still take their bundle of original evidence with them on the day where they can be uploaded again if needed. In practice this change has currently only introduced another administrative burden of having to scan in documents.
Another further challenge is the lack of appointment availability across all the centres. The published information was that an appointment would be guaranteed within 5 working days of submitting the online form. This timescale is simply not being met. There is also a lack of clarity on which levels of service and which processing times now apply to which type of applications and the fees for services through Sopra Steria. Many applications are also not being processed within the service level timescales set out above.
As these have been major changes to the system, it had been expected that there would initially be teething problems. However, the issues seen to date have been far greater than anticipated. We therefore recommend factoring in additional time for any upcoming applications as an appointment may not be available quickly and it could take longer for the applicant to receive the decision.
It is also worth bearing in mind that, even though applicants are no longer required to submit their original documents (including their passports), they must not travel overseas once they have submitted their biometric data. If they do so, their applications will be treated as withdrawn.