I’ve been waiting to write this post about the UK Border Agency until both Faith and I were issued visas and safely arrived in the UK. The fact that I would even think there might be a possibility of retribution from the UKBA over a blog post (that not even that many people will likely read!) should tell you something about the scale of the ordeal we went through with them.
Our application process began in late July when we both filled in the relevant application forms for student and student dependant visas online. We both then went to an office to have our fingerprints taken and then mailed our applications, passports and other documents off to UKBA’s New York office. We had plenty of time since we weren’t planning to travel to the UK until September, so we just paid the normal application fee. Additional to the fee was a $12 charge to cover the cost of UKBA overnighting our passports back to us after our visas were issued (this bit becomes crucial later on).
We wistfully released our passports and application materials off to New York and went about our adventures in the US. Several weeks later, having received no further communication from UKBA, our documents returned to our house in Minneapolis, with a letter explaining that we had not been issued visas because we did not include passport-sized photos with our applications (It should be noted here that UKBA’s website does instruct applicants to submit a photo with their documents, but the printed materials do not include a picture among the checklist of items to include with the application).
By the time we got our passports back, we were now very short on time. Having just over a week until I was set to depart, I frantically searched to see if there was anyway to get my application fast-tracked. And lo and behold, for a mere $150, one can have one’s visa application moved to the front of the queue. So I did, and suddenly my interaction with UKBA was quite different. Instead of just releasing all my documents, and hoping I would see them again, I started receiving e-mail updates when my application arrived, when my visa was issued, and finally information on the tracking number for my homeward bound passport.
The experience was not dissimilar to finding a well-connected person, and paying them a small bribe to make sure my application ended up on the right desk ahead of all the others. If one substitutes WorldBridge (the third party contracted to handle payments for UKBA) with “my good friend, Walter,” the process above would not seem out of place in Uganda.
But the story continues! WE only paid the extra fee to have MY application jump the queue, as Faith wasn’t planning to leave for a full two weeks after me. After I had already left for the UK she received a message telling her that she needed to fax along extra documents showing that she had enough funds to cover 6 months living expenses in the UK. She calculated the exchange rate, determined that there was enough in a particular bank account, and faxed the statement for that account. She received an email the next day saying that her application had been denied because of insufficient funds. Strangely, the funds threshold quoted in the rejection was much, much higher than that listed on UKBA’s website. The International Student Advisers here at King’s were also surprised, as the amount they know to be the threshold was also much lower.
Recall now the $12 paid to have our passports overnighted back (actually each of us had to pay it twice owing to the first rejection for lack of photos. Theoretically, Faith should have got her passport back the day after her application was rejected (and here it is worthwhile to note that she was notified of the rejection at 7:30 am). But strangely, it did not return for several days. Normally, I would be willing to chalk this discrepancy up to UPS. But giving out interaction with UKBA, I am willing to speculate whether UKBA had us pay the cost for overnighting our passports to us, but then only used part of the money to have the package sent at a more leisurely pace, and pocketed the difference.
The story has a happy (albeit costly) ending as Faith finally arrived yesterday morning. And I should add that UKBA probably has every reason to treat student visa applications with increased scrutiny in the wake of the London Metro Uni scandal. But increased scrutiny is no excuse for (in fact it should be a reason to reign in) incompetence. And if UKBA is to be taken seriously in its attempt to crack down on corruption or abuse of visas, it should do better to eliminate the appearance of corruption in its own practices.