Foreign travellers have criticised a UK government visa system that charges them £500 to apply - and £2.74 to send a follow-up email.
Applicants told of their frustration at being asked to pay £531 (Dh2,435) without being able to check appointment availability, meaning they had no guarantee visas would be secured in line with their planned trips.
They also complained about having to pay a premium to check on the status of their applications, including the charge to send officials an email and 69p per minute to call the helpline.
Alex Gold, a lawyer in Dubai, was planning to take a two-week trip to the UK with her nanny and two young children this summer, but has had to put her plans on hold.
“We had a domestic worker visa rejected recently and had a torrid time with the UK visa process,” she said.
“We have two boys under the age of two and my mum is on her own in the UK, so I really needed that support to make a trip to see her, but the UK government make it so difficult.
“I ended up paying for a fast track service because I was told it could take up to a month to process, which is time I didn’t have to waste.”
Extra charges to navigate 'long-winded system'
Ms Gold paid close to £1,000 (Dh4,580) for the fast-track visa, including additional administration charges through VFS Global, an outsourcing services company for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide. After seven days she was told that the visa had been rejected.
“The whole process is incredibly long-winded. I did everything they asked for and had to produce so much evidence [about our nanny’s work status in the UAE], but the response I got was they were not satisfied I met the terms for bringing a domestic worker into the UK,” she said.
“I wanted to add more documentation to the application, but I couldn’t do that. They don’t explain why it was rejected.
“I was told I would have to reapply again and pay all the charges again. It just feels like a money-making scheme.”
Lengthy waiting list leaves plans in limbo
Another resident, who asked not to be named, said it was baffling having to pay £2.74 just to check the status of her application for her domestic worker.
She said it was hard to accept having to commit to paying the full visa fee before being able to see the appointment availability, which is non-refundable once an appointment is secured.
She waited for several weeks before securing an appointment for her nanny.
“I’m British and I’m trying to take my nanny to the UK with me, which I’ve done before, so I’m familiar with the process,” she said.
“Currently, there is a backlog and I’ve not experienced a wait like this before. I was told it’s between six weeks and three months.
“You have to commit to such a large payment, more than $600, before even being able to see when the next appointment is — and even then you are not guaranteed the visa.
“What frustrates me even more is my friend was doing the exact same application through the French system and she was able to see appointment availability before paying for the application.”
'Expect longer wait times'
Per the UK Visas and Immigration website, the department is currently “prioritising applications made under the Ukraine Scheme”.
As a result, it stated that those looking to secure visit, transit, study, work and family visas may experience longer waiting times.
Standard visitor visa applications are currently taking on average six weeks to process, but the website states it is "working hard to process applications to get back to the 3-week service standard".
In a statement to The National, a spokesman from UK Immigration and Visas said the £2.74 charge per email is a one-time payment for the initial email and subsequent follow-up emails to and from the contact centre relating to the same inquiry.
“The UK government believes it is right that those who use and benefit directly from the UK immigration system make an appropriate contribution towards meeting the costs,” he said.
“The service charge for email and telephone correspondence has been long-standing practice. This is complemented by in-house UKVI teams, who deal with case escalation and enquiries.”
Per the UKVI website, you can apply for an overseas domestic worker visa up to three months before the date of travel to the UK.
Eligibility requirements include proving that the candidate is 19 years old or above; has worked for their employer for at least one year; plans to travel to the UK with their employer, their partner or children; and are able to support themselves in the UK without the need for public funds.
It costs £531 for the visa and the recipient can use it to visit the UK with their employer for up to six months.
You cannot extend an overseas domestic worker visa.
Strong demand for overseas travel
In its visa guide for summer travel, Monaz Billimoria, deputy regional head (UAE and Qatar) for VFS Global, said it has recorded "good demand from travellers" in recent months as the world opens up again after the pandemic.
"The number of visa applications has risen significantly after Q1 2022 and in Q2 and Q3 we expect around 85 per cent of pre-pandemic counts to return," she said.
"The demand for our optional Premium service, Visa At Your Doorstep, has also doubled since pre-pandemic times due to increased convenience it brings to the applicant."
Applicants can apply for UK visas direct through the UK government website or via service centres like VFS Global.
VFS Global manages only the administrative and non-judgmental aspects of the visa application process and follows the standard operating procedure of processing applications in one business day. This includes their own fees, which vary depending on what service you choose.
To carry out application and document checks, applicants will be charged Dh175. For those looking to get tailored help, they can pay Dh1,200 for the Platinum service which includes assistance with filling in application forms and making online payments, SMS updates at every stage of the visa application and decision process and a courier for direct return of passports and documents.