Thanks, Home Office! My UK visa application experience

I've always been an inconsistent blogger, but this takes the cake -- it's now been four months since my last post! There's been a lot going on, and while the blog's never been far from my mind, I wanted to write about my UK visa application experience before I dive back into my stack of post ideas.

The Background

Some of you (hello friends-who-lurk!) may know that I've been in the UK on a Youth Mobility visa (aka the YMS). This has allowed me two years of working in London, travelling to various European countries, and buying a shit-ton of beauty products that were difficult to access in New Zealand (although I have basically been on a low-buy since November. I'M SO PROUD OF ME).

Two year's worth of love evidence (i.e. bank statements and utility bills)

Two year's worth of love evidence (i.e. bank statements and utility bills)

My visa expires this month, and since Will is here on an Ancestry visa, I'm lucky enough to be able to apply for Further Leave to Remain and switch into being a dependant on his visa. This hasn't always been possible: historically, switching to another visa type while in the UK on a Youth Mobility visa wasn't allowed -- you had to go home to apply. However, the immigration rule changes in October 2013 -- specifically rule 196(A) -- now allows for switching into a dependant's visa as long as you're not originally on a visitor's visa or on temporary admission as an overstayer.

We'd been aware of this, and knew enough people who were in exactly the same situation (unmarried Tier 5 youth mobility visa holder switching into a being a dependant on a UK Ancestry visa) to know that it was possible, as well as what was involved. We'd had a free consultation with an immigration lawyer (who confirmed that it was possible but then advised us to use the wrong form...), checked in with a friend who practices family law and has dealt with immigration cases, Googled for advice on immigration forums -- everything pointed to "Yes! You can stay! For a bit longer!" So it was a little... stressful when I rang up UKVI and was told that I had to go back to NZ to apply. Twice, with loads of attitude from the staff both times. Going back to NZ was not ideal -- £900-ish flight home, at least a month's leave from work -- so...

The Application

Screw you, call centre staff. I went ahead and started prepping the application. Since we're not married, we had to prove that we'd been "in a relationship akin to marriage or civil partnership which has subsisted for 2 years or more" (rule 194). I couldn't find anything in the current Immigration Rules or the website on what officially constitutes evidence, though, other than this piece of guidance from 2012 (which also says to refer to another thing if applications are made after 2012, but that other thing doesn't say anything about evidence). Unofficially I'd heard and read advice ranging from the six pieces of evidence referred to in that last link to two bills or statements addressed to each of you for each month of those two years.

I went for the latter -- in other words, complete overkill and a source of unwarranted anxiety (Will you're missing stuff from May 2015! Why and how did I accidentally change to paperless bank statements?) -- and I don't know if that helped or hindered my application. Below is my main file, which has as many bills and statements as we could gather and separated by tabs into each month for the two years I've been in the UK. The application guidance says to photocopy your documents to help speed up your application, so as a compromise I picked out some key pieces of documentation, copied those, and then flagged those pieces throughout the file with Post-Its. 

"The Love File"

"The Love File"

Apart from the main Love File (I know someone who calls it the Love Book, but I think I prefer the irony of the more clinical choice) I also put together another file with some pre-UK evidence. My worry was that since we were slightly borderline with the two full years, and considering the fact that Will arrived in the UK more than a year before I did, it was helpful to have the older stuff. 

As of July 2016, when I made my application, the FLR (O) application cost £811. We opted to apply in person at the Premium Service Centre in deep dark Croydon, which gives you a decision on the same day; I've heard of cases where the applicant was still waiting for a decision and their passport after five months. This cost another £500, plus I had to pay £200 for the Immigration Health Surcharge -- at the time of paying online and booking my appointment the costs added up to £1511. 

I'm really, really broke.

Some soppy photos to break up the block of evidence from "The Man"

Some soppy photos to break up the block of evidence from "The Man"

The Appointment

Booking the appointment was another source of stress. The guidance and other people's experience said that you can book 42 days ahead, but when I tried to book there definitely weren't appointments 42 days ahead. I wanted a date in August as close to my original visa expiry date as possible to give us that full two years' of evidence, but I wasn't able to obtain an appointment until the last week of July. This was after ringing up the UKVI helpline a third time, where once again they weren't particularly helpful. Ongoing problems with the online booking system, apparently -- there's stuff online which suggests it's been this way for several years. 

Lunar House, Croydon

Lunar House, Croydon

And that's not all, folks. We booked the earliest appointment we could (9.50 AM), but even so, it took us six hours to get out of there -- there were issues with the Biometrics system, not to mention the fact that they could do with a whole lot of process refinement.  Oh, and, AND I HAD TO PAY ANOTHER £200. The IHS is actually £200 for each year of your new visa, and in my case, my visa is dependent on Will's which has another two years on it -- there was no way for them to assess that when I made the online application, so I'd mentally prepared myself for it. But still, when the call came through while I was in the waiting room...

Did I mention I was broke?

The Tips

I'm grateful, really. There are plenty of people on the YMS who would have loved to stay longer than their allocated two years, and our case was relatively straightforward (dodgy advice by the UKVI helpline notwithstanding). It's not quite over either, because my Biometric Residence Permit has mistakes on it that still need correcting (apparently I'm male). The whole experience has just been a wee bit stressful, so hopefully this post will help anyone in a similar situation. Here are some miscellaneous tips:

  • Start thinking about this shit long before you need to, and make sure you don't accidentally change your bank statements to online only :( Give yourself that time to build up the evidence and save up for the fees.

  • My bank (Lloyd's) ended up printing out "original" statements which are addressed and formatted as they would have been if they'd been sent by snail mail.

  • Go for the premium service if you can afford it. It's expensive and it may take all bloody day, but you won't be without your passport for months on end.

  • Double and triple check your application for the bits and pieces you need. There's a check list in there for the documents and photos to be included -- remember your partner's passport as well. Include photocopies of key bits of evidence. 

  • Photocopy the actual application form once you've filled it out. I didn't -- the only thing I didn't back up -- and now that there are mistakes on my BRP I wish I had a copy to confirm. Again, this is a part of the process that could do with refining... UKVI, are you reading this?

  • You can only check in at reception fifteen minutes before your appointment time when you're at the Premium Service Centre. Also make sure you allow enough time to get through security (similar to airports), particularly if you're coming later in the day and there are potential queues.

  • There are very long waits in between each stage of the premium service appointment. There is a cafe on the same floor, but it's also a good idea to pack snacks -- while are shops nearby, you'll need to go through the security checks again if you go out. Bring books too, although I was too nervous to concentrate for very long.

  • The process:

    • Registration - your main details are typed in to the system. This took fifteen minutes or so, then I had more than an hour's wait.

    • Biometrics - be prepared to have your photo taken. Then there's another hour's wait.

    • They'll check your biometric details against previous applications - this was pretty quick.

    • Awaiting consideration - over an hour,

    • Under consideration - over an hour.

    • Call back to the final desk where you're given your decision letter and verbal confirmation. Before this I got a call asking me to pay the extra IHS. It took another half hour after I paid online for me to get called up. 

  • Ask for advice, look up stuff on immigration forums... but maybe don't bother with UKVI's helpline.

  • There is the suggestion that two year's cohabitation is not strictly necessary. See the case Senayt Okubay Fetle v The Entry Clearance Officer, Nairobi [2014] ) -- this appeal was eventually rejected but they successfully argued that "a relationship akin to marriage or civil partnership which has subsisted for 2 years or more" does not require strict cohabitation.

Usual online disclaimers apply: IANAIL (I am not an immigration lawyer), IANYIL (I am not your immigration lawyer), TINLA, OMG WTF BBQ.