Since November last year, any applicant submitting an in-country UK visa application such as Tier 2 work extension and permanent residence application must now apply via the Home Office’s appointed commercial partner, Sopra Steria.

Having visited the site, chosen their level of service and made payment, each applicant is required to book a free biometric appointment at one of Sopra Steria’s six core centres in major cities or pay a supplementary fee for an appointment at one of their 50 ‘enhanced service points’, usually situated in local libraries.

The third option is to pay a premium fee to gain a VIP-style experience by booking into one of Sopra Steria’s premium lounges.

Following a recent Freedom of Information request, Smith Stone Walters has sought to determine how the system functioned between May 2019 and October 2019 at three different sites and how profitable it has been for Sopra Steria.

Bournemouth service point

Over the six month period covered by the Freedom of Information request, Bournemouth service point completed 754 biometric appointments in total. On average, this amounts to 28 appointments per week being made available to the migrant population in and around Hampshire.

Not only are these appointments obviously scarce, they are also expensive. The cost for each Bournemouth appointment ranges from £60 to £125 per person.

For those migrants unable to secure an appointment within Bournemouth, or indeed unwilling pay for the privilege, an alternative is to travel to Croydon (a journey of over 100 miles) to complete the process.

Croydon service point

Sopra Steria’s Croydon office is open every day except Sunday, a total of 60 hours a week.

Our Freedom of Information request confirms that the overall number of Croydon appointments booked by customers between May 2019 and October 2019 was a staggering 129,969 – that’s over 800 applicants having their biometric data processed every working day.

Almost half of the appointments booked in Croydon (61,090) attracted a supplementary fee i.e. to secure a same day appointment or one that was outside of office hours.

Given the cost of the supplementary fee linked to a core service point is set at £100, the income raised solely in respect of Croydon based appointments during the quoted six month period amounted to over £6million.

London premium lounge 

For those customers seeking a service with added comfort and privacy, Sopra Steria’s premium lounges provide an upgraded service in comfortable surroundings with spacious seating areas, hi-speed wifi and business facilities such as scanning and printing.

Smith Stone Walters has found that more than 16,000 appointments were booked at the London based premium lounge between May 2019 and October 2019.

The cost of appointments at the premium lounge start at £200 off-peak, rising to £260 during office hours. Sopra Steria therefore collected over £3million in premium fees at this location alone during this reporting period.

Captive audience

Whilst these statistics show an increase in the number of customers choosing to pay an enhanced fee to secure an appointment, Sopra Steria will no doubt suggest this proves they are fulfilling a service need.

The reality is their customers have little choice but to purchase an enhanced appointment due to the lack of ‘free’ ones available in their locality.

Having successfully navigated the online application process, clients are routinely faced with a limited choice of appointments available. Upon reaching this stage of the process, many customers feel compelled to complete their application by booking any available appointment even if it does attract an additional fee.

Sadly, Sopra Steria is unlikely to increase the number of free appointments any time soon. Why should they? They know their customers have to book an appointment if they wish remain in the United Kingdom and, more importantly, they can’t shop elsewhere.

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