Applicants 'let down' by lack of
free appointments at UK
9 December 2021
A recent inspection into UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) front-end services has revealed that visa applicants are still facing difficulties in securing free appointments at UK visa centres, despite previous promises from the Home Office to ensure “free appointments available to all”.
The inspection was carried out by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), an independent monitoring body of the Home Office. The report showed that visa applicants face an additional “financial burden” in having to shell out more money to attend a visa appointment, despite already paying the Home Office fees for the application itself.
Who runs visa centres in the UK?
UKVI works with a range of commercial partners to deliver front-end services to visa applicants in the UK and overseas. Sopra Steria is the Home Office’s official partner responsible for running UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS) appointment centres in the UK. Those making an in-country application who are required to attend an appointment will need to go to one of these centres to enrol their biometrics.
Previously, foreign nationals could visit their local Post Office branch to provide their biometric data. Biometric enrolment services at Post Offices did not require customers to book an appointment, and the biometric enrolment fee of £19.50 was paid to the Post Office directly, rather than being paid to the Home Office as it is now.
However, when in-country immigration appointments were outsourced to Sopra Steria in 2018, applicants were instead required to attend one of six ‘core centres’ across the UK to access free services. These centres offer both free-of-charge and paid appointments, with the free-of-charge appointments only being available during ‘core hours’. Out-of-hours appointment charges start from £112 per person.
The six core service points in the UK are located in:
From 1 November 2021, improvements have been made to the UKVCAS services, meaning a mix of free and chargeable appointments are now available at all service points across the UK (excluding “Premium Lounge” sites). However, as of yet SSW caseworkers have been unable to secure any free appointments outside of the 6 core centres and many of our clients have opted to pay in order to secure a sooner date.
Prices for paid appointments start from £71.50 per person at “Enhanced” service points and from £210 per person at “Premium” service points.
Home Office targets for free appointments
When in-country immigration appointments were outsourced to Sopra Steria, many applicants were disappointed in the shift from free appointment availability throughout the day at a wide network of Post Offices located nationwide to just six core service points within ‘core hours’. However, at the time UKVI stated that the new service would bring benefits including “free appointments available to all”.
The contract between UKVCAS and Sopra Steria contains a specific Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for free appointments, stating that 56% of core site appointments within core hours must be free appointments. A separate KPI on waiting times for free and chargeable appointments states that “the services shall be available for customers to attend a service point within seven calendar days of application.”
The report’s key findings
Overall, the Inspector’s report concluded that free appointments are still consistently unavailable and KPIs are not being met, leaving applicants concerned about the scarcity. The report’s summary reads: “Despite Home Office attempts to ensure that free appointments are available to all, it was clear from the call for evidence that this has not yet been achieved. This limited availability sometimes led to customers having to opt for appointments at a cost, removing the element of choice and imposing a financial burden on them.”
Respondents to the call for evidence described the existing system to obtain free appointments as being difficult to navigate, busy, limited and available only at a small number of sites. Respondents felt ‘let down’ by the shift from free appointment availability at Post Offices nationwide to only six ‘core’ service points. Additionally, when a Member of Parliament raised concerns about a “significant shortage of free appointments”, the response by UKVI and Sopra Steria Limited was “disappointing with no solution offered other than for customers to keep checking for availability”.
The inspection also found that in many cases waiting times for free appointments were significantly longer than for chargeable appointments. An example was a maximum waiting time of 35 calendar days for a free appointment in Birmingham in March 2020 compared to a waiting time of 2 days for a chargeable appointment at this site during the same month. It was also evident that the number of days until the next free appointment significantly exceeded the 7-day service level agreement in 5 out of the 6 core sites – the exception being Belfast.
What is the current situation at UK visa centres?
Immigration advisors at Smith Stone Walters have been working around the clock to secure appointments for our clients so they can progress their applications. To get a clearer picture of the current situation, we spoke to some of our immigration consultants here at Smith Stone Walters, to find out more about their experiences with booking appointments for clients this week.
SSW Account Manager Phill recently helped a client who was on a tight schedule to secure an appointment. However, the client had to travel some distance due to a lack of available appointments at local centres. Phill said: “My client who was based in Cambridge had to come all the way down to Croydon to get an appointment within two weeks of submission, and that was a paid appointment.”
Senior Account Manager Jennifer agreed it has been challenging to secure even paid appointments, saying: “I have found that there are hardly any free or paid for appointments available in many locations. I wondered if maybe being so close to Christmas has affected the availability.”
Senior Account Manager Kiran pointed out a frustrating lack of consistency when it comes to checking the system for available slots. She said: “On Monday I had to submit an application on behalf of a client. For free appointments, there were only two available in Croydon for 30 December. Paid appointments are up and down – on Thursday last week they had some available as early as the following day and then when I checked back later that afternoon, they were not available until 17 December. No consistency at all. For some locations it’s almost impossible to get free or paid slots.”
To help tackle the problem, the report has recommended that the Home Office should regularly publish performance data on waiting times and the availability of free appointments across all its sites nationally and internationally. It also suggests the mandated proportion of free appointments at Sopra Steria sites should be reviewed to ensure that demand is being met.
In the meantime, certain applicants can avoid attending an appointment at a UK visa centre if they are eligible to prove their identity using the UK Immigration: ID Check app. This service is currently only available to those holding biometric passports from EU countries, and those with biometric passports who are applying for a BNO visa.
The Home Office has already stated its long-term plan is to provide a ‘fully digital end-to-end customer journey’ for overseas citizens arriving in the UK to work, study or visit. We therefore expect to see an increased use of online application processes in the years to come, which could eventually spell the end of in-person appointments at visa centres.
Help with securing a UK visa appointment
If you are filing an in-country application for a UK visa and require assistance, Smith Stone Walters can help. Our immigration experts will work closely with you to guide you through the entire process, from the initial application stage right through to booking your appointments and advising what you need to do once your visa has been granted.
To speak to a member of the team, please contact us today.