25 November 2009
The Visa Bureau That Stole Christmas
I applied for an was granted a Student Visa back in September of 2008 - it was a relatively painless process (yes, lots of paperwork, but all the supporting documents were in place, the application was mailed out, and I received the Visa back on the first attempt, only a few weeks after I mailed the application out) and it allowed me to enter the UK and study at the Arts Institute, as well as granting me until the end of January 2010 (I graduated in September) to either leave the country or apply for a new Visa. PLENTY of time, I thought, how very generous of them!!
At the end of September, I graduated from the Arts University College at Bournemouth (the school underwent a name and distinction change while I was enrolled) and began to gather the paperwork required to apply for a Post-Study Visa. This Visa is for those who have graduated with a post-graduate degree from a university within the UK - basically, they wanted to avoid training people up, then forcing them to head back home. As nearly all other options for leave to stay in the country require you to be hired to a full-time, permanent job, they decided to start up the Post-Study Visa as a way of allowing graduates to remain in the country and look for work that would be able to sponsor them for a Work Visa. Lovely. To apply for this Visa, you must be able to prove that you entered the country legally under a Student Visa, that you have graduated from a UK university with a post-graduate degree, that you can speak English fluently, and that you have enough funds to sustain yourself until you can find a job (without resorting to government handouts) - if you apply from within the UK, you have to prove you've had £800 in your possession for the past three months, if you apply from outside the UK, you have to prove £2800 for the past three months. As I can prove, easily, all of these categories, I downloaded the Visa application forms from the website and began to fill them out. I had to wait on some paperwork arriving from the school, but I didn't have to wait too long and, by the first week of October, the application was in the mail. Look at me, I thought, so on top of things...
My first rejection arrived back to me by post about two weeks later. The application requires a fee of £500, for which payment I had put down my debit card information. Unfortunately, it appears there is a daily withdraw limit to the card, which I had heretofore either never been told about or - more likely - simply forgot about, since I'd never attempted to pay for anything that expensive on my card before. As the bank had rejected payment of the fee, the application was stamped "denied", all the paperwork stuck into an envelope, and the whole thing was mailed back to me.
Frustrated, but not giving up so easily, I stuck the whole thing back in ANOTHER envelope, bought £500 worth of postal orders (in cash) at the Post Office, and mailed it back out. This time, I thought, this time! Obviously, it was a pain in the neck that it hadn't gone through (especially as I had originally planned on putting my credit card information down for the fee payment...), but what can you do. Give it another couple of weeks, and I'll be back on top.
Yeah... about that...
Three weeks went by, at which time I was hired both by an Events Staffing company (Lola) and was interviewed by Blossom & Browne (a posh alterations shop in Kensington). I needed that Visa back so that I could start working more than part-time (on the Student Visa, you're limited to 20 hours per week), as well as to prove to potential employers that I wouldn't be kicked unceremoniously out of the country on January 31st. On a Friday a few weeks after mailing the second attempt, the mailman failed to fully push my doorbell (causing it not to actually ring) then raced away as quickly as he could, leaving behind a "Sorry, you were out" card, detailing that I could pick up my "Signature Required" package... the next day. I headed over to the depot in the pouring rain, unspeakably nervous even though I had no real reason to be so. Well, that is, until I opened the package and discovered yet another "Sorry, your application has been denied" form letter.
In that instance, I walked home - thankful for the rain, since it disguised my tears and blinding anger. Once home, I pulled the form out and, after reading it several times to understand what had gone wrong, was just about ready to go throw a brick through the Visa offices. Apparently, the UK Visa Bureau had decided to update their forms on their website - on October 1st. The forms I had filled out had been downloaded probably less than one week before the government "updated" them - by which, of course, I mean that NOTHING on the forms changed, except that the "Valid from" date at the bottom had moved forward 6 months. That's right - my Visa was rejected because I filled it out on forms that were *technically* 6 months old; though, in actuality, they had still been valid up to 5 days before I mailed my application in.
In applying for Visas in the UK, you have two options: you can apply by post, which generally takes about 3-4 weeks to be returned to you, or you can apply for a "Premium" application: this costs £200 more, but allows you to make an appointment, then show up on the day with all your paperwork in place and receive a "Day Of" decision. No long waits, no chance of anything getting lost in the mail. Unfortunately, the system to make these appointments is online - and, in the probably 15 times I have checked that website, there has never ONCE been an available time slot. Not once. They claim, both on their website and on the phone lines, that new appointment slots are added throughout the day, every day, but I have checked their site -oh!- so very many different days and at so very many different times. I took about a week or so, sitting on the application at home, trying desperately to find a Premium appointment slot. I checked online, I tried calling all the different Visa offices, I emailed every email I could get through to. Nothing.
Finally, yesterday, I got sick and tired of waiting (especially time is ticking down) and mailed the bloody thing off again: this time on the *new* forms, and - once again - with postal orders. My actual application is nearly rock solid - I have a postgrad degree from a UK university, I was on the Student visa the whole time, me speak goodly English, I never got in trouble with the law, etc. However, there is one small hiccup which would've been overlooked if the first application went through, but - unfortunately - glares at you right in the face now. For about 12 hours between October 5th and October 6th, thanks to an early withdraw of funds for my housing deposit on my flat and a late arrival of wire transfer funds from my Dad (they were sent plenty early - it was just the problem of dealing with different banks in different time zones), I dipped below the required £800 of available cash. It's not that I was out the cash for a massively long period of time, and the circumstances surrounding it are completely understandable. However, these are the people who denied my application because I was using forms that were completely similar to the ones required, but had a different date on the bottom. I have a strong hunch that this third application will be returned denied because of this hiccup. I'm hoping the person overlooking the application will take into consideration the "spirit" of the rule, the fact that I'm here with a lease on a flat and already employed, and - hey - it's Christmas... however, I am steeling myself up for the worst.
In good news, a talk with a person at the Croydon offices told me that, actually, under the Student Visa I *can* work full-time as long as I'm not currently studying - the 20 hours/week restriction only applies during term-time. I also was pleasantly surprised to receive a REFUND of the fee for my second attempt - although I would've preferred them to actually consider the application on its merits, at least they didn't just take the money and say, "Tough luck".
On the other hand, in oh so horrific bad news....
I knew that it was going to be a tight squeeze in hoping that the current Visa application gets back to me before my plane takes off to come home for Christmas. If I'm going to catch my plane, the Visa has to be back in three weeks and two days at the absolute latest - and the second attempt (where they obviously didn't look any further than the bottom of the first page) took three weeks exactly. However, a quick look at the US Embassy page showed how to apply for and receive a second passport - in order to allow you to travel while your current passport is stolen/lost/at the Home Office. I made an appointment, gathered the required documents (birth certificate, driver's license, Social Security card), filled out the forms, and thought "No problem". At the bottom of the email from the Embassy, however, contained the fatal words: Check with the Home Office to ensure you're able to travel while your visa is being considered.
I called up Croydon and, after finding out that I could work full-time and that there were absolutely no "Premium" appointments available, I posed the situation of flying home at Christmas with a second passport from the Embassy if my Visa application didn't go through in time.
"Oh, absolutely not. No. You absolutely cannot."
A very long pause followed. When he tried to explain that my Visa application wouldn't go through without my passport, I explained that I'd sent my passport along with my Visa application, and I would be traveling with a second passport supplied by the Embassy. Nope, no this wasn't allowed. Apparently, my status in the country is controlled by computer - the second passport I would get from the Embassy would be just that - a passport, without any Visa information in it at all. If I were to re-enter the country as a Visitor (as I'd have to do with my second passport), the computer would automatically over-ride any prior or existing Visa applications or information, meaning my current application would be either automatically denied (if it was still being considered) or taken away (if it had been approved). And, he was quick to point out, that was IF they let me in the country at all - which they probably wouldn't. I'd be forced to divert back to the States, where I'd have to reapply for Entry Clearance.
I still have my appointment at the Embassy scheduled for this Friday, so I'm going to go in and see what they have to say - sadly, it does make a kind of warped sense (reminiscent of all the other obnoxious bureaucratic mess that this government loves so much), and I don't really imagine that the Embassy will be able to do much to help me. At this point, I have to just wait... if the Visa arrives back here, approved, and before my plane takes off - great! Merry Christmas, life is good, and all is right with the world. If the Visa doesn't arrive before or with the post on December 16th, I have to either cancel my flight or move the dates, hoping that it will arrive in time for *that* flight. (On top of, of course, paying the fees and fines for moving my flight, and the price difference between tickets) If it does arrive late, I have to hope and pray that somebody in the Visa offices took pity on me about the banking snafu, because if it arrives late AND denied... I will probably have a rather good little sob right on the floor of the post office. At that point, I'll have to wait until the banking hiccup is over 3 months in the past (after January 6th), then reapply - unfortunately, by this point, I'll be about 25 days from my current leave in the UK completely expiring - and the Home Office refuses to have anything to do with your case once your leave has expired. At that point, I honestly don't know what I'd do. I'll talk with the Embassy about "worst case scenarios" on Friday, and hope that I can find a friend willing to be my bulldog in the government.
Soo... yeah. Obviously, there's still time for everything to sort itself out as the universe's Christmas present to me, but on the other hand I may still yet be in for a whole world of hurt. Please be praying for me over the next two months - I have a lot invested in being here and have already won so many battles, I just need some pretty miraculous divine intervention to get me over this rather massive hurdle in the way. :(