Sunday, September 18, 2016

Student Visa Adventure

When my son applied for graduate school in London earlier this year I assumed the process would be simple and straightforward. A US citizen who has traveled a respectable amount of Europe who holds undergraduate degrees in German and Political Science going to a UK university for a Masters in International Relations - could it be any simpler?

  1. Pick University
  2. Apply to University
  3. Receive Acceptance
  4. Do paperwork
  5. Pay fees
  6. Make travel plans
  7. Complete coursework
  8. See Europe during breaks
  9. Come home
Well, it turned out to be much less simple than I thought it would be. The first snag came at item #3. The first acceptance was a "Conditional Acceptance" which doesn't get you very far. The Golden Ticket comes in the form of an "Unconditional Acceptance" and that is when you are supplied with all the tools you need to complete the process of applying for a student visa. The conditions placed on his acceptance were quite minimal: graduate the current course of study and meet minimum GPA requirements while doing so. No problem! Upon graduation all the conditions were met and a copy of his final grade report was dispatched to the university admissions office, thus satisfying the requirements.

Or so we thought.

If only it were that simple.

After weeks and weeks of emails and phone calls we were eventually (read: the end of July) informed that they needed an official transcript to make the switch to "unconditional acceptance" from "conditional acceptance." So we scrambled to have an official transcript delivered, which only takes a day thanks to the miracles of the digital world. Now they can make the change from "conditional" to "unconditional" - right? In theory, yes. Unfortunately the time to complete this daunting task was quoted as approximately two weeks.

So, we wait.

As we close in on the two week mark we call and are told to anticipate a CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies) in a couple of days. The CAS is required to complete the student visa application; no CAS, no visa. It takes about two weeks for them to process a student visa application and return a decision. We're just over four weeks from departure, so things are starting to get a little interesting. (Yes, tickets were already purchased, as we knew when orientation began and buying tickets last minute is less than affordable, plus the whole Brexit ordeal resulted in a sharp drop in prices to London, so I rolled the dice.)

But that information wasn't completely accurate. You see, after the Unconditional Acceptance is issued you have to pay a deposit before they will issue the CAS. After finally speaking to someone on the phone who could provide information instead of platitudes the urgency of the situation was communicated. The deposit was paid through their online system and we made a return call with the confirmation number in hopes of moving things forward at least a little faster, since it generally takes two to three days for the business office to inform the admissions office that payment has been received. These were days that we could not afford to lose.

Five days later the magic email arrives with the CAS number included. In a flurry of activity (which includes a comprehensive list of seemingly everywhere you've traveled in the last three centuries) the visa application is completed and submitted electronically. However, the system is in transition between the hard-copy and electronic world, so you must forward the hard copies after your biometric data (photo and fingerprints) has been collected at your local enrollment center. Our "local" center is 130 miles away and the first appointment available wasn't for three business days - a Tuesday, precisely two weeks and one day prior to our scheduled departure.

This is where things get really exciting. You see, there are several ways to accelerate the processing of a visa application. All of them cost money (from $200 and up, the limit of "up" depending upon your ability and desire to travel to New York and what level of service you are inclined towards to deliver you to your appointment at the Consulate) and, depending upon your level of investment and degree of urgency, shave days or even weeks off the processing time. The "basic" service puts your application at the top of the regular pile upon arrival, reducing processing time to several days from the anticipated two weeks. We dig through an assortment of checklists, none of which correspond to each other on a consistent basis, and assemble a daunting packet of documents. Visa application, biometric data sheet (the old one, that has a spot for you to attach a passport-sized photo which is no longer required since they take digital photos at the enrollment center) proof of financial resources (to show you're not going to just show up and become a burden on the system) copies of the CAS letter (even though the CAS is prominently displayed on every official form you've filled out) and a return Fed Ex shipping envelope, complete with a pre-paid return air bill attached.

Tuesday morning we leave just before 9 a.m. for a noon appointment. The drive is just over two hours without traffic, but we pad it a little just in case. This would later prove to be a fortuitous move on our part. The drive was uneventful, save the last couple of miles when the GPS determined that a gravel road made more sense than the Interstate, but it was worth a chuckle after all the hurdles that had been overcome to that point. We arrived at the processing center at 11:25 and, heeding the warnings plastered on the door, left all electronic devices in the car and proceeded to the check-in counter, documentation in-hand.

Our joy for having reached the final physical hurdle was short-lived.

You see, there's a cover sheet for your biometric data collection appointment, along with the actual biometric application.

All they want to see at the support center is the cover sheet. Nothing else.


So, how do we overcome this hurdle after having driven over two hours to make the appointment? Why, you visit the local public library, of course! Located just ten minutes away, you have a choice of toll roads or a maze of twisty streets, all alike. I opted for the toll roads (total expense = $1.84, round-trip) and away we went. Finding the library wasn't a problem at all. Figuring out how to navigate through the parking lot was an entirely different story. Since when did parking lots become creative expressions of the landscape architect and not utilitarian spaces designed around efficiency of vehicle movement and storage? After several twists and turns we managed to park the vehicle and made our way in to the building.

We located a service desk and explained our plight to the librarian. After hearing that we needed to print a couple of pages from an email account she asked to see our library card.

We live over 100 miles from the county we're standing in.

We don't have a library card.

We have to have a library card to print something.

So I hand over my driving license and in a few minutes time I'm presented with a shiny new library card.

We're directed to a monitor where we have to log in with the excruciatingly long number on the library card, then agree to several legal agreements. I'm not sure, but there may have been something there about a blood oath and perhaps granting a lien on my house.

After a few more machinations the email with the cover sheet for the biometric appointment has been located and we submit it to the print queue. We log out and scurry to the circulation desk to retrieve our freshly printed documents, or so we thought.

First, we must pay the required ransom to release the print job from the queue and send it scurrying along the network to the chosen printer. I hand over the requisite $1.00 ($.50 per page) and we're instructed to go back to the printer located at the end of the row of workstations we were just standing at to wait for our print job to appear.

After what seemed like five or six days, but probably wasn't longer than two or three minutes, the printer sprang to life and the elusive biometric application cover sheet miraculously appeared. Back in the car, out of the parking lot (much easier since we had already plotted a course on the way in) and back on the toll road for the return trip to the application support center.

After another interrogation concerning electronic devices we were checked in and my son was directed to one area while I was directed to wait for him in another. The person at reception wasn't busy and we exchanged a few words concerning the multiple layers involved in the visa application process. As we talked she produced a checklist and asked if I had a copy.

I did not.

This checklist was an expanded version of the checklist found on the UK Visa and Immigration website. It included items not on the other checklist and omitted a few items included on the other checklist. Ugh.

Not to worry, we made plans to visit a friend after lunch and print the "missing" documents to put in the overnight letter. At this point we adopted the attitude that it was better to be safe than sorry. My only fear at this point was that we might exceed the weight limit on a FedEx letter, but we could deal with that later.

Finally, everything was printed, in the envelope, and placed in a FedEx drop box. Time to wait some more! At least this time we'd be able to see when the passport (and hopefully, visa!) were on their way back by watching the tracking information from FedEx.

Delivery was confirmed Wednesday morning. While we hoped it would be on the way home by Friday, our expectations were more realistic. Even with expedited handling sometime towards the end of the following week was more likely.

We were pleasantly surprised on Tuesday when an email arrived;

"Dear applicant,

We are pleased to inform you that your visa application has been successful.  Your visa will now be placed in your passport and returned to you.

-For standard and Priority Service visa applications lodged in the USA, and for all applications lodged in the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, or St. Lucia:  Your documents will be returned using the prepaid waybill your provided with your application.


The package containing your documents will be dispatched from New York either this afternoon or the afternoon of the next business day.   If you did not submit a prepaid waybill when you submitted your application, your application cannot be returned until you have provided VFS Global with an appropriate waybill.



UK Visas and Immigration
New York"

Since we included (per the instructions) a prepaid waybill attached to a return envelope we anticipated the documents by Thursday at the latest.

Thursday evening the FedEx tracking information gave no indication that the package was in their hands.

Houston, we have a problem.

Friday morning I call the only phone number available that gives any indication that they might be able to help solve our mystery. After connecting to a consultant and agreeing to the £1.37 per minute fee I'm informed that FedEx is not an "appropriate" waybill as the Consulate does not deal with FedEx, they ONLY deal with UPS. Note that this information is not provided anywhere - they only stipulate that you include a return waybill and packaging.

I go online and purchase a UPS return waybill (including Saturday delivery, just in case it manages to depart New York on Friday) and email it to the provided address for missing waybills. (Obviously this is a routine occurrence, which would lead you to expect that, perhaps, someone might try to figure out why this happens so often.)

As luck would have it, by Friday night the UPS tracking system shows no movement. Obviously there wasn't an update on Saturday. By Monday morning (two days before departure) I'm looking for someone, anyone, who can help me solve a problem. I don't need someone to read directions or tell me what should happen, I need someone capable of dealing with problems and offering solutions.

I may as well have asked for my own Lear Jet.

A direct call to the Consulate only connects to a surly individual who acts as gatekeeper. Only after begging do they even direct you back to the £1.37 service as your only option. Before that point they don't even listen to your problem, their only purpose is to repeat loudly and firmly that they cannot provide any information on visas. I didn't need information on a visa, I already knew it was approved. I needed to know what it was going to take for the person in charge of shipping to stuff everything in an envelope and apply the provided label.

So, another round of calls to the £1.37 remedial education line and I'm told "It should go out any minute."  When I impress upon the gentleman that "should" was not my concern and I needed to know when it would go out he promised to call the Consulate and find out what was going on.

Shortly thereafter I received another email, asking what I wanted to cancel. SMH.

Finally, at about 4:00 p.m. the UPS website indicated that the package had been picked up and would be delivered by 10:30 the following morning.

Tuesday morning at precisely 10:01 a.m. a UPS driver rang our doorbell and brought the entire ordeal to conclusion.

UKVI advises students to travel with all the documentation used to apply for the visa, in the event an immigration officer wants to see anything at the border. Ironically enough, this was the most hassle-free customs experience we've ever had entering the U.K. I presented our three passports and cheerfully informed the officer "Two regular, one student" - at which point he scanned and stamped our passports while requesting a thumbprint scan from my son. He then bid us a good day and off we went!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Read a book, already

My social media newsfeed has been filled with rants and raves that largely reflect the theme "This is what's wrong with America." Most of them are thinly-veiled bigotry of some description, mostly political, racial, or religious, but other aspects are covered as well.
From my point of view all of these complaints fall short of the true issue, which is willful ignorance. It's one thing to dismiss or refute someone's position based on information and after consideration, but to be dismissive based only on superficial attributes that have no bearing in substance only perpetuates the problem.
If you think that granting someone else rights that you already enjoy compromises your standing then it's time to educate yourself. It's not a zero-sum game. When they are granted the rights that have been denied it doesn't mean there are less rights for the rest of us, it just means that they now have a seat at the table with us. (The parable about building a larger table instead of a higher fence comes to mind.) If you find yourself objecting to focused groups ask yourself what really bothers you. Don't take the lazy path and pick the low-hanging fruit, since I'd bet you eschew all those lazy people collecting food stamps (low hanging fruit) and you don't want to be a hypocrite. Dig deep, challenge yourself, even if you don't have a change of heart at least be honest with yourself. Do you find the concept of same-sex marriage intolerable? Why? Have you ever spent time with any same-sex couples? (If you haven't I'll offer the observation that other than the ratio of X and Y chromosomes being different there's little else of note to differentiate a heterosexual couple from a same-sex couple.) Does your perception of their sex life make you uncomfortable? Does your curiosity make you uncomfortable with yourself? If your objection is based on religion then do you hold the same objection to other prohibitions outlined by your religion of choice? For example, if you maintain that homosexuality is an abomination based on Leviticus then do you also eschew shellfish and clothes made of blended materials? If not, why not? What are your positions on shellfish and pork? (My position is that they are both quite tasty, when properly prepared and presented. If some of my LGBT friends are interested in sharing then they can bring the wine.)
Outside social media most people don't read anything other than an occasional instruction manual (and that's usually for a new device that they're going to use to access social media.) Of those who do bother to read anything beyond the average, a large percentage of those only read things that confirm their world view. There are millions of books in dozens and dozens of genres. If you aren't interested in reading anything factual there's nothing wrong with a nice work of fiction to help expand your mind. How about the Guinness Book of World Records or a graphic novel (aka comic book?) Nothing is more powerful than knowledge. Reading is a simple and effective path to knowledge.
If you're not doing something to combat ignorance and enhance your understanding of the world then I've got news for you, YOU are the problem. The noise is drowning out the signal (if you don't understand what that means, click this ) and the culture of instant gratification combined with willful ignorance creates a caustic environment. If you're going to dislike someone or something, at least make sure you're disliking for good reason. Don't ride a bandwagon, make your own decision based on information from reputable sources.
In an age where we have easier access to more information than ever before we have fewer people availing themselves to that information. Ask questions, read books, and talk to people (especially people who aren't like you.) I promise the worst thing that will happen is that you might just learn something about others.
If you're lucky you might even learn something about yourself.