So you’re preparing your visa application and this ‘visa application centre’ thing pops up.
Well here’s the low-down, including 3 things a visa application centre will do… and 3 things it won’t.
What is a visa application centre?
Also knowns as ‘VACs’, a visa application centre is a service operated by a private company that usually has an exclusive contract to accept visa applications on behalf of a government within a given jurisdiction.
Instead of going to a consulate or embassy to make your visa application, you now go to the office of a private company who collects your documents, gives them a cursory check, perhaps enrols your biometrics if needed then sends everything off to the government for a decision to be made.
The VAC may also get involved in collecting fees (either online or in person at the centre) and returning your passport and any original documents to you at the end of the process.
Most VAC contracts include the provision of information services, so a VAC operator may also provide a website, email and telephone information service.
The use of VACs is supposed to benefit both the government and visa applicants: on the government’s side, it saves on the cost of running a visa application service directly while for the visa applicant the idea is that the private company operating the VAC can provide a higher level of service, longer opening hours and more convenient locations. Although not always the case, there is usually an additional charge for using a VAC that is paid by the visa applicant.
3 things a visa application centre will do...
The contracts VAC operators have with different governments do differ in what types of services are provided to visa applicants – and sometimes even vary between different locations for the same government. That means as a visa applicant you always need to check the details of what the VAC offers and confirm that you’re intending to apply at the right location.
So when you’ve selected your VAC, here’s three things you can expect the VAC operator to do.
1. Give visa application process guidance
There’s a major and significant difference between ‘guidance’ and ‘advice’.
VAC operators are permitted to provide ‘guidance’, that is, provide clear and objective information to visa applicants that is usually set out in official documentation or is of a process-based nature.
So if you want to know more about how to make a visa application, what the cost of a certain type of visa is, how long the application process will take and what documents you need to apply, the VAC operator can provide you with guidance by either answering your questions directly or pointing you in the direction of official documentation that does.
As for ‘advice‘, we’ll cover that below.
2. Accept documents and enrol biometrics
The two primary activities at a VAC are accepting documents in support of a visa application and, if needed, enrolling biometrics.
What a VAC can do with documents varies significantly between governments.
For example, Schengen governments tend to place the burden of document accuracy more on the VAC operator than the visa applicant, therefore document checking for a Schengen visa application is typically quite involved.
The VAC will be instructed to ensure, among other things, that application forms are correctly completed (and signed), that insurance has the correct levels and scope of coverage and that the dates for all travel-related documents match up, i.e. that travel tickets, accommodation and insurance all have consistent start/ end dates. A Schengen VAC operator may also have the authority to refuse to accept a visa application if any required documents are missing or key data doesn’t add up.
On the other hand, governments like the UK and Canada usually place the burden of document accuracy more on the visa applicant, with the VAC playing a more administrative role. A VAC operating for this type of government may still have the authority to refuse a visa application if a major document is missing (such as a passport) but the VAC operator’s role is limited to ensuring it records what documents were provided, confirming that they are in one of that government’s accepted languages (or have an appropriate translation with the original) and are legible.
More and more governments now require visa applicants to enrol their biometrics. The types of biometrics enrolled differs between governments but is usually a combination of some or all of:
- passport biographical data page scan
- 10-fingerprint enrolment
- digital photograph
- digital signature
Some governments also use iris scans or may only collect one or two fingerprints but this activity is one that takes place entirely at the VAC.
The biometric data collected at the VAC is transmitted to the government of the country of visa application either immediately or within 24 business hours. The VAC operator doesn’t hold any of the this data longer than strictly needed and deletes it in accordance with its GDPR policy. VAC operators hold all necessary accreditations for handling this type of special category data and will have privacy policies that fully explain how they handle biometric data.
3. Submit your application to the government
At the end of the VAC process, the VAC operator will send all of your application material to the government of the country of application for a visa decision. You may need to pay a fee for this (e.g. when applying for a visa to Canada) or the cost may already be included in the service fee you paid for the VAC service. But bottom line is you won’t need to go to the consulate or embassy yourself to do this.
Your application may be submitted to the government electronically, physically, or in a combination of the two. As governments move towards greater use of online application forms and accepting digitised documents, the need for physically sending piles of paper for processing is decreasing, but if the government still places a visa vignette in your passport you’ll need to send the hardcopy version of that document at the very least.
If any documents need to be returned to you after a decision has been made, the VAC operator will transfer them back to the VAC to either be couriered back to you or held for pick-up in person.
...and 3 things it won't
As a visa applicant, if you’ve paid a service fee for using a VAC your expectations may quite understandably assume that the VAC operator can help with other areas of the application process. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, and here are three things that are frequently asked at VACs where the VAC operator simply cannot help.
1. Tell you if you'll get a visa
One of the most common questions from visa applicants when using a VAC is “So will I get a visa?“.
The VAC cannot tell you this.
The only person who can say for sure if you’ll be issued a visa is the government official assessing your application, and no-one else.
And if you’ve supplied all the required documents and everything is in order, why can’t the VAC give you the reassurance that you’ll get a visa as you’ve met all the application criteria?
Simply put, the VAC operator doesn’t have either the competence to make that decision nor access to all data that will be used to assess your application. In addition to your application materials, governments will conduct a series of background checks on you as well as reviewing your travel history. So while your documentation may be in order, something else may flag up during the assessment process that means a visa will be denied. The VAC has zero visibility of this therefore cannot ever tell you if you’ll get a visa or not.
2. Give you visa application advice
While VACs can provide ‘guidance‘ as outlined above, they aren’t permitted to provide ‘advice’.
The crucial difference between ‘guidance’ and ‘advice’ is that ‘advice’ requires a formal competency to be able to interpret visa rules for a specific set of individual circumstances, whereas ‘guidance’ is merely pointing out objective information.
In the UK, only immigration advisers who are either accredited by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) or are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) are permitted to provide visa application advice.
Visa application advice can cover the full range of questions, issues and requirements you may have when making a visa application, including:
- What type of visa application to make based on your circumstances
- The benefits and drawbacks of your chosen type of visa application
- What documents are needed and what information they must contain
- Whether documents need to be notarised, legalised or have any other official certification
- What to do if you don’t have a required document
- How to correctly complete the visa application form
- If you’re eligible for any government assistance
3. Help you with any appeals
In the worst case scenario of being denied a visa, the best a VAC operator can do is point you in the direction of where to find the appeals process. The VAC operator won’t know you’ve been denied a visa nor the reason why.
The government denying you a visa may explain why, such as in the letter that the UK issues, or verbally, at interview like the USA does, but the VAC operator isn’t permitted to help you interpret or even pass comment on that feedback. If you want to appeal, you’ll need the help of an authorised immigration adviser.
Do note however, that not all immigration advisers can help with the appeals process. The OISC has three different levels of certification, and immigration advisers accredited to Level 1 cannot help you with appeals – you need an adviser accredited to Level 2 or higher.
Getting help with your visa application
If you’d like to get accredited help with your visa application from authorised immigration advisers, you can use the Help with my visa! marketplace to search for an immigration adviser that meets your needs. We believe that due to the restrictions placed on VAC operators by their government contracts, plus the challenges in finding a suitable immigration adviser through traditional routes, using a marketplace for immigration advice is the best way to quickly and easily find the help you you’re looking for.