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How NOT to marry a foreign nationalI am publishing our negative experience in case it is useful, but it is not legal advice.
Deported 4 days before weddingAfter reading the October 2014 version of the guidance notes (Internet Archive link), I thought it's not necessary for Hong Kong nationals to obtain a visa before marrying in the UK, because they do not need visas for general visits and are therefore (I thought) not "subject to immigration control". Plus I didn't think a visa called "family of a settled person" could possibly be suitable for someone who's not yet a family member, so it seemed to me that they wanted you to marry first and then apply for a visa if you want to stay.
- The guidance notes were updated in December 2014: the December 2014 version (Internet Archive link) added the sentence "This includes people who don't normally require visas for general visits" which wasn't there before. I don't know if that's a new rule, or if they just realised that people like me were misunderstanding the old version of the page. Either way, I didn't know I should have checked for updates to that page after I'd read it in October.
- We then declared intent to marry in January 2015, at an office which happened to be a "Designated Register Office" equipped to handle people who are "subject to immigration control". Not only was I still going by my understanding of the old version of the guidance notes, but apparently so were they: that registry office did not stop us, although the new version of the guidance notes clearly states you're not supposed to declare intent to marry if you don't have the right visa.
- After any clarification to the rules, it would be nice to have a "grace period" for anyone who read the old version and didn't check for updates. If this is not possible then at least place a clear warning on all rules pages advising the reader to check back regularly for updates.
- It would be nice if gov.uk make a page explaining exactly what "subject to immigration control" means, and link to it from any page that uses that phrase. And when pointing people to the Family of a Settled Person visa, clearly state that fiance(e)s count as family.
- It would be nice if Designated Register Offices were instructed to keep up with the latest rules and to double-check nobody tries to declare intent to marry on a general visit. Stopping us at that time would have caused a lot less grief.
What you can do now:
- Before relying on any rule you read on the official government website, set web-monitoring software like WebCheck to tell you about any future additions. If using a solicitor, check they'll keep up with changes too.
- If your Register Office is "Designated", don't think that means they'll give you a free visa check as part of your declaration appointment.
The week of sleepless nights and bureaucracyThe official at Heathrow Airport said she was sure my fiancee could be granted a visa very quickly especially if we have medical proof of any compassionate grounds like my father's cancer. (Since he didn't want his condition published before his death, previous versions of this page just said "compassionate grounds" and I didn't correct anyone who thought that meant my sight condition.) But the official said "just as a technical point" it has to be done from Hong Kong. The way that official said it seemed to imply they could do it overnight, or at least before the end of her family's 10-day trip. I had not yet recovered my sanity enough to think to ask the question "exactly how fast is 'very quickly'?"
- The Hong Kong visa office is of course closed until Monday, but at least my fiancee can start filling out their online form. But she asked me to double-check which form it was. The official at the airport had said she'd given her a document with the correct Web address, but that turned out to be insufficiently precise. I couldn't dare help her from the UK because I had no idea if the website might be using "GeoIP" or similar to present different forms to different countries (and I didn't know any good Hong Kong-based proxy servers to try), so I had to just hope she'd find the right download.
How this could be fixed: It would be nice if all large websites had well-defined URL schemes, so that staff and handouts can point people to exact pages instead of having to say "start from the top and find it yourself because we don't know our way around our own CMS" or words to that effect. Also, make sure any location-based logic can be overridden (unless required by law), so that users can help their friends in other countries, or if running a site that's plausibly location-sensitive but isn't, then reassure people it isn't.She started an online application, and paid extra for the priority service, but even this turned out to aim for 2 weeks + holidays. The first available appointment for submitting supporting documents at the visa centre was Tuesday.
What you can do now: During a general visit, ask the other party's permission to set up some kind of remote-control or proxying software on their computer in case you ever need to check how a site looks from their location.
- She takes a required medical test, but is informed the results will not be available until Wednesday. Both of us try to get through to the British consulate in Hong Kong to see if they can speed up the application on compassionate grounds: she gets turned away, and I get referred to an expensive premium "advice line" that basically reads me the website. I obtain
the medical evidence and deliver it to my local MP, whose staff kindly agree to take on the case (unlike those of my father's MP who reportedly told him "that's the way it is now"), but when they call the Home Office there is no computer record of the application she started on Saturday and not even a record of Friday's deportation (I should probably point out the obvious security implications if that's true: anyone deported from one airport has time to try another before the computers are updated). We guess the computer record has not yet appeared because she hasn't yet submitted her supporting documents, but by this time the Hong Kong visa office had closed. I stay up past 03:00 helping her go over the details of documents she was due to submit on Tuesday.
Time lost: 2 or 3 days
How this could be fixed: When a member of staff who is dealing with emergency or compassionate grounds runs a search for visa applications, make that software also search the database of incomplete applications (i.e. ones which have been started online but do not yet have their documents submitted), and provide a means to write official notes against these. Also have the various offices synchronise their databases more frequently, or keep them on a central server with local backup.
- I discover she has changed the document-submission appointment to Wednesday due to her medical test results not being due until then. I urge her to submit the other documents right now, even trying to do so without an appointment, as it seems we need to put some documents into the system so as to make the database entry visible to the people who can discuss it with the MP's office, and I guess an incomplete entry is better than none. She immediately goes to the visa office, who says yes she can submit now and come back with the medical test results later, but then discovers that, due to the anxiety of it all, she hadn't brought her passport (and the office can't accept documents without one), and when she goes back to fetch it, she misses the 3pm deadline and the office closes. (Hong Kong transport runs slowly before a public holiday and she can't halve the round-trip distance by asking a family member to bring her passport because they're all in Cambridge for her (non)wedding day.) I send scanned copies of her documents to the MP's office but they can't do anything until the originals are submitted in Hong Kong.
Time lost: 1 day
How this could be fixed: If medical tests are required and the application is urgent, provide some means of assessing it without the test results and, if approved, say "approved if medical test is clear". Test results can then be shown to the local office before the visa is collected. This arrangement would take the medical lab out of the CPA critical path.
What you can do now:
- Before deferring your submission appointment due to a medical test, try asking if you'd be allowed to come back with the test results later. However I don't know if that would get your application onto the "complete" database any sooner.
- If for some reason you have to urge the applicant you're sponsoring to submit something immediately, run through the checklist of everything they need to take to make sure nothing gets left behind in the rush.
- She finally submits her documents. MP is not available to repeat the query today (well they do have a lot of work to do!) but his staff prepare a memo for him to sign.
- Memo sent. Hong Kong offices all close down for Chinese New Year, but I hope they can still process things in London. After a week of sleepless nights doing things on Hong Kong time, on Thursday night I had the mistaken idea that I could finally switch my phone off and try to get a decent night's sleep, because nothing can possibly happen now until 09:00 GMT, right? Wrong.
- I discover that UK visas for Hong Kong are processed, not in London, but in Manila, Philippines (which was not affected by HK's Chinese New Year closure), and they wanted additional bank statements from me at 04:43 GMT (and no it wasn't some kind of 'scam'---the submission email used a genuine
gov.ukdomain). I didn't get the message until 08:30, and then it took me over an hour to fight with the bank websites (which don't work with my low-vision stylesheets because their "security" programming gets tripped up, so I have to struggle with the unadapted versions) and finally download some PDF statements, but by the time I was able to submit, the Manila office had closed for the weekend.Time lost: 3 days (1 + weekend)To make matters worse, a key savings account that they wanted history for turned out to provide only annual PDF statements, and the last one was 10 months old, so I had to hope they'd accept screenshots after that. They specifically asked for scans of paper statements, and I had no idea if the screenshots + PDF files would do, but it's the best I could manage this side of the 3 weeks or so it would take me to obtain "real" statements for all accounts.
How this could be fixed: If dealing with an emergency and more documents are urgently required from the UK sponsor, implement a means by which the entire case can be passed to a UK office which can handle it on UK time. If this can't be implemented, warn the applicant at time of submission that queries involving the UK sponsor might come from an office that does not operate on UK time.
What you can do now: Be aware that the assessment officials might be neither in London nor in the applicant's country, but in a third country that's in the same general region and time zone but has different public holidays. Therefore, do not assume it's OK to go back to UK time just because the application is in assessment and/or the applicant's country is on holiday.Time lost: who knows (they said "deferred")
How this could be fixed: When processing emergency applications, ask the anti-fraud service to check bank computers directly if a sponsor does not have enough statements to hand. Or have all banks cryptographically sign their digital statements with a high-security public signing key, so the account holder can immediately transmit signed statements to anyone who needs proof.
What you can do now: As soon as you start even thinking about sponsoring an immigrant, switch all your accounts back to paper statements, even if it's environmentally bad and puts you at risk of mail theft. Since large-print and Braille statements are not normally accepted as genuine, make sure you get normal print versions as well (or instead). Also make sure statements are monthly (switch accounts if necessary, but this is probably best avoided if an application is less than 6 months away, and use correct transfer procedure for ISAs).
It's also a good idea to move utility bills back to paper and add the other party's name to your own, so they can be used when you get as far as introducing them to a UK bank, and for providing evidence of residence during visa renewal.Savings requirement: At each stage of the 5½-year game, I need to prove that I'm either receiving disability benefits or meet a certain financial requirement on either income or savings. My DLA had been under threat since 2013 by the DWP's gradual move to PIP, which was said to have a goal of throwing out 30% of existing claimants (and as I was managing well enough to be on the lower rate, I thought I'd be in that 30%)---well as it turned out, they did transfer me to PIP in late 2019 and set a 10-year review date, so we could have used disability benefits to apply for financial-requirement exemptions the whole time. But we couldn't have known in advance that I wasn't going to be in the 30%, so I had to assume we'd need to pass other criteria. And as high-paying jobs that are guaranteed for 5 years are hard to come by, the only way I could be sure was to save up enough cash in advance---63k in 2015---and not touch it for 5 years. I had managed to accumulate enough funds before 2015 by working part-time writing software for small startups---jobs that inevitably didn't last, but paid well for a time---although I also had to be less generous to charities. I know of some who don't have savings because they spent them on a house---bad mistake if property value doesn't count toward the visa assessment---and others who obtained high-paying jobs and used that income without savings, which means if they lose the job they might have to leave the country to keep their marriage intact. I figured that over a 5-year period I'd rather rely on an FSCS-backed bank than a job, but I still had to hope I won't be proved wrong by either an FSCS failure or another rule-change within the 5-year period. At least stipulated financial thresholds are more predictable than the pre-2012 arrangement (later reinstated in a 10-year route) of letting the individual immigration officer judge---apparently some of them did things like denying anyone whose job was not full-time, thereby making it difficult for those of us who take time out for voluntary work.
- We try to make arrangements for at least some of her family to extend their trip, as well as sending better screenshots to the Manila office. The week has taken its toll on my immune system and I'm coming down with something.
Near miss on Day 11 & loss of her familyOn Monday 23rd February she received an email from the Manila office saying "a decision has been made on your application" and instructions not to go to the local office until they contact her to say her documents are ready to collect. From a user-interface perspective, that's about as informative as a progress bar stuck on 99%.
What you can do now: The only data point we can give you is, in our case it took 4 more days (see below).
- I said a short extension of a short general visit that's well within your quota won't blacklist you, but, understandably, they're no longer sure the rules won't have changed since I last read them.
- And because the original airport official had said there'd be "no problems" before launching us on a trajectory that led to what we saw as a whole string of problems, they couldn't now be sure that any official I asked would give the correct answer.
- They were also frightened of returning to the UK within a 6-month period, in case this trips up any alarms, and for this reason (as well as their having to first of all physically recover from the long-haul flights and general anxiety of the first trip) they finally told us to have the wedding without them.
The millionth-speed data linkThree days after being informed the decision was made, my fiancee received an email saying the decision was ready to collect at the local office. This email was sent after the office had already closed, so the collection had to be on the following day, i.e. 4 days after the decision was made. (This was 15 days after her original detention.) She had tried to find out the result earlier than this by telephoning the Manila office, but all they gave her is the UK number of yet another "advice service" that read you the website for a fee (unless you called it at the wrong time, in which case they'd say "the office is now closed" without leaving any clues about the opening hours, except a brief mention that they can be found somewhere on the website, even though the people who are calling that number are presumably doing so because they're not very good at navigating the website for themselves).
Taking four days to convey one binary digit worth of information that had already been decided---the answer to the question "do I get a visa or not"---represents an average of 3 microbits per second (neglecting overheads), which is trillions of times less bandwidth than contemporary home Internet links. This is, of course, only a humorous comparison: it is a valid bandwidth figure in the same way as Tanenbaum's "never underestimate the bandwidth of [an estate car] full of tapes hurtling down the highway" is valid, but to be fair you'd also have to measure your broadband with the same-sized payload (in this case 1 bit), so let's just look at latency: "VisaNet" was running about 50 million times slower than the main Internet backbones that week, or about half a million times slower than a 2G mobile ISP, so I'm going to be nice and say it ran at one millionth of a decent speed. And this was an application that had been paid for at priority service and with compassionate grounds for speedup, so I don't recommend trying to use the UK Visa & Immigration Service as your broadband provider. Even the Bergen Linux User Group's 2001 joke project to send Internet data via carrier pigeon had 50 to 100 times more speed.
The point was, of course, that nobody could make further arrangements until we knew the application result. If it had already been decided, why couldn't that information be conveyed immediately, even before the documents are ready, so we can start booking other things?
Having the checkbox also means they can add as many legal disclaimers as they like on it: if you select this, don't blame us if your email gets intercepted or tampered with, or if a "yes" decision gets turned into "no" at the last second because James Bond 007 parachuted in through the skylight and yelled stop her! Or whatever other reason they have for not giving advance notice. Even if it's not authoritative, a courtesy advanced-notice email that has a 99.9%+ chance of being right is still useful.
Visa finally obtainedHer visa was obtained on Friday 27th February. On the same day I had an email from my MP who had just been informed (as his team had taken on the case); they were glad it was resolved. (So apparently even they weren't told until the document was actually collected.)
The visa was valid for 6 months, from 23rd February (the decision date) to 23rd August. The "Type" field was set to
MARRIAGE/CP S S Brown and the "Observations" field to "No work or recourse to public funds".
I was momentarily worried this might be the wrong visa, since I had previously understood the "family of a settled person" visa was initially granted for 2 years (with permission to work), and I'd also read about another visa called "marriage visitor" which is for 6 months but you're both expected to leave the country after; the keywords and time frame seemed to fit the latter rather than the former. But she did have a separate document that clearly stated the application was for a type of settlement visa (even though this was not clearly stated on the visa itself), and the online guidance (at least now) said fiance(e)s are initially given 6 months and then they have to switch to a "family of a settled person" visa, the normal 5-year route being 30 months at a time. So it was one more step than we thought.
Wedding rearrangedOn 5th March my fiancee was allowed into the UK after a 20-minute wait while they searched her luggage after the fingerprint scanner failed (during which time she thought she'd be detained again, but she wasn't).
We booked with the Registry Office a new slot which at least my family could attend, on March 14th (Pi Day); my brother played our father's trumpet music (although we had to pre-record it so the office knew they'd be in control of the volume so as not to disturb the death registry next door, and we explained the accompaniment was a chamber organ not a church organ as the latter was prohibited), and Minmin was still able to read her poem. Only one Cantonese friend expressed tetraphobia regarding the new date (and we explained it's only coincidence that 14 sounds like "true death" in Cantonese), but we're still sad to have lost the attendance of the bride's family over visa issues.
Technical problems booking the renewalIn August our FLR(M) form was due. My wife very much wanted to make an in-person appointment at a "premium service centre" so she'd be free to work or travel that much sooner, but we couldn't start the renewal application before August because it took us that long to obtain enough joint proofs of address to satisfy their requirements.
- These "premium service centres" are no longer available: they closed on 29th November 2018. You can still pay extra to get a faster decision by post.
It turned out that applying for an in-person appointment can only be done online, plus they added an IHS payment, which surprised me because the IHS had been introduced in April (another example of rules being changed "mid-flight" without any "grandfather clause" for those who started the process earlier, so beware that additional charges could be introduced during your 5-year process).
The first time we tried, the IHS payment server was not responding. The second time we tried, we found we had insufficient balance in our current account for both the IHS payment and the visa payment (this was because I didn't know about the surcharge in advance, so I hadn't made sure the required amount was in our account), and it so happened that my building society was having technical trouble at the same time so I couldn't top up the account from my savings very quickly, plus my wife's old Hong Kong credit card needed some kind of revalidation.
The third time we tried, we got as far as paying the IHS and being given a reference number, but then one of us accidentally hit the Back button, which their transaction server was not prepared for and the session was ruined; when we started again, we found there was no option to say you'd already paid. It took us another 24 hours to confirm that the correct thing to do in this situation was to pay the charge a second time and then ask for a refund, either during the interview or by post along with the application.
What you can do now: Try to make sure you're applying from a reliable Internet connection and don't touch the browser's Back button. If technical issues do make you pay twice, keep both reference numbers so you can ask for a refund as described above.
What you can do now: Check numbers as they are entered, preferably as a team. If one of you feels anxious, the other should not leave (not even to fetch a drink of water), as anxiety could drive a person to continue alone and to enter numbers incorrectly.
Document collectionThe renewal required six documents like utility bills with both our names on them, and in a six-month period we only just managed:
- Water: added a second name to the account without even asking to speak with my wife, but they send bills only twice a year in May and November, so we have: 1 document.
- Electricity: reverted to paper bills and added a second name after speaking with her on the phone, but they send bills only twice a year in May and November, so we have: 1 document.
- Bank: I couldn't add her to my NatWest account because they (and Santander) wanted more than 6 months left on the visa, which rules out anyone who's here on a 6-month marriage visa until they've already managed to extend. But Barclays let us open an account once we had a utility bill, and they sent us 2 postal statements before the deadline. We printed additional statements from their in-branch machines plus we received various account-setup letters but we weren't sure if these can count, so we can only safely say: 2 documents.
- Council tax: added a second name to the account after seeing a marriage certificate (one receptionist said they need to see the altered tenancy agreement first but another called back saying they can do it on the marriage certificate). Later sent two new bills when we changed our payment method to the joint account (the first was immediately after the payment-method change, and the second was a month later because a technical issue had prompted them to register a second payment-method change), so we had 3 bills in total, but all dated very close to each other so we weren't sure if they'd count any more than: 1 document.
- Tenancy agreement: could not be altered in time.
- Health service: Nothing with both our names, but two letters, one in each name, can count as "one". I had two ENT letters and my wife had an NHS registration letter. 1 document.
Glasgow officeAfter we'd waited four hours, the case worker said the April annual statement from one of my ISAs was too old.
I hadn't yet switched to a bank that issues monthly statements because the renewal was imminent and the account has to have been held for a while, but I was hoping an annual statement in April would still be acceptable in August. It wasn't: must be within the last 28 days, and Internet printouts not acceptable unless stamped at the branch.
The case worker printed us a letter that gave us 14 days to send in a statement using "the enclosed return label", but he forgot to give us the return label and also forgot to fill in the reference numbers etc. On noticing this after we left, I thought it best to obtain the statement from the Glasgow branch immediately (authenticating by cash card and security questions, since all other proof was being held), and return with statement and letter while the same people were on duty at the security desk so they'd recognise me and could get the documents back to the same case worker before he forgets, even though this meant I had to hand over our only copy of the letter.
The lady at the bank said it's no longer their policy to stamp printouts at the branch, but she said an official branch printout that was clearly done her side of the counter would suffice even though it doesn't look the same as the ones they send through the post. Extra postal statements would have taken 3 weeks to order and we didn't have 3 weeks, so we just had to hope this would suffice. It was a "close call": after being misinformed and frantically running around, I finally located the bank 2½ minutes before it closed, and then arrived back at the visa office just as those security guards were leaving the premises. I must have been memorable to them because not only did I have my white cane and my South-of-England accent, but also a small Swiss-army-knife keyring, which they had to hold onto---``this is a government building, you could kill somebody with that''---and I can't help wondering if this giggle counted in my favour when I had to rely on their remembering me at the end of the shift.
Three days later our documents were returned by special delivery, along with a letter saying the 30-month biometric residence permit would be issued shortly. That arrived the following Monday and the delivery man asked for proof of identity. It was a credit-card sized card, not attached to the passport like the first 6-month visa. The case worker also telephoned to let us know (he had tried to call the day before as well; their phone system withheld the Caller ID so we couldn't return that missed call).
Incidentally we met another couple in the Glasgow waiting room who said they'd used a solicitor but the solicitor had made mistakes. So it seems that paying extra for a solicitor instead of doing it yourself is no guarantee of a better result.
- We found most stations had island platforms, and some of these were barely 2 metres wide, including the one at Cessnock near the visa office (which was in Brand Street next to Brand Place). Due to my assisting my wife with her wheeled suitcase, and wanting to alight quickly before the train pulled away, and not realising how narrow the island platform was, I ended up with a bit too much inertia and only just managed to stop myself when I felt the tactile paving 50cm from the opposite track.
- If station announcements are unclear, beware of similar names: Kelvinhall is not the same as Kelvinbridge.
Reclaiming extra IHS paymentsThe call centre said refunds are made by the NHS (not the Home Office) and that it can take up to 35 days. Three days after our interview, one of our two extra IHS payments was refunded to the card, but the other was not. The following week, the call centre advised us to write to the Glasgow office about this. Perhaps the software developers assumed the worst-case scenario was someone paying IHS twice but not three times. When we had no response from the Glasgow office, we also tried emailing technical support. The outstanding payment was refunded without comment after about a month.
Social housing system confusedIn 2004 I started renting a studio flat from a local housing association (later taken over by a national one). That was before I started saving up to meet the financial requirements for immigration (as explained above, I have been employed but not continuously, so I had to save up so we could do it on savings). I was not asked to leave social housing just because my savings began to exceed some threshold, but after we married things became more complicated.
The Local Housing Officer had given permission for my wife to stay in the studio flat as long as we apply to transfer as soon as possible. This involved both an application to transfer within the same housing association (whose selection of properties in the Cambridge area is very limited), and an application to the City Council's scheme that now coordinates all social housing in the area: this has changed a lot since 2004. It turned out the Council assesses transfer applicants in much the same way that it assesses first-time applicants, and they ruled we had too much money in the bank to be placed in any of their four priority bands and were therefore placed in a fifth "D*" band, meaning we'd be offered a property only if nobody in any of the other bands wants it, the chances of which are very low indeed. I asked the appeals committee if they'd consider ignoring some of our savings on the grounds that we're relying on them for the five-year immigration process and therefore can't use them for five years, and four months later they refused: anyone with over 40k of savings goes in Band D* (at 2015 prices that amount would likely last less than 2 years if living in Cambridge private rental without employment, but they have to prioritise somehow).
Separately from this, the staff at the council offices seemed a bit confused when I presented my wife's visa saying "no recourse to public funds", as their rules didn't say what to do about joint applications where one is subject to immigration control and the other is not. They later published a new version of the rules (starting April 2016) which explicitly states that anyone subject to immigration control is not to be counted, which means I'd be considered "adequately housed" in the small studio flat as though my wife didn't exist. Of course we didn't know about this before marriage, and neither did the Local Housing Officer who gave permission thinking a transfer would be possible.
What you can do now: Be aware that transfers within social housing are unlikely. If your local authority does not yet have rules covering your case, it's likely to make them.
However, we were still able to transfer to a larger flat in the same block, under the supervision of that same officer who gave permission for my wife to be here provided we transfer. A suitable flat almost became vacant 6 months after our marriage. The senior managers listed it with the Council before that officer could intervene, but they wrote the wrong number of bedrooms on that listing, which then had to be deleted (and confusingly it really was deleted from the CBL database, rather than being placed into their "withdrawn" state, so anyone who had bid on it wouldn't even see what had happened to their bid) and before listing a corrected version they offered it to us.
The move was delayed a further 7 months because the current tenant was to move into a newly-built council block for which the council repeatedly failed to accept handover from the builders due to outstanding issues on the snag list. We asked about the progress of this almost every week, repeatedly being told it could be soon but not yet, with three households waiting in our "chain" (and who knows how many others) with the 'progress bar' stuck on 99%.
Incidentally, the officer always had to return our calls later, and had to do this from a withheld number. Due to the large number of sales organisations, scammers and so on who use 'number withheld', I don't usually give any priority to answering such calls, but for those months if my phone said "unknown" I would have to drop everything straight away to take that call. Thus I talked with a few telemarketters who said things like "we understand your car was hit and it wasn't your fault"---when I said they must have the wrong number, one lady urged me to try harder to recall the incident, so I politely explained that I don't drive because I'm blind (well, partially sighted, but let's keep things simple). I assume these companies call people indiscriminately, and are therefore being dishonest about knowing you've been hit, but it's possible that their individual call centre operators (likely short-term hires) weren't told that the numbers are random and therefore don't know that the "we understand" message is a lie.
5 hours' notice and a smoke-filled flatIn late April 2016, we had just been told yet again that the move will not likely happen for another week or two due to contractor delays, but then the next morning they called back to say this had changed, and asked us to pick up the key in 5 hours. Mercifully they allowed us to keep the smaller flat for a week as well, but it proved challenging to arrange everything within that week without previous notice.
This was in the 14th month of our marriage, but in case anyone gets 'confirmation bias' about that number, perhaps I should add that we didn't move to flat number 14 and we weren't given 14 days to do it, and we didn't die.
However, the larger flat was previously occupied by a smoker, and the danger to our lives from her smoke residue is much more real than the numerology. Unlike the regional association who owned the block when I first moved in, the new national owners made flooring and decoration the tenant's responsibility even from the start, and that means tenants transferring into a smokey flat must clean it up themselves. We therefore faced many hours of stripping and scrubbing with sugar-soap, and due to lack of skills had to book professionals to help us reinstall all floors, walls and ceilings, at total cost approaching that of 9 months' rent (and we stayed elsewhere for some of the nights because the new paint was affecting us even though its datasheet said the VOC content was under 8g/L; even after 15 months the emissions were still noticeable after a 12-day absence, and my wife was still feeling affected even after 3 years; I don't know if the datasheet was measured to European or US standards---some US standards don't count slow-evaporating glycols as VOCs---and moreover I had no data at all on the magnolia pigment which was mixed by the Dulux shop in Milton).
We provided the measurements ourselves, hoping they'd then be able to install flooring before we had to move in the furniture (which would not be the case if they had to make an additional visit for measuring), but this turned out to be a mistake because, although we had taken care to make reasonably accurate area measurements, we hadn't thought to check for flooring thickness constraints posed by internal doors and storage heaters, and the fitters didn't come prepared to readjust or work around these.
What you can do now: If you don't have time to wait for a separate inspection visit, be aware that as well as measuring the area you also need to make the fitters aware of any internal doors and heaters, as these might become obstacles to the job.
When I prepared a neat SVG diagram of the place (here's the program I made to draw it), this might have caused them to overestimate my surveying competence---they might have asked more questions if I'd walked in with a messy ballpoint sketch on a scrap of paper!
Because we were using laminate for some of the flat, we were also concerned about uneven subfloors. Some vinyl tiles were missing; we were told thick underlay would level it automatically, but some boards proved to be "bouncy" and they said it cannot now be fixed. The "bouncy" boards have so far not broken (although we try to avoid stepping on them); whether laminate breaks in these circumstances depends on its quality. (A convex corner of beading was rather easily damaged by an office chair.)
We tried to rent an industrial ozone generator to reduce the volatility of any remaining tobacco deposits in the fittings, but someone at the tool hire company apparently clicked the wrong option on their delivery management software, resulting in the generator being sent to a depot in Cardiff instead of Cambridge, and we had to cancel because it wasn't going to arrive soon enough to use while the flat was still empty (I don't know enough chemistry to risk adding high doses of ozone to an occupied flat with new paint and fabrics). Thankfully the heaters did not seem too bad when we switched them on in the winter.
What you can do now: If you know you are waiting for a property that might be smokey and wish to use an ozone generator, make sure you know how to contact the tool-hire company immediately in the event of sudden progress, since it might take them longer than expected to send their unit to the correct branch. When accepting the key, and before the forms are signed and the officer has to move on, ask if you can have two or more weeks to transfer on the grounds that decontamination might be delayed if tool hire takes longer than expected. (Note: this page is not medical advice. Only use an ozone generator if you know what you are doing.)
Changing our address with the visa authoritiesThe Home Office website said that BRP holders should notify changes of addresses on the MCC form, but that form's Question 5 asked which Tier of the PBS the migrant is in, and said nothing about the FLR(M), route although FLR(M) also issued a BRP. Once again we have a lack of clarity; we are sending off an MCC with an explanation scrawled on it, and hoping for the best.
What you can do now: I've no idea, but it seemed that our MCC form with the scribbled explanatory note on Question 5 was sufficient for the 2018 renewal.
As we had to change our address in the middle of my wife's 'probationary' period, I assumed we'd need plenty of documents from both addresses. Problems we encountered:
- In 2016 Cambridge Water merged their billing system with South Staffordshire Water, and this resulted in a new rule that only one name was allowed to appear on a household's water bills. Our existing account with two names was carried over, but was truncated to 30 characters, losing half of my wife's surname (which she had not changed at marriage), and their call centre operator was not authorized to work around this limitation by deleting whitespace or titles; the only change he was allowed to make was to delete her, so we stuck with the truncated surname. (When it came to the 2018 renewal, we found we didn't need those truncated-surname bills to make up the numbers, but this might not be the case in 2020.)
- When we moved in, our new flat had a pre-pay electricity meter. Although Ebico (a social-enterprise supplier I'd used for about 10 years) was at that time able to offer the same rate regardless of payment type, we still needed a credit meter to receive biannual paper bills. At that time Ebico was using SSE as their upstream supplier, and the call-centre operator at SSE said I'd received a "medium" risk assessment from the credit-rating agency Experian (perhaps due to the ongoing change of address? who knows how Experian's software works...) but he was still able to set up a Direct Debit and the meter was replaced within 2½ weeks of our move.
- But then when Ebico changed their supplier from SSE to Robin Hood Energy, the new billing system's idea of "adding my wife to the bill" was to send us an extra copy of all correspondence, but still with only my own name printed on it. The call centre then suggested I explain the issue in an email and attach a scan of our marriage certificate, which I did and they were able to add the second name and resend the bill within a week or so (again in 2 copies, which is unnecessary extra consumption of resources, but once they started printing my wife's name on the page I didn't dare ask for any more changes lest that gets reverted in the process).
- In October 2018, Ebico wrote to tell us that, due to the government's new SVT Price Caps, the next price increase must be implemented as a Standing Charge instead of a unit-rate hike unless we move to a new "green" tariff that's exempt from the caps---and they sent three letters: one to both of us (with Mr and Mrs titles), one to my wife only (with no title), and one to "Mr Chen"---I'm not sure what that says about how their database works.
(I hadn't previously bothered with "green" tariffs as I'd heard suppliers just reallocate their existing 'mix' instead of actually adding renewable generation, or if they do add generation then this can be "done wrong" if it's irresponsibly manufactured or sited. So I just went for a supplier that seemed socially responsible, although I did speak positively of homeowners installing rooftop PV if it's using up spare silicon cast off by the microchip industry---not so sure about the more expensive monocrystalline or non-silicon panels or storage batteries, which have higher production emissions, but the basic grid-connected silicon seemed OK. Ebico's introduction of a "green" tariff as a 'loophole' to continue viability of their "no standing charge" approach seemed like something we should support, and thankfully our opting for it did not further muddle their database: we still received bills in both names. But a year later they seemed to 'drop the ball' with fair tariffs, so we switched to Bulb---we'd already collected enough bills for the 2020 application by then, so we didn't worry about having a bill in both names after that switch. Switching-out also generates a final bill, but we avoided using that document, just in case the large "final bill" heading confuses a case-worker into thinking the address is outdated.)
- In October 2018, Ebico wrote to tell us that, due to the government's new SVT Price Caps, the next price increase must be implemented as a Standing Charge instead of a unit-rate hike unless we move to a new "green" tariff that's exempt from the caps---and they sent three letters: one to both of us (with Mr and Mrs titles), one to my wife only (with no title), and one to "Mr Chen"---I'm not sure what that says about how their database works.
We also needed to renew my wife's Hong Kong passport, which required two trips to London (6 weeks apart) to visit the Chinese Embassy at the intersection of Portland Place and Weymouth Street (were they missing Dorset when they named those streets?), to hand in a form to the Consular Section and to pick up the new passport. Thankfully this was in good time for the 2018 visa renewal---but not everything else was.
Last-minute complications with the 2018 renewalThe FLR(M) form was changed a few times in 2016 and again in 2017, now saying you are "encouraged" (presumably for good reason) to submit 28 days before the BRP expiry. We hadn't realised this, so when we started to look at it in January 2018 thinking we had 6 weeks to go, we suddenly found we had only 2 weeks---and at least one of our documents would take more than another 2 weeks to procure (see below). We had to hope the "28 days before" 'encouragement' was not very strict.
The latest form asked for the exact date our fingerprints had been taken in Glasgow, but we recalled only the month and year, not the day. Thankfully I was able to infer it from a timestamp in my archived 'sent email' folder, but only because I'd told someone about the train---our application should not have hinged on forensic analysis of old 'chit-chat'.
What you can do now: Be sure to keep a permanent record of the date of any appointment you attend.
A more worrying change was, my wife's English-language degree from Hong Kong would no longer satisfy the English language requirement unless we paid UK NARIC (run by ECCTIS Ltd) to vouch that English was the medium of instruction---and NARIC required a letter from the university saying the same, which Hong Kong said would take 10 working days (2 weeks) and then an additional 3 days due to "insufficient manpower" before it was finally ready for collection by my wife's family who had to scan it at a bureau. To their credit, NARIC's higher-priced "fast track" service was able to get us their document delivered on a Saturday morning when we had uploaded the scan on the Friday (which is faster than they said they'd be, as delivery time was not supposed to be included in the fast-track turnaround time). But it was still too late for us to make the "28 days before expiry" date---the best we could do was 23 days.
- In 2015 it had been possible to simply present the degree certificate, since the university had been on a list of acceptable institutions that didn't need extra accreditation, but this list seemed to have disappeared by 2018 and we had to do the extra NARIC step. The alternative would have been to arrange an IELTS or SELT/ISE test, but by the time we realised this might be needed, it was already too late to book one. Even if we could have booked one, due to the time constraints we'd have had to make sure my wife obtains a sufficient score on her first try---and we didn't want to lose our marriage to stress-related poor performance on the day, or even, if some reports are to be believed, commercially-motivated grade-doctoring to have us pay for as many re-tests as they think we can afford. So we were really hoping her degree would be sufficient, as it had been in 2015. The extra step of obtaining a university letter to send to NARIC took us by surprise.
A separate complication was that of obtaining an up-to-date ISA statement from HSBC UK---I'd moved ISA money to them in October 2015 in order to qualify for their "Premier" account so my wife could have immediate access to her Hong Kong money (which she was hoping to move to the UK at short notice when the exchange rate turned in her favour, but for the whole 2½ years the exchange rate had been so volatile she was never sure when to do it and we just carried on with Premier even though I felt embarrassed holding a membership that's supposedly designed for the super-rich---well I tried their complimentary hot chocolate machine and it seemed a bit 'synthetic' but it does warm you up on a cold day). Anyway, when I had opened that ISA, I'd been assured that, although the account issues statements annually in April, it is also possible to order additional statements as necessary. But in January 2018 branch staff said this had been complicated by the arrival of a new computer system, and the best they could give me was what they called a "visa letter" which listed the transactions like a statement but wasn't a 'real' statement. So we had to hope that this would be sufficient.
We also answered "no" to the question "have you ever been deported", despite having a cancelled UK entry clearance in the passport for February 2015. We had trouble finding definitive legal information on whether being put on the next flight back to Hong Kong---which I'd call "being deported"---actually counts as 'deported' from a legal standpoint, since the international area of the airport might not legally count as "being in the UK"---meaning that, from a 'legal' point of view, my wife was not "removed" from the UK in February 2015 because she didn't "enter" it (she came only as far as the international parts of the airport, which, although being a UK building on UK land, might not entirely count as being "in" the UK for these purposes). We weren't sure if we'd answered correctly, and I felt the same apprehension as I do when filling in one of those volunteer forms that asks if I've ever been diagnosed with psychological abnormalities (I assume they don't want to count the temporary misdiagnosis I had as a child that was later revised to CVI, but I still feel like a liar ticking the "no" box because the question didn't explicitly say correct diagnosis). In this case we said "no" to being deported, and signed to say we are aware it is an offence under the Immigration Act to make a statement we know to be false or do not believe to be true (we interpreted this as "have less than a 'balance of probabilities' belief in its truth" rather than "have anything less than 100% certain belief in its truth", but it would have been nicer to word it as "correct to the best of our knowledge and reasonable efforts"), and submitted the passport with the crossed-out clearance being plain to see---and in the rush to submit we forgot to add an explanatory note just in case. But they didn't query it.
We submitted on 29th January (just before the news that the IHS is to be doubled at some point) and we received a letter asking us to enrol my wife's biometric information at a Post Office. But we'd somehow missed ticking the box to say we had no children, so about a week later they sent us a letter saying we had not submitted a valid application because the children section had not been completed. We completed this by return of post and were told our application had been successful by means of a signed-for delivery on 16th March (dated 14th March, our third anniversary), with the new BRP card arriving a few hours later by special delivery; its expiry date was set to 6th October 2020.
2020 SET(M) applicationIn September 2019 my wife passed the "Life in the UK" test in Peterborough---we'd made sure to buy the latest edition of the official textbook and worked in English (CEDP had a translation but it was out-of-date and had too many problems; they removed it in December 2019).
In March 2020 we became eligible to complete the SET(M) application, which has now become an online-only form. Although it did not seem possible to look ahead in the questions the first time we were filling it in, it was possible to review and edit all of our previous answers before submitting. We did not have browser issues with the main form (and the expected payment of thousands), but the separate service for booking a biometric appointment---now outsourced to a commercial company called Sopra Steria---insisted on a newer browser so we had to log in again from a different device (and there were multiple CAPTCHAs to solve which even my fully-sighted wife found difficult).
The biometric appointment could be in Croydon or Birmingham at no extra charge, or for 3% extra we could have it done at Cambridge Central Library with a document checking and scanning service included, so we opted for the latter, but then the library closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak; the commercial "Sopra UKVCAS" service being used by the Home Office sent us an email telling us to log in to our account on their website to find out our new time (their software couldn't just put this in the email, and their CAPTCHA service was experiencing technical issues, but we managed to find out eventually), then they emailed us saying it had been postponed indefinitely, and then they decided to re-open some centres in June and give us an early opportunity to book a slot in one of those, but none of that batch of centres were particularly near Cambridge, then on 6th June they sent us a slightly stronger reminder and then pulled their AWS instance offline, which wasn't very helpful, and then on 12th June they sent another reminder, this time with a link to a survey to fill in to say why we hadn't re-booked---it was multiple choice, and the only options relevant to us were "The location you wanted is not open" and "You did not want to travel due to COVID-19"; there wasn't an option for "You wanted the 'Enhanced' service because you wanted us to check your documents, as you didn't fully trust yourself to get it right, but we said we won't be doing the checking at this time."
On 7th July, Sopra Steria's computer refunded the "enhanced" service fee they'd taken on 18th March, and then a better survey was sent out on 3rd August---this time we could select the availability of the document-checking service as our "key reason" (with travel as a secondary one). On 7th August we were able to confirm by telephone (after waiting on hold for about an hour and 40 minutes) that the document checking and scanning services had in fact been reinstated at all "Enhanced Service Point" locations, although we need to wait until 31st August if we want to book Cambridge. Incidentally their phone line's 'music on hold' was appropriately 'gloomy' for visa processing---it went like this: (at least that's what I remembered after a few dozen repetitions).
The date of 31st August turned out to be incorrect: the system still wasn't listing Cambridge on 1st September, but later it said Cambridge will be available for booking on 14th September---but when we logged in shortly after 9AM on the 14th, it said "no available appointments" for all days from 14th September to 17th October (which is as far as it went). 18th October and 19th October were added over the following two days, but said "no available appointments" as soon as we were able to log in. We didn't know if that's because it filled up very quickly or because there was something wrong with Sopra's database system. But on 15th September they sent us an email saying they'd been asked by UKVI to send an "urgent final reminder" to book an appointment, and added that we must not rely on getting it at any one particular service point but should also check others in the region---so we managed to book one at Peterborough for 1st October.
As usual, we needed to have a pile of documents ready. The most notable complication this time was in how the finance questions were asked---in our previous applications, we could choose whether we wanted to meet the requirements based on salary, savings, or disability payments (this last option leaving it up to the case worker to judge your ability to look after the immigrant), but this time we were merely asked "does your sponsor have disability payments" and "is your sponsor employed" where saying "no" would be fraud (there's no option for "yes but that's not what we want to use" on the electronic form), so we were not asked about savings, but had to provide payslips and a letter from my employer---and they don't mean my "zero-hours contract" teaching assistance at the university (whose admin staff would gladly provide a letter but it wouldn't show enough earnings); they mean the more regular income from the part-time job I started with a local company in 2016, which surprisingly enough I still held in 2020 but that employer was taken over by a multinational whose policy with employment-verification letters is to write your gross salary but not your net salary, whereas the Home Office required both to be in the letter---so I had to hope the Home Office would accept an attached eP60 printout instead (although that's not what the guidance said) because there's no way a multinational would change the format of their letters just for me.
Moreover, that company also had a policy of not providing any paper payslips, only "electronic" ones which are obviously "printed out" and we didn't know if these would be be acceptable. If the system had allowed us to select "savings" instead then we wouldn't have had this problem.
What you can do now: Be aware that if you are employed you might now have to use your employment instead of savings, even if your employer does not provide paperwork in the correct format. I suppose some people might be tempted to quit their jobs just so they can use savings on the form rather than risk a rejection due to unacceptably-formatted employer's paperwork; I don't know if that's what the rule-writers intended.
An additional complication was the question of whether payslips and bank statements for "six months prior to the date of the application" meant six months prior to the original date in March, or the current date in October---so we prepared both, and we planned to ask the staff running the checking-and-scanning service to advise which ones should be scanned.
But on the day, it turned out that the "checking" performed by the checking and scanning service was simply a check that scans are legible, operated by local library staff who had been given no information about how to actually "check" our application in the sense of making sure documents are correct. If we had known this before, we wouldn't have put so high a value on choosing that service. We could have scanned and uploaded many of the documents ourselves (saving 1 hour of library staff time and associated increased risk of COVID-19 transmission), but we had turned down the self-scan option because we thought it meant missing out on a service that checks documents are correct, like the Post Office's "check and send" service for passport applications.
What you can do now: Be aware that "scanning and checking" is simply a scanning service. If you choose to scan documents yourself, you are not foregoing any additional check of their correctness---library staff have not been informed how to do that. If you have additional documents because you're not sure which ones are needed, the best they can do is to scan all of them which takes longer.
We are now waiting for the result of our application, and will update this page when we get it.
All material © Silas S. Brown unless otherwise stated.
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