Visas: service and security

With visa demand spiralling, how do missions strike a balance between customer-friendly service and tightened security? Here are some ideas from Embassy magazine’s Visa Services Management seminar

Subject: Outsourcing
By Eric Jacquemin

Faced with long visa queues and long appointment waiting lists, Eric Jacquemin, head of consular services at the Belgian Embassy, decided to pioneer outsourcing some of his visa services to a commercial partner

Since he opened up a dedicated Visa Application Centre (VAC) in April last year the results have been remarkable. Applicants use a walk-in centre without prior appointment and 90% receive their visas within 48 hours, provided all requested documents are complete. In the first year of operation, the numbers of visas processed were up by over 50%, from 8,000 in 2006 to around 14,000 in 2007.

Applicants pay a fee of £22 on top of the visa fee set by all the Schengen nations. Evidence suggests they are prepared to pay the fee for the convenience, especially since telephone booking systems cost up to £15.

The outsourcing has been limited to file collection and data-input. Verification and decision taking remains with the Embassy. As a consequence, the system has freed up the visa section from a huge administrative burden, allowing them to scrutinise those cases that do pose a potential risk to the country.

Jacquemin admits to some teething problems, the main one being ‘visa shopping’ where applicants who pretend to be travelling to Belgium in order to get a visa quickly, but then use it to enter another Schengen country. To deter visa shoppers, officials ensure that Belgium is the main destination and only single-entry visas are issued.

Fraud is another concern, but having reviewed the anti-fraud systems of his commercial partner, Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) he is satisfied that every precaution is taken to prevent visa fraud or data theft.

Outsourcing has dramatically improved working conditions: fears that there would be job cuts have proved unfounded. In fact, the increase in visa applications has created a few jobs. Belgian visa officers now listen to music while they work and other officials in the embassy are applying for transfers!

Want to know more? Contact Eric Jacquemin

Subject: Security
by Marie Damour

For Marie Damour, chief of the Visa Section at the US Embassy, visas are the first line of defence. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 prompted a review of procedures to tighten the visa process.

New laws were introduced requiring every visa applicant to appear for an interview, the idea being that a short interview reveals more about a person than the documentary evidence alone. Dealing with huge numbers of visa applicants, US consuls are trained to assess quickly the clear-cut cases, in order to prioritise time on potentially problematic cases.

The security of the document is also important which is why a system of biometric visas was introduced, based on facial recognition and fingerprints, as a way of guarding against visa fraud.

This information is stored on biographic databases to identify quickly eligible or ineligible applicants.

Damour’s unit processes over 130,000 non-immigrant applications a year, as well as close on 11,700 immigrant visas annually. Despite the visa waiver programme, around 60% of all visa applicants are British. Even for a visa section with the physical space and generous staffing of the US Visa Section in London, this represents an enormous task.

For this reason, the London visa section outsources low-risk functions in the application process such as the appointment system, which is outsourced to a premium rate operator-assisted call centre. But the level of outsourcing of non-core functions varies from mission to mission. In countries where there is a high incidence of bribery or fraud and visa appointments are a valuable commodity, these administrative tasks will be kept in-house.

The US Embassy is continually looking for ways to expedite the visa application process through technology. Online visa applications and the use of barcodes are two recent innovations. Applicants fill in their forms online which are then barcoded, making the applicant’s details readily available when scanned by the consul.

The key to visa services is striking a balance between service and security – and where that balance lies depends on a country’s perception of risk and comfort levels.

Want to know more? Contact Marie Damour

Subject: Biometrics & beyond
by Mandy Ivemy

Last year UKVisas processed 2.75m visa applications, with that number set to increase by half a million in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.

Clearly a system is needed that encourages bona fide travel to keep the UK competitive for global business, tourism and education, while at the same time combating sophisticated abuse of the immigration system.

In 2002 UKVisas began experimenting with outsourcing. The results were so impressive, that by February 2007, UKVisas had moved to global contracts and today there are 106

Visa Application Centres in 49 countries in cities where customer demand is highest. The facilities are good, the hours are flexibile and local staff understand cultural norms. Local facilities are cheaper too, delivering better value for the British taxpayers.

Only entry clearance officers can make decisions on applications, but the reduced administrative burden gives officers time to focus on anti-fraud measures and background checks.

Extending outsourcing to include the gathering of biometric data enabled UKVisas to roll out a global biometric visa programme three months early and millions of pounds under budget.

Under the new system, biometric data is collected at the VAC, transmitted to the UK, matched against existing data records and results returned to visa officers overseas in less than 30 minutes. Nearly 500 cases of identity swapping have been spotted already and to date, over 1.1m sets of prints have been collected.

Moving beyond biometrics, UKvisas will be matching data against wider databases including the police, as well as data sharing with other governments. Biometrics will also allow for automated transit for trusted travellers and the introduction of paperless ‘e-visa’ systems.

This April will see the creation of the UK Border Agency, bringing Border Control, Customs and UKvisas into one organisation to create an integrated system of e-borders.

Want to know more? Contact Mandy Ivemy

Subject: Trusted partner
By Ajit Alexander

Successful outsourcing depends on a trusted commercial partner. Ajit Alexander of Visa Facilitation Services (VFS Global) sees their operations, not as an external agency, but rather as an extension of embassy operations.

The company is one of two global visa service providers and currently operates in 39 countries, across four continents, serving 19 foreign ministries and handling six million visas annually in 270 Visa Application Centres.

VFS offers a complete outsourcing package for consulates, including running visa application centres with security specifications; as stringent as diplomatic missions; disseminating information about procedures to visa applicants; pre-scrutiny and acceptance of visa applications; database creation; collection and banking of fees; submission of applications, scheduling of visa appointments; return of documents; gathering of biometric data; and IT services, such as online visa applications. They can also undertake special citizen services such as passport services for nationals.

When it comes to outsourcing visa services, the security of the process is paramount for the client, from secure document storage and reliable courier services to data protection and anti-fraud measures. Applications are trackable through barcode technology and all data is encrypted and transferred through a secure network. The VFS data centre is now compliant with the highest industry standards.

Furthermore, they have invested US$2.5m on IT security and data protection systems and external audits are done regularly to ensure the integrity of all systems.

The company also employs strict quality control measures through customer surveys, mystery visitors and CCTV monitoring.

As VFS expands its business, so it is investing in systems to make the visa application process as seamless and secure as possible. Innovations include dedicated websites for online visa applications, sophisticated tracking systems using text messages, and automated drop boxes and courier services.

For smaller missions, VFS also offers the option of co-location, where a few missions share a VAC, each with their own dedicated desks.

Want to know more? Contact Ajit Alexander