Sep 28th, 2018, 11:44 AM

The New Company That's Handling Your Visa

By Leila Roker
Image Credit: Unsplash/Dominik Vanyi
Your visa application process just got privatized.

The visa process is never easy, but the new regulations implemented by the change in management has only made it more difficult. It's not unheard of for students to pick up their visa on the way to the airport, but this year, more than ever, students haven't been able to make it to school on time. This is arguably thanks to the new, private middleman company in Schengen Visa distribution across the US. With system failures, delayed visas and closed consulates, Peacock Plume decided to further investigate this corporation and how it's affected students this year, and what will happen in the years to come.

The new organization that is changing the visa procedure is called Visa Facilitation Services, or VFS, for short. But who are they? VFS is an Indian based company created in 2001 that outsources the visa application and delivery process. Or, as explained on their LinkedIn, "The company manages administrative and non-judgemental tasks related to visa, passport, identity management, and other citizen services for its client governments, enabling them to focus entirely on the critical task of assessment."

VFS now operates in 139 countries. According to the US-French Consulate Press Release announcing their partnership with VFS, the private company has closed all visa departments in the US, except their head consulate in Washington D.C. As a company that ends their emails with "VFS Global Group does not guarantee the security of any information transmitted electronically and is not liable for the proper, timely and complete transmission thereof," how much can we really trust this company?

Image Credit: Unsplash/Brandon Holmes

Kathleen Sharp, a 19-year-old sophomore at the American University of Paris, found the VFS services to be satisfactory in-person but found difficulty in dealing with their digital services. Kathleen explained there was a delay in her visa application as a result of a "system failure", and went on to say, "If I hadn't followed up directly with the consulate, I still might not have my visa now!" This digital information malfunction was not limited to Kathleen, as some students' tracking numbers didn't work at all, which doesn't compare to the issues VFS has faced before.

A security error in VFS Global's online procedure in 2015 resulted in 50 compromised visa applications visible to the public in Italy, as reported by The Guardian. However, despite the site's glitch, VFS' argument was that each country partnership adheres to its own rules, so further investigation for other governments in unnecessary.

Many countries, including America, have decided to continue on in their partnerships with the private corporation. This past summer was the debut of the US' reinvented visa system in collaboration with the private company. Clara Daniels, a senior at the American University of Paris, had a similarly satisfactory in-office experience with VFS but credited her success to her previous experience with the visa process over the past four years. Her difficulty was also rooted in the company's digital issues, "I had originally scheduled my visa appointment for July 15, but there was something I couldn't access because my appointment was right in the middle of the switchover bracket between the consulate and VFS. It took me a solid week to make another appointment with VFS, but because I've done the process before, it worked for me. But, I think I was a lucky one."

Image Credit: Unsplash/Rawpixel

There are several theories on why a change of hands in management could be happening, but Beatrice Esparbes-Blanc from AUP's Immigration Office said, "It's a decision of the French government, specifically in the Affairs Étranger." Her colleague, Ondina Neves pointed out another theory, that it could be "to reduce the number of civil servants." Ms. Esparbes-Blanc went on to share some of the consequences of the new system, "It took a lot of time for the students to be issued their passports because of this total reorganization." Beatrice Esparbes-Blanc continued to discuss the issue, explaining her office is in constant contact with VFS, Campus France and the French Consulate, but boiled it down to the fact that, "It's between the student, Campus France, VFS and the French Consulate."

This organization shift begs the question, "what can students do?" Ms. Esparbes-Blanc said, "Read emails!" Part of the issue, she remarked, was that students don't read general emails the Immigration Office sends on procedural updates. But many AUP students are so inundated with back-to-school emails that they can hardly sift through them to find urgent content.

However, this integral change in the system does not mean that students are doomed for future appointments, it just means that there needs to be a significant increase in the allotment of time to cushion any possible system hiccups, and that students need to properly research the necessary documents for their appointment according to the region. Another key element, the Immigration Office stressed is being present for convocation appointments, which works to everyone's benefit. The American University of Paris has had to negotiate on repeated occasions with disgruntled prefecture agents. Ms. Esparbes-blanc said, "We have to get back to the convocation with answers like, 'she's not here because she's traveling. Now she's here, now she's there," and they're like 'are you a school, or a travel agency?'"

Image Credit: Unsplash/Anete Lusiana

While this brief blip in the system was just - hopefully - an occurrence during the Summer, Ms. Esparbes-Blanc further added that procedural shake-ups such as this happen every few years. "The French authorities are going through a very hard time. I think it's connected to politics," Ms. Esparbes-Blanc said. "I've been working here for 18 years now, so I've seen that the visa office is greatly connected to politics and government ethics. I would say the problem really started five to seven years ago."

But all is not lost. Clara Daniels added some encouraging words about the process, "I think younger me was much more meek when I went into the situation, but now I know you almost have to go in there with a little more confidence. Whether you can speak French or not, you need to go in with the mentality: I'm coming out with the answer I need." For any returning students or interested freshman, the best advice is: do your due diligence, be in touch with your Immigration Office, start figuring out what is expected of you and be confident. The visa system is filled with curves, and this is just another one that will soon be part of the norm.