Wednesday 11 June 2014

Are you an expat who needs a new UK passport next year? Apply now...

Inspired by today's story in The Times and on the BBC of claims by the UK Passport Office that there is 'no backlog in processing applications', here's a little tale of what has been occupying me for the last 3 months; applying for and waiting for a new passport.

Passports are important if you're an expat.  Not only do you - obviously - need one if you are travelling, but here in Russia you need one to carry out practically any transaction where you are using a card to pay, whenever you are driving a car, if you want to use the bureau de change, whenever you visit an office building or an embassy, if you are required to show id by a police or security officer, if you want an official service of any kind, and so on.  Basically, you have to carry it with you 24/7.  Of course you can take a photocopy with you and show that instead, but often that won't cut it and you'll be refused entry or whatever service you're requesting.

So yes, having a working passport is important here, and I needed a new one for this year's residency visa.  It should have been a piece of cake.  But - oh foolish me - I decided to apply for my new passport remotely, via the British Consulate here in Moscow.  We'd done it twice before, when the Boys' passports needed renewing, and in each case it took 3 weeks - definitely manageable.  Or so I thought.  What I didn't know was that applications from outside the UK, instead of being handled in a centre in Frankfurt Germany, which is where they had previously been processed (and which was where my sons' new passports were produced in the past), are now all being sent to a centre in the UK.  To save costs.

I'm guessing you can see where this is going.

Week 1.  I take my application into the Moscow British Consulate.  They accept the application and tell me it will leave in the diplomatic bag and go straight to the processing centre in the UK.  It could take up to 6 weeks for my new passport to reach me, they inform me, but I've allowed for that - and more - and since I'm allowed to keep my old passport (without the corners being clipped), I'm not too bothered.  They also inform me that at any point over the next couple of weeks, my passport will be electronically cancelled, so I shouldn't travel until my new documents arrive.  Also not a problem - I was expecting this and have allowed for that too.

I subsequently discover that the passport leaves the Consulate and arrives at the UK Passport Office in Liverpool only 3 days later, where it goes straight to the Examiner, which is where all the facts are checked and the application is processed.  And this is where the fun begins.

I sit tight for the next 3 weeks to give the process time, until...

Week 4.  I know it's early, but since my sons' applications were returned to me within that time frame (the most recent one being only 18 months ago) I decide to call the UK Passport Office to check on my applications' progress.  They inform me resignedly that I should leave it another week as the application hasn't yet hit the electronic registering system.

Week 5.  I call back.  The application has been registered, which is when I discover that the British Consulate has done me proud in speedily submitting my application.  I also discover that the Passport Office has not done, well, anything really.  Nothing has happened to my application since they received it (it was probably in that boardroom The Times was talking about, at the bottom of an archive box).  They suggest I call back next week when there should be more news.

Week 6.  I call back.  No progress.

Week 7.  I call again.  No progress.  The advice centre puts me through to a second department - the Progress Section - where I am told that no, there has been no progress with my application.  But they will check with the Examiners's office, and someone will call me back within 72 hours.

Week 8.  No call, and no progress - see Week 7, rinse and repeat, with the added fun of a conversation where I am told that the Passport Office is still within their required guidelines because the website warns an application can take at least 6 weeks to process.  I point out that since there is no end-date stated on the website, they could take 2 years and still be within their guidelines.  I can hear the metaphorical shrug on the end of the phone because, well, what am I going to do about it?

(On each occasion I followed the prompts on the automated ansaphone system and was put on hold for at least 20 minutes.  Bear in mind, I was calling a UK number from Moscow, Russia.  And no, you can't track international applications electronically - you have to use the call centre.  Thank god for Skype).

Week 9.  No progress.  Our visa runs out in 4 weeks time, so I decide to cancel my application and book an appointment at the office in London to do it in person.  The person on the advice line tells me that if I do, I will lose the £160 I have already paid, and will not get it back.  I mentally add that amount to the cost of the telephone calls (at this stage, about £60), the cost of the return flight, and the £135 I will have to pay to get the same day service at the Victoria Passport Office, but decide that in light of our looming visa deadline, I will have to suck it up.

I make an appointment in the UK.  The first one available is in 2 weeks time, so I go with that and start looking at flights, before calling to cancel my application.

I am then informed that I cannot cancel my application over the phone.  I have to put it in writing, and no, an email or a fax won't do; it has to be a written letter - giving reasons for the cancellation - through the post.  I point out that since I'm in Russia with a famously bad postal system, it could take a letter 2 weeks to reach them, but they won't budge.  So I write them the letter, print it out, sign it, scan it in, and email it to my parents in the UK who print it out again and send it next day delivery to the Passport Office on my behalf.

Week 10.  I chase via the two teams - advice line and Progress Section - in the UK. I am told someone will call me back within 72 hours - at which point I mention that I've been told that twice before and never heard anything.  24 hours later I get an email with a scanned in copy of a signed letter informing me that my letter has been received but that if I want, my application can be processed the next day. (Do I want?  Um, yes...)  However, to do this, I should give them a UK address if I want it sent out quickly.  I write back saying well then, in that case please don't cancel the application (again via a printed out, signed and then scanned-in letter emailed to my parents, who print it out again, and send it via next day delivery), and ask them to send the new passport to my parent's address in the UK.

Week 11.  I receive another letter via email telling me that now I need to send them an explanation of why the address I have requested the passport be sent to (my parents') is different to the one on my original application.  At this point I refrain from writing back in printed capitals BECAUSE I APPLIED IN MOSCOW AND YOU JUST ASKED ME FOR A UK ADDRESS, STUPID!' and write much the same thing but without the capital letters, the 'STUPID', or the exclamation mark.  Thankfully, I am informed that at this stage they will accept an email from me so I don't have to go through the printing out, signing, scanning etc nonsense yet again.

And then I hear nothing.  After 2 days I call the number on the letter and after holding for 1 hour (from Russia - watch those costs build up...), I finally get through to the right person.  He has received my letter and will print the passport the next day but how do I want to receive it; to my parents, or to the British Consulate in the diplomatic bag?  Bearing in mind that if it goes to my parents I can't actually travel to collect it (due to that annoying little fact they have cancelled the passport I do have, so won't be allowed back into the UK), and that if they send it to me via DHL or similar it might be with me in 5 days, but it might also take 3 weeks (as a delivery sent to us did recently), I decide it's probably best to go with the diplomatic bag option.  This is on Wednesday.  The bag arrives once a week at the Moscow consulate, on a Tuesday, so I figure that should allow the passport enough time to be sent within the UK and still arrive in Russia for Tuesday Week 12.

Tuesday Week 12.  There is no passport for me in this week's diplomatic bag.  The very helpful lady at the consulate - who knows our timings - is practically in tears when she calls to tell me.  I, on the other hand, have run out of tears by this stage.  We make an appointment for first thing Wednesday the following week for me to collect it, and I resign myself to a last minute panic.  Our visas run out Friday of the following week, which bearing in mind there is a 2 day bank holiday on the Thursday and Friday, gives us one day to process our new visas.

Tuesday Week 13.  My passport has arrived - yippee.  I rush in to collect it, and we tear over to the correct agency to get the visas processed on the last day possible.  Except, we find out the next day that it isn't - possible.  There is not enough time.  Consequently, we now need to leave the country at our own expense, fly back to the UK to get tourist visas and - oh, I'm just sick of the whole bloody thing.

And you know what?  I know of at least 5 other expat families in my circle of acquaintances alone who are going through similar problems - not just in Russia, but elsewhere too.

Excuse me then if I say that any suggestion the UK Passport Office is not experiencing a backlog in applications is a load of shit.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

In the presence of greatness...

My sister (the former blogger known as Footballer's Knees who now confines her brilliance to outpourings on fb) is - undoubtedly, indisputably and without question - a genius.  Don't believe me?  Read this...

I’m having a bad day.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Your Facebook updates and posts now postpone,
Bring out the tweezers and the bleach with care,
For on my chin I found an enormous white hair.
Let the bikini orders and spray tans be cancelled,
The foot spa and pedicure kit dismantled,
Book that long appointment with the beauty specialist,
And the extra time with the behavioural therapist
For my bikini line is bound North, my youth gone West,
My cleavage moved South with my sagging breast,
My skin, my hair have had their final swan song,
I thought that youth would last forever: I was wrong.
The efforts are not needed now: give up on each one;
Pack up the diet books and unlock Big Al’s gun,
Pour away the miso soup and bring out the gin,
For nothing now can bring back my smooth and hairless chin.

P.S. I may have borrowed a little from WH Auden.

Note:  those unfamiliar with WH Auden but who have seen 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' may know the poem from that movie.  And whilst I've included a link to the right scene, I don't recommend you click on it unless you fancy inducing a maudlin mood...)