European nationals applying for UK residence documentation may benefit from a new ‘online’ application and passport return service launched by the Home Office this week.
Those that wish to keep their passport during the decision-making process, can then hand in their application forms and supporting paperwork to a participating local authority as part of the new Passport Return Service.
Applicants must book and attend the local authority appointment within five days of completing the form. The local authority will then prepare a full copy of the passport and send off the application to the Home Office, returning the original passport to the applicant.
This all sounds great in theory. Is the Home Office actually trying to make things easier for a change? Well, perhaps so, but there are a number of points to bear in mind if considering the service.
Truly Digital? When is an online application not an online application?
Firstly, although the Home Office describes the application process as an ‘online’ one, applicants do in fact still need to print out and physically submit the application once complete, either by post or through a participating local authority.
That said, the online version of the form does ‘streamline’ the questions, so applicants should in theory only have to deal with sections that are relevant to their circumstances – which might well be a relief to anyone who has recently looked at the novella-sized EEA (PR) form, with its 85 pages intended to cover every possible set of circumstances.
However, as any immigration solicitor can tell you, it is rare to find a client whose circumstances fit exactly into the ‘box’, and on a paper form, you can basically write what you want, where you want. There is no such option with the ‘online’ form. You are forced to complete every single box before you can submit the application.
Equal Opportunities – Who can use the new services?
Secondly, the online application and Passport Return Service are strictly limited to EEA nationals. This means that non-EEA family members cannot be included on the application form, which will make it utterly pointless where a couple or family wants to apply at the same time and rely on the same documentation.
Thirdly, it seems that some EEA qualified persons are ‘more equal than others’. Students and self-sufficient applicants are not allowed to use the online service if they are reliant on a family member to provide income or are financially responsible for other family members. This will effectively disqualify a large number of individuals from using it.
Fast-Track? Well, this is the Home Office after all…
Fourthly, the Home Office initially touted this as a ‘fast-track service’ when it announced plans for the Passport Return Service some weeks back.
However – perhaps belatedly realising that simply asking an applicant to type rather than handwrite their forms would make no actual difference to the number of caseworkers available to decide applications – all reference to the decision-making speed has been ditched.
As such, our best guess is that the application will take the same amount of time whether it is submitted ‘online’ or by post.
With the rush for residence documentation triggered by the Brexit vote and the Home Office’s insistence on Permanent Residence Cards for citizenship applications, this is currently taking around six months.
Passport Return Service – Watch out for the small print
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is important to note that the local authorities engaged in the Passport Return Service are not providing an application checking service. The £15 fee covers copying the passport and the posting of the application only.
That said, there is nothing to stop applicants with any doubts about their documentation or the application form from engaging a legal professional to assist with preparing or simply checking the application, before then submitting the application itself through the Passport Return Service.
In short, there seems to be little benefit to the online service, except perhaps to simplify the application form. However, for those Europeans who need to travel and who don’t have identity cards, the Passport Return Service looks set to be a welcome addition.
To see how we can assist you please contact our Immigration department on 020 7631 4141.