Tuesday, 16 September 2014

UK Passport Renewal (Overseas Applicants): Long wait times and a woeful lack of information continue to plague applicants

Many UK nationals will be aware of what can only be described as the complete and utter shambles UK passport application / renewal descended into this year and many will be familiar with images, similar to the one above, of the boxes and boxes of unprocessed passport applications, with a backlog of some 500,000 when the crisis was at its peak in June 2014.  Prior to that (and the catalyst that drew attention to the problems) people had waited 8, 10, 12 weeks plus for a simple passport renewal and the internet was awash with complaints and news stories, attracting national and international media outrage, again in June, as the situation worsened with denial of there even being a problem to intervention by the Home Secretary when it became obvious just how serious the problem was.  Literally thousands of people had plans disrupted, often at significant cost, as a result of the now outrageously long passport processing times.  The cause?  It was said that the passport office was facing unprecedented demand for passports in June 2014, unprecedented maybe, unforeseeable, hardly.  In early 2014 regional processing offices around the world were closed and all passports then had to be applied for, and renewed from, the UK.  So those applications were going to go where exactly?  Oh yes, the Passport Office.  Derrrrr!

While it SEEMS that the situation might be improving, since publishing a couple of articles linked to UK passport renewal recently, I have been contacted by numerous readers with continuing tails of woe.  So, for those who may have to apply or renew in the future I thought a summary of the key issues being highlighted might be useful.

  • Renewal for ALL overseas passports is now handled directly by Her Majesty's Passport Office (HMPO) in the UK.  In some countries, primarily those where there are concerns over postal security, theft and fraud (Malaysia, thankfully, is not one of them), one or even two trips to the UK Embassy may also be needed (e.g. Thailand).
  • Applications are made online and for simple renewals is a very easy process.  At the end of the application you will be asked to pay by credit card (approx £102 for a standard size passport and £110 for a 48 page 'jumbo' size).
  • Once the online application is finished you will be given a user name and password.  Be sure to write this down correctly and don't lose it.  It is your only means of checking your application status (for what it's worth!) online.
  • Once completed, you will need to download and print out a declaration form (make sure you sign this WELL within the box) and send the form along with your old passport, 2 passport photographs and any other supporting documents your application requires to the address designated on the form (usually in Durham).  I would suggest using a courier such as DHL.
  • Provided you are still recognisable from your old passport photo, counter-signatories will not be required in most instances.
  • Passport photo requirements are now VERY strict.  Make sure you adhere to ALL the HMPO guidelines or risk rejection and a further wait while you send further photos.  There is an article here about getting the right type of photo in Penang.
  • The 'Application Status' checker is still in 'Beta'.  Very much so!!  There are only three indicators: Awaiting further information from applicant; Being processed; Dispatched.  The courier delivery tracker, available to UK residents, is not available for overseas applicants.
  • Your new passport will be sent separately to your old passport (and any other supporting documents you may have sent) by courier, AFAIK usually DHL.
  • Processing times, it appears, have reduced with new passports being received by applicants within a 5-6 week.  BUT it doesn't end there!
  • Your old passport (the speedy return of which will be vital if you have a 'live' residence visa and /or work permit) will likely take at least a week, or more  to arrive after you receive your new passport!  For many this will render the new passport useless until the old one is returned as you will not be able to travel unless you have your residence visa to show immigration upon exit or re-entry.  In addition, unless you report your old passport as lost, it will be next to impossible to get your residence visa transferred to the new passport.  It is not clear whether HMPO distinguishes between old passports with 'live' visas (that would likely be needed urgently by most applicants) and old passports that are merely dead or not, it seems not however.  Certainly covering letters stressing the urgency of the return of the old passport seem to have no impact whatsoever on wait times.  Clearly there is little point in getting your new passport early if you can't use it due to your need to wait for your old passport.  So for applicants in that position, the effective processing time will be the time it takes to receive BOTH passports, not just one and that can have significant impact overall.  It seems (see below) that you will need factor in an extra 7-14 days after receiving your new passport to get the old one back if getting the old passport (because of any visa in it) is critical to travel
  • The HMPO helplines and e-mail contact forms were, without exception, described as totally useless, frustrating and ineffective with HORRENDOUS (and costly) wait times, operators either unwilling or unable to provide meaningful information, promised phone calls never returned and slow or no response to emails (with some emails containing what seem to be 'stock' replies with nothing specific the application in question or queries raised).  Readers, and I can also attest to this, also complained of email responses from HMPO REPEATEDLY asking for the same details about the application that had been provided time, time and time again.  Was the HMPO e-service actually designed to piss people off or is it just luck??
  • Incredulously, and this particular issue I find ABSOLUTELY beggars belief,  HMPO, neither by way of the 'Application Status' nor by any other means, DOES NOT notify you of of ANY tracking number for the courier service for either the new or old passport! So you will have NO idea when you should receive them.  Equally, how are people to know if their documents have got lost or stolen if they have no idea of when they SHOULD arrive?  How long should people wait, for example, between receipt of the new passport and the old one?  One day, three days, a week, 10 days, two weeks, a month?  The HMPO website is of no use whatsoever as the 'Application Status' will merely indicate 'Dispatched' and clicking the FAQ link about return of supporting documents merely informs you that they will be returned to you separately by courier - how about giving people an indication of WHEN!  It shouldn't be hard, most couriers operate fairly standard levels of service depending on the price paid, guaranteed 2 day, 3-5 day etc. etc. so it's not as if this information is a mystery to the courier service.  But it seems, it remains a bridge too far for HMPO!  If I order something costing as little as £5 / RM 25 online in Malaysia I get a courier tracking number so how come this simple, but I would suggest VITAL, information cannot be made available to applicants by HMPO?  Maybe it's time to start investing some of the £70 million profit HMPO made last financial year to provide AT LEAST an acceptable standard of service!  
  • Expanding further on delays to the return of old passports, one applicant who contacted HMPO about delays to the return of an urgently awaited old passport received the following reply: "Your supporting documents; old passport, birth certificate etc. will be returned to you separately from your passport. Her Majesty's Passport Office dispatch these by DHL for overseas applicants. They are usually delivered between 7-10 working days once the passport has been received."  Despite asking for a courier tracking number, none was provided.  HMPO also asked him to provide the following details: The application number, your full name and applicant’s full name if different, your full postal address and any further details such as when your application was submitted, the first two already being required when using the online form!  So I would suggest including ALL these details again in the main body of any message you may wish to send to HMPO using the online 'Feedback' or 'Complaint' forms.  After a follow-up e-mail the same applicant was told the new passport would arrive 10-14 days later, and the final e-mail indicated that no timescale for delivery of the old passport could be given!!  Hell of a way to manage performance I suppose, set increasingly lower targets, fail to meet them, then reduce them further!  
  • In respect of old passports the HMPO website states: "Uncancelled non-British passports: We strongly prefer to receive the passport. However in exceptional circumstances where you may need to retain the passport, we will accept a full colour photocopy of the entire passport (including visa pages). We reserve the right to request the passport at a later stage as we examine your application. Please provide an explanation as to why you need to retain your passport.".  Given the current state of affairs I would be inclined to retain it on the basis that it is the only acceptable form of ID in many countries that don't issue expats with ID cards and that there may be a need to produce your residence visa to the authorities.  At worst HMPO could merely insist that you send that passport to them delaying the process by just a few days. or you could sent it anyway and delay the ability to use your new passport by 1-3 weeks.  I know which one I'll be opting for!! Sage advice from one reader maybe "When this one's full, and if I can possibly get away with it, I'll be damned if I'll send it back to these clowns when it's time to renew".  
  • It also begs the question of course, why are the details of the 7 to 14 plus day delivery time and the use of DHL not included in the "Supporting Document  FAQ" as opposed the the somewhat useless comment that they will merely be returned separately?  One applicant, despite asking for a tracking number for an old passport, was told to contact DHL with his name and address and see if they had any due deliveries.  Trust me, that's not how DHL operates, their systems are geared around tracking / waybill numbers, a situation compounded here in Penang by the fact that the local office is in Georgetown whereas the office responsible for deliveries is the depot at Bayan Lepas and from there they go direct to consignee.  So forget the idea of trying to find out yourself when your delivery might arrive.  Wouldn't it just be SOOOO much easier if HMPO simply provided applicants with the tracking numbers for the courier service that they are charged for?
So, that's the situation as at September 2014.  Even after the emergency measures taken to fix this debacle (including extra staff), the need to wait around 8 weeks (if you are dependant on the return of both passports) for a simple passport renewal, given that it is the ONLY means of ID overseas workers / residents are able to use, is demonstrative of an ABSOLUTELY ATROCIOUS level of service and IMO is a damning indictment of public sector management.  It seems others agree.  One can only hope that the situation will improve in the months ahead but the service offered even now is a far cry from just a few years ago when, as an expatriate worker and /or resident, a passport could be obtained from your local Embassy within a week.  And as for not providing applicants with tracking numbers for such important documents, particularly as YOU pay for the courier service - really?  Are you serious?  Maybe the 'new' service will eventually become more efficient and effective in time but as it stands, I'm not sure you could design a more inadequate system even if you tried!  If HMPO doesn't already have a motto, how about this one, 'Inefficency by Design'.  

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