South Africans resident in the UK planning to return home for the Christmas break could face disappointment because of delays of up six months or more in renewing their passports, according to some expats.
While those living in South Africa can now get their passport a fortnight aaccording to the Department of Home Affairs, South Africans in the UK are experiencing waits of several months, due to slow processing and out of date systems according to applicants – causing huge inconvenience and putting at risk important travel or holiday plans.
South African citizens in the UK make up a significant percentage of the foreign-born UK population. Currently there are around 246,000 South Africans resident in the UK making them the eighth largest foreign-born population group.
Every year, an estimated 15-20,000 South Africans in the UK obtain or renew a passport. However, many of those people face, at best, inconvenience and at worst, delays, in applying for and receiving their passports.
Helen Evans, a South African living in London, said: “My husband’s passport took eight months when applying from London, we nearly missed our holiday! He did apply for an emergency doc in the meantime but it’s totally crazy it takes this long.”
Another complainant added: “Renewing passport in London since currently working in the UK. Totally stunned to discover that the application is via old-fashioned paper and ink method – no biometrics & takes 4-6 months. Given the high tech process in SA, this seems behind the times?”
The complaints are reinforcing claims that the system is slow and not customer friendly.
Firstly, applicants can only apply for or renew their passport by visiting the South African Embassy in London during a limited 4 hour time window each day. They may have to wait in a queue to be seen and face the inconvenience of long travel times and high travel costs, especially if they live outside London.
Applicants have also expressed frustration about a lack of updates on the status of the application after they applied. They find it difficult to get in touch with the Embassy to get a reply. And the length of time it takes to receive their passport after their application can be a long wait. Applicants also have to make a return trip to collect their passport – there is no delivery service.
South Africans aren’t alone in this. It’s not surprising that many embassies and consulates often find it difficult to provide seamless passport and consular services to their citizens – they are busy with a whole raft of issues and the administrative tasks around passport issuance can be a headache. But equally they are mindful of security issues around passport application processes.
Outsourcing passport services to improve the system is one option that has been suggested.
Countries such as India, the Netherlands and Ghana are just some that have outsourced renewal and application of passports in their own countries or for diaspora communities abroad.
For example, obtaining an Indian passport was once notoriously complex, with applicants forced to wait several weeks or months. In 2008, the government outsourced the country’s passport system and operate a new network of passport issuance centers to Tata Consultancy Services. Today, citizens can be issued a passport within three days after a simple online application and – unlike the case with South Africans in the UK – have a choice of visiting one of 88 application centers, run by TCS alongside the government.
At these centers, private employees collect biometric data and carry out document checks before passing applications to public servants for approval. VFS Global, another outsourcer, operates passport application services for citizens of the UK, India, Ghana and the Netherlands that live outside of their home countries. It offers a range of services including multiple application centres, online appointment booking and customer support to front-office services, biometric enrolment and courier return delivery of the new passport. The Dutch government outsourced passport services to VFS Global in the UK, where there is now a greater choice of application centres for Dutch citizens in the UK to apply for passport services – including a ‘prime time service’, an out of office hours service on weekdays and a weekend service.
Meanwhile, for busy embassies, it means reduced costs in terms of time saved processing applications, staff, premises and on-site security.