It’s hard to explain the kind of terror that embassies/home offices and other official immigration offices can strike into one’s heart unless you have at some time in your life been an immigrant beholden to all manner of hoop jumping to stay or go somewhere you weren’t born. And with that in mind and for those who seem to believe that us “foreigns” merely show up and get handed a passport and a bag of money at the door, I want to describe what a day at the PEO Office in Croydon is like.
I’ve been in the UK for seven years. I arrived on the now defunct, working holiday visa scheme, which granted me two years of work. Following that my company offered to “sponsor” me and since I had already fallen in love with London, I greedily accepted. After much wrangling, including me returning to South Africa for a month, I was granted a five year work permit (also now no longer in existence) with a series of restrictions attached to it, including that I had to remain in one place of work, or go through the whole permit process again.
With that work permit about four weeks from expiring the next option was to apply for a settlement visa, affectionately known as “Indefinite Leave to Remain”. Indefinite Leave is the holy grail of immigration statuses in the UK, with only an actual British passport topping it. Those with Indefinite Leave can come and go as they please, work where they want, marry whoever they love and even register any children they have born in Britain as British. The normal requirement to apply is five years spent on one type of visa e.g. work permit or ancestry.
The paperwork required to apply for Indefinite Leave varies depending on the type of application but everyone has to write the Life in the UK test and provide two photos (in mine I look like an Eastern European shot-put champion). I had to also provide bank statements proving that I had enough money to support myself, a letter from my employer, proof that I had not been out of the country for more than 90 days per year along with the exact dates I had been absent for and all the payslips and P60’s I could muster from the 5 year period. (I managed 51 out of 65… not bad). Work permit applications based on the old system are “easy;” you should see the stuff you have to bring if you’re on the new tier system.
There are two options for applying for Indefinite Leave. You can either post your application or go in person. I decided to go for the personal approach at an additional cost of £400, mostly because I’m not a fan of A: waiting or B: posting my passport.
On arrival (by tram) at the Croydon PEO as the London UKBA office is known, you get to go through airport style security before presenting your form and being allowed to queue up to go to one of the reception windows. The reception team checks to make sure you’ve filled in the correct form, brought the essential paperwork, are applying on the right date and have not been out of the country for more than the maximum allowed time.
If you make it through that gatekeeper you get to pay. I queued for about half an hour since there were approximately fifty people and two cashiers open. For a single application you pay £1350, with a hefty whack added for each dependent. Once you have parted with this stomach curling sum, you cannot have it back… even if they tell you that you’ll be getting on the next plane back to wherever you crawled out of. I had particular sympathy for a woman who had paid online in advance, which they were allowing until recently, along with online forms. Her payment was sitting somewhere in limbo and she was advised that she would have to pay again and then submit a claim to hopefully get her original payment back. OUCH!
After you’ve paid you sit in a room with all the other immigrants, all pacing, all looking worried, many with small children in tow. During my two and a half hour wait for my number to be called, I was adopted by a small, surprisingly confident, African child who decided that I had the look of a climbing frame about me. She proceeded to crawl into my lap, play with my jewellery, unbutton my dress a bit and carefully inspect my bra. Since her poor mother was also carrying a screaming baby, I decided I might as well keep her (and also myself) amused.
When my number was eventually called, I had to go and hand her over before I could go to the window I’d been called to. I hope her family got whatever immigration status they were looking for. My next step was to submit all my documents to the case worker assigned to my application and explain what they all were.
And then back to waiting for another 45 minutes while she entered all manner of things into her computer and shuffled around bits of paper. When she called me back and told me that the United Kingdom was willing to grant me permanent residence, the relief was palpable. The thought of having to uproot my entire life is terrifying to say the least. It wasn’t the end of the wait though since a trip to the elusive “window 22” to collect my passport, now with a new red and blue vignette posted in it was another half an hour away.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Because that vignette has a magic word on it. Next to expiry date it says “Indefinite.”