Ficklish Blog

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Visa Story

So, I’ve been back at work for a week, now. It’s been nice to see everybody and feel like a functioning member of society again – but something of a challenge to remember how to haul oneself out of bed at stupid o’clock (especially after a glass of wine or three the night before) and be awake and functioning during daylight hours.

Everyone has been very nice and welcoming, and full of questions about the circumstances that led to my absence in the first place. The horror of the process is fading now that is over, and so I want to write what I remember about it here for posterity.

1. So, what is this visa you’ve got, then?

It’s a Highly Skilled Migrant Visa. It’s basically a general permission to live and work in the UK for two years. I’m Highly Skilled! The Home Office said so!

[As has been noted, I can now actually say that I’ve got skillz to pay da billz and mean it…]

2. What did you have to do to get it?

It’s a points-based system, with points awarded for age, education, and earnings. I’m getting old and I don’t have a Masters, so I needed to earn more to qualify. What scraped me over the line was the fact that you get bonus points for earning your money in the UK. You also have to be able to prove that you are fluent in English.

What makes the process so overwhelming is the level of documentary evidence required by the Home Office. The Great Paper Chase of 2007 was quite the ordeal and one that I’m not keen to repeat anytime soon.

Proving my age and education was reasonably easy - although I did have to get my mother to post my original degree certificates over from Oz. Apparently this caused a crisis of conscience for Mum for a moment or two, given that she realised that if she didn’t send them, I’d have to come home. I remain very grateful that she was victorious in that particular inner struggle – thanks, Ma!

To meet the language requirement I had to get a letter from my university (which, let’s remember, is situated in Brisbane, AUSTRALIA) certifying that my degree was taught in English. My university charged me $10 for this letter, which I thought was nice of them.

Proving my earnings was the most entertaining part. Every pound of income and tax for each week of the past year had to be accounted for and corroborated with at least three forms of documentary evidence. Every single bank statement plus every single payslip plus group certificates plus a letter from each employer confirming the dates of my employment and my gross earnings. Countless phone calls, letters everywhere, sending documents back for errors to be fixed and then more phone calls to chase them again – it was a whole bucket of bureaucratic fun.

Here is the lesson I have learned: keep EVERYTHING. Neatly, in a file. You never know what you might need and when.

The best part, though, was that it wasn’t enough to just send payslips: oh, no. They could be forgeries! Even those printed on letterhead or fancy paper weren’t sufficient. Each payslip had to be stamped and signed by the issuing company to prove its veracity. I sent bundles of paper all over the countryside, crossing my fingers that they wouldn’t get lost and doing even more begging and pleading for someone to stamp and sign every sheet and return them to me.

For the record, I would like to thank my boss, who was very understanding and let me make my (very many) harassing phone calls from work on my lunch breaks.

Once the paper had been collected, I had a great deal of fun channelling all my (not inconsiderable) OCD energy into arranging said pieces of paper into a very neat and orderly folder, annotated and tagged and divided with brightly coloured cardboard. It was as if I felt as though my chances would be enhanced if the bundle looked pretty. I knew for a fact that they would not: I paid an immigration agency a LOT of money to put my application together for me. I knew the bundle would be ripped apart and put back together again in some mysterious special Home Office-approved way and handed over with a nod and a wink and a secret signal to demonstrate that THIS application was worth reading. Or so I hoped. Even so, collating everything into a super-organised package made me feel like I had some measure of control over the process. I find happiness in delusion. I’m okay with that. Shut up.

3. How much did it cost?

As stated previously, and repeated ad nauseum to all those unlucky enough to have crossed my conversational path this year: A LOT. The application is in two parts: first, you send off all your documents to see if you qualify for the Highly Skilled Migrant Program itself. They assess your evidence, work out if you have sufficient points, and send you a letter approving your application. THEN you apply for the actual visa – sending off your passport to be stamped, together with a declaration that you have, for the most part, refrained from acts of genocide. You know, the usual.

The application fees for each stage were £400 and £350 respectively, which is roughly equivalent to (AUD) $1000 each time. Just for the application fees. They charge it because they can. Grrrrr.

To make it even more fun, as mentioned above and below, I instructed an immigration lawyer to help me. My application was tricky in a couple of fundamental ways (seriously, this part is too boring even for this entry) and so I needed help to get it right. They charged me another £650 (AUD $1500 or so) for the privilege.

4. What were the immigration agents like?

Other than expensive? Somewhat entertaining. My first meeting with the agency
was reassuring, frustrating and bewildering in equal measure. My documents were okay, but their attitude was amusing. Firstly, the agent spent the first twenty minutes of our appointment complaining about England. She had a broad KathnKim accent, and apparently she hates it here. I sat there wondering (a) why she is in this line of work and (b) if she was really the person I wanted to be in charge of convincing the Home Office that I want to stay. I feared there may be a chance she would sabotage my application in some misguided effort to protect my best interests. I decided then and there that I would be checking it VERY thoroughly before it was sent.

Then she complained about how complicated my file is. I showed her my beautiful spreadsheets (they were a thing of beauty, I assure you – along with the pretty folder I spent hours preparing neatly cross-referenced spreadsheets to demonstrate very clearly where every penny of my money came from over the past 12 months) to try and show her that really, it wasn’t that bad. She continued to whinge and I grew quietly fearful – what if the Home Office thinks the same thing? Way to inspire me with confidence to pay your wages, lady.

Thankfully, I later learned that she was an assistant, and the lawyer who actually completed my application was efficient and encouraging. Also, very good at her job, as is now clear.

5. Why did you have to stop working?

Well, see this entry. Essentially, my working holiday visa allowed me to work for twelve months, and my time was up. I work in the legal sector, and people in my line of business tend to be a bit particular about you know, obeying the law and suchlike.

6. How long were you off work?

Almost eight weeks.

What made this very frustrating was that it never needed to happen. I’d planned the timing of my application very carefully, aiming to get it in a good few weeks before my visa ran out. Everything was ready to go – except one document, a group certificate from one of my employers. The financial year ended on 30 March 2007.

I didn’t get the tax document (called a P60 here) until the end of May.

AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGH. It still makes me angry, just thinking about it. I called everyone at the company, chasing almost daily for over a month, but there was no way they were sending it to me in anything other than their own sweet time. No amount of pleading, begging or threatening made a difference. One piece of paper, which, if it had been sent in a timely fashion would have made all the difference. Bastards. I suspect I will remain bitter about this for some time.

7. Anyway. It’s over, you’ve got it, hooray! You must be delighted!

(Psst, that’s not a question).

Yes, I’m very happy. It’s a relief, more than anything. I’ve incurred such a massive amount of debt in the last couple of months (surviving with more than a little help from family and friends, for which I am very grateful) that I need to be earning Pounds Sterling (the capital letters seem important) if I have a hope of paying it off anytime soon. It’s good to be back at work, I can start planning for the future in a way I couldn’t before. That feels good.

Along with the relief, I feel lucky. It feels more than a little unseemly to boast about the ‘hardship’ I endured in obtaining a right only available to a privileged few. I can’t quite shake the guilt at being a ‘desirable’ immigration candidate, purely by virtue of the accident of my birth – English-speaking, well-educated, capacity to earn a good wage and pay a higher contribution of tax and, yanno, white skin. I’m not a City banker with a seven figure bonus, sure, and I only just scraped over the line in terms of fulfilling the eligibility criteria – but it doesn’t matter whether I cleared the bar by ten points or one. I got there – and now I’m here I can’t help thinking about the many who never get the chance. There are people out there more qualified than I am who are driving minicabs, there are those who have fled war zones and have nowhere to go.

Sigh. A bit more seriouslike than my usual tone on this blog – but there you go. It’s a part of what this feels like.

8. Are you EVER coming home?

[Mum, is that you?] To be honest, I have no idea. I’ve got two years and right now, this is where I want to be. Ask me again this time next year.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Guess what...

My life of leisure has come to an end. The waiting is finally over: my passport has been returned with a shiny visa inside. I am, officially, a Highly Skilled Migrant.

I feel like I should write more about the process – it has been drawn-out, expensive and very, very frustrating – but not quite yet. The main thing is that it is OVER. Hoorah!

I start back at work tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hi, Dianne!

A wee shout-out, there, to a reader I didn’t even know I had. Thanks for stopping by, Dianne, and for your kind comments. Many apologies for the infrequent updates, I’ll try to do better.

So, I’ve had my life of leisure interrupted in the most delightful way. Many of you are acquainted with the famous Poundsters, whose wedding I attended earlier this year. They have embarked upon their world tour and have spent the past few days in London.

You can read about the Poundster World Tour here. Their website address is If you have a moment, please stop by poundster dot com. For those of you who know Andrew, you may be aware that he would REALLY LIKE FOR YOU TO VISIT HIS BLOG. And comment. And click on an ad or two, if you fancy it. No pressure, no pressure, but please consider poundster for your web surfing needs.

(And while you’re at it, Veggie Friendly is a helluva read).

We have had ourselves quite a time. Kate and Andy arrived on Monday and after depositing their (very well-packed and minimal) luggage at the Pickle, we proceeded directly to hardcore touristy action. We whirlwinded through the essential sights of central London and proceeded directly to Westminster to visit the Cabinet War Rooms, where the underground offices and meeting rooms that Churchill, the Cabinet and various military commanders used during the war have been preserved just as they were left when the fighting ceased. It was excellent - if you haven’t had an opportunity to go there, I recommend that you do so immediately. There is also a Churchill museum, which was densely packed with fascinating artefacts and interactive exhibits. The particular highlight, for me, was the section devoted to Churchill’s lifestyle choices: red velvet jumpsuits, the importance of pairing good port with good stilton, the cigars. I enjoyed it immensely and will definitely return.

After the War Rooms we toddled along to the Houses of Parliament and by joining exactly the right queue at exactly the right fortuitous moment, we found ourselves in the public galleries of the Commons and Lords with surprising ease. I haven’t been in a parliamentary debating chamber for a while, you know, and it was very pleasing to gaze at the ornate decorations of the Houses and wallow in nostalgia while listening to the speeches. Good times.

Of course, given that visitors from Australia are in town, England has turned on its most stereotypically dreadful weather – it has been cold and wet the whole week thus far. Undaunted, however, yesterday we took a trip out to the countryside to visit the exceptional Mr Mackerras. He lives in a beautiful wee village that was perfectly olde worlde storybook England – hedgerows and meadows, crooked cottages and charming pubs. As well as being spectacularly good company and an excellent tour guide, Mr M also demonstrated his culinary skills by turning out a wonderful three-course meal for our enjoyment. I would be grateful if you would all send me your very best recipes immediately so that I can begin training in the hope that one day I may be able to invite him to the Pickle to return the favour.

On the subject of food, and given that our Kate is a vegetarian food reviewer of some renown, it has been imperative that she be given an opportunity to consider the best (and worst) London has to offer during their stay. Our first pub lunch on Monday was a vegetarian disaster: Kate’s lunch effectively consisted of a baked potato with a can of baked beans upended on top. To make up for this (and because I can’t let New York win), we ate at Manna on Monday night, which was remarkable, and will be visiting Carnevale this evening. You’ll read about both at Veggie Friendly soon. I’m crossing my fingers that London rates well.

It has been utterly wonderful to have the Poundsters here – the three days have flown by and my whole body is sore from all the laughing. The brilliant thing about spending time with good friends is that it feels so natural – the months spent apart dissolve away in an instant. I’ve had to take a moment, a couple of times, to shake my head in wonder at the fact that they’re actually here in LONDON, and we’re not in their flat at Bondi or hanging out in Canberra or Melbourne. It reminds me how much I miss you all.

Bon voyage, you lovely Poundsters. Thank you for coming to stay. I hope your onward journey is packed full of adventure and excitement and I will look forward to reading about it on

Given that I began this post with a shout-out, I'd like to finish with one, too: my most grateful thanks to Rip van Winkle, winner of the Housemate of the Year award for vacating the Pickle over the last few days so that the Poundsters could stay in his room. That was above and beyond, my friend, thank you.

(Hey, Andy, do you think there were enough plugs for your website in there? Let me know, I might be able to find a few more... :)