Dramas: The Visa

I recently received an email from a friend which made me stop to think about what I’ve been posting on my blogs and Facebook wall and how my life would look like to others based on those posts.

Many of us post only the good, positive stuff that happens to us.  Look at what we did, look at what we ate, look at what we bought, look at how beautiful we look, look at how many friends we have and where we’ve been.  Aren’t our lives so fantastic?

Behind the scenes however can be such a different story.  I admit that I am one of those people who don’t like posting stressful things (especially while I’m still trying to deal with them).  Posting about them afterwards? Maybe… but usually by then I’m over it and don’t want to relive it by writing about it.  So by default the façade of a happy perfect life continues.

I actually thought that posting yoga progress pictures would show that we were not perfect, that we had so much more to learn and practice.  I purposefully put the photos as they were, so you could see dishevelled hair, hairy armpits, the same swimming costume (not even yoga costume) over and over.  It’s also not the end result, it’s a work in progress so posting these things while we were still on the journey was “keeping it real”.

What that email made me realise though was that I’m not keeping it real enough!  I haven’t put anything bad or negative up, any sadness, pain or mental torment we might be going through.

So, in line with “keeping it real” and to show that life isn’t always roses for us, let me tell you a little story about the latest stress we went through.

At the end of January, we found out that my Leave to Remain in the UK had expired.  This meant that I no longer had permission to remain in the UK but there I was sitting at our dining room table in London, UK.  We found out on a Saturday, I had to wait 2 days before I could call an immigration lawyer to find out what my options were.

Rewind back to the day that I received that visa 2 years earlier.  It came with a letter and an expiry date specifically stating it was only valid for 2 years.  When we saw this, both Tony and I assumed that we would have sorted out our citizenship within that time and so a new visa application would not be required.

Forward 2 years later,  we still hadn’t sorted out our citizenships, having become complacent about it.  Tony has Indefinite Leave to Remain which means he can stay in the UK with no time limit.  Somehow in those 2 years, we forgot about the expiry date on my visa and replaced that knowledge with the thought that I had Indefinite Leave to Remain too because we were married.  It wasn’t just complacency that got us to this point, we had convinced ourselves that we didn’t have the money to spend on the citizenships so we just kept putting it off.

So back to the present, here we were on a Saturday, with an expired residency card in my hand.   I numbed any feelings of panic.  Meanwhile my mind was racing, “OMG! Have I overstayed?  Are they going to kick me out?  Will they let me back in?  Will I get banned from re-entering the country for overstaying?  How long will the ban be?  What’s going to happen to Tony?  Where will I go?  How will we pay for a plane ticket?  How the hell did we miss this deadline?” and I felt the twinge of panic creeping into my stomach.  I told myself that it was going to be ok, that we would somehow work it out and that there was nothing I could do about it until Monday.

On the Monday I called the immigration lawyer who told me not to worry because I had 28 days grace period, from the date of expiry to get a new visa application submitted.   By this stage, I was on Day 3 of expiration so I had 25 days to go and I calmed down.

She asked me to go in for a consultation to figure out which was the best way to move forward.  Her earliest appointment was Wednesday, so I booked it for the morning and off I went to see her.  That was Day 5,  23 days to go.

£300 later, the advice was to apply for ILR (Indefinite Leave to Remain) and book a Life in the UK Test (you need to pass this test as part of your ILR application).

I also had to book an appointment with the Public Enquiry Office (PEO) which is where you go to submit a visa application in person.  By doing this, you get a decision made on the day so you know whether your application for a visa is approved or declined straight away.  The other option was to post in your application but that would mean submitting your passport and waiting on an answer for up to 6 months.

My choices and what I needed to take action on sounded simple enough.

To book a test,  you had to go online and choose a test date and time.  The way the system works is that it only offers you a test date, a minimum of 7 days from the day you go online to book and pay for the test.  Even so, the earliest one I could find was 10 days away from when I searched, that would take me to Day 15 so I booked it and paid £50.

I then went online and booked my appointment with the PEO.  Booking an appointment requires you to pay upfront and the cost was £1456 for the ILR application.  My stomach was doing flips at how much this was all costing.

So I could study for the test, I had to get the Life in the UK book so I hounded friends and got a copy, travelled to their place with Tony and picked it up.  The lawyer told me that it was outdated and I had to get the new one which was revised in 2013 so I had to make phone calls to the various book shops around us to get a copy.  The book cost £13.  Add all our travelling around to get it  cost £15.  Another £28 added to our bill.

I studied and did multiple online practice tests for the rest of that week.

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When I turned up to the test, I got declined because my middle name which showed on my passport wasn’t on my registration.  The mismatch meant I wasn’t allowed to take the test and had to go back online and book and pay for another test.  The original £50 wasn’t refunded as it was my mistake by not filling in the registration form properly.  I not only couldn’t do the test but I failed the one question which I should be able to answer:  “What is your full name?”

When the woman clicked “REJECT” on the screen, I had to turn on my numbness again because I could feel my heart in my throat.  I begged her to let me take the test.  I showed her letters which showed my name but because the passport which was the form of ID I chose on the application to use did not match EXACTLY the name I had registered under, there was nothing she could do.

I left and called Tony and as soon as he answered, I started crying my eyes out.  I’d never felt so stupid and useless in all my life.  We were £1900 out of pocket, I had 13 days left in the country and nothing to show for it but a bucket of tears.

I desperately booked another test but the earliest I could find was 8 days away.  I booked it and paid another £50.  I also had to move my appointment with the PEO and dreaded them taking more money for doing this.  They didn’t.

The count was now 13 days left and £1950 out of pocket.  By this stage I was more than a bit stressed to put it mildly.  All I could think was that I had to pass.

The test was on a Saturday so Tony decided to attend with me.  It was the day of the yoga championships and so we thought we’d celebrate my “pass” by attending that after I took the test.

We woke up early, got everything sorted and turned up to that test.  My heart was pounding in my chest and I was extremely anxious about the vetting/interview process where they check your proof of address and ID.  I passed this time and was asked to go downstairs to the testing area.  I was relieved at this point and waited patiently for the test to start.  Tony waited for me at the reception.

They started logging people in and then, told us to wait 10mins because there was a problem with the computers.  After 10mins they announced that it wasn’t a computer problem but a server problem and to wait 15mins.  After that,  they said it was a nationwide server problem.  Something that’s never happened in the 5 years that the centre has been open, there was nothing they could do and none of us would be able to take the test.  I was about to cry again.  I kept praying “PLEASE just let me do the test, PLEASE let it be ok and let me do the test, PLEASE just let me do the test!”

It wasn’t to be.  They told everybody to go home and wait for further instruction to do the test again which, would probably be 7 days from that day.  I didn’t have 7 days, I had 5.  Ironically, the system started working again but it was too late for our session attendants  to take the test, the new group for the later timeslots had arrived and would have to start their test in 15mins and you cannot just sit into another timeslot you hadn’t booked for.

Tony and I both left the centre in silence, absolute shock.  I felt helpless and that the universe was against me.  I mean seriously, how could it be that hard?  Of all the tests to turn up to, why did I turn up to the one that had a once in every 5 year server issue?

The helpline was closed because it was a Saturday, we had to wait until Monday before I could do anything, again.  We still went to the yoga championships just to take our minds off the stress and on the bus ride there, I kept listing out all the possible actions I could take.

The bus trip home however was very different, it was an emotional rollercoaster.  Anger at ourselves for getting into that position, fear of our lives being turned completely upside down by my sudden requirement to leave the country, frustration at the system, sadness at being separated and the possibility of it being for a while because I couldn’t re-enter the country, worry about how we were going to pay for all the unexpected expenses and a whole host of other things.  What if I had to leave?  What if I had to jump on a plane straight away?  Tony would be left on his own in the UK to take care of everything!  That weekend wasn’t the best we’ve had.

On the Monday I called the Home Office, emailed the Life in the UK people and started looking into a spousal visa based on advice I got from the Home Office.  I quickly cancelled my appointment with the PEO, they don’t give a refund if you cancel under 48 hrs notice and the refund takes up to 28 days.  The Life in the UK Test people got back to me and told me I could do a test on that Tuesday due to my circumstances, at no extra cost because it wasn’t my fault.

I did the test, passed and then ran around getting all the back up documentation to get my application in by the deadline.  I had to apply by post as I’d cancelled my PEO appointment and there wasn’t time to book a new appointment within the deadline.  I had to pay another £1200 + £19 postage.  Submitting by post means we have to wait up to 6 months before getting a result.  It also means that the Home Office has both our passports and neither of us can leave the country until a decision is made.

I got my application in on the 28th day and it cost a total of £3,170(waiting on a £1456 refund).

All that was happening while we were completing our 30 day yoga challenge and at the same time I had my gum/tooth problem and had my tooth extracted which cost us £900 in gum specialist and tooth extraction costs.

A total bill of £4000 in one month on top of our regular monthly expenses, all unexpected.  This was in addition to our myriad of visits to the bank to sort out a new mortgage to get more money so we could extend the leasehold on our flat.  Hence my tirade on Facebook about the crappy customer service I received from a particular bank.

I told myself it would be a miracle for us to get through that month but we seem to have made it…just!

Just on Thursday I went to the Post Office to get my biometrics done – they take a picture of you, all 10 fingerprints and your signature and then charge you £20 for the pleasure.  I actually had to make a trip out to a Post Office farther than the one I normally go to because their Biometrics booth is broken and has been broken for a week.  I couldn’t have expected any thing else with the crazy things I’d been through to get this visa so off I went.  I managed to still make it a drama though.  They say you can’t pay by credit card and you can pay by cash or debit card.  Of course I brought only credit cards with me and no cash.  Why would I have made it any easier for myself right?  She told me I could withdraw money from the cash machine inside the Post Office but when I turned to go to the machine, we both realised that it was broken because there was a man servicing the machine.  Of course it was broken, what else could I have expected?  Anyway, she managed to work around the situation and I was able to pay with the credit card.

This takes us to the present.  We now wait for the application to extend my leave to remain in the UK to be approved or declined.

We don’t talk about it but every time Tony sees a letter in the mailbox for me, he’ll want me to open it straight away in case it’s the Home Office.  And every time I open one of those official letters, we are both holding our breaths waiting to see the letter from them that says everything’s ok and my visa has been approved.

For now, no such luck but it’s only been a month, there’s a possible 5 months more to go.  Well, it gives us time to get all the money together to pay it all off!

So, life isn’t all roses.  Until we get the confirmation and all ok from the Home Office there is still that little cloud that follows us both around with the possibility that I’ll still have to leave.

Meanwhile I’d rather think of how cool it was to go on holiday and focus on the new challenge of being raw vegan that we set for ourselves.  Don’t you think?

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