A government scheme to allow online visa applications from foreign nationals, starting with several Commonwealth countries, is underway.
UKvisas, a joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office unit which runs the UK's visa service, is developing the website and software for online visa applications, initially for use in five Commonwealth countries.
If the scheme is successful it will be extended to up to 30 countries.
Junior Foreign Office minister Chris Mullin told Parliament last week: "It is intended that a pilot scheme will begin by early November in Malaysia and Singapore, followed by Australia, New Zealand and Canada before the end of 2003.
"It is intended to make online visa applications available [for foreign citizens] in up to 30 countries in 2004."
Other countries where the scheme is likely to be rolled out include France, Germany, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and South Africa.
Although EU citizens do not require visas, third country nationals living within EU member states do.
The government decided to proceed with the scheme "following the success of online visa applications in the US", explained Mullin.
UKvisas added in a statement that "the time scale and order in which [e-applications in countries] will be done is yet to be decided, but the process is expected to be fairly simple to introduce".
The process was piloted to allow US citizens in New York to apply for UK visas and then extended to two other visa issuing posts in the US - Chicago and Los Angeles - in February of this year.
It has raised $1.5m in revenue, speeded up collection time to one hour in some cases, and improved overall processing time by 30 per cent, according to UKvisas.
"In New York, around 60 per cent of visa applications are now made online," it said. "Applications can be dealt with quickly and efficiently often without the need for interviews."
Based on the model piloted in the US, e-application forms for other countries will be intuitive, only asking questions relevant to the type of application. For example, only students will see the student questions.
Applicants have the option of paying by credit card and will receive automated responses telling them how to proceed.
They will also receive emails letting them know when their passport has been received by their nearest visa office, when their visa has been issued and when their passport has been sent back. This will include a link to the courier's website and the tracking number.
Additional reporting by Ian Lynch.
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