Why everyone loves to hate VFS Global

VFS makes a commission on every visa processed besides selling value-added services (Credit: Ashish Asthana/Mint)
VFS makes a commission on every visa processed besides selling value-added services (Credit: Ashish Asthana/Mint)


Travel agents have complained of bottlenecks on its website. Delays resulting from such glitches can force people into buying expensive value-added services, such as a mobile biometric service.

New Delhi: In mid-August, a 21-year-old, about to join a merchant navy company in the US, reached a visa application centre run by VFS Global Services Pvt. Ltd, the world’s largest visa outsourcing company, in Delhi’s Shivaji Stadium.

He had applied for a visa under the C-1/D category—those travelling to the US to work on commercial sea vessels and international airlines need a crewmember (D) visa as well as a transit (C-1) visa.

The visa was processed and the passport was ready for collection, he was intimated. But a surprise awaited. The young mariner’s passport had been dispatched to the Kolkata VFS office for collection. He had appeared for the visa interview in Delhi and never chose Kolkata as the delivery option.

“The teller handling passports first said that my profile in the system showed ‘Kolkata VAC’ as the pickup location. I never chose Kolkata as I live just four hours from Delhi. Then, the teller argued that my visa application was possibly filled by an agent who accidentally chose Kolkata on my behalf," the mariner said.

Next, a VFS executive at the centre suggested alternatives. Fly down to Kolkata if in a hurry or pay the company close to 1,000 for the passport to be brought back to Delhi. He could even authorize someone in Kolkata to collect it. But none of these options made sense since the mariner would lose time. His bags were packed and he had to leave by the third week of August. Eventually, he deferred the joining date, and his employer, who was paying for the travel to the US, incurred a financial loss.

He took solace from the fact that he was not the only one who faced this hassle. When he went to collect the passport in Delhi, he met a lady with a similar problem. She jostled with the passport collection staff at VFS because her passport had been dispatched to the Chennai centre without her consent.

VFS Global is a sub-contractor to CGI Federal Inc., the prime contractor for US government operations.

Complaints regularly surface on social media about the visas VFS processes for other governments as well. People have complained about misplaced passports, unethical employees selling visa slots, unauthorized biometric enrolments by employees, security guards at the centre gates asking for bribes, technology bottlenecks in the company’s website and aggressive up-selling of other services. Travel agents have concerns around opaqueness in the way the company or its employees operate.

Many believe that such lapses are a fallout of the monopoly VFS enjoys. The company, founded by Zubin Karkaria, started in 2002 in Mumbai but is today headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, and in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Besides handling the administrative work around visas, the company also provides passport and consular services. For travellers from India, VFS today provides processing services for over 50 countries. The competition pales when compared. BLS International, another company into visa services, only processes visas for The Gambia, Morocco, Vietnam, Spain, Thailand and South Korea from India.

VFS denies it’s a monopoly. “We are not monopolistic. There are more than 50 companies in the fray around the globe that deal with visas. They can provide these services too. We respect competition," Prabuddha Sen, chief operating officer for South Asia, VFS Global, said.

When Mint pointed out other lapses, a VFS spokesperson listed the company’s certifications and ratings. “Our global offices and operations are certified with several international standards, including ISO 9001:2015 (Quality Management System and ISO 10002:2018) and (Customer Satisfaction - Guidelines for complaints handling in organizations). The organization’s focus on customer centricity is also demonstrated through the overall customer (applicant) satisfaction rate of 92% in 2022, a significant increase from 2021, despite challenges restarting operations in the face of the pandemic and geopolitical disruptions. In addition, the business maintained its Trustpilot (a review platform) rating of 4.6/5 throughout this time," the company responded.

‘Not an ice cream biz’

The larger question is what went wrong at VFS? Is the company being blamed for faults that are not its making? And should visa seekers moderate their expectations?

Some say that public memory is short. Things were worse off in the 1990s, or before the organized outsourcing players entered the market. Passports and visas once were the playground of umpteen touts and “visa mafias".

However, this logic doesn’t fly—processes are expected to get easier, better, and faster every few years.

One reason for falling service levels is staff shortage, both at the diplomatic missions and at the processing centres. Employees are overworked.

Over 20 million Indians travelled abroad in 2022, with tourism being the third biggest reason for doing so, Mint had reported. However, this was 18% lower than the pre-pandemic average of over 25 million seen between 2017 and 2019. But the pace is growing: in the first four months of 2023, nearly 8.5 million have travelled abroad. The bounce back, post the pandemic, has surprised everyone, from travel agents and airlines to airports and governments.

In India, the US visa wait times have been as high as a couple of years. Germany’s deputy mission head, who spoke at a media event in August, said that the wait time is still eight weeks to get a visa. For most parts of the developed world, Indians must take visas.

The unexpected volumes led to chaos at VFS as well. The company had let go of 5,000 workers—half of its workforce—during the pandemic. But following the deadly delta wave in 2021, the company struggled to secure enough trained manpower.

The demand-supply mismatch irked people—many urban Indians do think securing a visa is a given. It is not.

“It is a country’s decision whether they would grant a visa or not. There are misplaced expectations (of customers). It is a document drenched in legality and not just a sticker on a passport," Sen said. “We agree there was a disruption (due to the pandemic). We are now scaling back up. But we cannot make everyone happy…we are not in the business of selling ice cream," he added.

Sen said that even when the company’s service is good, VFS can face the brunt of a visa decision going against a person. “Nobody thanks us on social media ever. But we accept that as part of our business model," he said.

The company’s business has indeed rebounded. In 2021-22, the latest data available, VFS generated revenue of 446 crore on a standalone basis, up 31% from the year before, according to research firm Tofler. From a loss of 61 crore in 2020-21, it turned in a profit of 17 crore in 2021-22.

VFS makes a commission on every visa processed besides selling value-added services. It handled 5 million applications in 2022 in South Asia—about 4.5 million were from India. In 2019, it had six million applications from the region.

Bot attack

Travel companies, especially those catering to out-bound travel, were the worst impacted during the pandemic. While their business has recovered with the borders opening up, visa processing delays have been a bugbear.

In a LinkedIn post earlier this month, Naveen Kundu, managing director of travel agency Ebixcash Travel Services, said, Indian travel companies are facing problems with visa issuance from European, South African, Eastern European, Turkish, Japanese and Canadian embassies. And since these embassies have poor communication and do not provide timely updates on visa applications, it causes financial and reputational losses for travel companies and inconvenience for corporate travellers. “We don’t even know till the last moment, often till the very last day of departure, if the visas will be issued on time or issued at all," Kundu wrote.

Lack of visa slots is another bottleneck.

Mint, in April this year, reported that travel agents were struggling to secure slots. “This year, the travel load was expected to go up since it’s the first big year after covid-19 restrictions were completely lifted. However, at least 800 appointments by our clients are pending due to ‘technical issues’ at the VFS office," a senior executive of a travel company, who did not want to be identified, had told Mint.

Back then, VFS had responded saying that fraudulent attempts had been made to block appointments by third-party entities, using human intervention as well as bots, leading to a slowdown of its systems.

Slots for sale

VFS has been bracing up to frauds involving its own employees as well. In July this year, at the company’s Ahmedabad centre, two employees were caught trying to game the system. The two allegedly colluded with a former company employee to forge documents and fraudulently enrolled 28 visa seekers who wanted to get their biometrics done for Canada.

“VFS Global has detected some unauthorized biometric enrolment cases in Ahmedabad," the company stated in a release.

When Mint further probed, the company said that in line with its organization’s zero-tolerance policy against fraud and unethical practices, it has a stringent compliance framework. It reported the detection of unauthorized biometric enrolment with the local crime branch that involved a grey operator and some employees. The staffers were suspended pending investigation.

Then, in the UAE, residents were warned by the company to stay away from “agents" posing to be employees of VFS and fraudsters that copy graphics from their website to target unsuspecting visa seekers.

“Grey operators take advantage of the system; there are so many vulnerable people applying for visas. We are working towards putting an end to that," Sen said.

Things may have changed for the better since the 1990s, but these episodes tell us that the current process followed is not foolproof.

Buy more

The company’s value-added services, like a mobile biometric facility, is meant to make life easier for visa applicants. However, some view it as an aggressive push to cross-sell. Mobile biometric is also known as ‘collect-from-home’ or an ‘on-demand’ service, depending on the country.

Such a service, VFS says, is ‘personalized’. In a YouTube video, which educates people on using this on-demand service for applying for a visa to the UK, the company states that “the application centre can come at your doorstep". The company’s staff can visit your home or office, check the documents, take photographs, fingerprint scans, and the digital signature. The visa application is then submitted. Once the visa application has been processed, the passport is returned to the doorstep.

Travel agents said that technical bottlenecks on its website can force many people who are desperate to secure a visa to opt for the mobile biometric facility, which is expensive.

“Customers could be misled into believing that opting for additional services like premium lounge, courier assurance etc., will fast track their visa processing and also ensure document safety. This is not the case," said the visa head of a large ticket travel agency. He did not want to be identified.

For France, a lounge service (where a visa applicant can wait in a lounge) costs 3,590 while collect-from-home is priced at 3,380. For Germany, mobile biometric costs 12,400 for 1-10 applicants. A premium lounge comes at 2,500 per person.

Sen said that mobile biometric services saw a strong uptake during the pandemic. “There is no investor pressure on us to up-sell these services," he said. However, he acknowledged that while there is no pressure on applicants to buy these services either, some may believe that opting for value-added services can indeed secure them the visa.

The head of a business travel house in India, who also did not want to be identified, said that someday, the business of visas, as we know it today, will change because of more electronic visas.

The millions of trees cut to make paper (the extensive physical documentation required) will be a thing of the past. Many value-added services like lounges can disappear. And applying for a visa will indeed become as easy as purchasing an ice cream—disrupting the business of processing companies in the process. But until then, we have to queue up.

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