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Visa processing and COVID-19: Could a fully digital journey be the solution?

12/05/2020
Visa processing and COVID-19: Could a fully digital journey be the solution?

As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and international travel remains severely restricted, there’s one question that many have asked us to address as leaders in the visa processing space. Internally and externally, people want to know whether the pandemic’s impact on the visa industry could have been lessened if the visa process was less reliant on applicants visiting a physical Visa Application Centre as part of the process.

It’s a perfectly logical question, and one that merits further exploration.

Over half of all global visa applications involve biometric enrolment and physical document checks in one form or another, which requires applicants to visit a physical location as part of the application process. Given the lockdown situation and social distancing measures employed by many countries in the face of the pandemic, Visa Application Centres have been closed across the world in line with local regulations and the needs of the countries for whom we process applications.

This is of course, one of the two primary reasons why the visa industry is so heavily impacted by the pandemic.

The second reason will come as no surprise – global travel is pretty much at a standstill right now due to a combination of formal travel restrictions, lockdown in individual countries, and the suspension of most international flights. Where there is no travel, there is no visa requirement.

Towards a contactless visa application process

While we can’t affect the inability of citizens to travel during the pandemic, it is valid to look more deeply at the requirement for applicants to visit a Visa Application Centre to submit their documents and biometric data. After all, if this part of the process could be managed in a different way, visa applications for travel some way into the future could potentially continue to be processed throughout a pandemic or other disruptive event.

Already, on-demand mobile visa applications are available in certain countries. This is where portable biometrics kit and experienced personnel are used to visit applicants at the location of their choice to capture the required biometric data and check documents. While convenient and popular among travellers, this solution does not solve the problem of fulfilling these application requirements during a time of lockdown and social distancing.

A truly contactless visa application process would seem like the only logical way of maintaining visa processing in times like we are experiencing right now. The rise in traveller numbers and near universal consumer adoption of high specification mobile devices would indicate that the market is ready to embrace a wholly digital application journey, which would also bring significant wider benefits to the traveller. Convenience would be top of the list, removing the need for applicants to travel to a centre and thus improving the customer experience significantly.

Ensuring safe capture of biometric data

For us at TLScontact, moving towards a digital visa application process might not necessarily be as significant a step as it might seem. Out of the millions of applications we process in a year, we already digitise over 30% and 150 million pages of biographic information. The missing piece of the jigsaw is the safe capture of biometric data from applicants remotely, alongside any interview requirements and the validation of documents. The last two elements can be addressed with relative ease using established secure video technology and proven Know Your Customer (KYC) solutions that have been widely adopted in sectors like finance and banking.

Capturing biometric data at a distance is more of a challenge. As a provider of visa processing solutions to governments, our aim is to make international travel safe and easy for governments and citizens alike.  We must ensure that our activities are 100% secure and that any remote solution we propose does not compromise security in any way. It’s through demonstrating this commitment that we expect governments around the world to increasingly trial next-generation processing of visa applications in the coming period.

Using mobile devices for biometric capture

As an industry, and as an individual business, we are much closer to being able to partner with our Government Clients to offer a truly digital application journey than we have ever been. The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated technical development and policy discussion around the world, and the key to a fully digital journey is probably within a few feet of you now. The adoption of fingerprint scanning hardware in mobile devices is now widespread and its use is second nature to many consumers.

Fingerprint security varies between mobile devices according to the hardware used, and governments have different minimum requirements in terms of the technology used. However, the software now exists to secure captured fingerprint data and transmit it in a suitably encrypted form to be validated remotely, alongside other data as part of a comprehensive verification process. Coupled with secure video interviews and anti-spoofing measures, these are the building blocks of a future visa application process that could continue in the face of any disruptive event that prevents access to physical enrolment locations.

To return to the original question, we can say that if the visa process was less reliant on applicants visiting a physical centre to complete their application, the current pandemic may not have had such a significant and negative effect on the visa industry. It is important to note that no process can circumvent a global travel lockdown, but it’s entirely feasible that fully digitised visa applications for future travel could have continued to be processed as normal.

If you are involved in policy development or technology enablement in the visa space, we would welcome your input as we continue to work with our partners and government clients in this area. Feel free to contact us to get involved in our Innovation Forum and help us shape the services of the future.

By Graydon Downs
Innovation Director

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