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How NOT to marry a foreign national

I am publishing our negative experience in case it is useful, but it is not legal advice.
I have included boxes like these suggesting "how this could be fixed". This is not intended as political commentary: I am not qualified to design high-level national policy. As a computer scientist I simply wish to point out small tweaks that could make the technical system run more smoothly within existing policy (assuming the policymakers don't want the glitches).
My fiancee was an Indonesian-born Chinese lady who grew up in Hong Kong. In September 2014 we were engaged shortly after hearing of my father's cancer diagnosis, and sought to marry while he was still alive. He had been given a prognosis of 6 to 18 months. He actually lived 26 months (until 31st August 2016) but we didn't know that in advance.

Deported 4 days before wedding

After reading the October 2014 version of the guidance notes (Internet Archive link), I thought it's not necessary for Hong Kong nationals to obtain a visa before marrying in the UK, because they do not need visas for general visits and are therefore (I thought) not "subject to immigration control". Plus I didn't think a visa called "family of a settled person" could possibly be suitable for someone who's not yet a family member, so it seemed to me that they wanted you to marry first and then apply for a visa if you want to stay. And then my fiancee was finally stopped in February 2015 when she flew in with her entire family 4 days before the wedding (which was the first time she flew on a one-way ticket). She was kept in a detention room and sent back to Hong Kong that evening. The wedding had to be called off and the family was devastated (not to mention the expense involved---all the long-haul flight tickets and accommodation).
How this could be fixed:
  1. After any clarification to the rules, it would be nice to have a "grace period" for anyone who read the old version and didn't check for updates. If this is not possible then at least place a clear warning on all rules pages advising the reader to check back regularly for updates.
  2. It would be nice if make a page explaining exactly what "subject to immigration control" means, and link to it from any page that uses that phrase. And when pointing people to the Family of a Settled Person visa, clearly state that fiance(e)s count as family.
  3. It would be nice if Designated Register Offices were instructed to keep up with the latest rules and to double-check nobody tries to declare intent to marry on a general visit. Stopping us at that time would have caused a lot less grief.

What you can do now:

  1. Before relying on any rule you read on the official government website, set web-monitoring software like WebCheck to tell you about any future additions. If using a solicitor, check they'll keep up with changes too.
  2. If your Register Office is "Designated", don't think that means they'll give you a free visa check as part of your declaration appointment.
Incidentally, the page was updated again on 13th March 2015 (the day before we were finally married), and the current version adds "unless you're already in the UK". That seems to me to create a loophole whereby someone who is already on a visa-free general visit (with return ticket) can now declare intent as long as they then stay in the UK until after the wedding (no going back to bring your family over for it as we tried to do), but I wouldn't be surprised if the official interpretation of the new wording is different from mine.

The week of sleepless nights and bureaucracy

The official at Heathrow Airport said she was sure my fiancee could be granted a visa very quickly especially if we have medical proof of any compassionate grounds like my father's cancer. (Since he didn't want his condition published before his death, previous versions of this page just said "compassionate grounds" and I didn't correct anyone who thought that meant my sight condition.) But the official said "just as a technical point" it has to be done from Hong Kong. The way that official said it seemed to imply they could do it overnight, or at least before the end of her family's 10-day trip. I had not yet recovered my sanity enough to think to ask the question "exactly how fast is 'very quickly'?"
The Hong Kong visa office is of course closed until Monday, but at least my fiancee can start filling out their online form. But she asked me to double-check which form it was. The official at the airport had said she'd given her a document with the correct Web address, but that turned out to be insufficiently precise. I couldn't dare help her from the UK because I had no idea if the website might be using "GeoIP" or similar to present different forms to different countries (and I didn't know any good Hong Kong-based proxy servers to try), so I had to just hope she'd find the right download.
How this could be fixed: It would be nice if all large websites had well-defined URL schemes, so that staff and handouts can point people to exact pages instead of having to say "start from the top and find it yourself because we don't know our way around our own CMS" or words to that effect. Also, make sure any location-based logic can be overridden (unless required by law), so that users can help their friends in other countries, or if running a site that's plausibly location-sensitive but isn't, then reassure people it isn't.

What you can do now: During a general visit, ask the other party's permission to set up some kind of remote-control or proxying software on their computer in case you ever need to check how a site looks from their location.

She started an online application, and paid extra for the priority service, but even this turned out to aim for 2 weeks + holidays. The first available appointment for submitting supporting documents at the visa centre was Tuesday.
She takes a required medical test, but is informed the results will not be available until Wednesday. Both of us try to get through to the British consulate in Hong Kong to see if they can speed up the application on compassionate grounds: she gets turned away, and I get referred to an expensive premium "advice line" that basically reads me the website. I obtain the medical evidence and deliver it to my local MP, whose staff kindly agree to take on the case (unlike those of my father's MP who reportedly told him "that's the way it is now"), but when they call the Home Office there is no computer record of the application she started on Saturday and not even a record of Friday's deportation (I should probably point out the obvious security implications if that's true: anyone deported from one airport has time to try another before the computers are updated). We guess the computer record has not yet appeared because she hasn't yet submitted her supporting documents, but by this time the Hong Kong visa office had closed. I stay up past 03:00 helping her go over the details of documents she was due to submit on Tuesday.
Time lost: 2 or 3 days

How this could be fixed: When a member of staff who is dealing with emergency or compassionate grounds runs a search for visa applications, make that software also search the database of incomplete applications (i.e. ones which have been started online but do not yet have their documents submitted), and provide a means to write official notes against these. Also have the various offices synchronise their databases more frequently, or keep them on a central server with local backup.

I discover she has changed the document-submission appointment to Wednesday due to her medical test results not being due until then. I urge her to submit the other documents right now, even trying to do so without an appointment, as it seems we need to put some documents into the system so as to make the database entry visible to the people who can discuss it with the MP's office, and I guess an incomplete entry is better than none. She immediately goes to the visa office, who says yes she can submit now and come back with the medical test results later, but then discovers that, due to the anxiety of it all, she hadn't brought her passport (and the office can't accept documents without one), and when she goes back to fetch it, she misses the 3pm deadline and the office closes. (Hong Kong transport runs slowly before a public holiday and she can't halve the round-trip distance by asking a family member to bring her passport because they're all in Cambridge for her (non)wedding day.) I send scanned copies of her documents to the MP's office but they can't do anything until the originals are submitted in Hong Kong.
Time lost: 1 day

How this could be fixed: If medical tests are required and the application is urgent, provide some means of assessing it without the test results and, if approved, say "approved if medical test is clear". Test results can then be shown to the local office before the visa is collected. This arrangement would take the medical lab out of the CPA critical path.

What you can do now:

  1. Before deferring your submission appointment due to a medical test, try asking if you'd be allowed to come back with the test results later. However I don't know if that would get your application onto the "complete" database any sooner.
  2. If for some reason you have to urge the applicant you're sponsoring to submit something immediately, run through the checklist of everything they need to take to make sure nothing gets left behind in the rush.
She finally submits her documents. MP is not available to repeat the query today (well they do have a lot of work to do!) but his staff prepare a memo for him to sign.
Memo sent. Hong Kong offices all close down for Chinese New Year, but I hope they can still process things in London. After a week of sleepless nights doing things on Hong Kong time, on Thursday night I had the mistaken idea that I could finally switch my phone off and try to get a decent night's sleep, because nothing can possibly happen now until 09:00 GMT, right? Wrong.
I discover that UK visas for Hong Kong are processed, not in London, but in Manila, Philippines (which was not affected by HK's Chinese New Year closure), and they wanted additional bank statements from me at 04:43 GMT (and no it wasn't some kind of 'scam'---the submission email used a genuine domain). I didn't get the message until 08:30, and then it took me over an hour to fight with the bank websites (which don't work with my low-vision stylesheets because their "security" programming gets tripped up, so I have to struggle with the unadapted versions) and finally download some PDF statements, but by the time I was able to submit, the Manila office had closed for the weekend.
Time lost: 3 days (1 + weekend)

How this could be fixed: If dealing with an emergency and more documents are urgently required from the UK sponsor, implement a means by which the entire case can be passed to a UK office which can handle it on UK time. If this can't be implemented, warn the applicant at time of submission that queries involving the UK sponsor might come from an office that does not operate on UK time.

What you can do now: Be aware that the assessment officials might be neither in London nor in the applicant's country, but in a third country that's in the same general region and time zone but has different public holidays. Therefore, do not assume it's OK to go back to UK time just because the application is in assessment and/or the applicant's country is on holiday.

To make matters worse, a key savings account that they wanted history for turned out to provide only annual PDF statements, and the last one was 10 months old, so I had to hope they'd accept screenshots after that. They specifically asked for scans of paper statements, and I had no idea if the screenshots + PDF files would do, but it's the best I could manage this side of the 3 weeks or so it would take me to obtain "real" statements for all accounts.
Time lost: who knows (they said "deferred")

How this could be fixed: When processing emergency applications, ask the anti-fraud service to check bank computers directly if a sponsor does not have enough statements to hand. Or have all banks cryptographically sign their digital statements with a high-security public signing key, so the account holder can immediately transmit signed statements to anyone who needs proof.

What you can do now: As soon as you start even thinking about sponsoring an immigrant, switch all your accounts back to paper statements, even if it's environmentally bad and puts you at risk of mail theft. Since large-print and Braille statements are not normally accepted as genuine, make sure you get normal print versions as well (or instead). Also make sure statements are monthly (switch accounts if necessary, but this is probably best avoided if an application is less than 6 months away, and use correct transfer procedure for ISAs).

It's also a good idea to move utility bills back to paper and add the other party's name to your own, so they can be used when you get as far as introducing them to a UK bank, and for providing evidence of residence during visa renewal.

We try to make arrangements for at least some of her family to extend their trip, as well as sending better screenshots to the Manila office. The week has taken its toll on my immune system and I'm coming down with something.

Near miss on Day 11 & loss of her family

On Monday 23rd February she received an email from the Manila office saying "a decision has been made on your application" and instructions not to go to the local office until they contact her to say her documents are ready to collect. From a user-interface perspective, that's about as informative as a progress bar stuck on 99%.
How this could be fixed: If there's a security reason why that email cannot include the actual decision result, perhaps they can at least add a statement of how much longer the process is likely to take. "This typically takes..." is not hard to write, and gives the user a clearer picture without making a binding promise.

What you can do now: The only data point we can give you is, in our case it took 4 more days (see below).

Her family had return tickets to Hong Kong that day. Although we had already arranged accommodation for them to stay longer and figured out how they can change their tickets at the last minute, they decided not to do so, as they felt the Manila email wasn't certain enough and they were afraid of being blacklisted by UK border control. So we lost the attendance of her family over this.

The millionth-speed data link

Three days after being informed the decision was made, my fiancee received an email saying the decision was ready to collect at the local office. This email was sent after the office had already closed, so the collection had to be on the following day, i.e. 4 days after the decision was made. (This was 15 days after her original detention.) She had tried to find out the result earlier than this by telephoning the Manila office, but all they gave her is the UK number of yet another "advice service" that read you the website for a fee (unless you called it at the wrong time, in which case they'd say "the office is now closed" without leaving any clues about the opening hours, except a brief mention that they can be found somewhere on the website, even though the people who are calling that number are presumably doing so because they're not very good at navigating the website for themselves).

Taking four days to convey one binary digit worth of information that had already been decided---the answer to the question "do I get a visa or not"---represents an average of 3 microbits per second (neglecting overheads), which is trillions of times less bandwidth than contemporary home Internet links. This is, of course, only a humorous comparison: it is a valid bandwidth figure in the same way as Tanenbaum's "never underestimate the bandwidth of [an estate car] full of tapes hurtling down the highway" is valid, but to be fair you'd also have to measure your broadband with the same-sized payload (in this case 1 bit), so let's just look at latency: "VisaNet" was running about 50 million times slower than the main Internet backbones that week, or about half a million times slower than a 2G mobile ISP, so I'm going to be nice and say it ran at one millionth of a decent speed. And this was an application that had been paid for at priority service and with compassionate grounds for speedup, so I don't recommend trying to use the UK Visa & Immigration Service as your broadband provider. Even the Bergen Linux User Group's 2001 joke project to send Internet data via carrier pigeon had 50 to 100 times more speed.

The point was, of course, that nobody could make further arrangements until we knew the application result. If it had already been decided, why couldn't that information be conveyed immediately, even before the documents are ready, so we can start booking other things?

How this could be fixed: On the online visa application form, add a checkbox that says "tick here if you'd like a courtesy email telling you what our decision is as soon as we've made it". That can set a flag in the database which causes the software to send out that email as soon as the decision has been entered into the system (which is presumably the event that trigged the generic "a decision has been made" email). This should take no extra staff time once it has been programmed.

Having the checkbox also means they can add as many legal disclaimers as they like on it: if you select this, don't blame us if your email gets intercepted or tampered with, or if a "yes" decision gets turned into "no" at the last second because James Bond 007 parachuted in through the skylight and yelled stop her! Or whatever other reason they have for not giving advance notice. Even if it's not authoritative, a courtesy advanced-notice email that has a 99.9%+ chance of being right is still useful.

Visa finally obtained

Her visa was obtained on Friday 27th February. On the same day I had an email from my MP who had just been informed (as his team had taken on the case); they were glad it was resolved. (So apparently even they weren't told until the document was actually collected.)

The visa was valid for 6 months, from 23rd February (the decision date) to 23rd August. The "Type" field was set to MARRIAGE/CP S S Brown and the "Observations" field to "No work or recourse to public funds".

I was momentarily worried this might be the wrong visa, since I had previously understood the "family of a settled person" visa was initially granted for 2 years (with permission to work), and I'd also read about another visa called "marriage visitor" which is for 6 months but you're both expected to leave the country after; the keywords and time frame seemed to fit the latter rather than the former. But she did have a separate document that clearly stated the application was for a type of settlement visa (even though this was not clearly stated on the visa itself), and the online guidance (at least now) said fiance(e)s are initially given 6 months and then they have to switch to a "family of a settled person" visa, the normal 5-year route being 30 months at a time. So it's 1 more step than we thought.

(At each stage of the game, I need to prove that I'm either receiving disability benefits or meet a certain financial requirement on either income or savings. Since my lower-rate DLA was placed under threat by the move to PIP, which was said to have a goal of throwing out at least some existing claimants, and high-paying jobs that are guaranteed for 5 years are hard to come by, the only way I could be sure was to save up enough cash in advance---63k in 2015, and who knows how often they'll increase this threshold---and not touch it for 5 years. I know of some who don't have savings because they spent them on a house---bad mistake if property value doesn't count toward the visa assessment---and others who obtained high-paying jobs and used that income without savings, which means if they lose the job they might have to leave the country to keep their marriage intact. I figured that over a 5-year period I'd rather rely on an FSCS-backed bank than a job, but I still had to hope I won't be proved wrong by either an FSCS failure or another rule-change within the 5-year period. At least stipulated financial thresholds are more predictable than the pre-2012 arrangement of letting the individual immigration officer judge.)

Wedding rearranged

On 5th March my fiancee was allowed into the UK after a 20-minute wait while they searched her luggage after the fingerprint scanner failed (during which time she thought she'd be detained again, but she wasn't).

We booked with the Registry Office a new slot which at least my family could attend, on March 14th (Pi Day); my brother played trumpet music written by my father (although we had to pre-record it so the office knew they'd be in control of the volume so as not to disturb the death registry next door), and Minmin was still able to read her poem. Only one Cantonese friend expressed tetraphobia regarding the new date (and we explained it's only coincidence that 14 sounds like "true death" in Cantonese), but we're still sad to have lost the attendance of the bride's family over visa issues.

Technical problems booking the renewal

In August our FLR(M) form was due. My wife very much wanted to make an in-person appointment with the premium same-day service so she'd be free to work or travel that much sooner, but we couldn't start the renewal application before August because it took us that long to obtain enough joint proofs of address to satisfy their requirements.

It turns out that applying for an in-person appointment can only be done online, and it involves an IHS payment, which surprised me because it had been introduced in April (another example of rules being changed "mid-flight" without any "grandfather clause" for those who started the process earlier, so beware that additional charges could be introduced during your 5-year process).

The first time we tried, the IHS payment server was not responding. The second time we tried, we found we had insufficient balance in our current account for both the IHS payment and the visa payment (this was because I didn't know about the surcharge in advance, so I hadn't made sure the required amount was in our account), and it so happened that my building society was having technical trouble at the same time so I couldn't top up the account from my savings very quickly, plus my wife's old Hong Kong credit card needed some kind of revalidation.

The third time we tried, we got as far as paying the IHS and being given a reference number, but then one of us accidentally hit the Back button, which their transaction server was not prepared for and the session was ruined; when we started again, we found there was no option to say you'd already paid. It took us another 24 hours to confirm that the correct thing to do in this situation was to pay the charge a second time and then ask for a refund, either during the interview or by post along with the application.

How this could be fixed: Provide a link on the website to skip the IHS payment if you've already paid it, or at least place an explanation about paying twice below the "Pay Now" button so it's not necessary to contact support.

What you can do now: Try to make sure you're applying from a reliable Internet connection and don't touch the browser's Back button. If technical issues do make you pay twice, keep both reference numbers so you can ask for a refund as described above.

The fourth time we tried, we were offered an appointment at the Croydon office---the last available appointment slot before the deadline---but we then discovered that our application had an incorrect digit in the telephone number and possibly also in the passport number, and this could not be changed. So we had to abandon it again and pay the IHS a third time, only to find the Croydon appointment was no longer available. This might have been because it was still being held by the abandoned session, or perhaps somebody else had just booked it. We didn't know which had happened, and because the deadline was approaching, it seemed our best course of action was to abandon Croydon and book an appointment at the only other office which still had available slots: Glasgow. That meant a short-notice 3-day round trip by rail.
How this could be fixed: Provide a mechanism to correct application details before booking. If this is not possible, provide a mechanism to cancel a currently-held slot so it can be re-booked in another browser session. If even this is not possible, at least provide a clear display of what time a held slot will be released.

What you can do now: Check numbers as they are entered, preferably as a team. If one of you feels anxious, the other should not leave (not even to fetch a drink), as anxiety could drive a person to continue alone and to enter numbers incorrectly.

At least I had a Disabled Person's Railcard, plus was able to get some reduction by booking "Advance" tickets albeit at only a few days' notice. We thought about getting ourselves to Euston (probably via Milton Keynes to save a "battle" with the Underground) and taking ScotRail's new "Caledonian Sleeper" train, but my wife doubted she'd really be able to sleep on it, so we ended up booking normal trains and hotels (Newcastle the night before interview day and Glasgow the night after) and not sleeping well anyway, but it meant we saw the sea views on the northern part of the East Coast Main Line and visited Glasgow's Kelvin river walk and gardens.

Document collection

The renewal required six documents like utility bills with both our names on them, and in a six-month period we only just managed: If I hadn't had that ENT complication we might not have made it. We didn't have telephone documents (no BT line in our flat, and BT said they couldn't install one for some undisclosed reason; there was a cable connection but the company said if they connected it they can't put more than one name on the bills, and neither could my mobile-phone carrier), and we didn't have driving or TV licenses (we do not watch television; we thought about obtaining a license just to help make up the number of documents, but that seemed like fraud).

Glasgow office

After we'd waited four hours, the case worker said the April annual statement from one of my ISAs was too old.

I hadn't yet switched to a bank that issues monthly statements because the renewal was imminent and the account has to have been held for a while, but I was hoping an annual statement in April would still be acceptable in August. It wasn't: must be within the last 28 days, and Internet printouts not acceptable unless stamped at the branch.

The case worker printed us a letter that gave us 14 days to send in a statement using "the enclosed return label", but he forgot to give us the return label and also forgot to fill in the reference numbers etc. On noticing this after we left, I thought it best to obtain the statement from the Glasgow branch immediately (authenticating by cash card and security questions, since all other proof was being held), and return with statement and letter while the same people were on duty at the security desk so they'd recognise me and could get the documents back to the same case worker before he forgets, even though this meant I had to hand over our only copy of the letter.

The lady at the bank said it's no longer their policy to stamp printouts at the branch, but she said an official branch printout that was clearly done her side of the counter would suffice even though it doesn't look the same as the ones they send through the post. Extra postal statements would have taken 3 weeks to order and we didn't have 3 weeks, so we just had to hope this would suffice. It was a "close call": after being misinformed and frantically running around, I finally located the bank 2½ minutes before it closed, and then arrived back at the visa office just as those security guards were leaving the premises. I must have been memorable to them because not only did I have my white cane and my South-of-England accent, but also a small Swiss-army-knife keyring, which they had to hold onto---``this is a government building, you could kill somebody with that''---and I can't help wondering if this giggle counted in my favour when I had to rely on their remembering me at the end of the shift.

Three days later our documents were returned by special delivery, along with a letter saying the 30-month biometric residence permit would be issued shortly. That arrived the following Monday and the delivery man asked for proof of identity. It was a credit-card sized card, not attached to the passport like the first 6-month visa. The case worker also telephoned to let us know (he had tried to call the day before as well; their phone system withheld the Caller ID so we couldn't return that missed call).

Incidentally we met another couple in the Glasgow waiting room who said they'd used a solicitor but the solicitor had made mistakes. So it seems that paying extra for a solicitor instead of doing it yourself is no guarantee of a better result.

Glasgow Underground warnings
  1. We found most stations had island platforms, and some of these were barely 2 metres wide, including the one at Cessnock near the visa office (which is in Brand Street next to Brand Place). Due to my assisting my wife with her wheeled suitcase, and wanting to alight quickly before the train pulls away, and not realising how narrow the island platform was, I ended up with a bit too much inertia and only just managed to stop myself when I felt the tactile paving 50cm from the opposite track.
  2. If station announcements are unclear, beware of similar names: Kelvinhall is not the same as Kelvinbridge.

Reclaiming extra IHS payments

The call centre said refunds are made by the NHS (not the Home Office) and that it can take up to 35 days. Three days after our interview, one of our two extra IHS payments was refunded to the card, but the other was not. The following week, the call centre advised us to write to the Glasgow office about this. Perhaps the software developers assumed the worst-case scenario was someone paying IHS twice but not three times. When we had no response from the Glasgow office, we also tried emailing technical support. The outstanding payment was refunded without comment after about a month.

Social housing system confused

In 2004 I started renting a studio flat from a local housing association (later taken over by a national one). That was before I started saving up to meet the financial requirements for immigration (as explained above, I have been employed but not continuously, so I had to save up so we could do it on savings). I was not asked to leave social housing just because my savings began to exceed some threshold, but after we married things became more complicated.

The Local Housing Officer had given permission for my wife to stay in the studio flat as long as we apply to transfer as soon as possible. This involved both an application to transfer within the same housing association (whose selection of properties in the Cambridge area is very limited), and an application to the City Council's scheme that now coordinates all social housing in the area: this has changed a lot since 2004. It turned out the Council assesses transfer applicants in much the same way that it assesses first-time applicants, and they ruled we had too much money in the bank to be placed in any of their four priority bands and were therefore placed in a fifth "D*" band, meaning we'd be offered a property only if nobody in any of the other bands wants it, the chances of which are very low indeed. I asked the appeals committee if they'd consider ignoring some of our savings on the grounds that we're relying on them for the five-year immigration process and therefore can't use them for five years, and four months later they refused: anyone with over 40k of savings goes in Band D* (at 2015 prices that amount would likely last less than 2 years if living in Cambridge private rental without employment, but they have to prioritise somehow).

Separately from this, the staff at the council offices seemed a bit confused when I presented my wife's visa saying "no recourse to public funds", as their rules didn't say what to do about joint applications where one is subject to immigration control and the other is not. They later published a new version of the rules (starting April 2016) which explicitly states that anyone subject to immigration control is not to be counted, which means I'd be considered "adequately housed" in the small studio flat as though my wife didn't exist. Of course we didn't know about this before marriage, and neither did the Local Housing Officer who gave permission thinking a transfer would be possible.

How this could be fixed: In the visa guidance notes, warn sponsors that, if they're in social housing, they're not likely to be able to use the new family member(s) as a basis for transfer applications. Potential applicants can then know this before working out their marriage plans.

What you can do now: Be aware that transfers within social housing are unlikely. If your local authority does not yet have rules covering your case, it's likely to make them.

We also looked for "exchanges" within the social housing system, but it's rare to find someone wanting to downsize to a studio flat (unless they live 10 miles out of town and are desperate to move closer, but that would give us a transport problem).

However, we were still able to transfer to a larger flat in the same block, under the supervision of that same officer who gave permission for my wife to be here provided we transfer. A suitable flat almost became vacant 6 months after our marriage. The senior managers listed it with the Council before that officer could intervene, but they wrote the wrong number of bedrooms on that listing, which then had to be deleted (and confusingly it really was deleted from the CBL database, rather than being placed into their "withdrawn" state, so anyone who had bid on it wouldn't even see what had happened to their bid) and before listing a corrected version they offered it to us.

The move was delayed a further 7 months because the current tenant was to move into a newly-built council block for which the council repeatedly failed to accept handover from the builders due to outstanding issues on the snag list. We asked about the progress of this almost every week, repeatedly being told it could be soon but not yet, with three households waiting in our "chain" (and who knows how many others) with the 'progress bar' stuck on 99%.

Incidentally, the officer always had to return our calls later, and had to do this from a withheld number. Due to the large number of sales organisations, scammers and so on who use 'number withheld', I don't usually give any priority to answering such calls, but for those months if my phone said "unknown" I would have to drop everything straight away to take that call. Thus I talked with a few telemarketters who said things like "we understand your car was hit and it wasn't your fault"---when I said they must have the wrong number, one lady urged me to try harder to recall the incident, so I politely explained that I don't drive because I'm blind (well, partially sighted, but let's keep things simple). I assume these companies call people indiscriminately, and are therefore being dishonest about knowing you've been hit, but it's possible that their individual call centre operators (likely short-term hires) weren't told that the numbers are random and therefore don't know that the "we understand" message is a lie.

5 hours' notice and a smoke-filled flat

In late April 2016, we had just been told yet again that the move will not likely happen for another week or two due to contractor delays, but then the next morning they called back to say this had changed, and asked us to pick up the key in 5 hours. Mercifully they allowed us to keep the smaller flat for a week as well, but it proved challenging to arrange everything within that week without previous notice.

This was in the 14th month of our marriage, but in case anyone gets 'confirmation bias' about that number, perhaps I should add that we didn't move to flat number 14 and we weren't given 14 days to do it, and we didn't die.

However, the larger flat was previously occupied by a smoker, and the danger to our lives from her smoke residue is much more real than the numerology. Unlike the regional association who owned the block when I first moved in, the new national owners made flooring and decoration the tenant's responsibility even from the start, and that means tenants transferring into a smokey flat must clean it up themselves. We therefore faced many hours of stripping and scrubbing with sugar-soap, and due to lack of skills had to book professionals to help us reinstall all floors, walls and ceilings, at total cost approaching that of 9 months' rent (and we stayed elsewhere for some of the nights because the new paint was affecting us even though its datasheet said the VOC content was under 8g/L).

We provided the measurements ourselves, hoping they'd then be able to install flooring before we had to move in the furniture (which would not be the case if they had to make an additional visit for measuring), but this turned out to be a mistake because, although we had taken care to make reasonably accurate area measurements, we hadn't thought to check for flooring thickness constraints posed by internal doors and storage heaters, and the fitters didn't come prepared to readjust or work around these.

How this could be fixed: When dealing with a customer who brings their own measurements, flooring shop personnel should remember to ask about doors, heaters and other fixtures that might need adjusting, as the customer might not have thought of mentioning this.

What you can do now: If you don't have time to wait for a separate inspection visit, be aware that as well as measuring the area you also need to make the fitters aware of any internal doors and heaters, as these might become obstacles to the job.
When I prepared a neat SVG diagram of the place (here's the program I made to draw it), this might have caused them to overestimate my surveying competence---they might have asked more questions if I'd walked in with a messy ballpoint sketch on a scrap of paper!

We had two housing-association officials contradict each other on the issue of whether or not we were allowed to move the storage heaters during reflooring, and the process was delayed a fortnight and had to be completed with furniture already in the flat and being moved around in a Bolo Adventures-esque manner.

Because we were using laminate for some of the flat, we were also concerned about uneven subfloors. Some vinyl tiles were missing; we were told thick underlay would level it automatically, but some boards proved to be "bouncy" and they said it cannot now be fixed. The "bouncy" boards have so far not broken (although we try to avoid stepping on them); whether laminate breaks in these circumstances depends on its quality. (A convex corner of beading was rather easily damaged by an office chair.)

We tried to rent an industrial ozone generator to reduce the volatility of any remaining tobacco deposits in the fittings, but someone at the tool hire company apparently clicked the wrong option on their delivery management software, resulting in the generator being sent to a depot in Cardiff instead of Cambridge, and we had to cancel because it wasn't going to arrive soon enough to use while the flat was still empty (I don't know enough chemistry to risk adding high doses of ozone to an occupied flat with new paint and fabrics). Thankfully the heaters did not seem too bad when we switched them on in the winter.

How this could be fixed: If smoking in social housing cannot be banned and tenants are unable to choose a smoke-free property, and if the association is unable to decontaminate between tenants, then allow two or more weeks for the transfer. One week seems insufficient for tenant-led decontamination, especially without advanced notice of the dates.

What you can do now: If you know you are waiting for a property that might be smokey and wish to use an ozone generator, make sure you know how to contact the tool-hire company immediately in the event of sudden progress, since it might take them longer than expected to send their unit to the correct branch. When accepting the key, and before the forms are signed and the officer has to move on, ask if you can have two or more weeks to transfer on the grounds that decontamination might be delayed if tool hire takes longer than expected. (Note: this page is not medical advice. Only use an ozone generator if you know what you are doing.)

Changing our address with the visa authorities

The Home Office website said that BRP holders should notify changes of addresses on the MCC form, but that form's Question 5 asked which Tier of the PBS the migrant is in, and said nothing about the FLR(M), route although FLR(M) also issued a BRP. Once again we have a lack of clarity; we are sending off an MCC with an explanation scrawled on it, and hoping for the best.
How this could be fixed: Either add an FLR(M) option to the MCC form, or clarify how holders of FLR(M) BRPs should notify their changes of addresses.

What you can do now: I've no idea, but I'll update this page when I hear what happened to our MCC form with the scribbled explanatory note on Question 5.

Documents for the 2018 renewal

It remains to be seen how the visa system will cope with a change of address in the middle of my wife's 'probationary' period, but I assume we will need plenty of documents for both addresses. Problems we have encountered so far include:
  1. In 2016 Cambridge Water merged their billing system with South Staffordshire Water, and this resulted in a new rule that only one name was allowed to appear on a household's water bills. Our existing account with two names was carried over, but was truncated to 30 characters, losing half of my wife's surname (which she had not changed at marriage), and their call centre operator was not authorized to work around this limitation by deleting whitespace or titles; the only change he was allowed to make was to delete her, so we stuck with the truncated surname.
  2. Our new flat had a pre-pay electricity meter. Although Ebico offers the same rate regardless of payment type, we needed a credit meter to receive biannual paper bills. The call-centre operator at Ebico's supplier SSE said I'd received a "medium" risk assessment from the credit-rating agency Experian (perhaps due to the ongoing change of address? who knows how Experian's software works...) but he was still able to set up a Direct Debit and the meter was replaced within 2½ weeks of our move.

All material © Silas S. Brown unless otherwise stated.