[Update April 13 at 11:30 - A Connexion reader has reported that the courier service for the return of passports to UK visa applicants has now resumed.]
Several British people with second homes in France have complained about complications in getting long-stay visas for France, which we highlighted yesterday. A few have praised the process.
British people have, since Brexit came into force on January 1, 2021, only been allowed to stay in France and other EU countries for a maximum of 90 in 180 days. Many Britons with second homes in France want to stay longer, and so are applying for visas.
Following our report yesterday (March 8), The Connexion has heard from several other readers about their experience of the process.
Some tell of problems regarding the organisation of the visa centre, the inconvenience of passport collection and a lack of clarity on the online application portal, while some others describe a positive, straightforward system.
For background, in order to apply for a visa, it is necessary to first submit an application via the France-Visas portal including your personal details, and then to book an appointment for the submission of your supporting documents.
These appointments are processed by a handling agent called TLS Contact, which has centres in London, Manchester and Edinburgh. It is only possible to book a slot once you have made a separate account with the branch you will be attending.
You must attend the appointments in person, and then once the visa has been sent for processing by the French consulate, return to collect it from TLS Contact in person.
One Connexion reader, who has a second home in France, applied for a visa last year and said the experience was negative compared to her experience of applying for visas for several other countries.
“The service they have contracted out to was really poor and very disorganised, although some of the staff were truly lovely," she said.
She added the passport was held for processing by officials for three weeks, and stated the consulate did not respond when she telephoned and asked for it to be returned, though she was able to "retrieve it" after making complaints. “The system is simply not sensible and I am writing to the French Ambassador. It serves no one," the reader said.
We note, however, that the Visa service states that processing times are variable and as a general guideline are two to 15 days; also that the passport is usually returned to TLS Contact for collection at the final stage.
‘Staff were excellent’
Judith Kilshaw, a retired nurse who owns a second home in Provence with her husband, said that, having submitted her application in early January, she managed to get an appointment at TLS Manchester within a week and her passport and visa was returned within a fortnight.
“We are ready to go from April 1!” she said. “This is in contrast to trying to do the same thing last year using our more local TLS Contact in Edinburgh. We tried for more than six months and never managed to get an appointment.
“Travelling to Manchester wasn’t exactly convenient but the process was very efficient and the staff were excellent and very helpful regarding all the paperwork, so no complaints from us this time round.
“The post-Brexit 90-day rule has made life a bit more complicated so we are hoping this visa will make life and travel a little easier for six months of the year.”
‘A complete nightmare’
“TLS are a complete nightmare,” Jane Hale, who has had a house in France since 1989, said. “Their website is not easy and you cannot speak to anyone if you have a problem.
“We have requested for them to call us back several times but they never did.
“Eventually we managed to complete our application form and obtain an appointment for our interview.
“We had our interview on Monday (March 7) at the London branch.
“We had to wait three hours before we got to speak to someone. It wasn’t plain sailing even then. We’d taken everything that was requested on their checklist but then they wanted photocopies of documents that were not even mentioned on the checklist.
“Fortunately they made the necessary copies for us as they could sense our frustration.
“The final straw for us was that we were hoping to get our passports couriered back to us in Dorset, but they are not currently offering that service as they are changing over to a new courier company.
“You now have to go back to London to collect your passport and stand outside in a long queue to do this.
“The funny thing is that they are still advertising the courier return service on their website and on their screens in the visa centre.
“To say that we are less than impressed is a bit of an understatement.
"At the moment our thoughts are that if we have to go through this process every year it’s a possibility that we’ll sell our house sadly. Unfortunately it’s a consequence of Brexit."
Caption: Michael Allen and his partner Sue – pictured here in Les Deux Alpes in 2018 – managed to secure a visa
Michael Allen, a retired Royal Navy officer told The Connexion: “We have long-stay visas and are here in the Alps at our second home, skiing and snowshoeing – but never again.”
He applied from his home in Devon with his partner Sue Collyer, a retired deputy head teacher, and travelled up to TLS Contact in London for the appointment.
“When we arrived it turned out I had an appointment but my partner did not,” Mr Allen said.
I tried to explain that it was a joint application so they allowed us to set up an account for her on their computer and log in with all the details. Except, when she entered her passport number it rejected it, on the grounds that it was being used elsewhere: in the application I had made.
“The supervisor called her supervisor and, in the end, the application was abandoned and we went to the interview, for which we waited for about an hour and a half.”
The interview itself then lasted for around an hour, and the couple then needed to go for their biometric enrolment. All in all it took “eight hours of bureaucracy”.
“And they would not send the passports [back to our address], so two weeks later I had to return to London to collect them in person. It cost a lot of additional time and money,” Mr Allen added.
“The staff at TLS London were very helpful but the system they are operating is incompetent.
“We will not be doing it again until homeowners can do a simplified version online.”
“We will only now visit using the rolling 90 days in 180 method. This will be severely limiting in the future as we usually like three months in the winter for skiing and around 70-90 days in the summer and autumn for hiking and climbing in the Parc National des Ecrins, as we have usually done during the past seven years.
“Disappointingly, that will not happen now.”
Another reader reported having had a “positive” experience applying for a six-month visa. He submitted his application on January 16 and booked an appointment for February 16 at TLS Contact in London.
The appointment went smoothly and on February 25 he was informed that his passport was ready for collection, with the visa inside.
This experience was echoed by a couple of other readers, one of whom said that he applied two weeks ago, had his interview on Wednesday, March 2 and received his visa yesterday (March 8).
‘Three-hour drive each way for a two-minute test’
Another reader also reported that she and her husband managed to get an appointment at TLS Contact not too long after making their visa application.
However, after submitting their paperwork and undergoing the biometric tests without a problem, her husband was then told a few days later that his biometric test had failed.
He then had to drive three hours each way to go back to the London centre to spend a few minutes giving his fingerprints once again.
The couple then had to return to the centre once again to collect their passports. TLS Contact did previously offer a courier service for returning passports, but this has since been suspended.
“We have to add that the staff were very helpful in all stages of the process,” our reader added. “The main problem is if you need to phone the centre, which we did prior to the initial visit.
“We were in a queue for 45 minutes and then the line went dead,” and then the same happened again the next time.
‘Difficult to find out what proof you need’
Sam Crossley, an engineer who owns a second home in Manche, said: “It doesn’t seem unreasonable that they ask for proof that you can pay for yourself and that you have health insurance because it’s fair enough to want to make sure that you are not a burden on the State.
“However, it is very difficult to find out exactly what you have to do because it says you have to prove your socio-economic status but without saying how. You have to be able to support yourself but it does not say in the same place how much money that entails. If you dig around you can find it but it’s not easy.”
Another Connexion reader, a retiree who has owned a house near Nice since 2002, and who has always spent six months or more in France, applied to TLS Contact London for a visa in April 2021 after a “lengthy process getting the right papers together”.
She went to the appointment with the necessary documents, including her house deeds and her EHIC card, which is listed as valid proof of healthcare cover for visas up to six months. She also had an ordinary travel insurance policy which covers some healthcare costs abroad.
“They would not accept my application but nobody would tell me why. It’s impossible to talk to anybody at that centre. So I started emailing the French embassy in London. Eventually they sent me the official statement, nothing personal, about requirements for medical not travel insurance.
“I tried to get international medical insurance, but it was very very expensive.
“Several days later, the French office announced that they would accept EHICs.
“I’m sure if the French had looked at my application at that point they would have realised the mistake but it did not seem possible to change the decision.
“It was very stressful. Like all bureaucratic societies including the UK and France, it seems to me that the front end doesn’t know what the back end is doing and they don’t understand each other.”