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Unlocking global travel: Exclusive interview with Amit Kumar Sharma, Americas Head of VFS Global

BY VEENA RAO

VFS Global is the world’s largest visa outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide, operating in over 140 countries, and collaborating with 67 client governments. The company manages the administrative and non-judgmental tasks related to visa, passport, and consular services for its client governments. 

In this extensive Q&A with NRI Pulse, Amit Kumar Sharma, Americas Head, VFS Global discusses initiatives to streamline visa applications, introduce innovative services, and enhance customer satisfaction. He also delves into consular camps, VIP premium lounges, and VFS’s proactive approach in preventing visa fraud.

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In the post-COVID scenario, international travel has increased exponentially. Are countries more welcoming of tourists? And has it become easier to get travel visas?

The year 2023 has emerged as pivotal for travel, as it witnessed a substantial number of countries fully reopening their borders for travelers. This marked a turning point in the travel industry’s recovery. Although conditions like vaccination and testing were prevalent during the partial restart, the unconditional reopening in 2023 contributed to what is often referred to as the “revenge travel” phenomenon. In this sense, travel has genuinely returned, with the volumes of people reaching levels comparable to those before the COVID era.

What measures has VFS introduced to make applications for visas easier now that so many more people are traveling?

We continue to work closely with our client governments to analyze and improve our current processes. We aim to enhance efficiency and empower the entire procedure from the government’s perspective, ensuring it is easy, convenient, and comfortable for both applicants and the governments we serve. Numerous initiatives are in place to achieve this, such as the availability of premium lounges and our visa-at-your-doorstep service. As part of this service, our team travels to the home or office address of the applicant, collects the application, and conducts biometric enrollment simultaneously. These streamlined processes have significantly improved the overall comfort and convenience for applicants. These improvements were implemented both before and after Covid, and we are committed to continually enhancing our processes to ensure the best possible experience for all.

Can you talk about the Visa-at-Your-Doorstep service? Is this available here in the United States?

“Visa at Your Doorstep” is one of our popular services, available not only in the United States but also in most of the countries where we operate. In today’s context, this service is highly sought after. Given the vast size of countries like the United States, there is often limited accessibility to embassies or consulates. This limitation makes it inconvenient for individuals to travel from one location to another solely for visa applications. This service addresses that challenge.

It is particularly beneficial for group travelers, whether for business or tourism purposes. Groups can utilize this service by consolidating all applicants at a single address, allowing our VFS team to travel there.

Let’s talk about consular camps. Where are they held in the United States?

Consular Camps is an initiative undertaken jointly by VFS Global in close coordination with the Embassy of India or the respective Consulates, whether located in New York, San Francisco, Houston, or Atlanta. These camps aim to address the needs of the Indian diaspora spread across the country. We have a fixed calendar in collaboration with the Government of India, organizing these camps in locations where the Embassy or Consulate may not have a presence.

These camps are strategically set up, even on weekends, to ensure accessibility for people to visit and avail services without having to leave their hometowns. The initiative has gained significant popularity, and we have successfully processed around 10,000 applications in these camps over the last few months.

I think it’s a great initiative. But how do people get to know about these camps?

These camps are pre-announced, with the calendar set in advance. The dates and venue are agreed upon about a month or one and a half months before the scheduled event. Following this, an awareness marketing campaign is conducted. Information about these camps is readily available on our website, as well as on the websites of the Embassy of India or the Consulates of India. These camps are often organized in close coordination with diaspora associations, so the information is disseminated through them.

Navigating the VFS Global website for Passport renunciation or application for OCI card can be very frustrating. What are your thoughts on this?

The OCI application procedure is a three-step process. It is an essential document issued by the Government of India and is valid for a lifetime with a few specified conditions. The first step involves the applicant visiting the Government of India’s website and filling out an online application form. This process, along with the preparation of documentation as per the provided guidelines, is conducted on the Government’s website. Subsequently, the applicant proceeds with the fee payment on the VFS website, completing the remaining steps of the procedure.

On the VFS website, clear instructions are provided regarding the application preparation and document submission. However, it’s important to note that the OCI application process involves two systems. Certain stages, due to the sensitivity of the document, are handled by the Government of India, and these processes are essential for verification checks.

While we acknowledge the necessity of this government-involved process, we strive to simplify and clarify the subsequent steps on the VFS website. The post-Government of India verification steps are comparable to those for a visa or passport application. Additionally, for any inquiries or clarification, applicants can contact our call center, and for those in close proximity, walk-ins are always welcome at our visa application center. We are dedicated to assisting all applicants who require clarification to successfully submit their applications.

How does VFS handle customer feedback and ensure a high level of customer satisfaction?

It’s a critical aspect of our journey to receive feedback from applicants because it provides insights into areas where we can improve and better understand their experiences across our various visa application centers. As we mentioned, our presence extends to more than 140 countries, forming an extensive network. While there is a centralized team at our central office tracking customer feedback, each visa application center also hosts a dedicated customer feedback desk for individuals to share their thoughts.

We offer different feedback channels, such as the Voice of Customer (VOC), where applicants can provide detailed insights about their journey and experiences with VFS. VOC feedback is collected daily across the 140 countries and centralized into a system. Additionally, individuals can submit feedback through the VFS website or send an email to our customer feedback team. All feedback is centralized and treated with the utmost seriousness in our centers.

Considering some of the services we’ve launched over the years, like the VIP premium lounge, courier services, and SMS notifications, these have primarily stemmed from applicant feedback. For instance, the introduction of the Courier Return service addressed the concern of applicants having to visit the VFS center twice during the application process. This optional service allows applicants to choose courier return while applying for a visa or passport.

Feedback is valuable not only for enhancing services but also for generating innovative ideas. Understanding the expectations of applicants and customers in today’s context is crucial. We not only analyze these feedbacks but also actively work on them

What is the VIP premium lounge?

The VIP Premium Lounge service is immensely popular in numerous countries where we operate. In our visa application centers, where applicants can apply for visas, passports, or OCI services, we also provide the option of a Premium Lounge for those seeking a more personalized experience. In this exclusive service, applicants can reserve a dedicated time, ensuring their application process is conducted in a personalized manner. Dedicated staff is available to assist them, and they can enjoy refreshments while staying connected to their laptops or phones. This service caters to individuals who prefer a more individualized approach, and it is an optional offering available to applicants.

What security measures does VFS Global employ to ensure the safety of sensitive data and documents?

This is a crucial question, and I’d like to highlight a couple of key points. Firstly, as an organization, we only process the data. We do not retain any data. Upon receiving an application, we process it and promptly transmit it to the respective embassy or consulate. The applications do not stay within our system. Once the government makes a decision, we receive the processed data back, and we deliver it to the applicant either through personal collection or via courier.

Secondly, during the data processing, we adhere to all current requirements, such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), a data protection act established in Europe a few years ago. We also comply with other ISO certifications mandated for data protection. Regular internal and external audits, conducted by third-party companies and respective governments, are integral to our security measures. These audits, both physical and system-based, occur without prior notification, ensuring a thorough examination of our systems.

Let’s talk about something related– visa fraud. How does one stay alert. Do you have any tips on how to avoid being scammed?

Being involved in visa fraud is the last thing anyone would want when planning a trip or studying abroad. In addressing this concern, one of the key elements is creating awareness about the entire visa application process. With organizations like VFS, transparency has been significantly enhanced, ensuring that all information is accessible to applicants. Whether applying for tourism, student, or any other visa, one can visit the VFS Global website (www.vfsglobal.com), select the relevant country and location, and find comprehensive information about the requirements.

If someone prefers personal assistance, a call center is available for them to seek guidance and get their queries addressed. It’s important to note that all information provided by our staff, whether at the call center or application center, and available on our website, is thoroughly vetted and approved by the respective embassies and consulates. We emphasize the importance of people being aware of this fact.

In addition to these measures, we actively engage in educating the public through various social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. We consistently remind individuals that the only reliable source for information is our official website, and all the information is freely accessible. Through our awareness efforts, we aim to reduce the risk of visa fraud, particularly emphasizing these messages before peak travel seasons, such as the summer, when many people plan vacations. This commitment to creating awareness remains a constant focus throughout the year.

And finally, what are some of your future plans?

We’re optimistic about 2024, expecting a rebound in travel after the challenges of 2023. Our focus is on the upcoming peak season, prioritizing outreach to potential applicants. We emphasize applying in advance, thorough preparation, and avoiding fraud. Handling the busy period involves gathering feedback and implementing improvements for customer satisfaction. Our goal is not just convenience but customer delight. We aspire to contribute positively to individuals’ journeys, ensuring a successful and positive start with VFS Global for their future plans, be it festive occasions, vacations, or educational pursuits.

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