On 16 June 2014, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced changes to the visitor visa regime for Chinese nationals during the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang's visit to the UK. This is partly in response to recent criticism by the Chinese ambassador in London who warned that tough Immigration Rules were eroding "British strength in terms of attracting more foreign businesses, attracting talented people".

Followin this, on 28 July 2014, the Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, travelled to Beijing to promote the UK's visa services.

Changes, which have been or will shortly be introduced, include:

Alignment with the Schengen visa application process

The UK continues to remain outside the border-free Schengen area which covers most of Europe. The UK has come under pressure from the Chinese government to reconsider its visa processes for Chinese visitors who statistically spend more than the average foreign tourist. In fact, according to the UK China Visa Alliance (UKCVA), it is estimated that 'Britain misses out on around £1.2 billion of spending from Chinese tourists because [it] underperform[s] in attracting them'.

The UKCVA has also written that figures 'from the European Union and Visit Britain show that most Chinese visitors to Europe (93%) make the effort to go through the application process only once. Of those, the vast majority (82%) apply for a Schengen visa because they want to make a multi-country tour.'

A pilot scheme introduced last year to allow tour operators to make a single application for both a Schengen and a UK visa is being extended to individuals. As a result, those applying online will be able to automatically generate a partially completed Schengen form at the same time as completing a UK visa application. Additionally, UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) is examining the possibility of a 'single Visa Application Centre visit' to enable applicants to submit both UK and Schengen visa applications at the same time.

While the new scheme does simplify visa applications, Chinese nationals are still required to complete one Schengen visa application and a separate UK visa application.

The introduction of a British-Irish visa scheme between the UK and Ireland

A new British-Irish visa scheme will allow Chinese and Indian business and tourist visitors to travel to and around the Common Travel Area, including the UK and Ireland, on a single short-stay visa.

This single British-Irish visa arrangement is expected to commence in autumn 2014. It appears that, as with Schengen visas, applicants will apply for the visa through the overseas post of the country of their first arrival or maximum stay.

Super priority 24-hour visa service

To speed up the application process, a 24-hour visa service costing an additional fee of £600 will be launched in August 2014. The service will be available to customers applying for the majority of visit and work visas via Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Improved online application process

The new application process aims to be simpler and more user-friendly with translated and intuitive questions.

The above changes expand upon the changes brought in over the past year, such as:

  • The Approved Destinations Scheme under which visas are processed in an average of just over five days.
  • Fast-track priority service which aims to process applications within three to five working days.
  • Passport Pass-Back service which allows applicants to retain their passports while their UK visa applications are considered.
  • VIP Mobile Visa service which is for high-value travellers who want the convenience of visa staff going directly to them to collect their biometric information, ie scan of fingerprints and digital facial photograph. This service will soon be available at all 12 of the regions served by UKVI's application centres.

The changes show that UKVI is on track to make the UK visa application system more accommodating for Chinese visitors. However, given the high percentage of Chinese nationals who would prefer to apply for a single visa, the UK should consider further streamlining its visa application processes. The changes have also received criticism for not going far enough to assist Chinese business visitors.