Cancelled appointments, delays in attendance and a sea of problems - This has been the scenario in the relationship between Golden Visa applicants in Portugal, and the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF).
Since March 2021, only few vacancies for scheduling biometric data for obtaining residence permits for investment activity, also known as the Golden Visa programme ("ARI"), have opened in the SEF online portal and, as if the complexity that this type of process requires were not enough, this problem has raised even more difficulties for the investors and their family members lifes.
Although much of the impact on SEF services was due to the pandemic and the security measures that had to be adopted by SEF, it should be noted that during this troubled period there were also strikes by employees, which affected mainly the border and airport services, but whose results were also felt in the immigration offices where the aforementioned bookings are typically made.
Appointments cancelled at the last minute follow the normal process on the SEF portal and the vacancies arising from the previous cancellation are made available. The problem here is that these are overnight appointments and the vacancies disappear in a matter of moments.
This problem stems from several factors: firstly, it is of course impossible to attend an appointment scheduled from one day to the next day due to the fact that the candidates are awaiting scheduling in their home countries and on the other hand due to the complexity of the process in question, the vast majority of candidates are represented by immigration lawyers throughout the application process, including the scheduling of the collecting of biometric data at the portal, which makes even in this issue is not something direct and totally personal.
Finally, another problem stands out, due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, a large part of the appointments between March and October 2021 were cancelled, justifying these spontaneous openings and all this uncertainty around the appointments.
It should be noted that this whole mess has not affected in the same way all those who have to resort to SEF services.
First of all, the level of affectation of the applicants by these measures depends a lot on the type of visa they are applying for, being that the Golden Visa are the ones that are naturally more affected; something that also serves as an affectation factor for the applicants is the country of origin correlated with the restrictive travel measures and with the need or not of a Schengen Visa, for example, to travel to Portugal; and lastly, the time it is taking to complete the entire process affects investors' planning insofar as, in relation to family reunification, for example, an investor may apply based on requirements to be applicable to their children's application, which has already changed by the date the process is due to be completed, thus requiring more expenses and costs to obtain certain documentation.
Putting into the equation the new rules and requirements for applying for the Golden Visa as of 1st of January 2022, the fact of playing the lottery every time you try to book an appointment soon and the certainty that SEF and its officials are aware of this whole situation, it remains to be seen what can be done for greater flexibility in service and to meet the demand that was already high and has increased with the accumulation of bookings and candidates.
From the outset it should be noted that if you submit your process on the portal until the end of the year, your application will not be affected by the rules of the Golden Visa 2022, so the issue of lack of vacancies for biometrics does not arise immediately, however it will always delay the whole process and increase the period of validity of visas, affecting the date on which you can apply to the portuguese nationality or permanent residence for example.
The SEF and its officials, as has been said, are aware of the situation and are taking recovery measures, but it remains to be seen how long these will take to be implemented; the Portuguese Government will reorganise the whole of this authority and there are proposals to create a new entity that deals exclusively with the bureaucratic side of immigration to Portugal; and the solutions are piling up.
In this sense, it is important to bring up for discussion ideas such as allowing biometric data collection to be taken remotely at Embassies or Consulates instead of forcing the applicant and his/her family to travel to Portugal on uncertain dates; the automation of the scheduling of biometric data collection as soon as the application is pre-approved at the SEF Portal; and the creation of a priority system that speeds up and facilitates the whole process of scheduling/taking of biometrics.
In short, more than anyone else, SEF is aware of the gravity of the situation and is trying to resolve it. The devastating effects of the pandemic and the lack of staff helped to create chaos but the intention is to solve the problems and improve the service provided.
Thus, we can conclude that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that although not everything is clear at the moment, there is a belief that everything will improve, the whole process will be shorter and more agile and that all applicants will finally be able to take advantage of all that Portugal has to offer.
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