After following signs that filter EU and non-EU passport holders into specially designated enclosures, queuing through a maze of airport stanchions, and arriving at the desk of a passport control officer, international students who arrive in Ireland are granted green passport stamps which typically allow them to remain in the country for ninety days before securing an immigration appointment. As the third month of classes for the term is quickly drawing to a close, many international students still face stress about acquiring appointments, and many more are frantically gathering documentation to secure their visas or visa renewals.
This year, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) has introduced a new scheme through which students who both live in Dublin and have had an Irish student visa in the past may renew their visas. Rather than signing up online for appointments and appearing in person, as first-time applicants must still do, returning students can now apply for their visa through the internet and send their documentation in the post.
“The introduction of the new scheme made his renewal process much more efficient, and he was able to renew his IRP card ‘very swiftly’.”
As Louise Staunton, International Student Experience and Global Officer Manager in Trinity’s Global Relations Office, states, “it can take a considerable amount of time for students to secure an appointment with INIS due to volume and demand” and due to the fact that there is only one registration office in Dublin. Therefore, the introduction of INIS’s new system for visa renewal is expected to be much more practical for returning students who simply need to renew a visa.
Staunton admits that the new system “has its challenges”, one of which may be the reluctance to send one’s passport and other personal information through the post, an issue which several students cite as a source of hesitation. However, in general, Staunton notes the “significant improvements” which have been made since the introduction of the system, and among students who are eligible for the new scheme, the reigning opinion is also quite favourable.
Jessica Hobbs Pifer, a second-year Dual BA Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures student from the United States, remembers her experience last year, when she “struggled for months” to secure an appointment. This year, she took advantage of the new renewal process and noted the ease with which she received her visa. “I had no issues uploading my documents to the website and sending in my passport,” she remarked. Additionally, she commented on the fact that once her information was verified online, “my passport and GNIB card were sent back to me surprisingly quickly.” (GNIB, or Garda National Immigration Bureau, is an older name for the physical card one receives to prove his or her residence in Ireland; it has been replaced by the Irish Residence Permit card, or IRP).
“He recalls “spending two hours a day for eight days” attempting to secure an appointment”
Tanmay Nath, a third-year student from India studying Global Business, used the same process to renew his IRP card. He, too, remembers the struggle of trying to obtain an appointment for the past two years, and recalls “spending two hours a day for eight days” attempting to secure an appointment. However, the introduction of the new scheme this year made his renewal process much more efficient, and Nath was able to renew his IRP card “very swiftly.”
For students who are applying for a visa for the first time, as well as for students who do not live in Dublin, the process is much different. As stated, first-time applicants must still schedule immigration appointments online, often trying for hours and days at a time to procure an in-person appointment, a process that makes older students shudder.
Betty Nakpil is a second-year student of History and a member of the Columbia University Dual BA Programme. Being both a citizen of the Philippines and having decided to move in with friends in Bray, County Wicklow, for her second year in Ireland, her experiences differ greatly from those of other second-and-higher-year students applying for visa renewals. For one, given her nationality, Nakpil has to apply ahead of time for an Irish visa through the Irish consulate in Manila three months prior to her arrival. Additionally, her study visa can no longer be processed through the Burgh Quay office and must instead be arranged through the County Wicklow Garda station.
Regarding her experiences this year versus the process she had to go through in her first year, Nakpil is quite positive. When she met me, breathless but smiling after she had stopped by the bank to secure some documentation for, fittingly, her immigration appointment on the coming Monday, she explained that now, being a resident of County Wicklow rather than of Dublin, the process for renewing a visa is much different and in many ways much easier.
“One of the officers just called me up and was like, ‘Hey, can you do this date?’” she recalled, laughing. In Dublin, she remembers that the process “is really intimidating, it’s really formal,” whereas the officer in Wicklow called her around 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, asking her when she would be free. The immigration process itself, Nakpil expects, will be roughly the same, but the ease with which she could secure an appointment made the process much less daunting this year, even though she was not eligible for the new postal program. However, Nakpil notes that before she realised that she had to apply through the Wicklow Garda station, she felt uninformed about the situation because the information given on the INIS website itself is very vague and includes only a “small footnote” about how non-Dublin residents must apply by county.
Regardless of the relative ease of her current renewal situation, Nakpil noted how much easier she believed the new process would prove to be for Dublin residents. Having the opportunity to just send in her documents instead of being subject to the stress of being required to appear at the Garda station at a certain time would be preferable, even though she acknowledged how much less “formal” and “stringent” her renewal process was in comparison to her experiences last year.
Another second-year Dual BA student from the United States, Sarah Chen, also did not take advantage of the new renewal scheme, but she acknowledged that “having the option was really relieving.” Chen was unable to benefit from the new process because after her INIS appointment last year, the service never posted her physical GNIB card to her, and once they sent the card, she had left Ireland for the summer. Upon her re-entry to the country, she struggled to explain the situation and the fact that the INIS stamp in her passport had expired. Because she was unaware of the GNIB number that would have been listed on the card, she could not apply for an online appointment and instead had to appear in person this year.
“In first year, no one tells you how bad it’s going to be”
Chen appreciates the fact that even though she went through the Dublin INIS office for a second year, the renewal process this time around was much easier, “especially knowing what you’re going into because in first year, no one tells you how bad it’s going to be.” She recalls waiting last year for three to four hours, whereas this year, when she didn’t need to be fingerprinted or wait for any additional services, she only stayed in the office for about an hour.
Chen, Hobbs Pifer, and Nath work in the Global Room at Trinity as student ambassadors, so they hold the college’s services for international students in favourable regard. Chen explained to me that in the Global Room, she helps to answer queries that incoming international students have about the immigration process, and for the past two years, the Global Room has developed a relationship with INIS to help schedule “emergency appointments” for students whose visas’ expiration dates are looming.
The Global Room also organises immigration advice clinics, offers instructional information on Facebook and other social media pages, and strives to “do [its] best to assist” in any struggles brought forth by international students, as Staunton explains. Hobbs Pifer believes that being a Global Room ambassador has helped her deal “with the general immigration stress” that she felt both last year and this year.
However, Nakpil, who is not affiliated with the Global Room, expressed her frustration with what she felt was partially Trinity’s failure to assist her in easily accessing information about immigration, especially given her particular situation. Nakpil argued that “Trinity could do so much more to help,” in spite of what she understands to be a “general European culture” or belief that students should be completely independent when arriving at college so do not need much guidance from external sources.
Whatever the case may be, all the students seemed to be in agreement that even if they were unable to benefit from the new INIS process, it was, in theory, much more efficient and beneficial for returning students. Though the annual tradition of visa renewal will continue to affect international students, it appears that, for now, the changes that INIS have introduced have made the process less stress-inducing for students and should continue to improve the situation in the years to come.