The Electronic Visa (e-Visa) has emerged as one of the most innovative services implemented in the area of freedom of movement and people to people contacts. E-Visa allows the management of the visa application process to take place entirely in a virtual environment. Everything is done with the help of the Internet – the visa application and supporting documents are submitted online, the payment is made online and the decision on the application is communicated online. Some of the best examples of e-Visa services I have encountered are the ones implemented by the authorities of Australia, Turkey, New Zealand, Georgia.
Serving as Chief Information Officer at the Moldovan Foreign Service I had the opportunity to lead the development of the Moldova e-Visa Service in partnership with the World Bank’s eTransformation project. The Moldovan e-Visa service was launched on 1st August 2014 and the following general conclusions can be made about the benefits of e-Visa:
- The Moldovan embassies abroad, during 1 august – 31 December 2014, saved from 163 to 196 hours, or 20 to 24 working days, on administrative issues related to the visa process such as scheduling appointments, receiving applicants at the visa office, input of data from visa applications into the visa system, scanning and saving of supporting documents, printing of visa stickers, returning of passports to applicants;
- There are no costs related to purchasing visa stickers in the e-Visa case. In 2013 the Schengen states have issued more than 16 million short term visas, which means that more than 10 million Euros was spent on visa stickers only;
- The embassies collected 23 % more in consular fees, since legislation allows collection of additional processing fees in case of e-Visas, which is not possible with traditional visa application process. The extra 23 % of fees cover the annual costs related to maintenance of the Visa Information System;
- In 2014 Moldova e-Visa applicants saved at least 38,200 Euros only on transportation costs, since foreigners, who obtained e-Visas, did not have to travel to a Moldovan Embassy located in another country.
The main question to be answered when discussing about the use of e-Visa service is “why so few countries have adopted e-Visa if it has so many benefits”? A simple analysis of worldwide travelers statistics shows that the most visited countries in the world, such as France, United States, Spain, China, Italy, Germany, UK, Russia, do not offer an e-Visa service to foreigners. Only Turkey, which is in top 10 most visited countries, has moved its visa process online.
During the project design phase of Moldovan e-Visa I consulted freedom of movement and immigration experts from different countries in order to learn their views on e-Visa service implementation and concerns related to it. I discovered that my colleagues from other countries share the following concerns on this matter:
- Identity theft. Governments have great concerns regarding the identity of the applicant since the visa application is submitted online and the personal appearance at the visa office is not mandatory;
- Forgery of documents. In case of e-Visa, the supporting documents, such as proof of sufficient financial means, medical insurance or invitation letters are submitted in digital format, thus increasing the risk of documents being falsified;
- Impossibility to collect biometric data. While collecting biometric data, such as fingerprints and digital picture, is possible when applicants have to personally appear at the visa office the use of the e-Visa service does not allow this option;
- Poor ICT infrastructure. Authorities are afraid that the poor ICT infrastructure in some countries might endanger the efficiency of the e-Visa service.
When developing the Moldova’s e-Visa service we tried to address the above mentioned concerns by creating institutional and coordination mechanisms which would minimize the security risks associated with the use of ICT for service delivery. In order to address the identity theft and forgery of documents problems, we focused our efforts on building partnerships with airlines which are transporting passengers to Moldova. Since airlines are obliged by international regulations to verify if passengers are in possession of visas and valid documents to enter the country of destination, we created a special website for airlines where they can verify the validity of Moldovan e-Visas. This way, foreigners in possession of an e-Visa are being checked by airlines before traveling to our country.
Another measure to prevent identity theft and forgery of documents is to ask from applicants to pay the visa fee with a debit or credit card issued on their name. This measure is extremely useful because banks verify the identity of their clients when issuing debit or credit cards. Therefore, if the information on the debit / credit card is the same as the information provided in the visa application, there is a high probability that the applicant presented correct information. Contracting companies which specialize in verifying the validity of scanned documents is an additional measure that can be implemented in order to prevent forgery of documents.
It is true that current e-Visa models do not offer a solution when it comes to collecting biometric data from applicants. Nevertheless, the IT industry already developed solutions which enable the collection of biometric data from individuals who are located abroad and are applying for e-services. The question nowadays is how secure are those products and how can they be incorporated in the e-Visa business process.
Governments which provide e-Visa services cannot individually do much about poor ICT infrastructure in other countries. Nevertheless, the daily management and operations of the traditional visa procedures also rely on IT infrastructure in other countries. Therefore, poor ICT infrastructure cannot be considered as a shortcoming of the e-Visa service comparing to traditional visa process.
To conclude, the concerns of many states regarding the implementation of an e-Visa service are understandable and should be carefully examined. The way forward for state institutions worldwide is to embrace innovation and rethink the delivery of services, including those related to freedom of movement and people to people contacts. A good example is the banking sector. It was unthinkable in the past to transfer money without personally going to a bank and submitting a bunch of documents. Internet Banking is a reality nowadays and most bank transactions are done on-line.
I also had a certain degree of reticence before implementing the e-Visa service in Moldova. Learning the experience of other countries, understanding their mistakes and their good decisions was something that really helped us to better manage our concerns. My advice to governmental institutions around the world, responsible for the management of freedom of movement and people to people contacts, is to understand that visa services will have to be provided on-line eventually. In the beginning, the e-Visa service could be offered to a narrow category of travelers such as bona fide applicants or applicants whose biometric data have been collected previously. Later on, authorities can decide whether to extend or not the use of e-Visa based on lessons learned.