February 28, 2012

UK Visa Application

If there's one drawback to being a Filipino -- it's the agonizing ordeal of having to apply for a visa when you want to visit countries outside of Southeast Asia. In preparation for our summer trip, me and my two kids have to apply for a UK visa and a Schengen visa (I'll discuss this one later in another post). I experienced applying for visas on several occasions and it never gets easy. Each one is as nerve-wracking, if not worse, than the previous.

I decided to apply to the British embassy first. VFS Global Phils. manages the visa application center for the UK Border Agency here in the Philippines. Their office is at the 6th Flr Eco Plaza Bldg., 606 Pasong Tamo Ext., Makati City.

The procedure is pretty straightforward -- fill out the application form online and schedule an appointment. On your appointment,  you just need to submit your application, supporting documents, payment and biometric data.

ONLINE APPLICATION FORM. Be ready with your passport, itinerary and hotel details. If you can't finish answering it in one sitting, you can always save it and continue at a later time. Just take note of your application reference number. A guide to answering the online application form can be found here. If there are still questions you're not sure how to answer, you can send VFS an email. Better be safe than sorry.

BOOK AN APPOINTMENT. You can do so by calling a premium hotline (really steep rates!) or by doing it online. Scheduling an appointment online is pretty easy and schedules are aplenty. When I booked mine, available appointment dates are just less than a week away. I'm not sure though if this is always the case, so it's still best to plan your travels ahead. Be ready with your passport number when booking an appointment.

SUPPORTING DOCUMENTS. You must be able to show that: 1. you intend to visit the UK for not more than 6 months, 2. you have enough money to support yourself and 3. you intend to leave the UK at the end of your visit. Your supporting documents should provide information about you, your finances and employment and your travel details to the UK. You can download the supporting documents guideline here. You are free to include any other document even though not listed in the guideline if you feel that it will help you prove that you meet the criteria mentioned. Prepare photocopies of your original documents and a checklist of documents submitted. You can get the checklist at the VFS office during your appointment or you can request for an advance copy via the VFS helpline email -- info.ukph@vfshelpline.com. 

VISA FEE. There are a number of ways to pay for your visa fee. The most convenient for me is to purchase a Manager's Check payable to the British Embassy. Visa fee is PHP5472 for each applicant. If you're applying with your kids (like in my case), you can just purchase one MC reflecting the total visa fee for all applicants.

Our appointment is on a Tuesday and there's quite a number of applicants at the VFS office. Waiting time wasn't that long though and the staff who processed our application and captured our biometric information were all very polite and very patient. Especially when my little girl decided to throw a tantrum and refuse to open her eyes when it was her turn to be photographed! The drama started when there was a fight on who will go first during the biometric capturing. See, even kids has to go inside the room unaccompanied. It was bad enough for my daughter that kuya has to go first, but when I was called inside to help, she was left alone and that ticked her off. She wouldn't stop bawling and since I can't exactly get mad at her (at least not in front of everyone), my little angel decided to throw a tantrum of epic proportions and cause a delay. It still escapes me how we were able to get her photo that day. Our appointment was at 9:00 am and we finish in time for me to bring my daughter to her school in Makati and my son to his school in Katipunan before 12:00nn.

We availed of the SMS/email tracking service (PHP110 per applicant) and that same afternoon, I got an update that our application is being sent to the British Embassy. Ok, now time to cross our fingers and pray really hard.

The next day, Wednesday, I got an email from UKBA-Manila Visa Hub that our visas will be dispatched shortly and that our passports can be collected from the Visa Application Center in 3 days!!! Wow, I still can't get over how fast and painless it was. 

Thursday, I got an SMS from VFS that a decision has been made regarding my application and that I can pick up my documents the next day, Friday, from 2:00-3:00pm. 

PICK-UP. On your pick-up date, bring your receipt and 2 valid IDs (one for the lobby guard and one to show at the VFS office). For those who cannot personally pick-up their documents, you can send a representative along with an authorization letter, your receipt and his 2 valid IDs. Document pick-up is a breeze as it took only a few minutes. The British Embassy is by far the most efficient I've experienced in terms of visa processing. 

For queries regarding visa application, you can email VFS at info.ukph@vfshelpline.com. When you email them, you'll get an auto-reply message that says it takes 5 working days for them to respond. But in several occasions that I have to email them, it usually just takes them the next working day to respond. Talk about being really efficient :)

Just a few things you might find helpful:
  • You will only be allowed to bring your wallet, a ballpen and your documents inside. You can leave your bag/cellphone at their package counter.
  • Bring extra cash if you want to avail of their SMS/email tracking service or if you want to have your documents couriered back to you. 

Luckily, they use the picture we submitted with the application and not the photo they took at the VFS office.

VFS Global Philippines
Operating Hours:
Application submission - with a prior appointment:
Monday-Friday 08:00 - 14:00
Application submission - without a prior appointment:

Monday-Friday 07:00 - 08:00
Inquiries at visa application centre

Monday-Friday 13:00 - 15:00

February 19, 2012

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Feb 8-10, 2012. Kota Kinabalu or KK is the state capital of Sabah and is located on the tropical island of Borneo facing the South China Sea. It is home to the the mighty Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and from which the city got its name. 

Fun Flight. We booked our flight late last year when Cebu Pacific offered promo fares. The short two-hour plane ride was made more fun with the airline's signature inflight games. The mechanics are simple -- stand up and show your wackiest face and win a prize! Fortunately for us, my son was in the mood for games and made his best, wackiest face. His prize -- a bag which he immediately opened and stuffed with his snacks.

The wacky/bungal pose. Who could beat that?!?

Kota Kinabalu International airport is small and upon arriving, passengers are racing to get immigration cards. We have to wait for quite a while before they brought in new cards for the rest of us. I suddenly felt defensive of our own airport back home. Whoever voted it as #1 world's worst airport clearly hasn't been to KK yet. 

The Suite Life. From the airport, it was a 5-minute cab ride to our hotel at Sutera Harbour Resort. There are two hotels at the property -- the Pacific Sutera Hotel and the Magellan Sutera Resort, with the former having a more business setting and the latter with a more resort feel to it. We stayed at the Pacific Sutera but we can use all the facilities at both hotels including the Sutera Harbour Marina. Sweet! What's more, our room was upgraded to a Junior Suite! Suuuper sweeet!!!

The next day, we had buffet breakfast at Cafe BolĂ© (which comes free with our accommodation). Food wasn't so great so I was only able to eat bread, fried rice and omelette (a blessing in disguise to my forever problematic bulging tummy).  After, we headed to the Sutera Harbour Marina to do laps at their Olympic-size pool while the kids played at the slides and shoot some hoops at the kiddie pool.

Kiddie Pool at the Sutera Harbour Marina

Since this vacation should be a chance for us to laze and unwind, we pass up on visiting the park in Mt. Kinabalu or trying on the rapids of Kiulu river for a more relaxing visit at Manukan Island. We got a tour package from SeaQuest which includes transfers, buffet lunch, snorkeling gear and entrance fee.
Manukan Island

Sea. Sun. Sand. The kids had a blast playing in the water, digging the sand and picking up just about anything that interests them. Good thing the waves were calm so we can let them be while us parents lie on the sand and soak up some sun.

By 4pm we head back to the resort and this time stayed at the Sutera Pacific pool area. We ordered dessert and drinks at the pool bar and took a lot of photos while waiting for the sunset.

Smoothie and dessert at the Pool Bar.

Unfortunately, it was too late when we realized that it was NOT a good package and we could have been better off just getting the transfers to Manukan Island and having lunch elsewhere. 

Next day, we headed to the Magellan Sutera pool area. The loungers there are heaven -- big, comfy and shaded with huge parasols. The kiddie pool is a little deep for my little ones so we just stayed here for a while and went back to the Marina pools where there's a slide (kids just can't get enough of these kid-friendly slides) and the water's depth is just right for them. 

The Magellan Sutera pool area.
We checked out at 1pm and left our luggage at the concierge. We took the cab (RM12) to KK Plaza to kill the time until our 6pm flight back to Manila. The only brands we recognized there are Nike, Adidas and Giordano and the rest are clothes and electronic stores that resembles those in Greenhills. There's a Nike store that sells socks for 40% off and I just couldn't resist buying such a steal, so I took 10 pairs! :)

Soon it was time to head back to Manila, along with our tanned shoulders and sunburned cheeks. This short trip might be over but we have reasons to go back -- visit Mt. Kinabalu and go on a white water rafting.

How to get there: 1hr and 50mins non-stop flight via Cebu Pacific
Currency: Malaysian Ringgit (RM). We brought USD with us which we exchanged for RM. They only accept USD50 and USD100 denominations for exchange.