When Lijie Shao’s academic pitch for an upcoming EU conference didn’t make the cut recently, she felt relieved.

“I’m glad my proposal was rejected,” Shao said Friday.

Going would have meant trying to get a Schengen visa, says Shao, an international language tutor at Dublin City University (DCU).

And since last year, that has been a struggle, she says. Before that, Shao says, things were hard but manageable.

“Because, at that time, the embassies were managing their own visa applications, you know?” said Shao.

Some European embassies in the city now outsource Schengen visa processing services, hiring global firms to do their jobs.

Non-EU Dubliners like Shao say that, in some cases, it has made visas accessible only** **to wealthier applicants willing to pay premium service fees.

Those trying to book appointments can also find themselves up against a familiar hurdle: bots that block-book appointments leaving few left for regular people to get.

Who Needs Schengen Visas?

The Schengen agreement means non-EU migrants with residence permits for one Schengen signatory country can travel and visit another for a short time without applying for a visa.

The European Union’s Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 adopted the Schengen protocol, making it EU law, but allowed countries to opt out.

Ireland is not a party to the Schengen agreement. So some non-EU migrants who have Irish Residence Permits (IRP) still need to apply for entry visas if they want or need to visit countries in the zone.

They have to submit a Schengen visa application to the country they want to visit – or whichever firm they have outsourced that to – and get different rights of entry to the Schengen zone, depending on the kind of visa that they apply for.

If they get a multiple-entry visa, they can use it again and travel several times within the Schengen area while the visa is still valid.

Shao, the DCU tutor, and her husband are Chinese citizens and need visas to travel to EU countries.

Applying for Irish citizenship wouldn’t be a simple decision for them. It would mean losing their Chinese citizenship because Chinese citizens can’t have two passports.

That wouldn’t be convenient because they would need visas to visit their country of birth, they said.

“I mean, we don’t want to change passports just for the convenience of visiting Schengen countries,” said Shao, sat beside her husband outside a café on Dawson Street.

Premium Plans

Shao used to travel to Schengen countries to attend academic conferences often, she says.

She also has a good friend in Spain, she said, and so would vacation there sometimes. The pandemic ended all that.

“There were three years that I didn’t go anywhere,” she says.

Last year, as all pandemic-related travel restrictions lifted, Shao – who had a baby in the interim – decided she would return to visit Spain with her family. A relaxing trip, she says.

But after visiting the Spanish embassy’s website, she realised it now outsources Schengen visa services to BLS International, company headquartered in India.

She tried to book an appointment with them.

“I got a time slot like 8 o’clock in the morning like my point is when there is a third party, there’s no negotiation at all,” says Shao.

It would have been tough to get there so early because of her baby, Shao says, but if she was dealing with the embassy directly, she could contact them and let them know she might run late, and they would understand.

“It was really hard to get the baby there, so I tried to use their home-collection service,” says Shao.

They suggested it, offering to go to her. It costs €200, Shao says.

“I assumed that’s €200, in one go,” she said. But they told her that’s €200 per person, she says. “So, in our family, two adults and one child,” says Shao.

“I was like, we’re not rich, and I gave up the idea of going to Spain,” she says.

A spokesperson for BLS international has not yet responded to queries sent Monday asking whether they charge this much and if so, why.

A spokesperson for the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs hasn’t yet responded to queries sent Monday, including why it has switched to outsourcing.

Outsourcing Controversies

Later in 2022, Shao had to attend an academic conference in the Netherlands.

But when she visited the Dutch embassy’s website to try to book an appointment, she learned it is also outsourcing visa services – to another company, VFS Global, a giant company founded in Mumbai in 2001 and currently headquartered in Dubai.

The Dutch embassy’s website says people in Ireland can make an appointment at the embassy or VFS global. But selecting Schengen visa from the menu redirects visitors to VFS Global to make an online appointment.

“Walk-in services are currently unavailable at all Visa Application Centres in Europe,” says the VFS Global website.

VFS Global has a huge portfolio and so access to worldwide visa applicants’ sensitive personal data. Between 2019 to 2021, it processed nearly 48 million applications globally, according to a company report.

It’s been at the heart of several customer-service and personal-data breach controversies.

Between 2005 to 2007, a glitch on its website meant it was possible to publicly view sensitive data of UK visa applicants from Nigeria, Russia and India.

Another similar technical defect in 2015 gave applicants for Italian visas the ability to browse the personal information of others who’d applied, and see details like their dates of birth, passport information and addresses.

The United Kingdom’s Home Office, one of the company’s well-known clients, has received many complaints that the firm takes advantage of visa applicants from lower-income countries and allegedly pressures them to buy premium services, according to an Independent article from 2019.

Between 2014 to 2019, the Home Office increased its average profit margin on visa applications to the UK from £28.73 to £122.56 after subcontracting VFS Global, says the article.

VFS Global’s application centre in Dublin is on South Circular Road. It charges a service fee of €40, says its website.

But its premium service for applicants costs about €80. An extra €27.50 can get you a “prime time appointment”, according to its website.

VFS Global also handles Schengen visa applications for countries like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Austria in Dublin.

It renews e-passports on behalf of the Philippine government for its citizens in Ireland too.

The embassy of Germany, meanwhile, subcontracts another third party, TLS Contact, to process its Schengen visa applications.

It charges €115 for a “prime time appointment”, meaning a time that suits an applicant best to visit its offices, according to its website.

Chasing Refunds

Shao, the DCU language tutor, at first thought she would also take her husband and baby to the Netherlands for the academic conference.

She got early morning appointments again after spending hours on her laptop trying, says Shao.

Just before the appointment, they decided it would be a hassle for the whole family to go, though, says Shao.

“And so we have to cancel two appointments for him and my baby, I cancelled definitely outside of the 24 hours, so it was justified for a refund,” says Shao.

Between September 2022 and March 2023, Shao emailed back and forth with VFS Global customer support team but has yet to get a refund of the appointment fees she’d paid.

At one point in March 2023, a customer service staff member says the embassy hasn’t notified them that she needed a refund and seemed to think she was asking for a refund of her visa fees.

“I am requesting an appointment fee (18 euros made for [VFS] not the embassy) refund for an appointment that I cancelled (for my family member),” Shao wrote back in response.

But they replied asking her to submit a list of documents she’d sent them a few times before.

“I’m like, okay, I just keep communicating with them, and then the same cycle repeats,” she says.

Finally, she told them if they asked her to submit the same set of docs again, she would make another complaint, and they stopped contacting her, says Shao. “And there was no refund at all, nothing.”

A spokesperson for the company said it currently doesn’t have a pending applicant refund request. “Details about our refund policy can be found on our website.”

A spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “service orientation” is the main reason its embassy in Dublin switched to outsourcing.

“For example, there are longer opening hours and thus more available appointments for applicants,” they said.

It made a very careful decision to hire VFS Global, they said. “Following in-depth public procurement procedures, among other things.”

They said the embassy does get a lot of questions from people looking for appointments, and it tries to help as much as it can.

It gets complaints about its outsourced service too, and they’re forwarded to its headquarters in the Netherlands, the spokesperson said.

Trading Appointments

While trying to book appointments, Shao had heard from non-EU PhD researchers that they were paying up to €60 to a third-party to buy slots.

The VFS Global website acknowledges that.

“Booking an appointment with VFS Global to enroll Biometrics is a free service. Beware of persons who may demand payment for it,” it says.

Shao didn’t buy an appointment slot because the website of the Dutch embassy in Dublin had also warned people not to do that. But others say they have.

In August 2022, Maria Dmitrieva and her husband just couldn’t book an appointment with VFS Global’s Dublin office to apply for a Dutch visa.

“The online system they advertised never showed any available slots,” she said on Friday.

“We were told to just constantly check the websites,” says Dmitrieva.

Bots set up to monitor a website and grab appointment slots as soon as they became available and then resell them impacted the Irish immigration office on Burgh Quay for years.

The Department of Justice, in the end, dismantled its online booking system, offering a freephone service for booking in-person immigration registration appointments.

Although the Irish Immigration website implies that some people may still be paying third parties to ring the busy line for them.

“There is no advantage in paying a third party operator to contact the free phone number on your behalf to schedule an appointment,” it says.

A spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it’s aware that lots of people are looking for appointments.

“Whenever we receive information from the public regarding these types of practices we flag the issue with VFS Global, and inform the client to be careful using intermediaries,” they said.

Making an appointment is a free service, the spokesperon said, although VFS may request a “pre-payment for their (regulated) service fee,” they said.

That’s done to lower the amount of no-shows, which helps cut down waiting times, the spokesperson said.

“VFS Global is constantly monitoring their appointment system for evidence of appointments being booked by companies/group accounts etc.,” they said.

A spokesperson for VFS Global said it takes the issue of “scalpers” using automated tools to block-book appointments very seriously.

“To counter this, we have introduced significant changes to our internal systems, in alignment with our client governments,” they said.

It can’t give details about those measures for security reasons, they said.

Dmitrieva, the woman who wanted to apply for a Dutch visa in August 2022, emailed a complaint that there were no free slots to VFS Global, she says. “And they miraculously had an opening in about a month.”

During the appointment, they told them that they lacked a few necessary documents.

It was a Friday evening, and their appointment was at 1:30pm. But by the time they were told they needed more documents, it was almost 4pm, she says – and the office would close at 5pm.

“So if we wanted to apply and not lose the deposit (around €100 as their processing fee), we had to bring the documents in around an hour,” said Dmitrieva in a Facebook message on Friday.

VFS staff wouldn’t let them use their printer to print out the documents, she says.

“Since it was Friday evening, a lot of places had been closed, and the nearest printing service was 30 [minutes] on foot,” says Dmitrieva.

They got back with the printed documents at around 5:15, and the staff accepted it, she says. But they missed the trip, anyway.

“Unfortunately, my husband’s passport was not processed in time,” said Dmitrieva.

A spokesperson for VFS Global said online appointments are available on a first-come-first-serve basis.

“Decisions on visa applications, including the availability of appointment slots and the timelines to process them, are at the sole discretion of the respective client governments and may vary from one mission to another,” they said.

Both Shao and Dmitrieva say they had a better experience applying directly to an embassy.

Shao says she’s decided she won’t holiday in Europe anymore and might stop attending academic conferences in the zone. “We’re stuck on this little island.”

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for writing about this, it’s an absolute shame that the richest countries in the world are exploiting people like this. You can be sure no similar cutbacks have been made to things like business networking events, pay and conditions of diplomatic staff, etc. If you want these restrictive visa regimes, you’ve got to own it and pay for them. Unfortunately, populist governments and voters want to have it both ways.

  2. I spend so much time trying to find a Schengen visa appointment for academic activity while I was expected to do scientific research. That needs to change. It is primitive. It is possible that our managers and employers will not think of hiring non-eu anymore. Because it is almost impossible to be mobile for professional activity if you are a non-EU citizen. There is also a rumour that some people abuse this ineffective system and sell the appointments thet acquire.

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