Doing UK Biometrics at the Post Office

The waiting game...

My experience doing biometrics for my UK work permit at the Royal Mail post office

I am in the process of renewing my Tier 1 (General) visa, as a requirement of working in the United Kingdom. As a part of that application, I need to provide biometric details. Biometric details are fingerprints and a face photo. It took 43 days from submitting my application to getting the biometrics invitation letter, so by the time it came, I didn’t want to have to wait another two or three weeks to get a PEO appointment! As well, my closest option is Croydon, and while there is no cost to give biometrics at a PEO office, it’s quite a distance from me and I would lose a day of work to go there. Instead, I decided to do the premium walk-in service at the post office, even though it cost £ 19.20, it was better for me to not lose a day of work.

I received my invitation letter on Wednesday, March 7th, so my first available free day was Saturday, March 10th. I did already have plans in the early morning, but I searched the list of Post Offices, Camden Town’s hours are 9 to 17.30 on Saturdays, so that was my best option. I took the train and Tube to get there, it’s on the High Street and close to the Camden Town Tube station, very easy to find.

At High Street, Camden Town (London) post office, you come in, and there is a postal employee, next to a touch screen. You tell them what you want to do, they press the screen for you and print out and give you a number. You cannot post a letter, buy a stamp, etc. or do anything without a number. Then you sit in the big waiting area and wait for them to announce--56, go to window 8. The current numbers being served are also projected onto information screens, similar to being at the airport.

I arrived at 12.20. The post office man at the screen tells me, 'we're not giving out any more numbers for now for biometrics, we're not sure if we can complete the queue for today'. You can come back at 13.15, then we'll maybe give out more numbers. I asked, ‘can I just take a number and sit here since I came all this way?’ You can sit here, but I cannot give you a number before 13.15, because we have a hard cut-off time, so that we can close at 17.30. So we'll see at 13.15, if we can give out more, we can only give out as many as we can possibly do. Then as I left, I heard him giving the same explanation to the fellow in the queue behind me.

I went out for a short walk around the area, it was very busy, plenty of shoppers out. I went back at 13.10, and interestingly, there was no big group of foreigners as I expected everyone would be waiting around for 13.15. The new postal worker gives me a number and says, 'I don't know if we'll get to you today though'. I was slightly confused by this statement, I was thinking to myself, ‘I thought you were only giving as many numbers as you were sure you could accommodate?’ No worries, I brought along a book. I was given a little slip of paper with number 862.

There were 4 or 5 different service windows open out of 10 or so, with a central waiting area for everyone, with seating. There is a photo booth with curtains in front of a window, you cannot see the person working there, due to the curtain. But you can see that the people are going in with the UKBA paperwork. As you wait, you can see the numbers on the screens and listen to the announcements to know when to go where. The biometrics queue is labeled ‘Identification Services’. They are on 576 when I enter. Suddenly they roll through from 576 until 585 and then jump to 865. No one knows what is going on, and who should go in?

There is a line of 10 seats roped off, leading up to this window. I head in that direction. I had a small chat with the central post office employee who is working the floor. The system is that the curtain opens, then the man inside, behind the window barks, 'Next!' 'NEXT!!!' Someone seated nearby goes to the window and says, 'what number?' 'I don't know, I'm not keeping the numbers!' So the central guy has to stop the person coming out, to ask what number he was, so that he can shout the next number. In the meantime, the curtain guy progresses the electronic counter another 10, thus confusing anyone new who enters. The central employee then goes to lunch and no one replaces him.

I jump in at the end of the seat line when I estimated I was somewhat in the right spot, based on there being around 10 people or so in front of me. At one point, the curtain guy again starts knowing what number to shout, but people cannot hear him so well, because they're spread all around the waiting room and there is a lot of noise from the other windows, people with kids, etc. So a customer goes up and asks, which number do you want? And then proceeds to shout it out for him.

There is a big mix of nationalities in the chair line: Indians, Chinese, Canadians, Americans, etc. and each time a person goes from the 'chair line', we all pick up and move our bottoms one seat over, something like you'd do as a little kid in school. It’s confusing though, as we are ‘self-ordering’ ourselves, asking those around us, ‘what number are you? What number are they on?’ People are spread around the waiting area in addition to this chair line, and they only shout the number once or twice before moving on to the next one. As 862, I was behind 859 and 860. On my other side was 876 and 877 and 864 was a few down from me. To everyone’s credit, no one is trying to queue jump, but a lot of people are confused, especially those whose native language is not English. The person at the touchscreen in the front is now trying to (somewhat) assist, along with doing the front screen and various other sundry tasks. As people come in, she's bringing them over to the last person she gave a number to and saying, 'when this lady in the pink jacket comes out, it's your turn then.' Unfortunately the pink jacket lady gives up and goes home. One lady is asking the front lady, how she will know it is her turn, she doesn't want to miss it? 'Don't worry love, by the time it gets to your turn, there will be maybe 3 or 4 people still waiting, so it will be clear.' There are about 30 people in the room when she makes this statement. I hear the front lady telling someone, that he is the last ticket of the day, at 14.08. Each person who arrived after that was told to come back on a different day, the queue was full up. Finally, the front screen lady makes an announcement that the numbering system on the screens does not work, we should just follow the paper ticket order, and listen for an announcement.

We finally get to 861, but no one is getting up. I don't want to queue jump myself, so I shout it, but no one comes forward. I ask the man in the box if I should go ahead and he says, 'Yes, we don’t have time to wait all day if they are not paying attention'. He's actually quite pleasant and efficient, and I'm done in about 3 minutes. When it is your turn, you go inside the booth and shut the curtains. Then you are standing in front of a normal glass postal window, with the little opening to pass things through. First you need to give the post office worker the form, then they ask you to review and confirm that the address and birthdate on your invitation letter are correct, then they ask you to pay. I paid by cash and was not asked to show any type of id, to prove that I am the name on the letter.

Then, you are asked to stand on the yellow painted square, facing the camera, the employee will adjust using controls in the booth, to the right height. You are not supposed to smile, but instead of have a neutral expression. Then, the postal employee will guide you through the fingerprint process, there is a little pane of glass near the camera, it is around waist height. You’ll be asked to put the four fingers of the right hand on the glass, then they scan it, then the right thumb, then the four left fingers, then the left thumb. You are supposed to keep your fingers close together.

We had to re-do my right four fingers, my little previously broken pinkie wasn't powerful enough to fully press on the glass, so I had to hold it down with my other hand, as per his tip. While the machine was churning, I ask, 'do they keep you busy here?' 'You are lucky number 123 so far today. This week has been busy because the machine was down, and Saturdays tend to be busy since a lot of people work and other post offices only do Sat morning.' So much for that negative theory we often hear in the news, that foreigners come over just to claim benefits and don't work...

Interestingly, I saw an American couple earlier, it took them about 3 min or so each also. But an Indian lady with two little kids (they also do dependent biometrics at the post office now) took about 15 min, as her husband was not allowed into the booth, but he was her translator, so he had to be next to the man in the box on our side of the glass, sort of poking his head around the booth, on this side of the glass. Officially you are allowed (and required) to bring a translator if you cannot understand instructions. Also, if you are under 16 (dependents), your responsible adult must accompany you. The Indian lady's kids looked to be about 3 and 4, so understanding the extra time for kids on top of translation. Another woman's toddler tried to follower her in (opening and shutting the curtains) and she got admonished for that one. This was after she went into the booth without her money, so unprepared, and after she missed her number, and they only realized as the husband's number was next. She had to shout across the room for her husband to come get the child. Keep in mind, he was to be next, they were there with luggage and a mother-in-law, so not sure why they couldn't hold the kid. He drags the kids out, to walk him across the room, and the kid goes splat after 2 steps, red face, screaming temper tantrum. The father says loudly, 'I know, no one wants to be here, it's a horrible place'.

Well, all in all, I wouldn’t say it was horrible, personally, and overall I found the post office employees to be over-worked, but friendly and attempting to be helpful. I saw many foreign people asking them questions, and they continued to have patience the whole time. However, disorganized it certainly was! After my three minutes in the booth, I was on my merry way at 14.25, so a little after an hour of receiving a ticket. A few tips I’d like to summarize for you, if you are going to the post office to do your biometrics:

  • Either go on a weekday or go early.
  • Take along a book or something to read. If the ‘take a number’ system works as poorly at other post offices, I’d say to not to use your ipod, so that you do not miss your number.
  • If English is not your native language or you are not confident, take along someone to translate! Your instruction letter that comes together with the invitation letter will tell you more on this point.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the postal workers or to talk with the people sitting near you. I found everyone that I met on that day to be pleasant, and especially if you are having problems in knowing where to be; others are in the same boat as you. I saw many people explaining to those who were not quite understanding the system.
  • Prepare for it to take more time than it should. I arrived at 12.20 originally, so it took a little over two hours for me.
  • Don’t wait until the last day of your 15 day window. The one post office worker was explaining to me that they often get backed up, that the software locks and they must re-boot it, and when they do, it takes 30 minutes to come fully back online. Therefore, I’d go a few days before the end of your 15 business days, just in case something unexpected happens as the post office cannot process you once the 15 day window has passed.
  • Be patient and friendly and remember that this brings you one step closer to your visa!

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