February 2006

Bahrain eVisa

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The eVisa (electronic Visa) system in the Kingdom of Bahrain is an online method for travellers to Bahrain and local sponsors to find information on visas, securely apply and pay for eVisas, and track the progress of their eVisa application. The eVisa system was recently chosen for local, regional and global eContent awards by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

The General Directorate of Nationalities, Passports and Residence (GDNPR) is responsible for managing immigration procedures through Ports of Entry – land, sea and air – for the Kingdom of Bahrain, and for contributing to government efforts to support tourism, trade and national security.  In 2003, GDNPR engaged SITA Inc. to deliver an eBorders solution to further the objectives of GDNPR’s Strategic Plan.  The eBorders project is aimed to give better information to GDNPR for decision-making, while making it easier for genuine travellers to enter Bahrain.

The eBorders project was also aligned with the e-Government strategy for the Kingdom of Bahrain, where GDNPR has stated objectives including progress to an online presence allowing customers to interact and transact online, providing customer-focused services, systems and processes, eliminating manual application forms and utilizing workflow to make back-office business processes more efficient and encouraging electronic payment.

The eBorders project included an eVisa system, which went live as a Proof of Concept in May 2004.  This system was the first in the Middle East and one of the first of its kind in the world.  The Proof of Concept was migrated to a full system in November 2004.

The eVisa system

The eVisa system (www.evisa.gov.bh) is a secure online method allowing customers to apply and pay for visas for entry into the Kingdom of Bahrain.  In addition, the system is a workflow-driven visa-vetting tool for GDNPR back-office staff.  The functional part of the eVisa system, being the data capture, processing and display, is built with Java Server Pages (JSPs), processed by a Tomcat server.  Supporting the JSPs are programme modules, written in Java, where the bulk of the processing is done.

There are a variety of eVisas available through the eVisa system, and these can be separated into two categories – sponsored and unsponsored.  Sponsored eVisas require a Bahraini company to register online before receiving usernames and passwords for allowing nominated company users to make eVisa applications.  Whenever the sponsors logon they will only see the visas they are eligible to apply for.  This is governed by the type of organisation.

About  the author:

Mark Broomhead was eBorders Project Manager for GDNPR until the end of 2005 and is a member of the Project Management Institute, Arabian Gulf Chapter. He is currently  a Project Manager with SITA.

Most eVisas are electronic versions of existing manual visas, the main differences being the method of application, which is over the Internet rather than a manual application form hand-delivered to GDNPR headquarters. The online application form does not require superfluous data to make data entry easy for the applicant, supporting documents such as passport copies, which are only needed in exceptional cases for eVisa applications and the authoritative record of the visa is in GDNPR’s computer system and not physically endorsed in a passport until the passenger arrives in Bahrain. Printouts can be obtained from the eVisa system for reference purposes if required.

Registered users of the system are generally corporate sponsors such as hotels, travel agencies and airlines, who apply for eVisas for their guests and customers, and also include government entities and the system’s biggest user, Bahrain International Circuit (BIC). There is a major event at BIC on average every few months, including the Formula 1, and thus the BIC therefore considerably saves time in using the eVisa system instead of filling out manual application forms. However, certain groups of people without a Bahraini sponsor can apply for Unsponsored eVisas. Those applying for Unsponsored eVisas are not required to register as a user of the website.

A substantial business analysis exercise was carried out with visa subject matter experts within GDNPR to create a repository of business rules relating to visa types and their conditions. This repository, which covers all visa types –manual visas as well as electronic visas, and sponsored and non-sponsored visas, can be accessed by the eVisa website so that individual travellers are able to easily check as to which visas they are eligible for and the available options for obtaining this visa from the eVisa homepage. The conditions and fees are also made available. The business rules in this way are thus made much more accessible and explicit for registered and non-registered users.

System benefits

Unsponsored eVisas are an alternative to the manual visas that can be obtained by certain nationalities on arrival at a Port of Entry. For travellers eligible for unsponsored eVisas, there are following advantages: Visas can be applied for, and progress checked, over the Internet at any time; Quicker processing at Bahrain’s Ports of Entry because the payment is made online before travelling, and because the traveller’s details are already in the system thereby removing the need for immigration staff to carry out any data entry.

The eVisa system also provides benefits to registered Bahraini sponsors. These benefits include One-time on-line registration; Visas can be applied for over the Internet outside of government hours, and without physically travelling to GDNPR; Streamlined and simplified application and payment process; and, Tracking and reporting facility on applications made by the sponsor is available.

However, benefits are not restricted to customers. The eVisa system allows GDNPR to introduce new visa types easily and quickly, such as during the Formula 1 events. Also, the visa officer has complete and clear information to base the visa decision on since all applicants fill out online forms that are validated, which may however sometimes found lacking in a manual handwritten visa application form.  The online form is flexible because fields can be added and removed as and whenever required, depending on the visa type.

The eVisa system provides benefits to registered Bahraini sponsors. These benefits include One-time online registration; Visas can be applied for over the Internet outside of government hours, and without physically travelling to GDNPR; Streamlined and simplified application and payment process; and, Tracking and reporting facility on applications.

Organisational impacts

In order to process eVisas and answering queries on the system a dedicated specialist centre was set up with GDNPR visa and helpdesk staff who could be contacted during working hours by phone, fax or email. However, the preferred method of communication is email due to its flexibility and particular attention was given to answering emails promptly so that customers did not feel that their email was going into a ‘black hole’. This organisational change was specifically intended to encourage users and give them confidence in carrying out their transactions online.

The approach to implementing the eVisa was first to use a Proof of Concept, which was a fully-functional system, but with limited low-risk visa types and no access to the business rules repository. This gave GDNPR staff an opportunity to become familiar with the new way of carrying out their job, and for the project team to plan better for the implementation of the full system. This ensured that the eVisa system evolved at a manageable pace without compromising quality of service to customers, as opposed to a ‘big bang’ approach.

The eVisa lifecycle

On the visa officer’s workflow the application is instantly shown whenever an applicant applies and pays for an eVisa application. Certain data are retrieved from the GNDPR mainframe using MQSeries while viewing the application on the eVisa system, and eVisa accordingly applies business rules to show the status of the applicant record in the mainframe. Later, an email is automatically sent to the applicant with the visa record being created on the mainframe using MQSeries again after the approval of the application on the eVisa system. The visa details are thus made available on the mainframe to the Ports of Entry officer when the traveller arrives and presents the passport.

The eVisa system, however, is not the authoritative record of the visa created even though it acts as a mechanism for receiving and approving visa applications. As such, the authoritative record of the visa remains with the legacy system.

The use of MQSeries to create the eVisa on the legacy system means that the GDNPR staffs do not carry out any data entry. Apart from saving time, this also means that the responsibility is on the customer to ensure that the passport details are entered correctly failing which problems might occur at the immigration counter.

The entire session is 128-bit encrypted to protect personal data, from when an application is started, through the payment procedure to finally allocation of reference number.  All sessions involving the checking of the progress of a visa application are also encrypted just in the same way as the sessions of registered users.

The payment is handled through the Bank of Bahrain and Kuwait (BBK) payment gateway. However, outsourcing this responsibility to an experienced third party only meant that GDNPR did not have to develop the complex payment gateway requirements, and while the applicant is aware of the handover to the BBK gateway and back, the process is seamless and uncomplicated.

There is no physical endorsement of the visa, such as a stamp in the passport. The applicant or sponsor however can print out details relating to the visa approval for reference when travelling. The airlines were duly informed and advised that the Bahrain government had introduced an electronic visa so that passengers were not held up during check-in time.

Future plans

GDNPR, which won local, regional and global awards from WSIS for eContent in 2005, has a challenge to make the eVisa system even better in 2006.  Enhancements planned for eVisa include introducing more eVisa types and visa extensions that are currently only available manually; integrating with other government systems, leveraging off eVisa workflow capabilities; integrating with the other eBorders sub-systems to build a more complete picture of a traveller; and, involving Bahrain embassies to reach a wider audience overseas.

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