As a new visa service launches, Mark Mackenzie asks whether they are worth the money

Thousands of holidaymakers a year preface their departure by queueing for a foreign visa. But an online service designed to save the time and hassle involved will shortly mean they can get their documents in the comfort of their own homes.

The Visa Company currently provides visas for around 70 per cent of UK business travellers, for whom it was first designed in 2002. In a few weeks' time, its purpose-built software and impressive network of embassy contacts will be made available to recreational travellers on its new website,

This site will offer every type of visa for every nationality, and the company hopes, by 2009, to be processing around 60,000 applications a year from UK-based tourists.

Having an independent agent organise your visa is nothing new, but the website could well make the company the largest agent in Britain's tourist market by some distance. With offices in Ireland, mainland Europe and China, its business in the UK last year accounted for around £7m in revenue, part of the visa market valued at around £25m in Britain alone.

Most agents operate in much the same way, charging a set fee to check your application forms - The Visa Company will charge around £40 - taking them, along with your passport, to the relevant embassy, and returning them to your home.

But sensitive documents should not be handed over to just anyone. "The sector is currently unregulated which means anybody can set themselves up in business as an agent," says John Neil of UK Visas, the government body that overseas the issuing of British visas at embassies around the world. "In the UK, there's nothing to stop you or I operating a business from the boot of a car."

Lack of regulation means the system is open to abuse. Last year, Shafiq Mumtaz, a 45-year-old British man, was jailed for a travel visa scam worth £2m, one of a number of cases that have occurred in recent years. The increase in legitimate agents is part of a wider global trend that is seeing more governments outsource the processing of visas to private firms.

To help combat fraud, many governments, including Britain's, appoint their own agents. "This helps with security," says Mr Neil, "but also allows [governments] to regulate fees."

There is, nevertheless, an onus on the consumer to check who is acting on their behalf, he says.

"Document security is a serious issue, so only use a company that will courier documents back to you and make sure you get a receipt when supplying your passport. If it gets lost, you'll need to explain where it has gone before a replacement will be issued."

Following the same procedure as it does for corporate customers, The Visa Company's security measures will include rigorous logging of documents at numerous points in the application process, and it will also provide customers with a tracking number to monitor their visa application online.

The company's representatives currently visit the embassies of the 40 most popular business destinations at least once a day and employing a well-connected agent can have its advantages. "Visas can be the last bastion of power for some embassy staff," says Malcolm Bluemel, The Visa Company's chief executive officer. "They have the power to turn round and refuse you a visa, even if you don't breach any of the criteria. If your agent knows them personally, it can help."

On other occasions, the problem can be a more practical one. "One foreign embassy in London processes around 350,000 visas a year and still signs every one by hand," says Mr Bluemel.

"The main thing to stress," says John Neil, "is that when you do get your visa back from an agent, check it's the correct one for both the country and the nature of your visit.

"If you can't read the language, get someone to translate it. There's no point turning up at the airport to find out it's not valid."