The red tape of Russian visas
Russia is a difficult country to get into for almost every kind of passport holder. The US State Department describes the requirements for obtaining a tourist visa to Russia as “highly complex”, “restrictive” and “complicated”.
The visa agency Russian National Group is quick to point out, though, that Russia is still much easier to get into than the US. "[The] US and UK consulates have a much more complicated and long process without any guarantee that you'll get a visitor visa," said the company's president Michael Kolesnichenko.
Anil Patel, immigration consultant at Global Visas agrees. "The United States is hands down one of the most difficult countries to get into," he said. Still, he noted, "Russia is on the list, behind countries like the US and China."
"Since tourism isn't such a big thing in Russia", Patel added, "[the government] just wants to know why you want to be coming here [and] what you're going to be doing here."
This seems a reinforcing cycle, since obstacles to entry (the multi-step process could result in fees up to $450 and wait times up to one month, according to Lonely Planet) may be deterring tourists from visiting. To combat this when Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup, the government will accept ticket confirmation in lieu of visa applications, according to Kolesnichenko.
For now, though, here are the steps you will need to follow.
Step one: Obtain a letter of invitation
Before applying for a visa, you must obtain a letter of invitation written in Russian. Most hotels, hostels, tour group companies and cruise lines will provide you with such a letter, though some charge fees for the service. (We advise not paying more than 1,190 rubles). If you apply through a visa agency, such as Russian National Group or Visa to Russia, the company will take care of the invitation for you. The informational website russianvisa.org recommends using an agency that can provide you with registration (step three) in the city in which you plan on staying. The invitation should include a tourist voucher and a tourist reservation confirmation.
Step two: Submitting the visa application
If you live in a city home to a Russian consulate, you can apply in person without having to go through an agency. If not, the easiest thing to do is apply through a visa agency. Using a visa agency is definitely the safest option whether you apply in person or via mail, though. Russian National Group charges about 1,680 rubles in addition to the standard government fees. Either way, you should contact a Russian consulate in your home country to obtain the application form and to determine which documents you need to attach to that form. Usually, you will need to send in two copies of the application, the invitation in step one (including tourist voucher and reservation confirmation), your original passport (valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay) with at least two blank pages, one passport-style photo and a check including all consulate, service and expediting fees. American passport holders must pay $140 for a single-entry tourist visa, while European passport holders only have to pay 35 euro. The regular processing time is anywhere from four to 30 business days; to speed up that process, Americans can pay an extra $100 to receive their visas in three business days. To find out the fees and wait times you should expect, check with your local Russian embassy.
Step three: Registration
The purpose of registration is to notify the authorities of your accommodations during your stay. If you will be staying in Russia for longer than a week, you will need to register your visa with the government. You must do this within seven business days of landing in your destination city. (After filling out an immigration card on the plane, remember to keep your half in a safe place for your entire trip.) Registration can be done through your hotel or your visa agency. Hotels charge about 3 or 4 euro while agencies charge more like 800 rubles. If you are staying with friends or family, a Russian citizen will have to register you at the local police station or post office for about 5 euro. For a detailed account of what to expect when it comes to registering your visa, Way to Russia offers advice for various potential scenarios.
To avoid running into problems at the consulate, we recommend making two or three copies of each of your documents. In addition, allow for plenty of time between applying for your tourist visa and the date of your flight. Add at least two weeks to the expected wait time.
Since we like to see the glass as half full - (and in Russia, half full of vodka) - we think the headache of getting a visa to Russia will make the actual trip all the more enjoyable.
There are a few countries that do not require visas for travel to Russia. If you have a passport from any of the following countries, you don't have to worry about applying for a visa:
- Brazil (for stays up to 90 days during every 180-day period)
- China (for tourist groups of five to 50 people only)
- Croatia (with official invitation only)
- Cuba (for stays up to 30 days)
- Israel (for stays up to 30 days)
- Macedonia (for stays up to 90 days with official invitation only)
- Serbia (for stays up to 30 days for owners of new Serbian passports)
- Venezuela (for stays up to 90 days)
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.