Prying visas from the truculent Russian bear

The Russian bureaucracy shows no desire to welcome tourists. It joins many of the major world powers in an arms race to increase fees and hassle to get visas, though in many respects it still lags the US. Hopefully the upcoming Winter Olympics and World Cup will have mercy on visitors beyond the temporary exemptions for those events, but the visa process remains expensive and exasperating. Similar processes existing in chunks of the former Eastern Bloc, so this a good preview for doing a five country ‘stans tour.

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The Russian visa process

Lonely Planet and Way to Russia have comprehensive information that bears careful study for the myriad visa types. Here are the general principles to understand before settling on a trip:

    • Every Russian diplomatic mission is the law unto itself. Get information and forms from your mission. And don’t march in waving printouts from other missions saying “this is how they do it.”
    • It is a major hassle to get a visa outside your home country, and some missions may not issue one at all. The Rapid Traveler got one in Beijing but only with documentary support from his employer.
    • Time is serious money: a tourist visa for a US citizen is $250 for 3-day processing and $140 for 4-20 day processing.
    • The process is a big shakedown: in addition to the visa fee, you need to obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI)/Tourist Voucher and Confirmation and then after arrival (except for stays of 3 days or less), need to register your visa, which hotels do for another fee. And then some missions, such as those in the US, no longer accept mail applications, but are happy to recommend their partner agents to collect more lucre (you can use any agent, not just the ones the missions tout).
    • You need someone, be it agent, hotel or other, to issue a LOI/Tourist Voucher, but you can handle the visa application yourself or use another agent entirely, if so desired. The Rapid Traveler has used Visa to Russia for a Letter of Invitation, but there are many qualified agents.
    • There are numerous types of visas and non-tourist visas may be more appropriate for tourists on long trips. The core principle of the process seems to be escalating fees rather than strict fidelity to the concept of each visa category, so get whatever you need.
    • The visa application form asks for more information about you and your family than you may know yourself. Good news for applicants in the US: this form is now online. A relief since they want to know every country you have ever visited!
    • It is possible to make international air transfers without a transfer visa, but make sure to stick to one of Moscow’s three airports (SVO, DME, and VKO).

Mull this over next time a cheap fare pops up for Moscow. Russia is great to visit, and the cost and challenge of the visa process is like a football preseason game for what is in store. Get the most out of your visa.

Readers, what are your Russia visa experiences?

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