Before you can even set foot in Russia, you need to get a visa. Applying for a Russian visa is a lengthy and expensive process, and often boggles even the most experienced travelers. But the end result is that you can coast across Siberia, trawl the museums of St. Petersburg, and brave a leap into Baikal’s frigid waters. We have broken down the bureaucracy into several steps in order to explain how to apply for a Russian tourist visa.
Most travelers to Russia will require a tourist visa. For those passing through Russia on their way elsewhere, a transit visa may be sufficient. However, if you plan on lingering and seeing any sights, a tourist visa will give you free rein for up to 30 days. Most travelers require a simple, single-entry visa, which means that once you leave Russia, you cannot return without reapplying.
Before you apply for your visa, you will need to obtain an invitation letter. This is where Russia’s visa process differs slightly from other European countries. An invitation letter, also known as a visa support letter, confirms that the visitor has been “invited” by a home institution to visit Russia.
Most hotels will issue an invitation letter – but many will only issue support for the period during which you stay with them. For an independent traveler, this poses difficulty. You can also apply for a letter through a reputable travel agent. An entire industry has sprung up around the issuance of invitation letters. For a fee, the agency supplies two documents: a tourist confirmation and a tourist voucher. Usually, you just need a clean, clear copy of these documents to include with your visa application. There might be strange information on the documents – like the names of hotels at which you don’t plan to stay. As long as the cities roughly match your itinerary, it shouldn’t matter too much. However, you should check to make sure that the dates on the invitation letter match your intended entry and exit dates to Russia.
Processing an invitation letter can take around a week – or a mere 24 hours if you use an online agent. While you wait for your letter, you can start to prepare in other ways. Get passport photos taken. Make sure your passport has enough blank pages and won’t expire in the next six months; if not, send away for updates immediately. Trans-Siberian Railway travelers planning on going to China should commence that visa process as well.
Putting Together an Application
The Russian government recently instituted an online application system. Fill out the form on the consulate website, then print, sign, and attach one of your passport photos. Once you have the invitation letter in hand, keep it together with your visa application form.
You will also need to write a cover letter explaining your intentions. For most tourists, this can be a short explanation of your itinerary. Be sure to include your dates of arrival and modes of transit. For Trans-Siberian travelers, try to sketch out a rough plan of your trip: which days you plan to take the train, where you will stop and for how long, and where your ultimate destination will be.
Although not common, it is possible that a consulate will want to see copies of your airline tickets or train tickets, confirming your exit from Russia. Be sure to have a copy on hand if asked.
- Invitation letter (visa support letter)
- Application form
- Passport with at least two blank pages
- A recent passport photo attached to the application form
- A cover letter that gives your itinerary, including entry and exit dates
- Payment for the processing fee (check or money order)
A Russian visa application must be presented in person. This can be very inconvenient if you don’t happen to live in a city with a Russian consulate. In this case, contact a visa agency. You’ll need to fill out some agency-specific forms and pay a hefty fee – but probably less than a plane ticket. Their agents will present your application and ship you the completed passport. The usual processing time is around 15 days, although the agencies have rush processing available.
There are Russian consulates or embassies in San Francisco, Washington DC, New York City, Seattle, and Houston. Each administrates a certain region of the United States. To find out which consulate applies to your state, visit the Russian Embassy website.
If you apply at the consulate yourself, a long wait and quick interview with the immigration agent should secure you a visa. Simple tourist visas are usually granted within two weeks; the consulate will require you to return to pick up your passport.
When You Travel
A visa is a document that allows you to show up at the border and ask to be let in to Russia. It is not a guarantee of entry. The validity dates on your visa give the time frame during which you can arrive at the border.
The officials at the border who stamp your passport are the ones who actually determine how long you can stay in the country. The border officials will ask you to fill out an immigration card. Make sure that what you write down matches your invitation letter. They may also ask to see your tickets. The exit date given on your immigration card is the date by which you must leave Russia – usually 30 days from the day you enter. You should keep this card in your passport and give it to the border officials when you exit Russia.
When you arrive at your hotel, the front desk will ask for your passport, in order to register your visa. If you don’t plan on staying in a hotel or hostel, you will need to locate an immigration office and register directly.
Plenty of people make money on the Russian visa process. If you use visa agency services, your total costs will look something like this:
- Invitation letter: $50-70
- Passport photos: $8-10
- FedEx to and from visa agency: $40-50
- Agency services: around $50 for regular processing; $100 for rush processing
- Consulate application fees: $140 for regular processing; $250 for three-day rush processing
TOTAL: $288 – $480
There are many websites and travel agents that specialize in obtaining invitation letters. Here are a few reliable sources:
The following agencies can apply for your visa through agents if you do not live near a consulate. All three have partnerships with the Russian Embassy.
Written by Caitlin Dwyer for EuropeUpClose.com