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Moscow

Visas

All foreigners visiting Russia need visas. A Russian visa can either be a passport-sized paper document that is separate from your passport or a sticker in your passport. The visa lists entry/exit dates, your passport number, any children travelling with you and visa type. It's an exit permit too, so if you lose it (or overstay), leaving the country can be harder than getting in.

There are five types of visa.

Business visas

Far more flexible and desirable for the independent traveller is a business visa. A single-entry business visa is valid for up to three months, while a multiple-entry visa may be valid for up to 12 months. Both of these allow complete freedom of movement once you arrive in Russia.

A business visa requires the same documentation as the other visas, but the invitation from a Russian company is usually more expensive. Also, the Russian consulate may require the original copy of this invitation. In addition to these documents, travellers applying for a visa for more than three months must submit an HIV-AIDS test certificate.

Note that your visa registration may or may not be included in the price of your invitation. If you are not planning to stay at a hotel, be sure that the company issuing your invitation can register your visa once you arrive in Moscow.

Tourist visas

These are the most straightforward but inflexible visas available and allow a stay of up to 30 days in Russia. In theory, you're supposed to have prebooked accommodation for every night in Russia, but in practice you can often get away with only booking a few, perhaps even just one. Once your visa has been registered at your hotel, you can move freely in Russia and stay where you like.

Extending a tourist visa is a hassle and the extension, if granted, will usually be only for a short time. So, tourist visas are best for trips when you know exactly what you're doing and when, where and for how long you'll be doing it. Note that Russian consulates reserve the right to see your return ticket or some other proof of onward travel when you apply for a visa.

Transit visas

This is for 'passing through', which is loosely interpreted. For transit by air it's usually good for 48 hours. For a nonstop Trans-Siberian Railway journey it's valid for 10 days, giving westbound passengers a few days in Moscow; those heading east, however, are not allowed to linger in Moscow. To obtain a transit visa, you will need to show the itinerary for your entire trip, as well as any visa needed for your onward journey.

'private' visas

This is the visa you get for a visit by personal invitation, and it's also referred to as an 'ordinary' visa by some authorities. The visa itself is as easy to get as a tourist visa, but getting the invitation is a complex matter.

The person who is inviting you must go to their local visa office of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (RMIA) - sometimes still referred to as OVIR - and fill out an invitation form for approval of the invitation. Approval, which takes several weeks, comes in the form of a notice of permission (izveshchenie), good for one year, which the person inviting you must send to you. You will need this invitation approval notice, together with the standard application form, to apply for the visa, which is valid for up to 60 days in your host's town. On arrival in Russia you will also have to go to the local visa office to register your visa.

Student visas

Student visas are flexible, extendable and even entitle you to pay Russian prices for items affected under the country's dual-pricing system. You'll need an invitation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which the Russian school or university will help you obtain (after paying upfront for the tuition, no doubt). To obtain a visa valid for more than three months, you must submit an HIV-AIDS test certificate.

How & when to apply

Apply for a visa as soon as you have all the documents you need (but not more than two months ahead). Business, tourist, private and student visas all take the same amount of time to process once you have the paperwork. Processing time ranges from 24 hours to two weeks, depending on how much you are willing to pay. Transit visas normally take seven working days, but may take as little as a few hours at the Russian embassy in Beijing.

It's possible to apply at your local Russian consulate by dropping off all the necessary documents with the right payment, or by mailing it all (along with a self-addressed, postage-paid envelope). When you receive the visa, be sure to check it carefully - especially the expiry, entry and exit dates and any restrictions on entry or exit points.

Registration

When you check in at a hotel, camping ground or hostel, you surrender your passport and visa so the hotel can register you with the local visa office. You'll get your documents back the next morning, if not the same day. Alternatively, the tourist agency that issued your visa is responsible for your registration. All Russian visas must be registered with the local visa office within three business days of your arrival in Russia. If you are in Moscow for less than three business days, you are exempt.

If you leave Moscow, you must register again in any city in which you stay three days or longer. Technically, the purpose of this registration is so that the local militsiya knows where you are staying – ironic, since many tourists end up getting registered under false addresses. Registration is no longer attached to immigration so you have no need to be nervous as you exit the country through passport control.

FIVE VISA ESSENTIALS

You will need the following for all visas:

Passport Valid for at least one month beyond your return date.

Two passport-size (4cm by 4.5cm), full-face photos Must not be more than one year old. Vending-machine photos with white background are fine if they’re identical.

Completed application form Including entry and exit dates. US citizens must fill out a special longer application form that is available from the consulate website at www.ruscon.org.

Handling fee Usually in the form of a company cheque or money order. The fee varies depending on your citizenship: US citizens pay the most, in retaliation for high fees for American visas.

Visa-support letter or letter of invitation This letter is not required for a transit visa. For business and tourist visas, any of the travel agencies listed in this book can provide this letter. Additional companies offering visa support include www.visahouse.ru, www.visatorussia.com and www.waytorussia.net.