Everyone needs a visa to visit Russia and it’s likely to be your biggest single headache in organising a trip there – allow yourself at least a month before you travel to secure one. There are several types of visa, but for most travellers, a tourist visa (single or double entry and valid for a maximum of 30 days from the date of entry) will be sufficient and getting this should be relatively straightforward. If you plan on staying longer than a month, it’s advisable to apply for a business visa. Whatever visa you go for, the process has three stages – invitation, application and registration.
Note that application and registration rules for trips to sensitive border regions, such as the Altai, Astrakhan, the Caucasus parts of Northern European Russia and Tuva are slightly different; see each of these chapters for specific details. Also, there are a few regions and places in Russia that for security reasons you will not be granted a visa for.
To obtain a visa, you first need an invitation. Hotels and hostels will usually issue anyone staying with them an invitation (or ‘visa support’) free or for a small fee (typically around €20 to €30). If you are not staying in a hotel or hostel, you will need to buy an invitation – costs typically range from €15 to €35 for a tourist visa, depending on whether you require a single or double entry type and how quickly you need the invitation, and €45 to €270 for the various types of business visa. This can be done through most travel agents, via specialist agencies (see p000R0293) and online through:
Express to Russia (www.expresstorussia.com)
Russian Business Visa (www.russian-business-visa.com)
Russia Direct (www.russiadirect.co.uk)
Visa Able (www.visaable.com)
Way to Russia (waytorussia.net)
Note that if you are flying directly from abroad into any of the following cities, special invitation rules are likely to apply (see waytorussia.net/RussianVisa/Types.html for more details): Barnaul, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Omsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Petrozavodsk, Pyatigorsk, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Ufa, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
Invitation in hand, you can then apply for a visa at any Russian embassy. Costs vary – anything from US$50 to US$450 – depending on the type of visa applied for and how quickly you need it. Rather frustratingly, Russian embassies are practically laws unto themselves, each with different fees and slightly different application rules – avoid potential hassles by checking well in advance what these rules might be. A useful website is Everbrite’s Russia, Belarus and Ukraine Pages (members.aol.com/imershein/Page2.html) which has recent posts on the application situations at various embassies and consulates.
We highly recommended applying for your visa in your home country rather than on the road – indeed, the rule is that you’re supposed to do this, although we know from experience that some embassies and consulates can be more flexible than others. Trans-Mongolian travellers should note that unless you can prove you’re a resident of China or Mongolia, attempting to get visas for Russia in both Beijing and Ulaan Baatar can be a frustrating, costly and ultimately fruitless exercise.
On arrival in Russia, you should fill out an immigration card – a long white form issued by passport control; these are often given out in advance on your flight. You surrender one half of the form immediately to the passport control, while the other you keep for the duration of your stay and give up only on exiting Russia. Take good care of this as you’ll need it for registration and could face problems while travelling in Russia – and certainly will on leaving – if you can’t produce it.
You must register your visa within three working days of arrival. (You’re not required to register for stays of less than three days.) If you’re staying at a hotel, the receptionist should be able to do this for you for free or for a small fee (typically around €20). Note that the very cheapest places sometimes will not oblige. Novosibirsk is notorious for forcing visitors into overpriced hotels to get that registration stamp, so it makes a bad arrival point. Once registered, you should receive a separate slip of paper confirming the dates you’ll be staying at that particular hotel. Keep this safe – that’s the document that any police who stop you will need to see.
If staying in a homestay or rental apartment, you’ll either need to pay a travel agency (anything from €20 to €70) to register your visa for you (most agencies will do this through a hotel) or make arrangements with the landlord or a friend to register you through the post office. See waytorussia.net/RussianVisa/Registration.html for how this can be done as well as for the downloadable form that needs to be submitted at post offices. Note, while registering at post offices in cities and large towns is likely to be straightforward, this procedure cannot be guaranteed in more remote places.
Depending on how amenable your hotel or inviting agency is, you can request that they register you for longer than you’ll actually be in one place. Otherwise, every time you move city or town and stay for more than three days, it’s necessary to go through the registration process again. There’s no need to be overly paranoid about this but the more thorough your registration record, the safer you’ll be. Keep all transport tickets (especially if you spend nights sleeping on trains) to prove to any over-zealous police officers exactly when you arrived in a new place.
Registration is a hassle but it’s worth doing for peace of mind since it’s not uncommon to encounter fine-hungry cops hoping to catch tourists too hurried or disorganised to be able to explain long gaps.
Types of Visa
Apart from the tourist visa, other types of visas could be useful to travellers.
A business visa is far more flexible and desirable for the independent traveller than a tourist visa. These can be issued for three months, six months or two years, and are available as single-entry, double-entry or multiple-entry visas. They are valid for up to 90 days of travel within any six month period.
To obtain a business visa you must have a letter of invitation from a registered Russian company or organisation, and a covering letter from your company (or you) stating the purpose of your trip. The 'Invitation' agencies listed above can make these arrangements.
This is for ‘passing through’ Russia, 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.
72-HOUR ON-DEMAND VISA
Valid for visits of up to 72 hours, thus good for a long weekend, this visa is only available for the Kaliningrad region and allows you to skip the application step at a Russian embassy or consulate. It’s also only available to citizens of certain countries. You need to apply a least a week in advance of your travel dates via specific travel agencies in the region; you’ll then be met at the airport by a representative of the agency.
Visa Extensions & Changes
Any extensions or changes to your visa will be handled by offices of UFMS (Upravleniye Federalnoy Migratsionnoy Slyzhby), Russia’s Federal Migration Service, often just shortened to FMS. It’s likely you’ll hear the old acronyms PVU and OVIR used for this office.
Extensions are time consuming, if not downright difficult; tourist visas can’t be extended at all. Try to avoid the need for an extension by asking for a longer visa than you might need. Note that many trains out of St Petersburg and Moscow to Eastern Europe cross the border after midnight, so make sure your visa is valid up to and including this day. Don’t give border guards any excuses for making trouble.