All foreigners visiting Russia need visas. The visa lists entry/exit dates, your passport number, any children travelling with you, and visa type. The primary types of visas are tourist visas (for one entry, 30-day stay) or business visas (one-entry, two-entry or multi-entry, for 30- to 90-day stays). To obtain a student visa you must be enrolled in a Russian educational institute. You can also get a ‘private’ visa if you have a personal friend who is inviting you to Russia, but be aware that he or she will undergo some serious hassle to get you an invitation. For all visas you’ll need the following:
1 A passport valid for at least a month beyond your return date.
2 Two passport-size (4cm by 4.5cm), full-face photos, not more than one year old.
3 A completed application form, including entry/exit dates (note that American citizens must fill out a special application form).
4 The handling fee, usually in the form of a money order. The handling fee varies depending on your citizenship: US citizens pay the most in retaliation for high fees for American visas.
5 A visa-support letter or letter of invitation issued by a tourist operator or some other Russian organisation.
Except for a private visa, you will also need a standard tourist confirmation or an invitation from a tourist company that is registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Your hotel may be able to provide this service. Some other companies offering visa support include the following:
City Realty (570 6342; www.cityrealty.ru; Muchnoy per 2; tourist visas from US$25; Nevsky Pr) Registration is free if you stay in one of City Realty’s rental units; otherwise, it’s an additional €30. If you are short of time, the ‘full visa service’ is efficient and cost-effective.
Infinity (494 5085; www.infinity.ru; Angleterre Hotel, Bolshaya Morskaya ul 39; Nevsky Pr) The St Petersburg branch of this efficient travel agency can help with visas, invites and registration. Staff speak English and can also book you train and air tickets.
Ost-West Kontaktservice (M327 3416; www.ostwest.com; Nevsky pr 105; Pl Vosstaniya) A reliable outfit charging €30 to register visas for those not staying in hotels.
Apply as soon as you have all the documents you need (but not more than two months ahead). 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 appropriate payment or by mailing it all (along with a self-addressed, postage-paid envelope for the return). When you receive the visa, check it carefully – especially the expiry, entry and exit dates and any restrictions on entry or exit points.
When you arrive you will receive an immigration card, which you must fill out and keep with your passport for the duration of your stay. When you check in at a hotel, you surrender your passport and visa so the hotel can register you with OVIR (office of visas and registrations). 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 within three business days of your arrival in town. The only exception is if you stay for less than three days. Sometimes you may have to pay a registration fee, especially if the registration is provided by an agency, not a hotel.