Nowadays, entry into (and departure from) Russia is a straightforward affair. Upon arrival, you will receive a computer-generated immigration card, which you should keep with your passport for the duration of your stay. Don't lose this card, as you must present it at departure.

Customs Regulations

  • Searches beyond the perfunctory are quite rare, but clearing customs when you leave Russia by a land border can be lengthy.
  • Visitors are allowed to bring in and take out up to US$10,000 (or its equivalent) in currency, and goods up to the value of €10,000, weighing less than 50kg, without making a customs declaration.
  • Fill in a customs declaration form if you’re bringing into Russia major equipment, antiques, artworks or musical instruments (including a guitar) that you plan to take out with you – get it stamped in the red channel of customs to avoid any problems leaving with the same goods.
  • If you plan to export anything vaguely ‘arty’ – instruments, coins, jewellery, antiques, antiquarian manuscripts and books (older than 50 years) or art (also older than 50 years) – it should first be assessed by the Expert Collegium; it is very difficult to export anything over 100 years old. Bring two photographs of your item, your receipt and your passport. If export is allowed, you'll be issued a receipt for tax paid, which you show to customs officers on your way out of the country.

Visas

Required by all; apply at least a month in advance of your trip.

Need to Know

You will need the following for all visas:

  • Passport Valid for at least six months beyond your return date.
  • Photos One or two passport-sized photos.
  • Completed application form Allow some time for this: it's a doozy.
  • Handling fee Usually in the form of a money order; amount varies.
  • Visa-support letter Provided by hotel, travel agent or online service.

Types of Visas

For most travellers a tourist visa (single- or double-entry, valid for a maximum of 30 days) will be sufficient. If you plan to stay longer than a month, you can apply for a business visa or – if you are a US citizen – a three-year multi-entry visa.

Tourist Visas

These are the most straightforward Russian visas available, but they are also the most inflexible. They allow a stay of up to 30 days in the country, with one or two entries within that time period. It is not possible to extend a tourist visa.

In addition to the standard documents required for all Russian visas, you’ll need a voucher issued by the hotel or travel agency that provided your invitation. Note that Russian consulates also reserve the right to see your return ticket or some other proof of onward travel, but this is rarely requested.

Business Visas

Available for three months, six months or one year (or three years in the US), and as single entry, double entry or multiple entry visas, business visas are valid for up to 90 days of travel within any 180-day period. You don’t actually need to be on business to apply for these visas. In fact, they’re great for independent tourists with longer travel itineraries and flexible schedules. But you must have a letter of invitation from a registered Russian company or organisation (available from specialist visa agencies) and a covering letter stating the purpose of your trip. Some applicants are also asked to provide proof of sufficient funds to cover their visit.

Transit Visas

For transit by air, a transit visa is usually valid for up to three days. 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. Note that transit visas for train journeys are tricky to secure and are usually exactly the same price as a single entry tourist visa (in the UK £70 for either, plus a service charge of £38.40).

Invitation

To obtain a visa, everyone needs an invitation, also known as 'visa support'. Hotels and hostels will usually issue anyone staying with them an invitation voucher free or for a small fee (typically around €20 to €40). If you are not staying in a hotel or hostel, you will need to buy an invitation – this can be done through most travel agents or via specialist visa agencies. Prices may vary depending on how quickly you need your invitation.

Application

Invitation voucher in hand, you can then apply for a visa. Wherever in the world you are applying you can start by entering details in the online form of the Consular Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (https://visa.kdmid.ru/PetitionChoice.aspx).

Take care in answering the questions accurately on this form, including listing all the countries you have visited in the last 10 years and the dates of the visits – stamps in your passport will be checked against this information and if there are anomalies you will likely have to restart the process. Keep a note of the unique identity number provided for your submitted form – if you have to make changes later, you will need this to access it without having to fill the form in from scratch again.

Russian embassies in many countries, including the UK, US, France and Germany, have contracted separate agencies to process the submission of visa applications and check everything is in order; these companies use online interfaces that direct the relevant information into the standard visa application form:

  • VFS.Global (http://ru.vfsglobal.co.uk) Offices in London and Edinburgh.
  • Invisa Logistic Services (http://ils-usa.com) Offices in Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, Houston and Seattle.

Consular offices apply different fees and slightly different application rules country by country. For example, at the time of writing a pilot project to collect biometric data via fingerprinting was being run for visa applications in the UK, Denmark, Myanmar and Namibia. Avoid potential hassles by checking well in advance what these rules might be. Among the things that you may need are:

  • A printout of the invitation/visa support document.
  • A passport-sized photograph for the application form.
  • If you're self employed, bank statements for the previous three months showing you have sufficient funds to cover your time in Russia.
  • Details of your travel insurance.
  • Birth certificates of any children you are travelling with.

The charge for the visa will depend on the type of visa applied for and how quickly you need it.

Registration

Every visitor to Russia is obligated to have their visa registered within seven business days of arrival. If you are in Moscow for less than seven business days, you are exempt. If you leave Moscow, you must register again in any city where you stay seven days or longer. The obligation to register is with the accommodating party – your hotel or hostel, or landlord, friend or family if you’re staying in a private residence.

When you check in at a hotel 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 day.

If you are staying in a homestay or rental apartment, your landlord can register your visa through the local post office. But this is a big hassle that most landlords don't care to undertake. An easier alternative is to get registered through the agency that issued your invitation (though you'll probably pay an extra fee).

It is unlikely but possible that police officers may request to see your proof of registration, so keep all documentation and transportation tickets. This is perhaps more of a concern for those who are travelling extensively outside of Moscow. In any case, you will not have to show proof of registration upon departure.

Extensions

Any extensions or changes to your visa will be handled by Russia’s Federal Migration Service (Federalnoy Migratsionnoy Slyzhby), often shortened to FMS. It’s possible you’ll hear the old acronyms PVU and OVIR used for this office.

Extensions are time consuming and difficult; tourist visas can’t be extended at all. Avoid the need for an extension by arranging 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.

At A Glance

Main Visa Types

Tourist Valid maximum of 30 days, single- or double-entry, nonextendable.

Business Valid for three months, six months or one year (three years for US citizens); may or may not limit the number of entries.

Private On invitation from a Russian citizen, who provides your accommodation. Up to 90 days, single- or double-entry.

Transit By air for 72 hours, by train 10 days.

Russian Far East Free e-Visa Citizens of 18 countries can arrive without a visa for stays of up to 30 days if entering via Vladivostok, Kamchatka or Sakhalin and staying only in the Russian Far East.

Visa Agencies

  • Action-visas.com www.action-visas.com
  • Comet Consular Services www.cometconsular.com
  • Express to Russia www.expresstorussia.com
  • IVDS www.ivds.de
  • Real Russia http://realrussia.co.uk
  • VisaCentral http://visacentral.com
  • VisaHQ.com http://russia.visahq.com
  • Visa to Russia www.visatorussia.com
  • Way to Russia www.waytorussia.net

Immigration Form

Immigration forms are produced electronically by passport control at airports. Take good care of your half of the completed form 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.