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To enter many countries, all that’s required of a US citizen is a plane ticket and a valid passport. Russia, on the other hand, is more complicated. Going to the seat of the former Soviet Union requires a visa, and getting that visa requires some planning, a little patience, a talent for untangling dense knots of bureaucracy and quite a few good old American greenbacks. TPG Contributor Katie Hammel is here to walk you through the process.
Editor’s Note: Put your visa to use by taking advantage of our $399 flight deal to Moscow with Singapore Airlines.
There are more than 80 specific Russian visa categories for US citizens to choose from, including seven types of temporary visas, such as work, student and transit (required if you’ll need to leave the secure customs area and/or if transit will take more than 24 hours). To make things simpler, we’ll concentrate on the most common type – the tourist visa, which is available in single or multiple entry. Note: You must have a visa prior to boarding your flight to Russia, as visas are not granted on arrival.
You can apply for a visa anywhere from 30 to 90 days before departure. Take it from one who recently went through the process: The more time you can give yourself to jump through Russia’s many flaming hoops of bureaucracy, the better.
Secure a Letter of Invitation
The first step in the process is securing a letter of invitation (LOI) from a Russian company recognized by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which is much easier than it sounds. Most hotels, as well as tour operators and specialized agencies, can provide the required letter, which is really just a form that indicates your dates of trip, personal information, intended residence during your stay and the organization that’s hosting you. Once you have this form, you can apply for your visa.
For our trip, my husband and I planned to stay at an Airbnb in Moscow and a small inn in St. Petersburg — thankfully, the latter was able to provide (via email) a letter of invitation through a tour agency for a $35 per person fee. Technically, the issuer of the LOI is legally responsible for you while you’re in Russia, but we never had any direct contact with the company that sponsored our stay.
Purchase Health Insurance
EU citizens are required to have health insurance valid in Russia (though US citizens are not). Insurance information is requested on your application form, and — officially — required when your full application package is submitted. My husband and I purchased the cheapest policy we could find. However, aside from the application (which simply asked if we had insurance and through which company), we were never required to submit proof. We submitted our package in person (more on that later) but the clerk did not ask for any documentation of our insurance policy. Still, you’re better safe than sorry, especially given the relatively low cost of coverage — we insured ourselves for our whole trip for $100 total.
While there are five visa processing centers in the US, you need to fill out the Electronic Visa Application Form even if you plan to apply in person. Once you’ve applied online, you’ll need to print the application to present in person at a Russian Consulate or send it to a visa service for processing. Yes, you must submit the form both online and in hard copy. Because Russia.
Be prepared: The application is intensive. Required information includes where you and your spouses were born, your parents’ personal information, details of your health insurance valid in Russia, every country you have visited in the last ten years (with dates), previous jobs held (including supervisors’ names and phone numbers) and higher educational institutions attended. Assume this will take 30-45 minutes to fill out.
Write a Cover Letter
A cover letter is another element that’s technically required as part of your application package, but which was not asked for when we applied in person. As we learned, Russian rules are subject to interpretation and inconsistently enforced, but still it’s better to be prepared than to have your application denied as incomplete.
We kept our letter short: names, address, contact info, dates of birth, purpose of our visit (tourism), cities we planned to visit and on what dates, accommodation information and the details of the company sponsoring our visas.
Apply via Mail or In Person
Russia’s embassies and consulates in the US do not accept visa applications by mail, which means if you don’t live near a Russian Consulate Department, you’ll need to submit via a third-party, such as Travisa, PVS International, Real Russia or CIBT, Inc. You can also use TPG favorite Allied Passport & Visa.
If you live in one of the five US cities with a Russian Consulate Department (DC, NYC, San Francisco, Houston, or Seattle) you can submit your application in person. But that’s not necessarily easier. A contractor called Invisa Logistics Service processes visas for the Consulate and each office has — shall we say — unique hours. Some take breaks from 12:30/1pm to 2pm, some only accept visa applications in the morning and passport pickup is only allowed in the afternoon. If you don’t make an appointment (you should) go early to ensure you’ll be seen before closing time. Even with an appointment, give yourself some padding between the appointment and closing or break time; we had an appointment, but still waited close to 30 minutes.
You can apply 30 to 90 days before departure; you can apply with less time under special circumstances and, of course, for an additional fee. According to the ILS website, the Consulate General reviews applications 4 to 10 calendar days after submission, though they can take up to 30 days. Allow plenty of time for your visa to be processed.
Whether you’re submitting in person or via mail, double- and triple-check that your application contains everything required, as incomplete applications will be returned. Make copies of everything.
Submit the invitation, the signed application form, your cover letter and proof of insurance, your passport (which must be valid for six months beyond your intended stay and have a minimum of two blank pages for your entry stamp), a photocopy of your passport, two passport photographs and the processing fee (payable via cash, money order or cashier’s check only). If you’re applying in person and paying in cash, bring exact change. My husband and I had to run to a nearby store to get change for a ten when our total came to $416 and we handed over $420 cash and the clerk refused to accept it.
So, how much does it all cost? The exact price will vary by company. ILS charges $160 for a single-entry visa in 10 calendar days, plus $33 processing fee if you pick up and $103 if you want your passport mailed back. If you need the visa in four days, the price jumps to $283 plus service charges.
So, at $193 ($160 + $33 processing) times two, how did our total come to $436 for two visas? We forgot one crucial part of our application package, the photocopies of our passports. The cost to make black and white copies? $25 each. Because… Russia!
Check Your Visa
Once you have the coveted visa in your hand, double-check that all information is correct. There will be two dates listed; the first is the earliest date you can enter Russia and the second is the date by which you must leave. Once your visa is issued, these dates are set. If your plans change and you want come a day earlier or stay a day later, you get to do the whole process all over again.
While in Russia
The care and feeding of your visa continues while in Russia. Russian police have the authority to stop you at any time and request to see your visa so the official recommendation is to carry your passport with you at all times. My husband and I opted to make copies of our invitation letter, passports and visas, and carry those while leaving our passports in the hotel. US citizens are also required to carry a migration card while in Russia. Traditionally, these two-part cards are provided by the airline; when you land, Russian immigration keeps one half and you keep the other until you leave (newer terminals issue these cards electronically).
Finally, if you spend more than seven working days in any locality in Russia, you must register your visa and migration card through your sponsor at the Federal Migration Service (FMS) or through your host at their local post office. Hotels are required to do this for guests on the first night of their stay. My visit fell over several holidays and a weekend, so though I was in Russia for nine days, I was able to avoid this hassle.
One final note of caution: Do not overstay your visa! Russian authorities will not allow a US citizen to depart the country with an expired visa and instead often hold them for ten days, charge a hefty fine and impose a five-year minimum ban on returning to Russia.
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