Note: Russian visa regulations are notorious for changing regularly. Double check on the information stated below before finalizing travel plans.
Keep in mind that while you are in Russia, you are required to carry your original passport with you at all times.
Look, I'm not here to get into a political debate with you. I usually save those discussions for dinner parties with my parent's friends, not for when I'm writing articles at work. That being said, it is always important to be aware of the political climate of the place you're visiting. Modern politics aside, Russia is a country of vast, interesting history and beautiful sights, and is certainly at the top of any traveler's list. However, you can't just show up. You need a tourist visa! Here's how to get one:
Getting a Visa - Here's What You Need
1. You'll need a priglashenie.
This is an official document, sometimes referred to as a "visa sponsor," "visa support letter," or "letter of invitation," and is from an organization recognized by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Visa invitations are typically given by your hotel or tour company. When you make your hotel reservation, ask the hotel to organize a visa invitation for you- they will typically charge between $15-30 for this service. If you're visiting more than one city and staying at more than one hotel, ask if your entire trip can be included on one invitation, so that you don't need visa invitations from every hotel you've booked. Some hotels will only offer a visa invitation that is limited to your stay at their hotel.
There are online agencies that offer visa invitations for a fee, but stick to the one recommended by your hotel to keep the process smooth.
The organization that gives you the visa invitation is legally responsible for you during your stay in Russia, but it's likely that you'll never hear from them. Remember, this is a bureaucratic process, so don't try to make too much sense of it all.
2. Fill out this form
The Electronic Visa Application form, that is. You need to request a single-entry visa, which has a $90 fee.
Important: your passport must be valid for 6 months after the date of your departure from Russia, and have 2 adjacent blank pages to fit the visa.
3. Submit the following documents to the Russian Embassy for approval:
- the visa invitation
- your application form
- your passport
- a passport photograph
- the processing fee (in the form of money order or cashier's check only)
Applications are accepted anywhere from 30-60 days before you leave; the timeframe changes often, but you'll need to send it in a few weeks in advance for the entire process. You can see the location of all the Russian consulates here.
To submit your application, you have three options:
- Deliver it to one of the consulates in person for a $33.
- Mail it in to the consulate for a $118 fee.
- Submit it through a third party service for a $33 fee + the agency's service fee.
More about those third-party services:
You can also hire an agency to do all of this for you. Like I mentioned, those agencies charge their own fee, but they do help you get a visa invitation (if you don't have hotel plans yet) and navigate the tricky paperwork for you. Rick Steves recommends Passport Visas Express. That being said, a third party service means you need to factor in the following costs:
- $90 for the visa itself
- $33 processing fee from the consulate
- between $80 and $110 for the agency's processing fee, including the visa invitation fee
- $50 for shipping of your passport securely
That adds up to around $300 per person.
What to do when you get to Russia with your brand new visa:
Hooray! You've arrived!
Upon your arrival in Russia, the immigration officer will ask you to fill out a form which has two parts. It will list your name, passport number, and other personal details. The officer will stamp both parts of the form, tear off half, and keep it. You are responsible for the other half. Do not lose the other half! You must present it when you leave the country! Eventually there will be a digital version of this paperwork fully phased in, but even then you'll need to carry around the original copy.
If you're staying for more than 7 days, it's important to register your passport and visa with the local authorities. Usually your hotel will handle this--bring a copy of your passport, or ask them to make one. They'll give you a confirmation slip once you'e been registered, and you'll need to show that on your way out as well.
If you're staying for less than 7 days, this isn't necessary. But, you will have to show proof that you were in Russia for less than a week. You can use your hotel receipt as this proof, as long as your check-in and check-out dates are on it.
Important things one last time:
- You first need to acquire a visa invitation. Make sure it is dated for your entire trip.
- You need a visa to go to Russia. If you're going for more than 7 days, you'll also need to register with the local authorities.
- Don't lose your immigration form.
- Carry around your original passport with you while you're visiting.
Are there any exceptions?
There is one! Travelers arriving by a cruise ship or a passenger ferry can be in Russia for up to 72 hours without a visa. You must book your cruise or trip on a passenger ferry through a local organization.
You can arrive on the St. Peter Line ferry, and pay for their shuttle service, which is an unguided round-trip bus that you can use to explore. If you're looking for a trip that takes you to multiple countries at once, including Russia, traveling visa-free through this exception may be a good choice.
Don't forget: this option only allows you 72 hours in Russia! If you want to stay longer, you'll need a visa.
Now you're all set! Need a cheap flight or a cool deal? I know a great site.