By Glenn Campbell
Mar. 13, 2014
To visit Russia, almost everyone needs a visa, and getting one is a convoluted process virtually unchanged since the days of the Soviet Union. My own attempt to obtain a tourist visa FAILED because I ran out of time, energy and money. But I did gain some valuable experience, which I want to share with any American who cares to try. The process is not impossible, just convoluted. To give the Russians the benefit of the doubt, let's call it "whimsical".
In the original blog entry here (Sept. 2012), I had some hypothetical advice on obtaining a Russian tourist visa, based only on what I found on the internet. Now that I have actually gone through the process, I deleted most of the post and replaced it with the things I now know from my own direct experience.
I was planning a visit to Moscow on a 18-day European trip, but the Russian Consulate called me in for a personal interview in New York only about 3 weeks before I was to leave home. This interrogation—er, interview—was necessary before the visa was granted. Since I was in another part of the USA at the time, it would have been prohibitively expensive to fly to New York for this interview, so I decided to throw in the towel and abort the Russian leg of my vacation. (Technically, I withdrew my visa application. It wasn't rejected.)
(Being called in for an interview may or may not have had anything to do with the Ukrainian crisis. My airline ticket was bought long before the Russian invasion of Crimea, but my visa didn't reach the consulate until a week after it. There's no way of knowing their reasons for wanting to interview me personally, since I didn't go.)
Expense aside, at the point where the government of Vladimir Putin calls you in for a personal interview, you have to wonder if the process is worth the vulnerability and loss of privacy. They wanted more documentation: bank statements, proof of income, evidence of real estate holdings and certificate of health insurance. This was in line with what the United States might require for a Russian wanting a visa to the USA—to assure they will go home—but for me it had become too burdensome in time, money and anxiety. Visiting Russia just wasn't important enough to me to jump through all the hoops.
Although my own effort failed, I picked up a few bits of advice that might be helpful to another American who might want to apply for a tourist visa. The process is not impossible, just a journey in itself. Here is my advice as of March 2014...
- Start the visa application process EARLY, as it could take a long time to work out the defects in your application. And the process is so obtuse and poorly documented that there probably WILL be defects.
- USA residents are supposed submit their applications through an intermediate agency, Invisa Logisitic Services, not directly to the Russian consulate. These people are taking a cut (and a BIG cut if you want the visa mailed back to you), but the agent I dealt with at ILS was very nice. Although the process is still clunky, ILS is probably going to be a lot more user-friendly than the consulate could ever be.
- I strongly urge you to visit an ILS office in person to deliver your visa application, because they can tell you right away whether anything is wrong, and they might be able to correct the problem immediately. Correcting problems by mail can be awkward. Only when everything is perfect will the ILS submit the application to the consulate. (You need an appointment at ILS, but it's free.)
- You may be called into the Russian consulate for an interview at a time of their choosing (as I was), so you have to be prepared for it. Only the Russians know who gets called in and why. This is going to be the consulate where you made the application, so if you don't live in one of the major cities where a consulate is located, just getting to the interview could be awkward and expensive (the thing that killed the process for me).
- USA residents are supposed to apply for a 3-year multiple entry visa, but the forms seem to be only interested in a single trip. Apparently you are supposed to fill out the forms for your FIRST planned visit, although it doesn't really state this anywhere.
- The application requires copies of your plane tickets to and from Russia, so you need to book them in advance (not knowing if you are actually going to get the visa). As a hedge, I think you should book your transatlantic flights to a traditional European city that doesn't require visas (like Warsaw), then book cut-rate local flights from there into Russia. That way if you can't get into Russia, you only lose the cheap flights and can still have a nice European vacation. (Air Baltic is a great airline for getting into Russia cheaply.) DO NOT ASSUME ANY LENIENCY FROM THE AIRLINE IF YOU FAIL TO GET A VISA. (In my case, the same change/cancellation fees applied.) Once you have the 3-year visa and have made your first visit, it is safer to fly directly to Russia.
- The visa application itself is generated by clunky software on a Russian government website, which produces a PDF that you print out. Be sure to bring your application number and password with you to ILS, because if something is wrong with the application, they can reprint it for you while you wait. (It is awkward to get back into the application after you have printed it the first time, but I finally figured it out. Hint: go back to the topmost level.)
- The 3-year visa requires TWO identical visa applications. I never saw that instruction online anywhere. The ILS agent had to tell me. (Each application needs a passport photo attached.)
- For the three-year visa, the dates on the application are the date of your first entry into Russia and the same day three years later (or maybe the day before, I'm not sure. I would use the day before.). At least, that's what the ILS agent put on my revised application.
- The application requires you to list the cities you expect to visit in Russia. How are you supposed to do this for a 3-year multiple entry visa? I just listed the city I planned to visit on my first trip: Moscow. (Will you get in trouble for visiting other cities you didn't list on your original application? In the Soviet era, you probably would. These days, who knows?)
- You need an "invitation" to come to Russia. This is relatively easy to obtain if you plan to stay in a hostel in Moscow, like Godzilla's. For $35, they will provide an invitation sent by email. (Although even that process can be clunky. I had to email them a couple of times to get a readable JPG version.)
- There can be absolutely no pen marks on the application form apart from your signature and date. No scratches or white-outs. Just another way the bureaucracy tries to trip you up.
- The application seems to require health insurance for your stay. I used GeoBlue to get insurance for my first visit then printed out the documentation they provided. I think that was sufficient, but since I didn't get the visa, I can't be sure.
- Once you have the visa and have taken your first visit to Russia, it "seems" that you can come and go from Russia as you please... but don't take my word for it. The wonderful thing about Russia is YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT THE RULES REALLY MEAN.
- Seriously, do you really need to go to Russia? There are so many great places Americans can visit without visas (nearly all of Europe apart from Belarus and Russia). The Russian Government tries so hard to turn away tourists that you really have to be dedicated to make it happen.
- Needless to say, if you've got plenty of money, there are bound to be agencies and tour companies willing to relieve you of it to "help" you with the visa process. I can't give you any advice on them. At that point, my budget it burst and I'd rather hang out in "old" Europe for much less.
The tips above only scratch the surface. The visa application process is still totally Cold War, and I didn't have the stamina to pull it off. Maybe you will do better.