St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
**Note: visa procedures have changed slightly since I wrote the post below. Please scroll to the bottom for information on the current application process for U.S. citizens.

I assumed one of the biggest headaches in preparing for my trip would be getting my Russian visa.  I didn’t do myself any favors by trying to obtain a 3-month business visa instead of a 1-month tourist visa but luckily getting a Russian visa proved to be easier than expected – although certainly not cheap!

There are basically two steps in obtaining a tourist or business visa to Russia: securing a letter of invitation (“LOI,” also known as “visa support”) from a sponsoring organization and then applying for the actual visa.  Following these steps are slightly different for tourist and business visas and of course the rules are always subject to change, so double check everything for yourself well in advance of applying! (and everything below applies for Americans – other nationalities may be different)
 

Securing the Invitation

 
I will be volunteering in St. Petersburg and Moscow for 2 months before spending the last month traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway (thus the need for a 3-month business visa!).  Before I applied to volunteer, someone from Geovisions told me they would be able to sponsor me for the 3-month visa if I committed to volunteering for 2 months.  Unfortunately, when I checked back after being confirmed for the program, their Russian partner told them nyet.  They could only sponsor me for the 2 months that I would be volunteering.  Oops.

Luckily, there are many travel agencies who are able to provide the necessary LOIs (for either tourist or business visas) at a cost.  I looked at Real Russia and Visa to Russia and decided to go with Real Russia for a couple reasons:

  • They responded incredibly fast to my email inquiries – always within 24 hours and always with thorough answers to my questions.
  • The timing, pricing and service they could provide was exactly right (more on this later).

Once it is ready, the travel agency can usually send you the LOI by email or send it by telex directly to the consulate at which you are applying for the visa, although there are situations in which you may need to provide the original LOI.
 

Applying for the Visa

 
You must apply for a Russia visa in your country of citizenship or in a country where you can prove you have been a resident for at least 90 days.  I have not been able to find any examples of exceptions to this rule; they seem pretty strict about it.

The Russian Embassy in the United States is in Washington, D.C. and you can find consulates in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston.  If you live in one of those cities, congratulations!  Obtaining your visa will be that much easier and less expensive. If you live elsewhere, visit the Russian Embassy website to see where you should apply.

The Russian Embassy and consulates no longer accept visa applications by mail.  You must either go in person to submit your application and pick up your visa or you must pay to hire a visa agency to do it for you.  The Russian Embassy lists three on their website: Travisa, PVS International and CIBT, Inc.  I decided to go with Travisa, in large part because their website seemed the most professional, they responded to questions relatively quickly (although not as quickly as Real Russia!) and the prices and services they offered seemed better than PVS or CIBT.
 

Timing

 
Here is where things got tricky for me.  According to the Embassy website, you can submit visa applications as early as 90 days in advance of your entry date to Russia.  I am planning to enter September 12, so I was looking at an application date around June 12 – as early as possible to avoid potential issues.

That would be great if I was applying for a tourist visa.  Unfortunately, different rules apply for business visas and I didn’t realize that until I went to apply for the LOI and learned it was too early.

Apparently, the Russian Foreign Ministry will not begin processing LOI requests for business visas until 45 calendar days before the date of entry.  Under the cheapest option for most agencies, regular processing can take up to 12-14 business days.  Likewise, the cheapest option for processing the actual visa is 4-20 business days.

To be on the safe side, you need to assume the longest processing time possible, as well as allow time for your passport to be sent back and forth if you don’t live in a city with a Russian consulate.

This is where I hurt myself – while I do not plan to enter Russia until September 12, I am leaving Chicago on August 30 to visit Helsinki and Estonia first.  So I needed my passport back by August 29 – ideally a few days earlier so I wouldn’t have a heart attack waiting for it.

I won’t bore you with the math, but I realized that if I didn’t pay extra to expedite either the LOI or the visa application, I would risk getting my passport and visa returned to me as late as September 9, by which point I would have missed my flight to Helsinki and all of my planned time in Estonia. Not cool.

It was cheaper to expedite the LOI, so I chose that route.

And here I ran into problems again. When I checked with Visa to Russia, they told me they could only process expedited requests 15 business days before the entry date, rather than 45. That wouldn’t work.  Luckily, Real Russia told me that the same rule did not apply to them so they could process my LOI request in as little as one business day and send it by telex directly to the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C.  So rather than paying $60 for my LOI, I paid $204 to get it in one day.  Ouch!

Additionally, to give myself a little cushion, I decided to move up my stated entry date to September 8 (I can enter any time after that date) so I could request the LOI a few days earlier.  Sure, I lose a few days in Russia, but I figure it is well worth it to make sure that everything is processed in time.

I submitted my LOI request to Real Russia on July 21 (a couple days early), they began processing it on July 25 and I got the LOI number to complete my visa application on July 26.  The embassy received the LOI by telex on July 27.

Russian visa application

My visa application and passport before I sent them off to Travisa.


 

The Visa Application Form

 
Russia instituted a new visa application form on July 1, 2011.  You must complete it online and then print it out to send with your passport and LOI to the visa agency to process.  In addition to basic personal information and details about your sponsoring organization (i.e., the provider of your LOI), you must also provide:

  • Parents’ information
  • Details of your medical insurance policy valid in Russia
  • All countries visited in the last 10 years and the dates of visits
  • Previous jobs held, including the name of your supervisor.
  • Previous educational institutions attended, excluding high school.

This may sound daunting, but in reality the online form only allowed me to enter two past jobs and two past educational institutions.

While the embassy website indicated I needed to provide a letter from myself or my company explaining my business purpose for traveling to Russia, the Travisa website didn’t list that as a requirement and they didn’t ask me to submit one.  However, if I needed to provide such a letter, Real Russia provided a nice template for it.

Because I had my LOI number on July 26, I completed my visa application the same day and sent it out by FedEx overnight delivery.  I got an email from Travisa on July 27 confirming they received it and that they were submitting my paperwork to the embassy, with an estimated pick-up date of August 10.

I followed the progress of my visa application on Travisa’s website and I sighed a big sigh of relief when I checked mid-morning yesterday to see that Travisa had picked up my passport and visa from the embassy.

And I sighed an even bigger sigh of relief (and maybe did a little happy dance in my apartment) when FedEx delivered it to me this morning!

Russian visa

I love how they translate my name into Russian!


 

What You Need to Know – the Condensed Version (updated June 2013)

 
Visa procedures for U.S. citizens have changed slightly since I wrote the post above. Notably, all visa applications must now be submitted through a single visa agency, either by mail or in person. Additionally, as of September 2012, there is now an option for U.S. citizens to obtain multiple entry tourist visas valid for up to 3 years. If only this option had been available a year earlier – I wouldn’t have had to go through the trouble of getting a business visa!

Below are relevant links, prices and timing information, as of June 9, 2013:

Links:

Russian Embassy (click on “Consular Issues”)

LOI Agencies:

Visa Agencies:

  • Invisa Logistic Services (Invisa is now the designated visa agency in the United States – all Russian visa applications must be processed through them).

Timing:

Tourist Visa: Request LOI and apply for visa up to 90 days before entry date.
Business Visa: Request LOI and apply for visa up to 45 days before entry date.

Letter of Invitation/Visa Support Costs:

Tourist Visa: $25 (same day with Real Russia)
Business Visa: $45 (12-14 days) up to $200 (next day with Real Russia). Price varies based on length of validity, number of entries and processing time.

Consular Fee:
$140 (tourist or business visa, single or double entry, 10 day processing)
$250 (3 day processing)

$150 (multiple entry visa valid for 1 year, 10 day processing)
$450 (multiple entry visa valid for 1 year, 3 day processing)

$160 (multiple entry visa valid for 3 years, 10 day processing)
$450 (multiple entry visa valid for 3 years, 3 day processing)

Visa agency fee for Invisa:
$30 – Visa processing fee
$30 – Mail processing fee
$35 – Certified mail service shipping cost

In the end, obtaining my Russian visa proved to be fairly easy, albeit quite expensive.  But I got the visa with plenty of time to spare and spending the extra money (my total cost was $447.27) was well worth it to save me any additional stress!

Disclaimer: I was not compensated in any way to write this post, but if you decide to use Real Russia’s services and click on the banner below, I will earn a small commission.

 

 

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20 Responses to “How To Get a Russian Visa”

  1. Thanks for the info! I’m looking at possibly making my next trip a Russia/Central Asia/Iran trip… I looked at Real Russia as well and they seem the best bet. Not looking forward to the price though, Ouch!

    • Glad to be of help! Hopefully it won’t be as pricey for you – if you just do the 1 month tourist visa and don’t have to expedite anything, it’s way cheaper!

      • Damn! I thought to fly to Moscow next Tuesday for an Art Fair, checked out flights and then was so shocked to find all this terrible news about getting a russian visa!!!
        I have an Irish passport but live in Germany, have done for 25 years. I am insured with AOK which is also not on the list of insurance companies accepted?!?
        I guess I’ll have to completely forget the idea?! It’s Friday already so only 4 days altogether, I travelled to many countries but never came across such a difficult application.

  2. I do know someone that got around the 90 day resident rule… but it was still stressful. This girl had only been in Bishkek for like a month and needed to get a Russian visa to do some intern work there. I think they bribed the visa office, no joke! But, she went!
    Brooke vs. the World recently posted…Day 226: Pitching to the Person that CountsMy Profile

  3. Katie, I’m really glad to hear that it wasn’t as difficult as expected! I’m strongly considering visiting Russia sometimes next year.
    Nomadic Samuel recently posted…Stones Steps | Machu Picchu, Peru, | Travel PhotoMy Profile

  4. That just sounds stressful! I hate any situation that requires me to mail off my passport. I’m glad it all worked out for you though.
    Ali recently posted…The Other Side of ExcitingMy Profile

  5. This sounds really stressful…. especially since I want to go to Russia at the end of the 6-8 month long backpacking trip…. perhaps it will be impossible? since i wont be able to get a visa which is valid for long enough… hmmmm
    Jade Johnston recently posted…Best And Worst of CanadaMy Profile

  6. Richard Andrew says:

    This is extremely informative and helpful, thanks a lot for posting this. Saved me the head ache in researching this stuff.

  7. Hey! This article is really helping me in my travel plans to russia. I am arriving in Vladvistokov from Japan, via ferry in January. I am still trying to figure out exactly what I’ll need to get the visa thought, correct me if I’m wrong, but I need a LOI from an authorized agent, about $20, then, since I live in NYC, I can just go to the consulate with the application, LOI, and required documents, and pay them the visa fee, am I right in that? Also, I’ve read here and there that it may be required to provide bank statements. Did you have that experience?

    • Yep, if you live in NYC, you should be able to do everything in person at the consulate there (which should save you time and money!). I recommend Real Russia to get the letter of invitation – the price varies based on how fast you need it.

      I never got asked about bank statements at all – I went through the consulate in DC so I suppose it could be different, but they really should be the same.

  8. Did you have to send your passport to ‘Real Russia’ to get your LOI? I live in Los Angeles but can get up to San Francisco fairly easily. Would I have to go up there twice – once to drop off my application and once to pickup my visa?

    • For the LOI, I just had to send a copy of my passport to Real Russia. You should be able to just go to the consulate in San Fran in person to drop of your application, but doublecheck on their website – I know some of the rules have changed since I got mine last year.

  9. Hello! Glad to meet you. I have a small company in Russia, and we just do help in registration the tourist and business visas. If you have something interested, you can always find my contacts on the site http://en.wrvis.com.

    I would be happy if you leave this link on your blog to help those who are traveling to Russia.

    Our specialization – Ufa, a very beautiful city in the Urals. Lots of greenery, mountains and fresh air. Come, we are glad to see.

  10. Indian Tiger says:

    Hello

    I will be going on a cruise in August with a 2 day stop at St. Pete. I would liek to get a visa myself instead of using the Cruise ships excursions. So I asked ILS how do I show them a Invitation and a voucher if I am stayign on the ship for the night. They haven’t been helpful with their answers. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks

    • Sorry, I’m really not sure. Based on what I have heard, though, I think you have to go through your cruise ship when stopping in St. Pete.

      • If i was planning on visiting Russia for a short period of time July 17th-24th, would I have enough time to get my visa processed? I’ve been procrastinating :/ Thanks!

        • Oh definitely. I would get moving on it now, though, so you don’t have to pay extra for any expedited service.

  11. John and Kathleen says:

    With the recent changes is the requirement still to apply from your home country or 90 days in one place? My wife and I are on a two year trip. We where hoping to take the Trans-Siberian as the way to link Europe and Asia. We have been traveling since Feb and are in Europe now. Turkey will be our longest stop this summer/fall but will be there 6 weeks, not 90 days. Are we screwed?
    Thanks

    • My understanding is that you still have to apply in your home country or a country where you are a resident.

      Now, what you could do, if you’ll be in Turkey for 6 weeks, is mail your passports back to the US to get the visa, and then have them sent back to you in Turkey. Not ideal by any means, but it would probably be the easiest way to do it. However, you would likely need to stay in one place in Turkey while you wait to get your passports back as you may have to show your passport to buy train or bus tickets.

  12. Thanks for that info. It sounds like it was a bit of an ordeal all round. This will help me though for my tourist visa. Thanks.

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