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.
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.
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!
What You Need to Know – the Condensed Version
Russian Embassy (click on “Consular Section”)
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.
$140 (tourist or business visa, 4-20 day processing)
$250 (3 day processing)
Visa agency fee:
$55 (4-20 day processing with Travisa)
$99 (3 day processing with Travisa)
Also, don’t forget you’ll need to pay FedEx charges for shipping your passport to the visa agency and having it returned to you – factor in about another $50 for overnight delivery both ways.
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.