Russia cracks more Eastern Europe travel bucket lists than you can imagine, and yet, so few ever manage to sneak a peek inside the walls of Kremlin or hop into the ice-cold waters of Lake Baikal. Why?
The short and slightly vulgar answer: It’s a huge pain in the ass.
But, really, when all that stands between you sitting on the couch and wandering the streets of St Petersburg alongside the ghosts of Dostoyevsky and Gogol is a monolithic Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, why not just confront the beast? To win this David vs Goliath battle is surprisingly simple. As long as you’re well prepared and equipped with some patience.
Not running scared yet? Ready to apply for a Russian visa and launch an awesome DIY trip to Russia? Here’s how to do it (without losing your cool):
1. Find your local Russian embassy or consulate
All the major English-speaking countries have Russian representation; it’s never too hard to find a Russian embassy or consulate in your home country. Here are some embassy websites you’ll find useful:
- United States: Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington, D.C.
- Canada: Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada
- United Kingdom: Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom
- Ireland: Embassy of the Russian Federation in Ireland
- Australia: Embassy of the Russian Federation in Australia
- New Zealand: Embassy of the Russian Federation in New Zealand
- South Africa: Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of South Africa
2. Choose whether to apply through a visa agency or by yourself
Depending on your budget, you may elect to use a visa agency to smooth the process of applying of a Russian visa. It’s a little more expensive, but a good Russian visa agency will ensure your paperwork is in order and perhaps even expedite the process a little.
Normally, I would never willingly choose to spend extra money, but the consulate in Toronto only accepts applications in person or through an agency. (Canadian and American embassies are the only ones I’ve encountered that hold to this requirement). Since I live about 4 hours away, using an agency was a far more logical option than two return trips to Toronto to apply for and collect my visa.
The visa agency I used, Travisa, offers visa services for Russia (among a multitude of other countries). They have offices in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom.
Their price was by far the most reasonable I encountered and their customer service and turnaround time was top notch. If you elect to use an agency, for a Russia visa or any other, I highly recommend them.
3. Know the embassy/consulate requirements like the back of your hand
Half the battle of applying for a Russian visa successfully is knowing the official (and sometimes unofficial) requirements of the Russian embassies and following them to a tee.
For a Russian tourist visa, here’s what you’ll need at minimum:
Visa Application Form
Complete an electronic visa application form (visa.kdmid.ru) and print out a copy to send with your embassy/consulate application.
Questions on the online form range from the expected to the utterly mundane. Expect to provide information like:
- your high school (really?)
- education details
- employer’s names & addresses
- and – my personal favourite – details of every visit outside of your home country for the last ten years including dates
You’ll also need to outline your entire Russian itinerary on the visa application including accommodation bookings. (Not exactly conducive to minimalist travel planning, is it?).
But even if you’re normally a non-planner like yours truly, don’t sweat it too much. Changing your itinerary after landing in Russia does not appear to be a problem, assuming your first hotel/hostel registers your visa correctly upon arrival.
NOTE: Even though the PDF file generated after completing the online application is in colour, be sure to print the form in black and white. Some embassies—at least the Canadian one, as I found out the hard way!—only accept applications in black ink.
Ensure that your signature is also in black ink; original signatures only, no photocopies allowed!
Other things you’ll need when applying for a Russian visa
- A valid national passport with at least six months validity remaining and two blank pages.
- A professional passport-sized photograph attached to the printed electronic copy.
- A tourist voucher/invitation from a licensed tourist company in Russia. Contrary to popular belief, a simple hotel reservation is not enough for a Russia visa application. Many registered hotels can, however, offer the correct documents for a small charge. (Or even free).
If you run into problems getting an invitation from your hotel or hostel, I would highly recommend Travisa. If you live in the US, Canada, or United Kingdom they offer a quick turnaround for Russian tourist vouchers/invitations.
- A self-addressed, pre-paid courier envelope to send back your documents.
- Proof of medical insurance. Although it’s only required at some embassies, I would highly recommend purchasing comprehensive medical insurance to cover any unexpected expenses. (Once you see drivers in Moscow, you’ll understand why.)
- Money order or bank draft with the appropriate embassy fee.
Here are the embassy fees for a single-entry tourist visa (updated June 2017):
|Country||Rush (1-3 Days)||Normal (4-20 Days)|
|South Africa||R 1960||R 980|
NOTE: Most Russian embassies and consulates do not accept credit cards, personal cheques or cash to cover visa fees. Check your local embassy’s preferred payment method.
4. Check visa and prepare for entry to Russia.
In a few weeks, once you’ve received your passport with your Russian visa intact and ensured that all the information is correct, stock up on some ink and prepare for a printing spree.
Russian immigration officials and officers are world-famous for their attention to detail, which means that you may need to produce documents at a moment’s notice. Although, I would personally attest that border formalities were far friendlier and more relaxed than I imagined, be sure to carry a copy (or two) of your:
- passport and Russian visa
- tourist voucher/invitation
- accommodation reservations and itinerary
- proof of medical insurance
As in any country, when asked for documents in Russia it’s wise to flash copies instead of the originals. If the copies are unacceptable, asking to check documents at the police station, instead of in public, will usually ward off ill-intentioned officers (or scammers).
And that’s all there is to it! Applying for a Russian visa can be as difficult—or as simple—as you want it to be. If you follow these four easy steps and pay attention to the small details, soon your passport will be filled with Cyrillic letters and you’ll be well on your way to planning your trip Russia!