How to Get a Russian Visa
Russian visas are frankly a bit of a pain in places you don’t want pain.
Russia is an amazing country to visit; vast, complex, mysterious, varied, and just so worth visiting.
The country is so huge that even the longest holiday wouldn’t get you across even a fraction of it – multiple visits for most people means multiple hassles with the frankly unnecessarily time-consuming, bothersome, and complex visa procedure.
But in the absence of it getting any more reasonable any time soon, the visitor just has to deal with it and count it as part of the process!
As a legacy of the Soviet system, Russia still uses the Letter of Invitation (LOI) system.
This LOI is needed by everyone that obtains a Russian visa and can be issued only be authorised companies (those going as tourists will need one from a registered and authorised agency). Individuals can also invite people to Russia as long as they themselves follow a complex procedure to issue an official letter and various other agencies would issue their own LOI for things such as academic, business, etc visits. As these latter methods are not related to tourism we will not dig into them here.
As Russian visa policy varies for different nationalities, can change over time, isn’t enforced in exactly the same way in every consulate, and there are many other variables, the information below should not be taken as gospel and anyone planning a trip to Russia should seek out the latest information, ideally by contacting the consulate that they plan to have the visa processed by. To add extra complications though some Russian consulates refuse to process the visas directly and instead farm the process out to visa agencies, many of which have exclusive rights in certain territories and unfortunately simply serve to add an extra layer of bureaucracy as well as more cost and time too. Working through the visa process is very much not the highlight of any trip to Russia, but it is a necessary first step!
There are some nationalities (Mainly those from the former USSR) who need no visa and have no limits to how long they stay.
Some that are visa-free for up to 90 days (most South American countries fall into this fortunate category)...
...and then the rest of us, who need to jump through the hoops!
A full list of who needs a Russian visa can be found online here. Note that it is the policy of the Russian Federation to consider visa policy to be somewhat reciprocal, so if you choose to complain that it is onerous and a bit pointless to demand so much information and paperwork to visit a place that realistically you are not going to be a burden on then this is the counter-argument you would be met with.
So don’t waste your breath!
Firstly, the LOI – whoever issues this will have some kind of fee.
Often it can be as low as $30 or so, but this will depend on who is issuing it. This will be paid whether or not you apply for the visa and whether or not the application is successful as it is done by a company, not by the Russian Consulate or visa agency. In the past, some consulates demanded the original LOI document but now they are generally satisfied with a fully legible high-quality copy or printout.
Do check in advance though!
For the Russian visa issuance itself the price varies greatly.
Again, this is put down to the principle of reciprocity (broadly speaking what your country charges Russians is what Russia charges you) so for many of the western European countries and especially the UK the costs are very high.
Call the consulate or visa agency in advance about this.
Also, there are usually various options for the speed of processing. Each consulate has different speeds and many of them no longer do the one-day super rushed option, but 5 days, 7 days, 10 days, etc are usually available. The visa is never cheap though, so do factor this in when budgeting for a trip to Russia.
Some nationalities are issued multiple-entry visas with ease (those from the US for instance) while some can be issued only single-entry time-limited visas.
Again check on this as it refers to your specific case in advance.
This is the first document you need.
Without this, you are not going to get into Russia at all.
Fantasies of slipping a pack of Levis, a pack of Marlboro, or a Michael Jackson cassette to a customs officer in exchange for getting let into the country are a thing of the distant past.
The folks who control entry to the country are the FSB, that’s the actual KGB, don’t mess with them!
However, the LOI is a simple thing to get; you just contact the company who is arranging the trip or who you have arranged to get the invitation from (some will just sell you an invitation, others will ask you to book something else visa them – hotel, train tickets, etc) and tell them the info that needs to be on the LOI.
In brief, this is;
Any company issuing an LOI already has all the templates, you just need to fill in the details for them and then they send the LOI to you.
It will be two pages; one in Russian, one in English.
They are both the same and should both be submitted with the visa application.
A note about hotels: Once you have the visa you are under no actual obligation to stay at the hotels you have listed on the LOI but you may be asked for booking at the hotel when you apply to show that you are in line with the LOI. So, make a booking, then cancel it if you want to change plans after the visa is issued. Do not worry about this, it is normal. You also don’t need to list which hotel is for which night (this used to be required) so any nights spent on a train etc do not need to be specifically accounted for on the LOI.
Once you have the LOI, then you need to complete the online application for the Russian visa.
This document can be found online here.
Many visa agencies will offer to do this for you, for a fee of course, but it is worth looking through to see if you have any issues doing it yourself.
The length of the form depends on what you put in as your nationality, with the version for Brits being the longest.
Most of the questions are simple but the daunting ones are when you are asked to list all the countries you have been to in the last decade and the dates of travel. Don’t panic though; after entering 9 of them the form runs out of space so you might simply look in your diary or at stamps in your passport to see what recent ones to add accurately. Likewise, with the fields for previous jobs and so on the minimum of details is all that is requested so do not panic when faced with these questions on the form!
At the end of this form, you will be directed to list which Russian consulate you will be collecting the visa from.
Some of them offer postal service, some of them need you in person, some need you to go via an agency, it will all become clear eventually!
Once the form is complete you will need to print it, sign it, and put a photo on it and then take it or send it to the relevant consulate for processing.
Note that some of them can be exceptionally pedantic about the information on the form matching exactly with the information on your passport, LOI, etc so double-check key things such as the issuing authority of your passport (just put exactly what is in your passport), place of birth (if your passport says ‘Bristol’ just put that, do not put ‘Bristol, UK’). Just take the time to go through it and get it right, to avoid problems and having to pay some fees to have someone literally log in and change a simple detail. Also remember to make a note of your application number (as then you can log in and adjust the form yourself at any time, or take more than one session to complete it).
So basically, that’s the process; a lot of looking at forms, getting everything done in order, entering information and then waiting for it to be issued to you or sent to you. As mentioned above exact requirements vary from place to place but this information is broadly correct and valid for everyone.
The best advice: don’t panic, take it slowly, plan ahead, and take advice from whoever issued or helped you get the LOI. They will have done this all before!
For visa pickup, it is worth noting that in some places you will be asked to prove that you are a legal resident of the country that you are applying for the visa in. For example, if you are in China and are not a resident of China (a tourist for instance) then you are not supposed to be issued a Russian visa at any consulate in China.
Instead, it should be in your ‘home’ country. So plan ahead on this if you intend to do some word-travelling and include Russia, you will need to get that visa issued in advance in that case. Again, call the consulate and check!
Once the visa is issued you are permitted entry to Russia, for the amount of time specified on the visa.
In the past the visa would also list the places you could go in the country, now it does not so as long as you do not go anywhere off-limits you can change your plans, book to go to places you hadn’t mentioned on the LOI etc.
If you plan to visit a closed city or restricted area, then you need additional permission and paperwork but you will need the Russian visa first. This can create a Catch-22 situation where you are supposed to say where you are going before you get the visa but to get permission to go there you need the visa first. So just apply for places not including anywhere with additional requirements and then get the additional permit processed afterwards. Just allow enough time (plan weeks ahead, at least!)
A visit to Russia doesn’t cause you any problems going to any other country, and at the time of writing there is no country that you could have been to that would automatically disqualify you from being considered for a Russian visa.
Neither we nor anyone else, of course, can guarantee you would be accepted for a Russian visa of course.
Most of the time it is simply procedural and if you complete all forms, pay the right fee, send everything in good time then you will get the visa you asked for.
There are few reasons for refusal, to be honest but this is up to the consular officers themselves.
There are cases of people being called in for interviews before the visa is approved but again these are rare unless you are visiting somewhere without restrictions but which is still somewhat sensitive (places like Chechnya for example).