This article was last updated: 9 February 2018
Planning a trip to Russia is exciting, but the visa requirements have a reputation for being notoriously complex. These tips might help take the confusion out of getting a Russian tourist visa.
Planning a trip to Russia
Russia still retains some of the mystery that made it the central character in so many Cold War spy stories. As the biggest country in the world, it’s a destination that still holds the allure of adventure and the old school romance of travel. With so much adventure and intrigue, it is only fitting, once you decide on a trip to go to Russia that it warrants a lot of excitement and a lot of planning.
Even though there are many places to visit in Russia, some spread far and wide, the what to see and where to go is the easy part. It is understanding the Russian visa requirements that take many by surprise, as does some of the misinformation about the bureaucratic process. We have applied for a lot of visas in our time and found some trickier than others, but Russia put a whole new spin on tricky.
So, here are some of the things you should know or might encounter when planning your trip to Russia. As well as some of the myths debunked.
Getting a Russian Visa
Most foreign nationals will need a tourist visa to enter Russia. There are only ~30 countries who qualify for the Visa Free Regime and each of those has individual criteria. Most Russian tourist visas are for a maximum of 30 days. So it is important to check your eligibility before planning long stays in the country.
Passengers on a cruise to Russia may enter tSt Petersburg without a visa for up to 72 hours. You may leave the ship during this period only as part of an organised tour group. You are required to depart and return to the port with the tour. This means you do not have the option to stay in St. Petersburg and return to the ship by your own means. You are basically locked into shore excursions starting and finish at the St Petersburg Cruise Port. If you wish to leave the ship on your own without an authorised tour group, you will require a visa obtained prior to arrival in Russia.
Note this exemption does not apply to passengers on Russian river cruises, only passengers on ocean-going cruise ships. If you are planning a river cruise through Russia or any Russia tours, the normal tourist visa requirements will apply.
We applied for our visa as Australian citizens applying from the UK. So this presented a different range of anomalies than if we applied from our home country.
Tips on applying for a Russian visa-
- Previously you required an official Russian tourist visa invitation to apply for a visa; now you must obtain a ‘Travel Voucher’ and ‘Tourist Confirmation’ before applying. This is obtained via a travel agency or hotel. As we did not wish to book our accommodation or travel before our visas were granted, we obtained these from an online Russian visa service in the UK – Real Russia which cost £15 per person for the two documents. This is a straightforward process and an easy option for the traveller not wanting to commit to tours or accommodation. You cannot apply for a visa without first having these two documents.
- As of 2014, depending on the country you are applying from, you may be subject to a new biometrics collection requirement. Therefore, you will be required to apply in person.
- You may be required to provide bank statements to validate your financial means to support your stay. Especially if you are self-employed or unemployed.
- You may need a letter from your employer, school or university.
- Depending on your country of citizenship, you may be required to provide proof of travel insurance.
- You will be required to list every country you have visited over the previous ten years with the date of visit. This was quite challenging for us, especially as I had a new passport issued at the beginning of last year so did not have an accurate reference.
- It may well be the most expensive visa you ever apply for, it was for us. The cost quoted usually does not include additional service fees. The total cost of our visa, applied for in the UK, including the Tourist Vouchers was £86 per person(which translated for us to $186AUD pp).
- Not including tourist vouchers, in Australia expect ~$120 AUD and in the USA expect ~$160 USD plus a $33 Visa Centre service fee, which we also had to pay for in the UK.
- You will need to complete your application online via VFS.Global in the UK or the Russian Consulate. The application is not submitted online, you must print it for submission, either in person or by post.
Do You Need to Use a Russian Visa Service or Agency?
As the Russian visa application has a reputation for being notoriously complex, you will most likely be encouraged to seek the services of a Russian Visa Agency to complete the process for you. We were quoted prices starting from £128 per person for this service.
You still have to complete an online form yourself. They check you have everything in order, provide the tourist confirmation/travel voucher and submit on your behalf.
We did not find the paperwork so complex to require this additional charge. So we would say no, you don’t need an agency to assist with applying for a Russian Tourist Visa. If you were applying for a more complex visa, then, yes this might be advisable.
Due to the increase in demand for Russian visas, in the UK anyway, visa application processing has been outsourced to an external company (VFS.Global). This is a bid to streamline the service and reduce the processing time. This may be the case in other countries as well.
To Declare or Not To Declare?
This one we definitely did not know about and possibly could have come unstuck had we not by chance found out about it in advance. If you think that’s confusing read on.
Now there is varying and contradictory information about declaring or not declaring but the advice is – When you arrive in Russia you will need to declare any individual personal items valued at more than $1,000 USD or baggage exceeding 50kg. Although some information puts this at €1500 ($1700 US). Confusing right?
You must have this declaration stamped as you will need it when you depart the country. Failing to do so could incur customs fees of €4 per kilo or a 30% tax on the “estimated” value of individual high-value items when you exit the country. They will also be checking to see you still have the same items and have not sold any while you were in the country.
We found so much conflicting information as to whether you should or shouldn’t declare any used high-value personal items. What we are more certain about is what is considered a “personal use” allowance; one laptop, one camera, two mobile phones, an amount of jewellery that is considered an acceptable amount for personal use during the time etc.
So, if you are carrying a load of expensive camera gear or an amount of high-value jewellery that could be construed as excessive, then you may want to declare it. We have decided it is not worth the risk of having to pay a 30% tax on something we already own, or worse, not being able to take our own goods out of the country. So for us, it will probably be – Declare! We will report back on this later.
Any new or packaged items can automatically incur taxes of ~20%. So you get the drift of what they are looking for, people that might be smuggling high value or even bulk items (hygiene products also get a mention), for black market sale in Russia.
★ Update – After questioning quite a few more people, including those who travel in and out of Russia frequently, we decided to not bother declaring these high value personal items. We had no issues entering or leaving the country. Whilst we still advise that you check the requirements for each country independently to ensure up to date, accurate information, it would appear that this may be a requirement that is no longer enforced.
All visitors staying in Russia for longer than three days must register with the Federal Migration Service within seven days. You can ask your hotel to do this for you. You will be asked for your passport and migration card. Once they have completed the registration, you will be issued with a copy of your visa registration.
It is advised keeping both this and your migration card on you at all times and even take a copy of them in case of emergency. Most importantly, make sure you have both available when you depart otherwise you may be fined up to $200 USD.
So while Russia’s visa application and customs regulations do have their nuances, it is certainly not as onerous as the reputation that precedes it and not enough to second guess a trip to Russia. Just make sure forms are completed carefully and correctly, ask questions before submitting them and follow the correct process once in the country to avoid undue stress or expense.
How Long Does it Take to Get a Russian Visa
A common question asked is ‘how long does it take to get a Russian Visa?’. This will depend on the visa you are applying for, whether you have completed the documents correctly and where you may be applying from. Our recommendation is to allow 2 months for your visa as this gives you a buffer if there are any problems and also alleviates last minute travel stress.
Don’t forget, foreign countries immigration and customs requirements constantly change, so what was true for us, may not be for you. Always check and obtain the latest advice before heading off on your next great adventure.
We would love to hear about any other complexities you may have encountered when preparing for a trip to Russia.