“Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
Russia is the largest country on earth, with a foot in two different continents - Asia and Europe - (and even a third before they sold us Alaska in the 1800s)…
Yes, just like Winston Churchill said, the old empire of the tsars contains a certain Slavic magic which our Western souls find endlessly fascinating and incomprehensible.
The vast expanses with industrial cities and towns and plains of agriculture still leave plenty of space for wild and undeveloped sections of the country - immense forests and tundra, the taiga, the Ural and Caucasus mountain ranges, the steppes…
This truly immense country is one in which you can be a 21st-century pioneer, or an appreciative viewer of refined civilization with Orthodox domes, Moscow as the country’s nerve center, or the heightened culture of St Petersburg, with its beautiful architecture thanks to Peter the Great.
When faced with so many marvels, who wouldn’t want to go and examine Russia firsthand to appreciate its natural and man-made beauty?
However, any tourist trips to Russia will require advanced preparations in order to be successful.
Preparations and administrative bureaucracy should be at the top of the to-do list for any prospective traveler.
And yes, visas are required for all US citizens traveling to Russia (unless you are one of the very rare souls who holds a diplomatic passport).
General information for obtaining a Russian visa
Have you been looking to learn Russian online? Perhaps it’s time to break out of your house and take yourself to Russia to try out your knowledge first hand!
All foreign citizens require a visa in order to enter the Russian Federation,
A Russian Federation visa will allow you to enter and stay in the country for a specific amount of time.
A visa will generally specify your dates for entering and leaving the country, key identifying information, your passport number and expiration date, and the details of your host in the country.
It should be noted that a Russian visa is an exit visa as well as an entry visa.
There are different types of visas:
- Russian tourist visa
- Russian business visa
- Private visit visa (via Homestay)
- A Russian transit visa
In this article, we’ll go through each type of visa and it’s different visas, with an emphasis on the tourist visa, which is, of course, the most relevant.
Why would you visit a Slavic country?
From the West, the most popular Russian destinations are also two of the closest - Moscow and St Petersburg.
It’s much rarer for an American tourist to venture to the Far East of the country, where the time difference can be as much as 20 hours - quite a contrast to the 8 hour time difference between New York City and Moscow.
To travel to Russia has never been as easy as in the 21st century, thanks to the airplane. It takes less than 9 hours to travel across the Atlantic and Europe all the way to Moscow.
Whether you’re attracted to Russia by the Kamchatka volcanoes, Lake Baïkal, cities like Perm and Novgorod or the splendor of its Orthodox churches, there are thousands of different sights and attractions to see in Russia and it would be a shame not to try and see at least a few of them!
Russia is also a sportsman’s paradise and has played host to a number of Olympic games.
In 2018, the country is due to play host to the FIFA World Cup, which follows on from this year's Confederation Cup. Each event is due to attract millions of new visitors, and the Russian authorities are working to adopt simplified administrative procedures for participants such as players, coaches, and accredited journalists, as well as spectators. They’ve created a new special passport called the ‘Fan-ID’ which will cover the competition and be valid for 10 days before the game’s inauguration until 10 days after the closing ceremony.
You must sign up in advance in order to obtain this special pass, and the website for applications is already live.
You will also need to have already purchased your game tickets and confirmed your identity. The Fan-ID is then sent to you.
For this occasion, the Fan-ID completely fulfills the requirement for a tourist visa and can also be used as a free transport pass to journey to the stadium.
It’s also worth checking out the prolific Russian authors and their contributions to literature…
The Current state of American-Russian Diplomatic Relations
Although the USSR has been gone for over a quarter of a century and the iron curtain has completely fallen, it’s clear to see that Russian-American relations are at their lowest point since the cold war.
With accusations of election interference in the US (as well as in the UK’s Brexit vote, Germany’s national elections, and many others), it’s hard to see relations improving anytime soon as diplomats are expelled and high profile hacking stories continue to unfold.
As the FBI investigation continues, it’s likely that relations will continue to be rocky for the foreseeable future.
Of course, none of this means that Russia is barring the entry of individual citizens to the country, especially when American are coming eager to spend their money. However, there might be a few unexpected roadblocks along the journey and it’s important to prepare yourself to remain patient and polite at all times.
By demonstrating a true appreciation for Russian language and culture (and leaving politics to the side!) you’ll find things a bit easier.
Russia’s numerous diplomatic squabbles will also make it more difficult to visit Russia if you’re coming from certain countries, like Belarus.
And of course, it’s always a good idea to think about signing up for a few Russian lessons before you travel so you’ll be able to communicate with people in their native tongue!
You could also learn this Slavic language reading some of the great piece of Russian literature.
Where can you apply for your Russian visa?
A visa is simply official permission for a foreigner to enter and travel in Russia.
It is issued by the suitable authorities (as designated by the Russian government) and remains subject to a number of additional conditions including the length of stay, respect for the laws, etc, all of which change depending on the type of visa issued.
In the United States, it’s the Russian Embassy, under the supervision of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Russian Federation, which administers the visa application process.
For American tourists fascinated by our Russian counterparts, you will need to apply for a visa with the embassy (located at 2641 Tunlaw Road, N.W) or one of the four other consulates scattered throughout the country. Each consulate has processing responsibility for certain states, and it is important to make sure you apply for a visa with the relevant consulate for your state.
You can find the other Russian consulates in the US at the following addresses:
- 600 University Street, Suite 2510, Seattle, Washington
- 1333 West Loop South, Ste 1300, Houston, Texas
- 9 East 91 Street, New York, NY
If you are already living abroad, you will need a residence permit for the country you are living in order to apply for the visa with the embassy in that country.
In order to apply for a tourist visa (which is sometimes refused), you will need to fill out an application form and print out at least two copies.
In order to save time, it’s a good idea to complete the form online on the embassy website before printing and signing it.
The application form will need to be accompanied by the following additional items:
- an invitation letter from your hotel or tour operator in Russia (for a private or business visa, this will be called a voucher)
- A draft itinerary with a description of your plans for any visit of more than 2 weeks
- A biometric passport, valid for at least 6 months after the end of your trip, and with at least two free pages for the visa
- A money order or check for the visa fee, made out to the appropriate authority (for a 30-day single entry tourist visa this will be $133 including the processing fees).
Business visas cost exactly the same but are often more flexible with their dates than a tourist visa.
You’ll need to give yourself several weeks in order to receive your visa (and that’s if all the required documents are supplied in the correct format), and it’s always good to leave yourself a bit of extra time as a safety measure.
In some Russian consulates, it’s also possible to pay an additional fee to accelerate the visa process and receive your documents back within three days, but this is not guaranteed.
Attention - a tourist visa is only valid for 30 days, and you will need to plan carefully to use it properly.
If your travel plans might also take you into a neighboring country for a few days, it is important to make sure you have a multi-entry and not single entry visa.
Given the difficult bureaucratic challenges that exist in order to obtain a Russian visa, there are a number of private companies that can help do some of the application legwork for you.
Many of these companies will allow you to sign up directly with them only.
These intermediaries are generally totally legitimate and secure, but you are paying for the convenience - there’s generally an additional cost of $50-100 for using their services.
Most of the times, if you’re traveling to Russia through an organized tour or cruise up the Neva, the travel agent will take over the visa process themselves and their fees will include the processing costs for the visa. They will communicate directly with their travelers what information is necessary to provide in order to obtain a visa.
Thanks to all these different companies, there are many different ways to pay for a Russian visa in the US - Pay Pal, credit card, money order.
Before you apply for your visa, it’s also worth checking out our list of famous Russian figures - literary, historical, and sports stars.
The risks of carelessness
The visa or residence permit required to enter Russia will differ according to the purpose of your travel.
The tourist is neither a worker nor a student, and entry fees (visa fees) vary depending on the document for which you apply.
Naturally, the tourist visa is among the most affordable, since the traveler will be spending money in Russia and thus enrich the nation.
Don’t play around and choose this visa if your trip has a purpose other than tourism! Although the KGB no longer exists, you can be assured that the Russian authorities are far from being lax and that their services are still watching over foreign nationals …
There was recently a story about a Ph.D. student from Lyon in France who went to Siberia with a tourist visa but was actually there to study as part of her academic research into the shamanic religions of indigenous peoples.
The student was arrested, fined (a much higher sum than the difference in price between the tourist visa and the study permit that she should have bought ...) and sent back to France immediately: probably not the experience that she hoped for!
It was an expensive experience to be scared and thrown out after only a few days!
The Russian authorities strictly apply all the laws regarding visas and immigration. The Embassy of the Russian Federation website provides the most up-to-date information on visa regulations and requirements.
According to Russia's Exit and Entry Act, the Russian authorities can refuse entry or re-entry to Russia for five years or more and cancel visas for foreigners who have committed two "administrative" violations in the course of the last three years.
Activities not specifically covered by the traveler's visa may result in an administrative offense and deportation.
What admin is necessary to travel to Russia?
As we have seen, a passport is required in order to prove your identity and travel to foreign countries.
In Russia, just like other countries, the biometric passport is valid for 10 years (or 5 for minors) and can be obtained from the US State Department, or from US embassies and consulates worldwide.
Just like with a visa, you’ll need to fill out an application form, provide a photo, and pay a fee, which will depend on the pages you want in your passport.
You’ll need to add a bit of extra time to obtain your passport as the process can take up to 8 weeks, especially in the summer when there’s often a backlog as everyone goes on vacation. You can pay a supplementary fee to expedite the process and receive your passport back within 4 weeks.
In cases of emergency (for instance if your passport is stolen while traveling abroad), you can also apply for a temporary emergency passport with your nearest US embassy.
The Russian Embassy or Consulate looking at your visa application may also demand additional information and documents, such as:
- Applicant's bank statement
- Applicant's employer's statement of the applicant's salary for the previous year, the half-year or the month
- Medical insurance valid in Russia and fully covering the period of the trip
- Certificates verifying family membership (ie, Marriage Certificate and Birth Certificate).
Restrictions on people entering the country with HIV/AIDs
There are still some entry restrictions on HIV/AIDs for visitors and foreign residents in Russia.
Applicants for long-term tourist and work visas or residence permits are required to be tested for HIV/AIDs.
The Russian government can also ask candidates to undergo tests for tuberculosis and leprosy.
Travelers who believe they may be subject to these requirements should check the current guidelines with the Russian Federation Embassy.
More generally in the field of health precautions, it is recommended (but not mandatory) to be vaccinated against hepatitis B and up to date with DTCP.
When you arrive in Moscow, you will need to complete an immigration form and have your visa stamped by an authorized organization (for example, your hotel).
This validation will need to be repeated anywhere where you have spent more than 3 days, something that will happen often for those who choose to board the Trans-Siberian.
Keep all these documents safe in your luggage, you will need them in order to avoid any hassle when you go to leave, but they may also be necessary during any police checks during the journey: a fine of 20,000 rubles, does not sound like the kind of memory you want to take home.
There are also other steps you can take that are optional, but highly practical: find a cheap flight to buy your plane ticket (use a flight comparator to find low cost airlines), make sure you have a credit card that works in Russia (Visa, Mir or MasterCard), learn a bit of Russian so that you’ll be able to fend for yourself; a Russian language course London search will connect you to a variety of tutors in the capital or sign up for Russian language lessons on Superprof wherever you are.