Russia, With Love: Tips for Applying for a Russian Tourist Visa

by Chris on November 29, 2011

Dreaming of St. Petersburg? Tips for navigating the lengthy Russian tourist visa application.

Church on the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

This article previously ran on Frommers.com. It’s inspired by the application process that I went through for my September trip to St. Petersburg. Because we were traveling independently – yet still as a group – we had to get Russian visas. Several in our group found the process took so long that they weren’t able to go into the country (you have to give up your passport to get the visa, and even expediting through a service took two weeks). And be prepared to pay: My visa cost over $500 by the time we were through.   

Getting a tourist visa to visit Russia can be a confusing — and expensive — process, especially if you are coming as an independent traveler.

Russia may no longer be the Soviet Union, but the country’s reputation for glacial bureaucracy still exists. Paperwork snafus can easily torpedo your trip.

If you are heading to Russia as an independent traveler and need a tourist visa, here are a few things to consider before you go through the process.

Note: If you’re going to Russia on a cruise ship, you don’t have to worry about getting a visa, as long you take your shore excursions through the ship or with a licensed tour operator. While some lines now offer “at your own pace” shore excursions where they take responsibility for you off ship, you will need the visa if you want to explore a city such as St. Petersburg completely on your own.

Have a good Internet connection. Since July 1, 2011, the Russian Consulate requires would-be travelers to fill out and file an application online. It’s the first step in a process that requires you to either present your printed application in person at a Russian Consulate or send it to a visa expediting service such as CIBT (www.cibt.com).

Keep in mind that the online application is a lengthy document that asks you where your spouse and parents were born, your full employment history with names and phone numbers of supervisors, and the names and dates of all the countries that you’ve visited in the last 10 years. It’s not uncommon for the form to take at least 45 minutes to fill out. Plan accordingly.

Think about your health insurance. Your Russian visa application requires proof of health insurance — and most U.S. employer-based health plans don’t cover overseas travel. You’ll want to have a travel insurance policy that would cover your medical expenses, should you fall sick or get injured. Consider choosing policy that covers medical evacuation.

Know where you’re staying. Besides your application and proof of health insurance, you’ll also need to turn in a “letter of invitation” as part of your visa support documents. Most hotels will issue you one that usually covers the dates you’ll be staying there, sometimes charging a fee. Your hotel will also register your visa once you get there.

Russian visas are also specific about how many times you can enter the country. If you’re crossing borders, even if it’s just a day trip to see the castles in Ivangorod and Narva (the latter is in Estonia), you’ll want to have a multiple-entry visa. Spontaneous travel is difficult: If the dates of your trip change after you’ve received your visa, you’ll have to apply for another one.

Make sure you can give up your passport. If you use CIBT to expedite your visa, the process can still take two weeks. Apply when you don’t have other travel scheduled. Your passport should be valid for at least six months, and you should have at least two pages free. You’ll also need to submit two passport-sized photos with your application, which you can get at almost any local drugstore with a photo counter.

The entire process is not cheap, so make sure your travel budget includes visa costs. For the expedited visa via CIBT, expect to pay $460 for a single-entry tourist visa, including overnight shipping charges. Multiple-entry visas cost more.

Going in person? If you live in a city with a Russian Consulate Department (there are five in the U.S.), you can turn in your application in person. But that’s not necessarily easier. Each consulate has different business hours for accepting visas. Get there early so you won’t be caught in line when the embassy closes, necessitating another trip. Remember to bring a money order or a cashier’s check to cover the processing fees. Don’t forget a cover letter outlining your dates and including your visa support information.

It all sounds like a lot of hassle. And it can be, especially when your flight is a few days away and you still haven’t gotten your passport back. But as you walk along the St. Petersburg canals, you’ll know all the paperwork was worth it.

© 2011 by Wiley Publishing Inc


| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jade Johnston December 9, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Ugh that sounds like a nightmare. I want to do the transsiberian but I wont be able to apply for the visa until I am in Hong Kong. The prospect of having to list everywhere I have travelled in the last 10 years almost makes me not want to go to Russia anymore

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Ross December 12, 2011 at 7:28 am

Really useful article, I have wanted to go to Russia for years but have been put off with ‘red tape’ involved in getting the Visa :)

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