Citizens of the following countries do not need a visa:
- Citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (90 days, Belarus unlimited)
- Argentina (approved for 90 days)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina (30 days)
- Brazil (90 days)
- Chile (90 days)
- Colombia (90 days)
- Cuba (30 days)
- Ecuador (90 days)
- Fiji (90 days)
- Guatemala (90 days)
- French Guiana (90 days)
- Honduras (90 days)
- Hong Kong citizens holding a HKSAR passport (14 days)
- Israel (90 days)
- Macau citizens with a Macau Special Administrative Region passport (30 days)
- Macedonia (30 days)
- Mauritius (60 days)
- Mongolia (30 days)
- Montenegro (90 days)
- Nauru (14 days)
- Nicaragua (90 days)
- Panama (90 days)
- Paraguay (90 days)
- Peru (90 days)
- Serbia (30 days)
- Seychelles (30 days)
- South Korea (60 days)
- Thailand (30 days)
- Turkey (30 days)
- Ukraine (90 days)
- Uruguay (90 days)
- Venezuela (90 days)
- Norwegians living less than 30 km from the border:
- These persons may enter Russia for up to 15 days without a visa, provided they have resided in the border area for at least 3 years and do not travel further than 30 km from the border.
- A border certificate valid for multiple entries must first be obtained from the Russian consulate in Kirkenes. It should therefore be considered a special type of visa, valid for multiple entries for a maximum period of 5 years. A similar arrangement exists for Poles living near Kaliningrad.
All other persons require a visa, except in the following two cases:
- No transit visa is required for transit through Moscow Sheremetyevo, Moscow Domodedovo or Ekaterinburg Koltsovo airports, provided the traveller has a confirmed onward flight, is not staying at the airport for more than 24 hours and is not in transit to or from Belarus and Kazakhstan (travel to or from these countries uses domestic terminals). A transit visa (or other) is required for passage through St Petersburg Pulkovo Airport. Visas can be obtained, in very limited cases, from consular officers at airports.
- For the duration of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a “visa-free” regime applies to visitors from all nations.
For the unlucky ones who need a visa, the complexity of the process depends on the visa category. 30-day tourist visas are relatively easy to obtain; 90-day (and longer) business visas are less so. On 9 September 2012, Russia and the United States concluded a visa simplification agreement. Under this agreement, US citizens can obtain business visas, family/personal visas, humanitarian visas and three-year multiple entry tourist visas without an invitation (but with proof of booking). It is best to start the application process early. Although expedited processing is available for those who need a visa quickly, this can double the cost of the application.
|I want a tourist visa and I don’t want to book accommodation until I get my visa.|
|Russian companies specialising in visas can do it for you and you don’t have to worry about filling out documents at the embassies. All you have to do is send them money, your passport and relevant information. However, it is cheaper (but somewhat more tedious) to obtain an invitation through these agencies and then submit the application to the embassy yourself.|
Applying for a visa is essentially a two-step process:
- Receive an invitation and
- Visa application.
You can enter at any time on or after the validity date of your visa and you can leave at any time on or before the expiry date of your visa. Normally, an exit visa is included in transit, private visit/residence, tourist and business visas while the visa is still valid. Other categories, such as student visas, still require a separate exit visa, which can take up to three weeks to process.
Departure and re-entry during the period of validity of your visa are subject to permits. Obtaining these permits is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that is best avoided altogether by obtaining a double or multiple entry visa on departure.
If you are in Russia and have lost your passport, your sponsor, not your embassy, should ask the Federal Migration Service to transfer your visa to your replacement passport. Having a copy of your old visa helps for this purpose, but is not enough to allow you to leave the country. An exception is made for US citizens, who only need to prove that they have not overstayed in order to leave (but a visa would be required to return to Russia).
An unaccompanied minor with Russian citizenship requires, in addition to the usual requirements for adults, a notarised declaration in Russian signed by both parents. This declaration can be obtained from the Russian embassy or consulate. The child can probably enter Russia without this declaration, but will most likely be prevented from leaving at the airport by Russian customs!
Receive an invitation
The type of invitation determines the visa. With a tourist invitation you can get a tourist visa, with a private visit invitation you can get a private visit visa, etc. With the exception of tourist visas, invitations are official documents issued by Russian government authorities and must be applied for by the inviting person or organisation.
The invitation will indicate the planned dates of travel and the number of entries required (1, 2 or more). The dates indicated on the invitation are decisive for the period of validity of the resulting visa. If in doubt, make sure that the invitation covers a longer period than the planned stay: a tourist visa valid for 7 days costs the same as a visa valid for 30 days.
In the likely situation where you need to buy your invitation, you are going around the world: all invitations come from Russia and the company that gets them for you will have a base in Russia. It doesn’t matter whether the site is based in Germany, the UK, the US or Swaziland. Many embassies and consulates only require a copy of the invitation; however, this is not always the case, so check with the embassy or consulate beforehand. If the original invitation is required, it must be flown in from Russia anyway. Only for the visa application itself does the application usually have to be made in the applicant’s home country.
A tourist invitation (also called a booking confirmation) is a letter confirming the reservation and prepayment of accommodation and travel arrangements in Russia. It is accompanied by a tourist voucher. Both documents can only be issued by ‘state-approved’ tour operators, hotels, online hotel reservation services or Russian travel agencies (some Russian travel agencies have offices outside Russia and are authorised to facilitate visa applications). State authorisation” is not a guarantee of quality here; it means that the company is registered with the Russian government. A simple hotel reservation is not sufficient to justify an invitation. Some hotels charge a fee for issuing the invitation. If you book a night at the hotel, you will receive an invitation valid for one day (maybe two) and the resulting visa will only be valid for a very short period of time.
For independent travellers planning a trip to Russia, it is best to obtain an invitation through an agency. These agencies issue the necessary invitations and vouchers for each passport holder in each country for a fee. They do this without requiring any advance payment for accommodation (and, of course, without providing accommodation). Two major players in online tourist visa support are Way to Russia, a US-based company (invitation 30 USD), and Real Russia, based in the UK (invitation 15 GBP). Although the strict legality of these documents is questionable, these companies are well established and do enough not to annoy the authorities. Most importantly, their services do not cause any problems for the traveller. However, if your itinerary is limited to a single hotel, it makes sense to obtain the invitation documents directly from the hotel, as the service charges are similar.
Consider getting a private or host family visa if you have friends or relatives in Russia (they do not have to be Russian). You must apply for an invitation at the local passport and visa department of the Federal Migration Service (formerly OVIR). These invitations usually take at least one month to process. The inviting person also takes sole responsibility for all your activities during your stay in Russia and can be severely punished if something goes wrong. For this reason, personal invitations are usually not available for a fee on the internet.
Business invitations are issued by the government. They are usually lengthy and expensive to purchase, but can be organised quickly for an exorbitant fee. Any company registered in Russia can apply for a business invitation. Travel agencies and visa specialists can also have them issued for you. Business visas have a longer validity period than tourist visas. Anyone wishing to stay longer than 30 days must obtain a business visa. As a guide, a UK company can obtain a business invitation for a single 90-day stay for amounts ranging from GBP 38 (for 12 working days processing) to GBP 121 (for 2 working days processing).
Student visa invitations are issued by the educational institution where you intend to study. Most universities and language schools are familiar with the procedure.
Some Russian local authorities have the right to invite foreigners for cultural exchange by sending a message directly to the Russian embassy or consulate abroad requesting the issuance of a visa for a specific foreigner or group of foreigners. Such messages are used instead of an invitation. This is usually the procedure when you are invited by the government.
Applying for the visa
Embassies and consulates have different requirements for applying for a visa. They can issue visas by post, require a personal application, accept a copy of the invitation, require the original. They may accept payment by card, they may require a money order. Check with the embassy or consulate beforehand – in most cases it’s on their website. Holders of American, Canadian and British passports usually have to fill out a longer application. It can be difficult to get a Russian visa issued outside your home country, or a residence permit valid for at least three months. This can thwart the plans of Trans-Siberian travellers from east to west. In Asia, you have the best chance of success (with no guarantee of funds) in Hong Kong and Phnom Penh (if necessary, a temporary residence permit in Cambodia is easy to acquire and costs only about 100 USD).
For a fee, visa service companies will review your application and invitation, go to the embassy for you and return your passport. This service is nothing you can’t do yourself (unlike organising the invitation), but it can save you time and frustration.
A 30-day single-entry tourist visa for citizens of EU Schengen countries costs €35 and takes 3 working days for standard processing (€70 by express service for next-day collection). For UK citizens, the price is £50 and takes 5 working days to process instead of 3 (express service is next day and costs £100). For US citizens, the price is currently 160 USD and standard processing takes at least 4 working days (express service costs 250 USD and is stated to take 3 working days).
In some countries where the Russian visa trade is very active (e.g. the United Kingdom and the United States), visa processing has been outsourced to private companies. These companies charge unavoidable application fees in addition to the visa fees mentioned above. For applications made in the United Kingdom (by a citizen of any country), the application fee is GBP 26.40 for the standard service and GBP 33.60 for the express service. For applications made in the United States, the application fee is 30 USD.
A further complication for British citizens is the requirement to appear in person at one of the visa application centres in London, Edinburgh or Manchester to have biometric data, i.e. fingerprints, taken.
The total cost of applying for a visa usually consists of three parts: the invitation fee, the visa fee and the application fee. If you are lucky, one or more of these fees may be waived, but be prepared to pay all three. Take the example of a British citizen applying for a 30-day tourist visa with standard processing in the UK (this is neither the cheapest nor the most expensive): invitation purchased through an agency: GBP 15, visa fee: GBP 50, application fee: GBP 26.40 = GBP 91.40 (about USD 140).
In general, tourist, guest and transit visas allow one or two entries. Tourist and host family visas have a maximum validity of 30 days. Transit visas usually last one to three days for air travel and up to 10 days for land travel. Business visas and other visa categories can be issued for one, two or more entries.
Each business visa can allow a maximum stay of 90 days during the same visit. However, a business visa generally only allows a total stay of 90 days in Russia within a 180-day period, regardless of its validity period (3, 6 or 12 months). If you stay in Russia for 90 days, you must leave and your visa will not allow you to return for another 90 days. This means (roughly speaking – one year is not 360 days) that you can stay in Russia for the same amount of time with a six-month visa as with a three-month visa!
Once you have your visa, check all dates and information as it is much easier to correct mistakes before you travel than after you arrive!
Visa-free entry by boat
There is an exception for some cruise passengers arriving in and departing from Russia by ship. They do not need a visa if they stay in Russia for less than 72 hours. Examples are cruises on the Saimaa Canal from Lappeenranta (Finland) to Vyborg and cruises on the St Peter Line to St Petersburg departing from Helsinki, Tallinn or Stockholm. Do not exceed the duration of the visa waiver. If you overstay, you will have to apply for an exit visa, pay a fine of at least 500 euros and will not be able to enter Russia visa-free for the next five years. In this case, the visa procedure may take more than a week, during which you will have to pay for your stay and food.
Arrival and customs
When you arrive in Russia, you will need to fill in a landing form. As in most places, one half is handed out at the entrance and the other half must stay with your passport until you leave Russia. It is usually printed in Russian and English, but other languages may be available. When leaving Russia, a lost landing card can be forgotten with a symbolic fine.
Generally, you are allowed to enter and stay in Russia for the duration of your visa, but it is at the discretion of the immigration officer and they may decide otherwise, although this is unlikely.
If you enter Russia with valuable electronic items or musical instruments (especially violins that look old and expensive), antiques, large sums of money or other such items, you must declare them on the customs entry card and insist that the card be stamped by a customs official on arrival. Even if the customs officer says it is not necessary to declare these items, insist that a stamp be placed on your declaration. This stamp can avoid considerable trouble (fines, confiscation) when leaving Russia if the departing customs officer decides that an item should have been declared on entry.
When you arrive in Russia and then when you arrive in a new city, you must be registered within 7 working days of your arrival. Your host in that city (not necessarily the one who issued the invitation) is responsible for your registration. Proof of registration is a separate piece of paper with a big blue stamp on it. Registration costs money, is inconvenient and is not usually checked from Russia. However, it is worth doing this at least in the first city you visit.
Big hotels won’t let you check in without seeing your registration (at least if you’re in Russia for more than 7 working days) and corrupt police officers who insist that the lack of registration is your fault are more annoying and expensive than paying the registration fee.
This law is a remnant from the Soviet era of controlled internal migration. Today, even Russians are supposed to register when they change cities. The official line is that these expensive pieces of paper with blue stamps help control illegal immigration from the poorest countries on Russia’s southern borders in Central Asia, the Caucasus, China and even North Korea.
Overstaying the period of validity of a visa
If you overstay by even a few minutes, you will probably not be allowed to leave until you have obtained a valid exit visa. If your stay is shorter than three days, you may be able to get a visa extension from the consular officer at the airport if you pay a fine, but this is not guaranteed. However, obtaining an extension usually requires the intervention of your sponsor, the payment of a fine and a waiting period of up to three weeks.
Be careful if your flight leaves after midnight and watch the time the train crosses the border. Border officials will not let you leave if you leave even 10 minutes after your visa expires! A common trap is the train to Helsinki, which does not arrive in Finland until after midnight.
If your extended stay is due to reasons such as medical problems, the Federal Migration Service may issue a certificate of return to the country of origin instead of an exit visa valid for departure from Russia within ten days of its issue.