After an unrestricted ride through Europe using our British passports, it took some time to get our heads around travel restrictions and visa requirements for the next leg of our trip; more so as we had decided Russia was on our cycle touring wish list. This is a quick summary of what we learnt while applying for Russian visas in January 2011.
Types of visa
Tourist visas only allow a one month visit, while Business visas can cover three, six or 12 months (usually allowing a maximum of 90 day within 180 days). That’s straight forward enough, but bear in mind there are limits to where you can apply for each visa and how far in advance you can make your application.
You can find a good overview of the options and requirements for each type of visa on various websites including Way to Russia. Some Consulate websites can be useful for this as well.
All categories of Russian visas require a letter of invitation. Tourist visas need a fixed itinerary listing accommodation for the trip verified by a tourism agency.
Business visa applications must have the support of an organisation in your home country as well as in Russia to allow you to apply. The cost is higher than a tourist visa but they allow more flexibility so you don’t need to specify where you enter and exit and exactly where you will stay.
There are plenty of companies on the web which will help you get an invitation for both types of visas. Ask advice on the Lonely Planet forums for a reputable company.
With all Russian visas, timing is everything. You can apply for a Tourist visa up to 90 days before you visit, but you can only start the process of applying for a business visa 45 days before your trip start date.
Tourist letters of invitation are usually quite straight forward and seemingly quick to process, but the Business ones need to be sent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia and can take up to three weeks to process unless you pay significantly more for a fast service.
This can be a real headache for long distance cyclists who are unlikely to be at home when that letter is delivered.
At the moment, all travellers to Russia should apply for a visa in a country where they are legally resident which normally means residing in a country for a specific period of time (typically more than 90 days). However some consulates are reported to apply a little leniency in specific circumstances.
Frequent Thorn Tree forum contributor Everbright has compiled a list of traveller reports from consulates around the world which seems to indicate that exceptions are now rare. Additionally some consulates stick closer to the letter of the law than others.
If you really want to go for more than a month and will not be considered resident in the countries you are travelling through, it is probably best to make your application via the Russian consulate in the country your passport is from. This does add the expense of couriering your passports home. Check out our experience for what not to do.
The only sure advice we can give is to check the current situation at the embassy you want to apply through and assume it’ll cost you a fair whack of money to get that visa in your passport.