We had found few reports of cycle tourists travelling through Russia in the last few years and after trying to arrange our Russian visas while in Istanbul we can see why people might opt for the Central Asian route instead. With time on our hands over winter, we spent some time researching our options and gave it a shot.
We hope our experience will be of use to others trying to plan a similar route and may help you avoid some problems we faced along the way. Check out our post about the basics of Russian Visas for details of application requirements.
Our experience in Istanbul
After much research and consideration we decided the six month multi-entry business visa would be most suitable for our needs. It would give us a wide window to get into the country and allow a degree of flexibility about how many days we could spend in Russia.
We hoped to get this in Istanbul, where we’ve been waiting for winter to disappear before heading on. We had read that visas were only being accepted for people in their home country but some consulates were flexible in some situations. We’re dual passport holders (New Zealand and British) but decided to try with our New Zealand passports thinking the consulate might be more willing to bend the rules for travellers who couldn’t return home easily.
On two separate visits to the Russian Consulate in Istanbul we had verbal confirmation that applications on a New Zealand passport would be possible. The Russian Cycle Touring Club would arrange for our letter of invitation to be issued from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs which was the first step in obtaining the visa. We were sorted.
Just 12 days after our payment was accepted the letters were FedEx’d to us in Istanbul and I took them to the Consulate on a Friday morning. The scrum of bodies outside the consulate wasn’t a good sign, neither was the obvious preference given to the tour operators with large wads of American dollars and clear packets of passports.
Along with a few other solo applicants I was eventually let in, called to a counter and told that as a New Zealand citizen it wouldn’t be possible to get a Russian visa in Turkey. I explained that I had asked previously and was told (“by that man, over there at that desk”) that it would be possible. I was asked to wait.
Four hours and several repeats of “I’m sorry, we can’t help you” later, I got my final answer…
No visa would be possible in Istanbul with either a New Zealand or UK passport unless we had a residents permit.
We were stuck with letters of invitation addressed to the Istanbul embassy with support from a New Zealand business on them and New Zealand passport details on them. Hmmm.
Without Russian visas we would have to dramatically rethink our plans and after five easy months in Istanbul suddenly time was against us. In order to get to Mongolia overland we would need to find some way to get those Russian visas. Some quick fire internet research gave us three possible options.
New Zealand: It would cost a significant amount of cash and take five days to courier our New Zealand passports home. From traveller reports the Russian Embassy in New Zealand seemed like they were likely to play to the letter of the law and weren’t so keen on business visa applications. If they said no, we’d still need to courier everything back to Istanbul and try another option. The odds were stacked against us.
United Kingdom: Justin spoke to Sally at Real Russia who explained it would have been much easier if we had used our British passports for the visa, however as we had dual citizenship we should be able to apply in the UK by presenting both passports to the consulate, recent bank statements and a cover letter explaining the many differences in application versus our letter of invitation. We rang another respected UK based travel agency to double-check her advice and they confirmed the same information. The result we were after wasn’t guaranteed but applying in London was definitely an option.
Russian travel agency in Istanbul: The next day we decided it would be worthwhile trying people who could plead our case in Russian and visited a Russian Travel Agency in central Istanbul. I think the poor manager was bemused by our request but he promised to help if he could. We left copies of our documents with him and he asked us to ring his English speaking colleague on Monday afternoon for an answer.
Deciding that couriering four passports to London was too much of a risk, having me fly back would be our best option so we checked flight times and costs and set deadlines for our Russian contact in Istanbul to respond. He wasn’t able to come up with an answer quickly enough, so we booked the next flight back to London. I landed at midnight on Monday night.
Real Russia London
Because of the number of inconsistent pieces of information in our application, we decided against trying to get the visa in London independently and we felt that Real Russia were worth the extra money to smooth the process. We paid extra for a two day turn around to avoid us waiting too long for the decision.
I took our documentation into the office after sorting out additional paperwork on Tuesday morning. They delivered the applications to the London Russian Visa Application Centre that afternoon and I was emailed at 4pm on Wednesday saying they were ready to pick up.
It had taken a lot more time, effort and money than we had expected but our first major bureaucratic hurdle had been cleared. We could go to Russia!