Getting a visa to enter Russia may be one of the most difficult processes, next to getting one to exit Russia if your visa expires. However, we at Moscow Life would like to make the process a bit easier, or at least not as confusing. When applying for a tourist visa - the most common type of visa for those planning just to visit Russia for under a month - there are a few things to remember. First, you can stay in Russia on a tourist visa for up to 30 days, so when applying be sure to fill in the maximum time possible, regardless of what a Russian consulate tells you. Second, you cannot renew a tourist visa! Which brings us to our most important point (and hard-earned lesson): never overstay your Russian visa!
In order to apply for your visa, you'll need an invitation (also called visa support), either from the private individual who is inviting you to visit, or, more likely, from a travel agency who specializes in that sort of thing, of which there are many in Russia. An invitation should set you back about $30-50 from a Russian agency, and most have websites where you can order yours instantly. Once you have your invitation, you can go to your local Russian consulate and fill out an application. You'll need two passport photos, and you'll have to pay the fee before your visa is processed. The visa will typically take a couple of weeks, but you can pay more if you need it in a hurry. Once you pick your visa up, make sure all of the information, including your dates of travel, is correct. And once you're in Russia, be sure to carry your passport with your visa on you at all times, as policemen have the right to ask you for your documents for no reason (one of those pesky little quirks that make us love Russia so).
Also, be sure to register your visa within 72 hours of arriving in Russia. Usually, more upscale hotels will take care of your registration for free, and some hostel will register your visa for a fee, or you can do it yourself at the visa bureau in Moscow, but it's a pain if you don't speak Russian and generally not worth the hassle if you can have someone do it for you. If you do decide to register yourself, you must do it with the company that issued your invitation. By Russian law, you are required to register in any Russian city where you will spend more than 72 hours, though if you hop up to St. Petersburg for a weekend it's unlikely that anyone will check whether you have registered there or not.
Types of Visas:
Tourist visas are the most common, and are issued for up to 30 days, single or double entry. These are the easiest to get with an invitation from an agency, and are usually the cheapest. Once again, however, a tourist visa cannot be renewed, so if yours is about to expire, you have to leave the country immediately.
Transit visas are only for those crossing through Russia on their way to another destination. They can be issued for up to ten days, so if you're taking the Trans-Siberian Railway to China and not planning to spend any time in Russia off the train, then it's a viable option. However, if you have any doubts as to how long you'll actually be in the country, we suggest going for the tourist visa for the maximum period of time, as a transit visa also cannot be extended, and we cannot emphasize how much you do not want to overstay your visa! To apply for a transit visa, you'll need onward tickets that prove you will leave Russia in the required amount of time, as well as a visa to the country you will be travelling to from Russia (if required). The best part of the transit visa is that you don't need an invitation, and it's usually cheaper than a tourist visa.
A business visa is technically reserved for those travelling to Russia on business, but it's also often used by tourists wishing to stay a longer period of time. A business visa can be valid from one to 12 months, and can be single- or multiple-entry. However, if you plan to stay for one year, it cannot be for a continuous period of over six months, and you'll have to leave the country (at least for one day) and then can come back and stay another six months. A business visa is slightly more expensive than a tourist visa, but it can be renewed. To apply for a business visa, you need a business invitation issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and if you're actually coming for business purposes, the company you are visiting should take care of all the formalities. A private person can apply for a business invitation through most travel agencies as well, and it should set you back around $60-200.
A private visa is only for those invited to visit by a Russian friend or relative, is valid for up to three months, is single-entry only, and in general is the biggest pain in the ass to apply for. If you'd like to torture your friend or family member that wants to invite you, this is the best way, as they have to go to a local immigration office, stand in a queue that makes the communist times look good, fill out an application, pay a fee, and wait 45 (!) days until someone reluctantly decides to look at your case, and hopefully issue you an invitation which your friend will then have to mail. By that time, chances are your friend or relative won't even want to see you anymore, so we suggest you save them and yourself the headache and apply for a tourist or business visa instead.
There are also student visas, but those are generally arranged by the academic institution you will be attending.
What to do if you overstay your Russian visa
Even though we warned you over and over again, somehow you just had to stay a few extra days to see if you could finally get a date with that cute devushka you met at Night Flight. Now, you've got an expired visa, are heartbroken and sick of bliny, and just want to get out of the country. But not so fast! Against all logic, if you've overstayed your Russian visa, you're actually NOT allowed to leave the country. That's right, even though you're no longer there legally, and any other country would just kick you right out, in Russia you actually have to stay in the country longer to get an exit visa so that you can leave.
So if you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, first of all, call the agency that arranged your invitation, as they are technically responsible for you and should do whatever they can to help. If you've only overstayed by one day, there's a chance that you can get an emergency exit visa at the airport if you already have a plane ticket purchased. If you've overstayed longer, you have to apply for an exit transfer visa at the local OVIR office (the Russian equivalent of an immigration office). The process can take up to five days, and during that time you cannot leave Russia, so if you have an onward flight from another country this could seriously mess up your plans.
We hate to say 'we told you so', but if you overstayed your visa, it will cost you. The price of an exit visa has been known to vary from 300 to 3000 roubles or more, depending largely on the whim of the immigration officer handling your case. In addition to having to stand in queues for hours to even hand in your documents, there's the amount of time you'll lose being stuck in Russia (which we normally wouldn't complain about, but it's not a pleasant experience when you have plans to be somewhere else at the time). The easiest (and cheapest) way to get an exit visa hassle-free is if you have a bona fide excuse for overstaying your visa, which 99% of the time means a medical emergency. So, if you can, arrange a visit to a doctor, explain that you were too sick to leave your hostel bed and get on your train out, and hope that they'll write you a nice note that you can then take to the immigration office. Otherwise, prepare for a stern lecture on why overstaying your visa is a serious offence. In Russian.
There is one alternative to applying for an exit visa, but it's expensive at best, dangerous at worst, and we honestly don't recommend it: bribery. In some parts of Russia, the American dollar still reigns supreme, and if you have a handful of crisp Benjamins in your pocket, you might just be able to get out of the country. However, the dollar doesn't shout as loudly as it used to, and you might just discover that it's actually just a tiny whisper compared to the border guard's threatening roar. And, technically you could be imprisoned and banned from Russia for five years, so it's not really a risk that's worth taking in most circumstances.
So, the lesson is, while it's not that easy to get a Russian visa, it's a breeze compared to getting out of Russia with an expired visa. The golden rule is to apply for a visa covering the longest amount of time you think you could stay in Russia, whether you intend to stay that long or not. And don't overstay your visa!!
Frank from United States Reply
What to do if a hostel in St.Petersburg I stayed in refused to register me?
Shea Ann from Malaysia Reply
Oh! And I forgot to mention. If double entry visa is needed in each visit to Moscow too. The tourist planned to travel out of Moscow and reenter in that two weeks time window.
Guest from Malaysia Reply
Goodday. Thank you for the article. I would like to ask, is it possible for a tourist to visit Moscow twice in a three months period. For example, Once in the early of May and another in the end of june. (Visit lasting for two weeks each). Really need an answer for this. Thank you!
Brian O'Sullivan from Canada Reply
We are flying from Vancouver to Tokyo on a private aircraft and need to stop in Kamchatka just long enough to refuel. Do we need a visa to do that?
Tina from United Kingdom Reply
Hi, your article is very useful. However I have a questions about returning to Russia after leaving it for a month, can I obtain another visa? my 2nd trip through Russia is purely to get drive to Mongolia ... any advise is much appreicated
Joe from Canada Reply
I should be in mockba right now with my devuska spending thousands - if it wasn't for the fact that I have to book time off work to visit another city hours away to apply for a fucking visa.... backwards and idiotic - get your shit together ffs.
Assadullah from Afghanistan Reply
Hi I got my student visa on 4th October from kabul. I was supposed to go there on 7th October. Now can I exit the Moscow airport without someone picking me from airport? So many people says someone should pick you from the airport otherwise you will be deported. Please give me a clear answer.
Chris from United Kingdom Reply
My girlfriend has applied for an invitation for me and will send it to me a.s.a.p. Q: i had to give information about my work and work address etc... Now, my job has changed and is different from what was written on the invitation. Do i need a new invitation, to change my job details etc...? or will i be okay with leaving my old job details?
Gan from United States Reply
Mu ch of the information here is old. For instance you now have business 7 days to register a tourist visa. You can under onditions get your isa extended for up to 2 additional weeks.
from United States Reply
I know from firsthand experience now to never overextend a Russian visa .... It is major problems that you don't want to experience. My happened by accident but regardless, you will be in a pickle like no other. I was slightly lucky in that I had a connection very high up that was able to get the impossible done but unless you have an angel watching over you as I did .... Don't over stay your visa in russia.
VIKA from Russia Reply
ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS PAGE :) I am from Moscow myself and came across this page researching info about Russian Visas for my Australian boyfriend who has been to Russia 2 times and can not wait to get back there :) This page is so honest! Full of useful information and has a good portion of humour! Really made me laugh more of so as i am Russian myself and i can laugh at my nation which really is Lovely :) over looking all the Burocracity! :)) Have FUN in Russia!
tutmenty.ru from Russia Reply
This info might be a bit inaccurate. According to Russian laws as of March, 2011, the invitation should be ready within 30 days only, not 45 days as mentioned above. And keep in mind that the application for an invitation can be denied for no reason after 29 days. Hell, where's my Sranyi Traktor out of This Country?! And yes, I'm that local relative/friend who went thru that routine twice, FML.
Steve from United States Reply
If you're flying Aeroflot from, say, London to Tokyo and have a long layover in SVO, what better than to spend a few hours seeing the sights of Moscow and infusing some money into the Moscow economy? Well, if you have a US passport, this is for all practical purposes not going to happen. Why? The cost for a 12 hour transit visa to Russia, when all fees and nonsense is considered, is at least $180 US through the Russian embassy London. That price is so high, that your cheap aeroflot ticket will suddenly not be so cheap, and you'll want to fly some other airline. Russian visas are basically extortion.
Ha Russia from United States Reply
Bad information. Seems to conflict so much of what I have read elsewhere or experienced. For example, business visa is good for only 90 days stay in any 180 day period. Unclear what deal is for tourist visa. Is it this website or just anything associated with Russia that is always wrong . . .
Gary Hamilton from United States Reply
Excellent Honest Page on Visas, Regulations and Clear Descriptions on Regulations, Hotel Advise as this is a pain in the ass. I did it once and after the first of 6 visits we stayed around the Arbat and the last time my wife stayed the Hotel Ukraine and its was much better than around the Arbat and Red Square. Great View but then again being close to the Arbat is fun. Watch out for the laser spotters from the roof that use the pencil lasers to mark foreigners to stage incidents in front of them to snatch purses or wallets and the skin head problem is getting out of control ALL and ALL Russia and Moscow are great places to visit and I would to see 5 years Visas. AND if write you Prime Minister Putin or President Medeved they or someone in thier office will write you back. Objective perspective to what is really going on in politics and the fact that Prime Minister Putin did what I what predicted he would do is eliminate the debt (even the IMF debt from pre 1991 that would not be forgiven by the World Bank) and create a surplus and thriving, self sustaining economy in which nationalism and defense of Russia's freedom and its allies are miscontrued by ignorant American politicians who are still holding onto the Cold War mentality. The same is true in the treatment of Cuba by the US. We share so much common interests and ground and face the same issues with fundamentalist terroism from the same origin and the get buried in missle deployment and meglomaniac Georgian President who thinks he is another Stalin.
gator from United States Reply
my visa is 4 days expired i'm crosssing the russian - mongolia border on the transmongolian train has anybody had/heard if it's at all possible to bribe the custom guards there? -i understand it's not the best option...
luis from Canada
were you able to do it?
Gum from United States Reply
If you're getting your invitation (visa support) from a hotel, get them to go along with the idea that you are staying there for 30 days (the maximum allowed) even if you aren't. Otherwise, when your visa arrives you'll discover that it expires after the four days you're booked at the Petersburg hotel (or whatever) even though it was clear on your visa application that you were staying (and paying handsomely) for a 30-day visa. In which case, despite your plans to be in Russia for a month, you better get the hell out of there after those four days.
Ania from Poland Reply
Whatever you do, do not try to bribe the border guards at Zabajkalsk (by the Chinese border, where you cross on the Trans-Manchurian) if your visa has expired. They are the only non-corrupt Russians in Russia! And they will send you back to Chita to get an exit visa, which takes a whole day, and then you have to go back to cross again. Russia really has the stupidest visa policy of any country!