Do I Need a Visa?
If you’re planning on traveling to Russia, chances are, you’ll most likely need a visa. Citizens of most countries, including Canada and the US, require a visa in order to enter Russia. The only exception to this rule, is for travelers arriving by sea (on a cruise ship or passenger ferry), who can stay in the country for up to 72 hours without a visa.
Arriving by Sea
If you are looking to make use of this exemption, please note, that you must book a tour through a local organization.
If you’re arriving by way of the St. Peter Line ferry, you will likely be able to pay for their “shuttle service” — an unguided, round-trip bus that runs between the port and downtown, which leaves you substantial free time to explore. This option is a small loophole, in that it allows you to see the city both unaccompanied and without a visa.
If you’re arriving by cruise however, without a visa, things are a bit more restrictive: You’ll have to pay for a cruise-line excursion (or book a tour through a locally based company), and remain with your guide or escort the entire time you are on land — meaning you’ll have virtually no free time to explore on your own. An excursion will be somewhat more expensive and very scripted, but virtually effortless. If you’re the adventurous type, and wish to experience Russia for yourself however, consider obtaining a visa and exploring the city on your own. Note, that if you do go the visa route, you must start the application process well in advance.
Getting a Visa on Your Own
Getting a Russian visa takes several steps and a few weeks to accomplish. The steps below walk you through the process. If you’re looking for something a little easier however, feel free to skip down to “Third-Party Visa Agencies”.
1. Before applying for a visa, you must first get ahold of a document called a “visa invitation”(sometimes called a “letter of invitation,” “visa sponsor,” or “visa support letter”) from an organization/business recognized by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Visa invitations are typically issued by a hotel or tour operator. As you make your hotel reservation, simply ask the hotel to arrange for an invitation as well (they’ll usually charge $15–30). If you’re visiting more than one city in Russia, ask if your entire trip can be included on a single invitation, so that you don’t have to get invitations from each hotel. You may find agencies online willing to issue invitations for a fee, but stick with the agency recommended by your hotel. If you’re arriving by cruise, you will need to arrange an invitation through a third-party agency — more info in the section below.) Although the organization that issues your invitation is legally responsible for you during your stay in Russia, in practice, you’re unlikely to even have any contact with them.
2. Next, fill out the Electronic Visa Application Form. Request a single-entry visa, which is valid for 30 days- this will cost you about $90, plus a sizable processing fee (explained below). Please note, that your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the date of your departure from Russia, and must have two adjacent blank pages to accommodate the visa.
3. Submit the form, your invitation, passport, a passport photograph, and the processing fee (money order or cashier’s check only) to the Russian Embassy. Applications are accepted anywhere from 30 to 60 days before departure (the specific timeframe changes constantly, but you’ll need a few weeks for the full process). There are Russian consulates in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Houston- (for details, see the websites of the Russian embassy and the Russian Visa Center). You have three options for filing your application: You can deliver it to one of the consulates in person ($33 fee); mail it to a consulate ($118 fee); or you can submit your application through a third-party service ($33 in-person fee, plus the agency’s add-on service fee- see below for more info).
Third-Party Visa Agencies
Various agencies specialize in guiding you through the visa application process- they’ll help arrange for a visa invitation, help with the forms, and provide other services. We suggest Passport Visas Express. In addition to the $90 visa and the consulate’s $33 processing fee, visa agencies charge a service fee of about $80–$110 (including the invitation fee). Shipping the passport to and from the visa agency costs another $50 or so. This totals to about $300 per person.
Entering Russia with a Visa
As you arrive in the country, an immigration officer will ask you to fill out two migration cards, listing your name, passport number, and other details. The officer will stamp both cards and keep one. Don’t lose the other one — you’ll need to present it when you leave the country.
At your arrival, it’s wise to register your passport and visa with the local authorities. This step is only required for stays of more than seven days – however, if you find yourself unregistered, at the time of your departure, you may be asked to show proof (such as hotel receipts) that your stay in Russia lasted less than a week. You’ll be given a confirmation slip which you may have to present as you leave the country, so hold on to it. Your hotel will usually be able to take care of the passport registration for you, but they’ll need a copy of your passport.
While in Russia, you are required to carry your original passport (not just a copy) with you at all times. A police officer in Russia can stop you at any time and ask to see your documents, though this seldom happens to tourists.
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