How do you get a Russian Visa?

According to the Henley Passport Index Americans with a valid passport can travel to 176 countries without a visa. That leaves only 49 countries for which a visa is required and many of those are rarely visited by Americans. The handful of the most popular tourist destinations for Americans that require a visa include Brazil, China, India, Cuba, Australia and of course Russia. So as Americans, getting a visa is not a common step in the travel planning process, but likely required if you’re looking for a journey that takes you off the beaten path.

Among those 49 countries the Russian Federation often has a reputation as being the most difficult and time consuming visa to acquire. Although I’ve found getting visas to other places straightforward, travelers often speak of the Russian visa process as if it’s some sort of “right of passage” separating hard core travelers from mere tourists. Thus, it was with great consternation that I sat down at my computer to begin the process for our journey. I found a plethora of resources usually rife with warnings and nightmare stories about how difficult it is, but little concrete information on the actual process.  So I had a lot of homework to do.

As we prepared to go to Russia on a family trip with three of our kids the costs do add up so we wanted the least expensive option available.  At the same time efficiency was of utmost importance.  At the time of travel we were in the midst of mass craziness.  We were moving out of state and sold our house sooner than expected and the buyer wanted a 4 week close date so we needed to pack up and get out fast.  I also home school my kids and my husband and I both work from home (this same home we were in the process of dismantling for the move).  Just writing this I am beginning to wonder what kind of lunatics take a trip to Russia with all this going on, but perhaps that’s another blog post.   Anyway to say we were busy is a gross understatement.  We needed our visas with minimal cost and maximum efficiency.   With this in mind here is my overview of the process.

In order to apply for the visa you will need:

  • A passport valid for at least six months after your trip.
  • Two passport photos. (you actually only need one, but the rules change frequently so get two!) There are very specific guidelines about the photos. Please look them over, but don’t obsess (especially if you follow my advice and use a reputable visa agency). We like to get our passport photos through Costco. It’s the least expensive option we could find and you can review the photo before it is processed.
  • Medical Insurance valid in Russia. Most, but not all, U.S. insurance companies cover Americans traveling abroad, but double check with your provider. You will need supplementary travel insurance if your policy does not cover you (we help you here too). Most travel agents have a working relationship with a preferred insurance company which will be a big help to you in the unlikely event that you need to file a claim.
  • Letter of Invitation from a Russian person or organization. Often this is the most intimidating part of the visa process.  The easiest way to obtain it is to use a third party visa service as I recommend below, but you can also get one from your hotel or tour company.  If you do get it through your hotel or tour company just be sure it is absolutely correct because visas are frequently rejected for small errors in the invitation.  This is not easy to do since it will be in Russian.
  • Payment (payment type and amount vary depending on how you apply and what type of visa you want)
  • Completed visa application form. Depending on how you apply you will either fill out the application online yourself or some third party agencies will do it for you after you have given them the required information.

Phew! Once you have gathered the appropriate materials there are three ways to actually apply for a Russian tourist visa:

  1. In person directly through a Russian Consulate — sometimes they also accept visa applications by mail but the process often changes.
  2. In person or by mail through the ILS visa office.
  3. By mail through a third party visa company by mail.

Let’s start with number one: applying directly through the Consulate. My advice here is easy— don’t do it. There are several reasons for this. First of all it seems they sometimes don’t always accept visa applications through the Consulate. There is conflicting information from consulate to consulate. Second of all if you make a mistake or something is missing or your picture doesn’t meet their criteria it will be rejected and you will need to start over, to include potentially paying a second application fee. If you have everything perfectly prepared and all goes well, then it is the least expensive option, but it also has the most pitfalls.

The second option of using an ILS visa agency is a safer option and the one we decided to take.  Some of the questions on the application are oddly worded and I just wanted to be sure I had everything done right. We were also concerned about all the questions about military service since my husband was in the Navy. While more expensive than going through the Consulate we decided the added assurance that everything would be done properly was worth the cost.

The ILS is a Russian run organization that will ensure everything you submit meets the necessary standards. You need to fill out the visa application and submit it online through the embassy and then you can mail in a copy with your passport and photos in a process similar to using a third party visa agency. You can also submit the materials in person by visiting one of the five ILS centers — Washington, DC., NYC, San Francisco, Houston or Seattle. They review everything and if changes need to be made you can go home to make the changes, or for an additional fee, they will make the necessary changes. Once they approve everything you pay the fees (cash only) and they will submit the visa applications to the Russian consulate on your behalf.  If you go in person they will give you a date after which you can pick it up (something I wish I knew).  This was the option we chose.

Making an appointment at the ILS in Washington DC was easy and when we arrived almost an hour early for our appointment they took us anyway right away. The staff was friendly and helpful. Though we did a pretty good job on our applications four out of the five I submitted were rejected.  It was small things.  My husband accidentally left off our street number in one of the multiple places on the application asking for the address.   I also didn’t list a school address for my kids since they are homeschooled. They told us just to put in our home address or it would be rejected. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make the change ourselves so we had to pay the fee.   Just for the record though my application was perfect!  (Yay me!) Once the fees were added up it would have been just as effective to use a visa agency and far easier.

When it came time to pick up the visas I was a bit confused because I thought she said she would call me, but that they “should” be done on April 17. We never got a call so my husband called after a few days and they said they were there.  We went in and presented our ids and our children’s birth certificates (they were not with us so this was required before they would release the passports to us). The agent reviewed the visas with us to ensure the proper dates etc. Everything was in good order and now we are off to Russia in a few weeks!  Although we got our visas with minimal drama it was a lot of work and driving for our family for minimal (if any) cost savings — all in the name of research 😉

Let’s now look at the third option– a visa agency.  There are many visa agencies out there and we provide recommendations to our clients and also walk them through the process.  Though slightly more expensive than the ILS this option works well for people who are short on time or who don’t want to deal with getting a letter of invitation as most visa agencies will do this for you. Though the process differs from agency to agency basically we assist with filling out an online form with all the necessary information then have you submit the application with your photos and passport. If they need any further information or if your photos don’t meet the standard the agency will contact you directly so corrections can be made– no additional fees or back and forth trips to the ILS.   In many ways using an agency is similar to the ILS, but with the added assurance that no matter how many times you need to resubmit the agency will take care of it.  Visa agencies are probably the best option for most travelers.

So in conclusion: The easiest way to apply for a Russian visa is to leverage a firm that does this for others full time — most clients take this route and we will arrange this for you if you want to save time and stress.  If you want to try to save some money and live near one of the ILS facilities then you could consider that option which might save you a bit.  It worked well for us and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again that way.

If you are planning a trip to Russia or somewhere else and would like assistance with visas or any other part of your travel planning please contact me: