One detail that deters visitors from visiting the beautiful country of Russia is the extensive (and expensive) process of simply obtaining a traveler’s visa to enter the country. Fortunately for travelers, an American passport usually allows for easy and painless entry to most countries in the world. Much of the time, a visa is either not required or is easily attainable upon entry into the country.
This is not the case when visiting Russia, and if you are planning a trip, I highly recommend flexibility, patience, and meticulous planning in advance.

First and foremost: Secure an invitation

This alone tends to be enough to deter nonchalant travelers that just want to see the world without much effort outside of paying for the trip.
There are two types of invitations:
1. Traveler Visa
     -Good for periods of stay from 1-30 days
     -Processing begins as early as 90 days prior to travel
2. Business Visa
     -Good for periods of stay from 30 day-12 months
     -Processing begins as early as 45 days prior to travel
Most hotels and travel agencies offer visa support for an additional charge, but if yours does not, you will need to find a service that does. For the most part in this process, throwing money at the problem tends to be the solution. I recommend allowing for flexibility in your travel budget for obtaining your visa.

I Have My Invitation… Now What??

Great! Now you can apply for your visa (but not too early). Remember- you can apply 90 days prior to your entry date for traveler visas and 45 days prior to entry date for business visas. Unfortunately, because the Russian embassy does not accept applications by mail, you will either need to submit and pick up your visa in person or hire a visa agency for this part of the process.
The Russian Embassy is located in Washington, DC and consulates are present in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Houston. I highly recommend hiring a visa agency if you are not a resident of one of these cities. Popular agencies include CIBT, PVS International, and Travisa.
Fill out the visa application on the Russian embassy website and print it off when you are done (you must have your invitation to complete this form).
Submit the following to the Russian embassy/your visa agency:
1. Visa application
2. Passport (be sure it does not expire in the next 6 months)
3. Two passport photos (you can have these taken at CVS or FedEx)
4. Requested supporting documents which can include but are not limited to: bank statement, proof of employment, proof of medical insurance valid in Russia, proof of your educational background, and information regarding your family’s genetic makeup.
Oh! AND pay your consular fee which can range from $160-$450 depending on how quickly you want your application processed and how long you will be staying in Russia. Be prepared to pay an additional fee if you use a visa agency. Processing of this can take anywhere from 4-20 business days so be sure you triple check that you have all the necessary paperwork, as you do not want any setbacks.

How to Register Your Visa Once You Receive It

As of March 2011, you must register your visa within 7 business days of arriving to the country. If you are staying in a hotel, they will offer this service for an additional charge (they are legally required to register your visa or they could lose their hotel license). However, with the growing popularity of AirBNB for travelers, this creates an additional obstacle to enjoying your trip.
Note: It is the responsibility of the host to submit your visa registration, but you are at risk of deportation if it is not submitted, so go ahead and be proactive about this.
You will need to provide the front page of your passport, your travel visa, and your migration card (issued at the boarder). If your hotel is registering your visa for you, that is all you will need to do and they will give you back a stamped migration form within the next day. If you are staying at an apartment or with a friend, the owner or landlord can register your visa at the post office or police station (note: the forms are in Russian, so I do not recommend doing this yourself). The foreigner does not have to be present for the visa registration process, which takes about an hour to complete.

But Wait… There’s a Loophole??

What if I told you that there was a way to see Russia without jumping through any of the previously described hoops?
That’s right- Russia allows for 72 hours of visa free travel for visitors that arrive by cruise ship or ferry. You may enter St. Petersburg by ferry from Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland. Technically speaking, there is a condition to this exception that visitors must organize a tour through an approved travel agency, but this is rarely enforced.
If you are hoping to see the entire country of Russia, this is not a realistic method of entry, but if Moscow and St. Petersburg are the only cities you were hoping to see, this is easily the best method of entry. Moscow is a 4 hour train ride from St. Petersburg, many of which run overnight, making the highlights of the two cities easy to see in the allotted 72 hours (although I highly recommend prioritizing one or the other if you are only staying for 3 days- there is simply way too much to see).
Regardless of which method of entry you decide to pursue, I hope you choose to visit the beautiful country of Russia. For more information on my recent experience in St. Petersburg, view my post here.
Do you have an experience traveling to Russia that you’d like to share? Have any advice to offer? I’d love to hear it!
Danielle Guy