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Budget Travel in Russia

All You Need to Know to Travel

There are two ways to travel to Russia: Pay a tour company a lot of money and be locked into their rigid tour schedule or go on your own.

Russia is one of the most fascinating and beautiful places on earth. While cheap for travelers outside of the big cities, it offers all the Western conveniences.A closed land for nearly a century, you may find yourself walking in places unseen by foreign eyes in a hundred years, if ever.

Russia is also frustratingly difficult to visit. Regulations for visas and travel are legacies of the Soviet period. The "authorities" often understand them least (the Russian consulate in Washington is notoriously uninformed). Package tours are plentiful, but all come with high price tags, and rigid schedules. Guidebooks tell you how to enjoy Russia once you arrive, but none have more than the barest do-it-yourself instructions on how to get there.

After many trips to Russia, I have become an expert at the system, inadvertently breaking laws and nearly being expelled from Russia in the process. But the system is simple once you understand it.

Citizens of nearly every country need a visa, either tourist or business. You do not want a tourist visa. These are good at most for one month, and you must have confirmed hotel reservations for the entire journey and a return ticket in hand. Only the most expensive hotels can be booked from abroad. Business visas are issued for up to a year and for multiple entries. The visa application requires you to list your "itinerary," which should include every city you intend to stay in (up to five cities). This does not preclude short visits to other cities. Listing five cities is the way to go, as it typically results in no cities being listed on the visa itself, implying you have the right to travel anywhere (note: some restricted cities and regions may require an "interior visa"; check with a guidebook in advance).

To get a visa, business or otherwise, you must first get an official invitation from the Russian Ministry of the Interior. The invitation must list your "itinerary" (see above). If you are traveling to study, work, or volunteer, the organization at your place of study or work should be able to obtain an invitation for you. However, they may not be able to support an invitation for the full length of your trip, and, you may not know in advance where you will be working.

Fortunately, for you, there are a number of commercial "visa support services" (see sidebar). A fee of $50 to $300 will obtain an invitation. This usually takes about a month, so plan in advance.

Once you have your invitation, you can apply for a visa. This can be done in person at one of the four consulates (see sidebar) or by mail. Although they are usually punctual, it is best to give yourself plenty of time. Officially, for a visa of three months or more you must show an HIV test. Although this regulation is rarely enforced, you should be on the safe side.

Once you have your visa, you are ready to go to Russia. This is unfortunately not the end of the bureaucracy. If you stay in any Russian city more than three business days, you must register your visa with the police. Registering a visa on your own at the police station is a complicated and difficult process and is not recommended. If you stay at a hotel, the hotel will handle the registration. Your university or place of work (if you have one) can often handle visa registration for you too, as can some tour agencies. For a fee, most large hotels will register your visa for a month or two at a time, even if you are not a hotel guest. This is the simplest and most flexible method, and the one I usually use. It is not expensive: I paid as little as $3.50 in Irkutsk and up to $15 in St. Petersburg.

Visas and Invitations

Visa Applications

Web site: www.russianembassy.org (click "Consular Offices"); DC consulate office: 2641 Tunlaw Rd., NW, Washington, DC 20007; NY consulate office: 9 East 91 St., NY, NY 10128.
San Francisco consulate office: 2790 Green St., San Francisco, CA 94123; Seattle consulate Office: 2323 Westin Building, 2001 6th Ave., Seattle, WA 98121.
Russian consulate offices do not answer the phone. If you cannot find what you need online and cannot visit in person, call the Russian embassy (202-298-5700) and ask to be transferred to the consular visa office’s direct line.

Recommended Invitation and Visa

Support Services:
www.gotorussia.com.

Business Visa Requirements:
Visa application form; 1 passport photo; passport, valid at least one month after departure date; cover letter stating purpose of trip (ideally from issuer of invitation, but you can write one yourself); official invitation; HIV test (for trips of longer than 3 months.