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An American’s nightmare with Russian visa

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Sep 19th, 2011, 05:25 PM
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An American’s nightmare with Russian visa

What is a visa? It is an (often expensive) permit to step inside a country and begin spending your tourist dollars. Tourism provides some of the best employment in the host country. It requires little training, minimal equipment investment, and is a green (environmentally friendly) industry.

My Russia travel guide says “ A visitor’s first experience with Russia is the costly, often frustrating process of getting a visa. Brace yourself, the rest of your Russian experience will be worth the hassle”. I knew it would not be just a problem, or just a big problem, but a huge problem! Even so, I radically underestimated how incredibly long it would take to finally get my visa! Read on:

Russia has a requirement, before applying for a visa that, as far as I know, no other country in the world requires. Russia requires a letter of invitation, which consists of two documents: a confirmation and a voucher. I suppose the purpose of these documents is for Russia to know, day by day, where the visitor is staying, so he can be tracked. It makes independent, unscheduled travel very difficult.

My visa should have been very simple and fast, since I was traveling with a large tour group, with each day’s location known precisely nine months in advance. Travel web sites say that this invitation can be obtained by your tour company or purchased for independent travel in two days. Don’t believe it!

From the date of my request for the letter, until it was delivered, took 28 days! When I asked for my letter from my tour company, they replied that the entire trip, both land costs and airfare, must be paid in advance, before a letter can be issued!

This creates a huge problem of risk, for which the new Russia traveler is totally unaware! If you don’t have your visa on the day your flight departs for Russia, you can kiss your entire trip payment goodbye (in my case many thousands of dollars for two). My tour company’s tours to Russia were totally booked for the rest of this year, so traveling on a later tour was not an option.

Since I knew a Russian visa was going to be a huge problem, I started requesting my invitation letter 92 days in advance. I delayed paying for the tour for 4 days, then sent payment, and expected my tour company would immediately supply the invitation. Big mistake. My tour company did not request the letter from the Russian agency. After waiting 13 days while nothing was happening, I contacted my tour company and asked again for the letter. Oh, yes, that letter! Twelve days later, it arrived. So at this point, nearly a month had elapsed before I can BEGIN to apply for the visa.

You can’t just apply for the Russian visa when you feel like it. Any submission for a tourist visa more than 90 days before entering Russia, will be rejected by the Embassy. So it is now a race: can you get your visa issued before their time window closes, or lose your entire payment for your vacation?

Just as I tried to fill out the incredibly invasive 7 page visa forms, Russia changed the rules. No more hand written or typed visas; it must be filed electronically with a new visa site in Moscow. Except the site was incredibly slow, crashed constantly, and even when completed, couldn’t provide an output file to print and submit.

Since I am retired, I could afford to spend an incredible 20 hours over a five day period, trying to get the web site to work. In the Russian Embassy’s defense, toward the end of that frustrating week, they changed to temporarily allow printed forms on paper. But they could change their mind again, and I didn’t want to give them another excuse to reject my visa.

The visa questions were simply beyond belief. It is only a slight exaggeration to say they wanted to know everything that had happened in your life from the day you were born until now:

What is your mother’s first name, middle name, last name? What is your father’s first name, middle name, last name? Well, Russia, THEY aren’t going, I am. You don’t need that.

Name every school you attended since high school, including name, street address, city, state, zip code and telephone number? List every country you have visited in the last 10 years? For me that was a huge list.

For your present job, AND last two previous jobs, list company name, street address, city, state, zip code, telephone number, job title, and name of your supervisor! Russia, I’m not applying for a job, I am just trying to spend my tourist money in your country!

Military service: provide the service branch, day, month, and year you entered, and the day, month, and year you were discharged. Describe any weapons training? Hello, I served in the U.S. Army; of course there was weapons training.

Anger at this invasive questioning (of Americans only) should be directed at the U.S. Dept of State. This appears to be a tit for tat retaliation of U.S questions for Russians applying for a U.S. visa. America also seems to charge the highest visa fees in the world. So Russia, as well as China and Argentina, that I know of, charges the same high rate back to Americans. It is much lower for everyone else.

New Russian Embassy rules require that all visas be submitted to a visa service, that assists in the visa process. Russia also requires that their embassy return the completed passport and visa by FedEx only, not U.S. Post Office.

I submitted both visas, with every single question answered (no matter how stupid or invasive) and was notified about 6 days later by the visa service, that one form was incomplete (due to Russian web site not allowing one page to print, not because of information I had entered). The two visas need to be resubmitted.

I mailed the information about 5 days later, after consulting with my wife in the evenings, after her work day, about specific information required for her visa, that I did not know. I sent an email to the visa service, telling them the second application was mailed. That email was bounced back, was not delivered, which turned out to be a second BIG mistake.

I waited anxiously for 15 days, then sent an email, asking how much longer this visa was going to take? No answer for 1 ½ days. I tried the visa web site. It was not working. I called the visa service, and they told me they had only just received my second visa documents. I mailed it in a computer addressed envelope, 20 points high bold faced font, so there was no possible mistake on the address. So the bottom line was, 30 days after I had mailed my first visa request, my visa STILL had not been submitted to the Russian Embassy! This 30 day delay would not have happened, if the Embassy allowed printed forms to be submitted, OR if their web site worked.

I spent many sleepless nights, wondering if I really was going to get the visa in time, to go on this Russia trip? So now I needed to wait 13 more days more for the visa to be processed and. mailed back to me. I FINALLY GOT THE COMPLETED VISA AND PASSPORT 75 DAYS after I first requested my invitation letter!

Previously, I waited in a line in the Madagascar airport and the Nepal airport, paid my fee and got my visa upon arrival each time, in two minutes!

The next two quotes are not my words. They are direct quotes from other travelers trying to deal with Russian visas:

“We got caught up July 1-5 in the rollout and with the system crashing and other issues considered it was worth canceling our tickets rather than go through this visa process. It took me 10 days to finish the visa working on it constantly.”

Another person who arranges much travel to Russia wrote: “Russia isn't interested in tourism dollars. If it was, they would have changed the visa process, the trains, and dozens of other things about the country.”

The next quote is not from me; it is from a professional visa service, experienced in getting Russian visas: “On this web-site we want to share our expertise. You will learn how to increase your chances for securing Russian visa …” My words: Notice that they don’t say “get your visa”, but they say “increase your chances”.

The president of Russia today, Dmitry Medvedev, is aware of the Russian visa problem:

http://en.rian.ru/russia/20110418/163575982.html

An American can travel today to any European country and any central American country with no any visa at all! My Russian visa for two people cost $418, including visa service and FedEx return mail.

So I am asking the new potential Russian traveler: do you want very, very much to visit Russia? If yes, then you MUST apply three months in advance, as I did, to insure that you do get the visa in time. If I had waited until 2 months before my trip, I would lost my entire pre-paid Russia trip cost, because my visa would not have been issued in time!

If the answer is no, or more importantly, you can’t afford to pre-pay for the entire trip and then lose everything, because you can’t get the visa within the permitted 90 day window, then consider this. Take your tourist money to another country that wants and encourages tourism, and a country that wants to provide needed jobs for its own citizens in the tourist industry. Russia is not that country!

I have returned from my Russia trip. I had a wonderful trip, very much enjoyed Russia and the Russian people, and would like to return. If Russia changes their visa requirements to conform with the rest of the civilized world, or better yet, eliminates visas, I will return. If they keep their present visa requirements, I will never again set foot in Russia again. I have no intention of enduring the stress again of losing my entire trip payment, because I couldn’t get permission from Russia to spend my tourist dollars there, within their 90 day window.
madftog is offline  
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Sep 19th, 2011, 05:50 PM
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As also posted on Lonely Planet.
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Sep 19th, 2011, 10:09 PM
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" I will never again set foot in Russia again. I have no intention of enduring the stress again of losing my entire trip payment, "

Who cares?

Russia doesn't because it doesn't give a flying fart about the spurious benefits of tourism . In the past 12 months only China had a greater net income from abroad (Russia's $176 mn net income is just $1 bn below China. Compares with America's $565 bn net outflow).

It doesn't want foreigners, and has absolutely no need for their money.

It particularly doesn't want foreigners from countries that impose more or less equally onerous and unpleasant requirements on foreign visitors. I bet you didn't get fingerprinted on entry, as you insist on from all foreigners, for example.

And I mean YOU. America purports to be a democracy, so perhaps before expecting any sympathy you might tell us what you've personally done to eliminate the gratuitous offensiveness America (which really DOES need hard currency) routinely imposes on visitors.

I suspect nothing. Much easier to whinge about the motes in other people's eyes than do anything about the beam in yours.
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Sep 19th, 2011, 11:55 PM
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It's not just Americans who require a visa for Russia, it applies for most nationalities.

Having worked in a travel office in Moscow and having seen the other side of the process (ie obtaining the official letters of invitation etc), I can tell you how much of a nightmare it is for a Russian citizen to obtain visas, as they need one for almost every country.
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Sep 20th, 2011, 01:57 AM
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At least you didn't have to call a PAY PER MINUTE phone number to ask a question, then secure an appointment for a personal interview at he Embassy, travel to that city at your own expense, and THEN pray the immigration officer allows you in the country at first port of entry.

Anyone needing a visa nowadays to certain countries does need to think twice if it IS worth it.
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Sep 20th, 2011, 02:18 AM
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I've read posts on this board about trips to Russia and no other poster whose thread I've read has complained about the visa process as you have done.

This is another example of a first-time whining poster.
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Sep 20th, 2011, 02:54 AM
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This post reminds to check whether my ESTA application to participate in the visa waiver agreement with the USA has been authorized.

Costs 14 USD to run a check against a data base
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Sep 20th, 2011, 04:45 AM
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1)Since I received a special VISA to visit Soviet Era Closed City Svedlosk in less time that it took the OP for a 2011 tourist Visa, I wouldnt write this off as a 'first-time whining poster.' There are some valid points in the OPs remarks that will be helpful for future travelers to glean from and reduce their time to receive a VISA

2)Biometrics is coming to every country, I have traveled to 3rd World countries that can quickly and efficiently photograph and fingerprint you at their airports upon arrival to receive a VISA

3)Lastly, I feel much of the whining on this thread isnt from the OP
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Sep 20th, 2011, 07:47 AM
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It appears that a lot of your problems were not with Russia but with your tour company - and of your own making. No - the copany won;t send the letter of invitation until you pay (your fault). You paid and they didn;t send it (their fault).

Don;t know why you are blaming this all on russia. I've been several times (one tour, a couple independently) and never had any problem with visas at all. Got letters from tour or hotels as soon as I paid, filled out forms (NOT brain surgery) and sent for visa - which came in less than one month (faster than US passport in busy season).

If you are determined to do things your way versus their way (it's THEIR country) of course you are going to have a lot of problems. The essence of travel is that things are differnt everywhere. Either accept it and follow the rules - or drive yourself crazy.
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Sep 20th, 2011, 08:02 AM
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Other than the cost we had no major difficulty obtaining our Visas. We at first thought we'd try to obtain them on our own and avoid the additional expense of using an agency. We phoned a nearby Russian Consulte several times at different times od day and never received no answer. So much for Plan A.

We went through the agency suggested by Viking, filled out our applicaitons, wrote the painful check and voila, our visas arrived long before our trip departure. Maybe we were lucky, but I don't remember any of the Americans who were fellow travelers complaining about obtaining their Visas. Loved Russia, loved the trip.
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Sep 20th, 2011, 08:04 AM
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Should be Russian Consulate.
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Sep 20th, 2011, 08:58 AM
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It appears that those who didn't have much trouble with the visa process were able to fill out paper forms and mail them in. Yes, that is simple. In the OP's case, he had to use a non-functional web site. I can totally see his frustration. This isn't about "accepting" and "following rules" - this is about a visa process that completely broke down.
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Oct 9th, 2011, 05:29 AM
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I totally sympathize with the OP who entered visa hell with the new web site.
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Oct 14th, 2011, 09:52 AM
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And I mean YOU. America purports to be a democracy, so perhaps before expecting any sympathy you might tell us what you've personally done to eliminate the gratuitous offensiveness America (which really DOES need hard currency) routinely imposes on visitors.

I suspect nothing. Much easier to whinge about the motes in other people's eyes than do anything about the beam in yours.>

another needless character assassination of a poster - and the UK does not like right now forcing a South Asian college student to go back to India or Pakistan just because their only parent died and thus they were not entitled to remain in good ole England?

Every country has its warts - yes the UK has the toughest immigration procedures in Europe - steadfastly refuses to join Schengen

Look at yourself - what are you doing to try to change the UK's tough, for Europe, immigration and cross border travel stance?

Look at yourself bub before criticizing others for just about the same thing.

The mirror, please.
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May 23rd, 2013, 06:48 AM
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For anyone trying to apply for the Visa just a tip

While as an Australian I have found Russian Visa site rather labourious and somewhat strange. Do they really need to know that I served for four years in Oz army back in 80s.
However many of questions which OP is complaining about such as which countries you have visited or your last two work employers are only optional for you to answer
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Jun 14th, 2013, 08:14 AM
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Really sorry to hear that. However Canadian visa process for an individual with a Russian passport is much worse and humiliating.

My family have a clean travel history and unspoiled reputation within more than 10 years travelling all over the world to the US, UK, Europe, Asia, etc. This summer our old Canadian friends asked us finally to come over to visit them. We carefully prepared our applications, booked flights as the Immigration Authorities wanted to see our return flights, and applied 1.5 months before the travel date. But Canadian Embassy has not made any decision by the travel date and they still keep our passports. We sent numerous requests to return our passports as we are not going to travel to Canada, but they are not responding. Now I need to travel on business to the US but I can’t because they retain my passport. I don’t have any idea on how to retrieve the passports back from now – will have to involve the Russian Embassy in London. Not speaking that I lost about £3,000! So, I was going to bring my £££ to Canada as my family love shopping but Canadians simply didn’t let us in!

For 3 of us we had to collect and complete a good number of documents, 30 in total. As for the Forms, you need to list names of your parents, your all sisters & brothers, where they live – postal addresses, what they do. If your parents are deceased you have to indicate the place where they died and still to provide the answer if the deceased parents are travelling with you or not! And in the end, you lose all your money you spent for the flights and ruined your holiday.

Sounds very similar to your Russian experience. And yes, Russians need visa to go to most of countries. European visa - even worse than the US. I can get multi entry US visa for 2 years, but for a European country - only for 6 months.
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Jun 15th, 2013, 02:30 AM
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Hi people, it's Anatoli. You know what - when i shared my similar experience with Canadian visa, they removed me as a member from Fodor! I had to register again under other name. I couldn't imagine it's so political thing. Will hurry up to post my comment before they remove my membership again.
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Jun 15th, 2013, 03:03 AM
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Anatoli, I see both of your posts. fyi
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Jun 15th, 2013, 03:55 AM
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you should try getting into Libya...
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