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An American’s nightmare with Russian visa

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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:

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.

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