Stumbling on the path to a Russian visa

Old May 26th, 2017, 08:30 AM
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Stumbling on the path to a Russian visa

You would think that in the current political climate US citizens would automatically be granted dual citizenship with Russia with no need for visas. But that's still in the planning stages, I guess, so I was forced to navigate the treacherous path to getting a visa on my own. There's little written here about this frustrating process so I'll share my experience in hopes of helping other applicants, or, more accurately supplicants.

Russia has embassies and "visa centers" (called INVISA, more appropriate would be NOVISA) in Washington DC, New York, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle which accept applications in person or by mail. Since we live in a hick town (Chicago), we decided to send in our applications rather than hauling ourselves to a visa center. The stated purpose of the visa centers is to "enhance the quality of service for foreign citizens" and, of course, to generate revenue and increase confusion. The visa center prescreens the applications and forwards them to the consulate for action.

The consular fee for a single entry visa is $90. The fee for the visa center is $33. Processing by mail is another $85. There's also a $3 option to receive a text message when the visa and passport is mailed. If you go in person you save the $85 mailing fee. The total cost of a single entry mail order visa is $208, without the text message.

Before you can apply for a visa you must have a document with secret codes from a sponsoring agency. That was the easy part. We made a hotel reservation. The hotel immediately emailed us some forms that we completed and in return the hotel sent us more documents and codes. There is no charge unless we cancel our reservation.

The next step is to fill out the online application for a visa found on the embassy website. You are given an ID number and must set a password:

If there are technical issues with the system, or you want to complete your application some other time, you can save your work and later, start where you left off. In order to access your application later, however, you will need: (1) your Application ID, and (2) the password that you will enter on this page.

I didn't want to use one of my "good" passwords, so I just made up something and jotted it down, making the very incorrect assumption that once I submitted the application the password would no longer be necessary. Wrong!

Among the questions: list dates and destinations for all trips taken in the last ten years; list past employers and schools with addresses and phone numbers; etc. There was also a question about whether you had ever had a Russian visa and I conveniently forgot, since I didn't have the details of my Russian visa from 1976.

We meticulously checked all three applications which had to be printed and signed for submission, enclosed photos, passports and certified check($627, of which $255 was for shipping 3 passports with visas to a single address) and FedExed it all to the visa center at the end of April. Since our trip is at the beginning of July, we were confident that we had plenty of time. (I had read that two weeks was the expected turnaround.) We still hadn't heard from the visa center when we left for a road trip, but since two weeks weren't up I wasn't too concerned. I did e-mail myself pdfs of the applications just in case.

Two weeks after submission I get a text message from the visa center telling me to check my email (which I do with compulsive regularity just like everyone!). I find an email from the visa center outlining problems with our applications. Question 11 asked: Host organization you intend to visit (a fill-in-the-blanks response, not a make-a-selection. I had put down the name of our hotel, including the word Hotel in the name. GOTCHA! The correct answer is HOTEL CORPORATION. How could we have possibly known that??? In one of the applications there was an additional error in the hotel address. The previous question asked what cities we would visit. The answer was St Petersburg. The next question asked for the hotel info (which had already been listed several times) and we omitted St. Petersburg in this retelling of the address.

We are directed to modify our applications online and to resubmit. I have the pdfs but can't access the online applications because I can't guess the password which I no longer remembered. SAVE THAT PASSWORD. YOU WILL NEED IT TO MAKE CHANGES AFTER SUBMISSION OF THE COMPLETED APPLICATION. Since I wasn't home I couldn't look for the sticky note that might have it. I email and call INVISA asking what to do. Leave voicemail messages. Finally someone answers (Note: they are on "technical break" from 1-2:30). I ask if I can just resubmit the entire applications instead of trying to modify the existing ones. Three different people couldn't answer this question. I am told to contact my case manager by email. Only she can tell me what to do.

After a couple of hours I am told I can start the online application process over again. Great. At least I have copies of the prior versions but I have to use a computer at the hotel since the form doesn't work properly on mobile devices. Not how we wanted to spend the first afternoon in Charleston. (There were issues with saving and mailing files on the hotel computer so one application takes forever.) My 16 year old niece who is the brains behind this Russian trip volunteered to do the other two forms, carefully noting the passwords used. Again we check them all, sign them electronically this time and email them to the visa center. What a waste of time but it's done before we go to sleep since I don't want to deal with this again in the morning.

The next morning there's an email from the case manager telling me that the electronic signatures won't print and I should print out the forms, have them signed, scan them back in and print and mail or email them again. (No doubt she didn't check the Print Markup option but I wasn't going to go there.) The niece is at school so it's up to me. At home it would be simple but with just an iPhone at a hotel it's not easy. I ask the woman at reception which of the two nearby FedEx offices is better for my task. She volunteers to do it right then and there and mails me the new pdfs. I send them to the ever vigilant case manager who emails that all is in order now.

A week later the visas still haven't arrived so I ask again. I am told they still have not been sent to the consulate which must approve them. Three days later the $3 text message indicates that the visas are in the mail. They arrived this morning so I am no longer afraid to share my tale.
Marija is offline  
Old May 26th, 2017, 08:41 AM
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What an odd assumption on any website that once you make up a password, you would never need to use it again. You also made tons of simple mistakes yourself through carelessness, omitting cities from addresses, etc. So while Russia is a bureaucratic nightmare, you unfortunately made things worse.

The thing I find odd is why some countries require elaborate visa processes from all other countries, as if anyone in their right mind wants to illegally immmigrate there from the US or UK or Western Europe, for example, I can't imagine that's a big problem in Russia. You'd think they'd want more tourists to help the economy, also.
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Old May 26th, 2017, 09:12 AM
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There is a reason you need to deal in person with the Russian Embassy and it has to do with gift giving.

Not that I have ever done this but my wife, a Ukrainian, is exceedingly generous at times.
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Old May 26th, 2017, 09:17 AM
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Thank you so much for sharing this tale! I am feeling your frustration. We had a somewhat similar experience prior to our visit to Myanmar this past winter. There though the hassle was trying to use our credit cards from home when trying to pay for things and not applying for the visa.

I really want to visit Russia, but the visa hassles seem incredible--even worse than some other places. (When we applied for India visas, it was such a hassle that we paid a bit more and applied for the 10 year instead. So glad we did for that particular country because we've made several return trips. It doesn't sound as though that would be the case with Russia though.) $208 for a single entry visa is very expensive IMO. Then, the FedEx rate isn't exactly cheap either.
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Old May 26th, 2017, 09:23 AM
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Tons of simple mistakes? How is anyone to know that the undisclosed words "Hotel Corporation" were to be used? That was the only issue on two of the applications. The third application neglected to repeat the words St. Petersburg as an answer to the question where will you be staying in St. Petersburg. The website clearly said the password is necessary only to resume the application if you do not complete it.
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Old May 26th, 2017, 12:00 PM
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Wow. Dealing with a foreign country. Who would ever think, in this day and age, that you'd need to fill out a detailed questionnaire, follow unfamiliar procedures, and wait a couple of weeks' worth of business days for a response? Incredible. Surely everybody would assume, heading to Russia -- which last I heard on the news from Hillary-dead-enders was "our most important foreign adversary" -- that any American citizen would not face any complications entering Russia (especially when you remember that Russia doesn't have any problems with terrorists or CIA agents, right?)

Guess everybody would feel just a victimized as you do as an American citizen, especially when you think how simple the US government is making it for foreigners to visit America. Wow. Just shaking my head here. Thanks for such an illuminating, lengthy revelation about the sufferings of Americans these days. And I though refugees had it bad!
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Old May 26th, 2017, 12:55 PM
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Hi Marija, thanks for your very thorough report. I'm sure you will save others some of the suffering out endured!
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Old May 26th, 2017, 05:34 PM
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We have INVISA where we live which made it much easier to do it on my own.
At first , the application and everything else seemed like a real PITA.
Yes, the application asks for a ton of info., but honestly I made some of it up - I could not remember the dates or phone numbers. No one cared.
I did make a couple of mistakes on the application, but it
was easy to fix ( the INVISA worker did it for a small fee).

I went back to Russia the following year..repeated the whole thing.
It was worth it!
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Old May 27th, 2017, 04:17 AM
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Same for me.
Did it at last moment. Failed. Next time ...
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Old May 27th, 2017, 06:00 AM
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The one tip I would add to the helpful info from the OP is to use the customer service/info line to talk to a real person to get help with the form as you're filling it out. I found them to be very helpful and, after the first phone call, I was able to email my questions and get prompt answers.

Fortunately, we were able to go to an INVISA office.
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Old May 27th, 2017, 07:57 AM
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Marija, you're an excellent writer! I'm sure this was stressful for you but it was very entertaining to read I've heard of the requirement for listing foreign trips so I'm sure to keep my old passports. If I plan a trip to Russia, I think I'll bite the bullet and brave the Northern Va traffic into DC. Thanks again for the info!
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Old May 9th, 2018, 12:35 PM
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Old Jun 4th, 2018, 09:31 PM
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I live in Canada, but the process is pretty much the same. It took a very long time for me to fill in the visa application and just FYI - there are only 30 available slots on the application form for your last "10 years" of travel. Do not stress if you have visited more than 30 places in the last 10 years, but do be careful to enter all of your current passport stamped countries on your application form and make sure the entry and exit dates match.

Fortunately I live in a city with an office (I think it's been outsourced to a different company here in Canada). The women in the office were exceedingly friendly and helpful and reviewed my paper work and explained all of the payment options including an extra fee for faster service. One of the things that bothered me was that the questions on the printed application (printed from the online application process) were actually worded differently. And, note: the faster service did not take into account the 5 day weekend the embassy staff took for Easter holidays! I phoned the help line and they actually were very helpful when I started to get anxious about the status of my visa.

I spoke to a Russian colleague recently and made a comment about how long and detailed the visa application process had been and he told me that it is just as difficult for a Russian to get a tourist visa to enter Canada. His wife had recently gone through a similar process to visit Canada. Clearly I had no idea that it is equally difficult for tourists from certain countries to visit my country.

It is the most convoluted application form and process I've experienced to date. Within the last few years I had to get visas for Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and India. Russia was the hardest. But then again, when I entered Zimbabwe in the fall, everyone had to get a visa upon arrival, pay with cash, and wait for the immigration officer to handwrite a visa which was then glued into the passport. When there are over 200 people coming off of one airlplane, this makes for a very long wait so not ideal either.

Now I just think that visas are another part of the travel experience.
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Old Jun 4th, 2018, 09:51 PM
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"You would think that in the current political climate US citizens would automatically be granted dual citizenship with Russia with no need for visas. But that's still in the planning stages, I guess, so I was forced to navigate the treacherous path to getting a visa on my own. There's little written here about this frustrating process so I'll share my experience in hopes of helping other applicants, or, more accurately supplicants."

Sounds like you set yourself up to stumble with your "assumption" of dual citizenship and feeling "forced" to navigate the path by yourself. Did you in all seriousness believe obtaining a Russian visa was going to be straightforward and simple? Our visa applications were processed by officials in DH's office; the process took just about five weeks, and our visas only arrived in the afternoon courier packet on the last business day before our departure.

As a PSA, with no sarcasm intended, use this experience as an anecdote on how you might expect to be treated once you're there. Our trip was to Moscow in 2015; my report is here if you are interested. 72 Hours, 30Km. And snow. Moscow!
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Old Jun 4th, 2018, 11:04 PM
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A big deal is very often made on this forum when it comes to applying and obtaining Russian visas, from the expense (which is mostly the visa agency/courier fees not consular) to the indignation of having to be put thru the process at all. Believe it or not, the process is much easier now than it was 30 years ago, the application form is almost the same, with the same question about previous countries visited (you don't get stamps in all passports for every trip ). You can do it online, you can track your application, you can check which documents are required to support your application etc., you can visit as an independent tourist which you could not do years ago, you always had to be part of a tour group. Out of date info abounds as old experiences never die (such as gift giving to consular staff). yes you could do that 30 years ago. You don't have to muddle thru the online application, there are step by step guides on filling it out which you can google. One of the steps in the guide says to make a note of the password you create and to note down the application number.

And as for Russians getting visas, they rarely complain about it as they know they need a visa for almost everywhere they want to go.

The OP's comment about assumption of dual nationality for US citizens I took as an attempt at humour rather than being the OPs belief.
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Old Jun 5th, 2018, 01:01 AM
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If you want to experience some of the same culture without the hassle of a visa, try Ukraine or Belarus, both of which are visa-free for Americans. Unfortunately, they are also Hermitage-free, etc...
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Old Jun 5th, 2018, 05:47 AM
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Ukraine may be Hermitage free, but Lviv made my favorite cities list. Plenty of art in museums in other countries besides Russia.

I traveled across Russia by train in 2004, and I don't remember having to document my previous travel for my visa. I do remember having to document it for my US citizenship application. The US wanted all travel since I obtained my green card, although now I think it is "only" ten years.
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