Obtaining a Russian visa can be a long and expensive process for US citizens, especially if you actually reside outside of the United States like us. To be completely honest, the process was extremely frustrating for us. We tried using the regular United States Postal Service at first instead of expensive international FedEx, only further delaying the process. We weren’t aware of quirky little extra documents that needed to be completed because we live outside of our home country and at once point our documents ended up in the Philippines instead of Washington D.C. where they were supposed to be headed. But lessons learned and two shiny new Russian visas in hand, we’re incredibly excited for our trip.
1. Get a Letter of Invitation.
Also known as a LOI or Visa Support Letter, you’ll need one to apply for a Russian visa. Lucky for us, G Adventures provides the Letter of Invitation for travelers going on their small group trips to Russia. So, obtaining the Letter of Invitation was easy and included in the price of the trip.
There are also many travel agencies that will provide a Letter of Invitation if you decide to go on your own. Other travel friends have used Real Russia and found the service to be fast. Consult their website for prices for visa support.
2. Check your official Letter of Invitation.
Unfortunately for you, your Letter of Invitation will be in Russian. Because I can’t read the Cyrllic alphabet, I didn’t notice that my Letter of Invitation listed my nationality as Canadian and not American. Check that your Letter of Invitation does have the correct information. Google Translate is very helpful in translating from English to Russian in order to verify your information is correct.
3. Gather all your documentation needed to apply for your Russian visa.
The Russian visa application must be completed online, but before you’re ready to do that, you’ll want to make sure all your proper documentation is in order.
- Your US passport must be valid for 6 months beyond your stay in Russia and have at least 2 empty pages available. The pages in the back that are marked “for visas” do not count as empty pages.
- You’ll need 1 recent passport type photograph per application, in color, front view and with a plain/white background. Glasses should not be worn in the photo unless the photo in the original passport includes glasses.
- An official Letter of Invitation to visit Russia. Our official Letters of Invitation were provided by G Adventures through the vendor Palladium Travel.
- If you are a US citizen living outside of the United States for any reason, you’ll also need to include a letter addressed to the Consulate General of Russia explaining the circumstances of why you live outside of the US. Sign the letter with blue or black ink and include it with your application package.
No where in any of the documentation about completing the visa application was the it noted about the letter to the Consulate General of Russia. Not including the letter in the original packet of paperwork resulted in about a 2 week delay of the processing of our Russian visa applications.
4. Complete the Russian visa application.
The Russian visa application must be completed online by everyone. It is a relatively straight forward application, though a long one. You’ll need:
- the last 10 years of employers (including the name of your supervisors),
- the last 10 years of home addresses
- a list of the countries you’ve visited with the dates of your visit over the last 10 years.
You must also have health insurance and most health care plans provided by your employer do not cover you outside of the United States, so look into travel insurance.
You must apply from your home country. If you’re one of the lucky ones that lives in or near Washington DC, New York City, San Francisco, or Houston, congratulations! Obtaining your Russian visa just got easier. You’ll be able to make an appointment to pick up your visa in person. Note that you still submit everything online.
If not, welcome to the hellish process of obtaining a Russian visa! Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly. If you follow the tips above and make like Santa Claus, checking your list twice (quadruple), then you should only be separated from your passport for about 15 – 21 business days.
You’ll need to hire a Visa Agency to pick up your passport and visa for you. The Russian Embassy lists Travisa on their website as the designated processing agency in the United States. I was slightly frustrated with Travisa. We had to resubmit a corrected application and the aforementioned letter explaining our status living outside of our home country (not their fault), but after getting all of that documentation re-sent (because everything must have an original signature in ink; no scans or PDFs!), the representative processing our documents noticed that my LOI had my citizenship listed incorrectly. My Letter of Invitation had to be re-issued, holding up the process and calculating if we’d even receive our visas in time for our trip at all. I felt Travisa should have caught this error when they first received our packet and reviewed it.
According the Russian Embassy, you can submit your application for your Russian visa up to 90 days before your entry into Russia. We were traveling in Greece, so we submitted our application online exactly 60 days prior to our entry into Russia.
If you don’t live in a city with a Russian consulate and especially if you do not reside in your home country, assume the longest processing time possible and submit your application as early as possible. Also note that Travisa will only FedEx your passports and Russian visas to an address within the United States; they do not provide international services. You’ll need to factor in additional time for a friend or family member to receive your Russian visa and then send it to you. We received our Russian visas a mere 9 days before our flights and were sweating bullets over it.
Cost of Obtaining a Russian Visa
A Russian visa isn’t cheap. We spent around $650 for two visas and the assorted fees. Here is the cost breakdown per person.
- Single entry Russian visa $175
- Travisa processing fee $65
- Travisa’s FedEx overnight mailing fee (both of our visas could be mailed together for one fee) $27
- Travisa service fee $5
We also had additional mailing fees when sending our documents to Travisa and then international FedEx priority from the United States to Italy, which will vary location-by-location.