Later this month we embark on our first trip to Russia. Landing in St Petersburg we join Viking Ingvar, our ship for the next 13 days. We will sail the Waterways of the Tsars between Russia’s two great cities, St Petersburg and Moscow.
Planning a trip to Russia
Russia has been high on our wish list for a long time. Going to Russia is one of those trips you get quite excited about and put a lot of planning into. Don’t get me wrong, we get excited about all our travel, but Russia is a country with a veil of mystery, the central character in so many spy stories, one of those destinations that still has an air of the old school romance of travel.
Planning where to go and what to see is the easy part, it is understanding the requirements that took us a little by surprise, as well as some of the misinformation about the bureaucratic process of visas and the like. We have applied for a lot of visas in our time and found some trickier than others, but Russia put a whole new spin on tricky.
So here are some of the things you should know or might encounter when planning your trip to Russia. As well as some of the myths debunked.
Most foreign nationals will need a tourist visa to enter Russia. There are only ~30 countries who qualify for the Visa Free Regime and each of those has individual criteria. Most tourist visas are for a maximum of 30 days (this has been eased for residents of the USA). So check your eligibility before planning long stays in the country.
Passengers on cruise ships may enter without a visa for up to 72 hours. You may leave the ship during this period only as part of an organised tour group. If you wish to leave the ship on your own or in a group of less than five, you will require a visa.
We applied for our visa as Australian citizens applying from the UK. So this presented a different range of anomalies than had we applied from our home country.
Tips on applying for a visa-
- Previously you required an official invitation to apply for a visa; now you must obtain a ‘Travel Voucher’ and ‘Tourist Confirmation’ before applying. This is obtained via a travel agency or hotel. As we did not wish to book our accommodation or travel before our visas were granted, we obtained these from an online service in the UK – Real Russia which cost £15 per person for the two documents. This is a straight forward process and an easy option for the traveller not wanting to commit to tours or accommodation. You cannot apply for a visa without first having these two documents.
- As of 2014, depending on the country you are applying from, you may be subject to a new biometrics collection requirement. Therefore, you will be required to apply in person. As of 2015, this is still a pilot project only being implemented in the UK, Denmark, Myanmar, and Namibia.
- You may be required to provide bank statements to validate your financial means to support your stay. Especially if you are self-employed or unemployed.
- You may need a letter from your employer, school or university.
- Depending on your country of citizenship, you may be required to provide proof of travel insurance.
- You will be required to list every country you have visited over the previous ten years with the date of visit. This was quite challenging for us, especially as I had a new passport issued at the beginning of last year so did not have an accurate reference.
- It may well be the most expensive visa you ever apply for, it was for us. The cost quoted usually does not include additional service fees. The total cost of our visa, applied for in the UK, including the Tourist Vouchers was £86 per person(which translated for us to $186AUD pp). Not including tourist vouchers, in Australia expect ~$120 AUD and in the USA expect ~$160 USD plus a $33 Visa Centre service fee, which we also got stung for in the UK.
- You will need to complete your application online via VFS.Global in the UK or the Russian Consulate. The application is not submitted online, you must print it for submission, either in person or by post.
As the Russian visa application has a reputation for being notoriously complex, you will most likely be encouraged to seek the services of an agency to complete the process for you. We were quoted prices starting from £128 per person for this service. You still have to complete an online form yourself. They check you have everything in order, provide the tourist confirmation/travel voucher and submit on your behalf. We did not find the paperwork so complex to require this additional charge.
Due to the increase in demand for Russian visas, in the UK anyway, visa application processing has been outsourced to an external company (VFS.Global). This is a bid to streamline the service and reduce the processing time. This may be the case in other countries as well.
2. To Declare or Not To Declare?
This one we definitely did not know about and possibly could have come unstuck had we not by chance found out about it in advance. If you think that’s confusing read on.
Now there is varying and contradictory information about declaring or not declaring but the advice is – When you arrive in Russia you will need to declare any individual personal items valued at more than $1,000 USD or baggage exceeding 50kg. Although some information puts this at €1500 ($1700 US). Confusing right?
You must have this declaration stamped as you will need it when you depart the country. Failing to do so could incur customs fees of €4 per kilo or a 30% tax on the ‘estimated’ value of individual high-value items when you exit the country. They will also be checking to see you still have the same items and have not sold any while you were in the country.
We found so much conflicting information as to whether you should or shouldn’t declare any used high-value personal items. What we are more certain about is what is considered a “personal use” allowance; one laptop, one camera, two mobile phones, an amount of jewelry that is considered an acceptable amount for personal use during the time etc.
So, if you are carrying a load of expensive camera gear or an amount of high-value jewelry that could be construed as excessive, then you may want to declare it. We have decided it is not worth the risk of having to pay a 30% tax on something we already own, or worse, not being able to take our own goods out of the country. So for us, it will probably be – Declare! We will report back on this later.
Any new or packaged items can automatically incur taxes of ~20%. So you get the drift of what they are looking for, people that might be smuggling high value or even bulk items (hygiene products also get a mention), for black market sale in Russia.
★ Update – After questioning quite a few more people, including those who travel in and out of Russia frequently, we decided to not bother declaring these high value personal items. We had no issues entering or leaving the country. Whilst we still advise that you check the requirements for each country independently to ensure up to date, accurate information, it would appear that this may be a requirement that is no longer enforced.
3. Get Registered
All visitors staying in Russia for longer than three days must register with the Federal Migration Service within seven days. You can ask your hotel to do this for you. You will be asked for your passport and migration card. Once they have completed the registration, you will be issued with a copy of your visa registration.
It is advised keeping both this and your migration card on you at all times and even take a copy of them in case of emergency. Most importantly, make sure you have both available when you depart otherwise you may be fined up to $200 USD.
So while Russia’s visa application and customs regulations do have their nuances, it is certainly not as onerous as the reputation that precedes it and not enough to second guess a trip to Russia. Just make sure forms are completed carefully and correctly, ask questions before submitting them and follow the correct process once in the country to avoid undue stress or expense.
Don’t forget, foreign countries immigration and customs requirements constantly change, so what was true for us, may not be for you. Always check and obtain the latest advice before heading off on your next great adventure.
We would love to hear about any other complexities you may have encountered when preparing for a trip to Russia.