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Unless you are a citizen of Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Israel, Macau, Macedonia (holding an invitation letter or voucher), Mongolia, Montenegro, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, Venezuela or any of the CIS countries except Georgia and Turkmenistan, you'll need a visa to travel to Russia.
An important exception: if you are visiting a Russian sea port with a cruise or ferry for less than 72 hours and are on a pre-booked organised tour with any registered local tour operator, you can enter Russia with no visa. You can find more details in the St.Petersburg forum - please do a forum search and read up on the topic before asking questions.
Tourist visas usually are valid for up to 30 days and can be single- or double-entry; citizens of the United States can apply for a tourist visa which will allow multiple entries into Russia for a period of three years. Business visas can be valid for up to one year and can be multiple entry. You don't need to be in a business to get a business visa, but you should be careful to specify information consistent with the type of your invitation when you apply for a visa at the Russian consulates (so you can't say you're visiting friends if you're getting a tourist visa or that you're going for sightseeing if you're getting a business visa).
Other visas - such as transit visas, study visas or private guest visas - exist and may be more applicable to your journey, so always check your local Russian embassy or consulate website for the most up-to-date information.
Before applying for a Russian tourist or a business visa, you'll need to get an invitation (also called visa support). This can be obtained through a hotel (also some apartment agencies and hostels with a licence to provide such documents), a Russian travel agency, your local travel agent or online via various agencies (see below). Note that smaller accommodation establishments such as B&Bs - as well as some large online accommodation listing agencies such as Airbnb - often are not licensed to provide visa support documents.
For tourists, an invitation consists of two documents often printed on the same page - one an "Accommodation Voucher" showing that your hotel or apartment reservation has been paid for (or reserved using a credit card), the other a (Tourist) Confirmation ("on hosting a foreign tourist "). You will most likely get these via email - simply print them out for submission along with your visa application, passport, visa photo etc.
Your visa support documents will need to cover the entire date range of your stay in Russia.
Hotels and some apartment rental agencies typically offer visa support documents for free (although some charge a fee), however the invitations generally will only cover the dates of your stay with them - so if, for example, you're planning to stay for four nights in a hotel in St Petersburg and then five nights in a hotel in Moscow, you will need invitations from both in order to apply for your visa. Note that you will have to ask them to provide the documents that you require, they will not just send them to you automatically when you make your booking.
If you choose this method of acquiring your invitation, you will be bound by a fixed itinerary and will have to stay at that particular hotel or, at a minimum, you will have to pay the hotel anywhere from $50 to $100 US if your plans change, whether that involves a change of hotel or your trip overall, including cancellation. While it's a good option if you just want to stay a couple of days in Moscow on a business trip, it's not all that great if you're travelling around the country.
Agencies usually offer more flexible options when it comes to visa support, but you should make sure they don't tie you to any fixed itinerary. Websites such as Way to Russia, Visa House, Go To Russia, Visa to Russia, iVisaonline.com or Godzillas Hostel provide no-ties visa support online - prices vary but the standard price is around $30 US for an tourist invitation that is ready in one business day, sometimes lower - particularly if you use the agency to help you apply for your visa. You simply receive it by email or fax and then bring or send it along with other documents needed with your application to the Russian consulate.
Applying for a Visa
In many countries, applying for a visa is simply a matter of filling in an online application form, printing it out and submitting it along with your visa support documents, passport, photo, application fee etc directly to the local embassy or consulate. In other countries, such as the US and UK, the Russian consulate no longer accepts applications directly from the applicant - instead, you are referred to an "authorised" and/or "acceptable" visa agency. Trip Advisor's Russian forums often feature advice from travellers who have applied successfully for their visas, so it's worth searching or browsing through the forum for recent experiences to get a feel for what to expect.
Once you have the invitation (again, two documents for tourists - see above), you need to make sure you have the other documents ready. Usually it's your passport, which should expire not earlier than six months after your visa expires and has at least four pages "free" (Russian visas are "pasted" on to the whole page), one passport-sized photo and the visa application form which you have completed via an online process at your Russian consulate website.
Visa application forms usually will ask you for the reference number and confirmation number shown on your invitation. The reference number is the MBT or MVT number listed under the name and address of the agency providing the document. The confirmation number is the voucher number, which should be eight digits in all and could be a combination of letters and numbers. It should be labelled "Voucher No" on the document.
If you live in a EU country (except UK) or USA, you will also need insurance. Usually your credit card will have insurance that covers you worldwide - if that's the case, just print it out and bring it along. If not, go to a specialist agency or get it online. If you're getting a Russian visa for six months or longer, you'll also need an HIV test certificate (available at most hospitals, costs about $25). (by the way, HIV certificate no longer needed for South African passports for a 12 month business visa. Not sure about other passports - suggest you check with local Russian embassy). That's it. Visa application fees will vary from country to country and as to whether you would like a standard or expedited turnaround - so again, check with your local consulate or embassy website for the latest details.
Once you apply, you should only have to wait for about one to two weeks and your visa will be in your passport. Some consulates process applications more quickly than others - for example, the consulate in London, UK, is often commended for its speedy turnaround. You would be well advised, however, to apply at least one month ahead in case there is some kind of error and you need to re-submit your application (which can happen).
There's a very useful and detailed guide to Russian visa procedures put together by Russian backpackers, which is recommended by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, so you might want to take a look at it before you apply for a visa.
Once you're in Russia, regardless of whether you need a visa or not, you will need to be registered with the Federal Migration Service (FMS) - this is frequently, but inaccurately referred to as "visa registration".
Perhaps the most important thing to understand here is that if you are staying at a hotel (the vast majority of people reading this), registration will be done without any effort or enquiry on your part. If you are not staying at a hotel, then you only need to worry about this if staying longer than seven business days in any particular place (note: this was previously three days). If you are unfortunate enough to not fit into either of these categories, then you will need to work with your official host to get registered.
Note that it is up to your host - whether that be a hotel, apartment agency or owner, or private family - and not you to arrange any registration that is required.
Once you've got the visa, things become really simple (unless you bring your own car). The regulations are not much different from anywhere else. There are limits on how many cigarettes, how much alcohol you can bring in. You can also bring in up to $10000 in cash without declaring it, if you've got more on you make sure it's declared, so that when you leave they don't charge a tax on it. Regarding equipment, you can bring stuff worth not more than $2000 without a tax. If you've got more expensive items, you'll have to pay 30% tax on them. So if you want to avoid that say it's for your personal use, very old, crappy, and cheap. If you're taking any medicines, make sure they are allowed in Russia and always carry your prescription with you, so the customs don't think you're carrying drugs.
When you arrive, you'll be faced by a somber-looking passport control. Just let them do their job, don't say more than what they're asking for, and make sure you're consistent with the information in your visa. Any questions -- tell them to contact the agency that issued your visa support.
Bringing you own car to Russia requires patience, time and the documentation of the car.
At least when crossing the border at Narva you may need to wait up to 24 hours before you can cross the border. The border control only has a capacity of approx 6 car per hour. The queue is administrated at a parking lot a few km before the border. Turn right after the Statoil gas station. And you find it at the left side behind concrete walls. There are signs. There you will get a queue number and a time when you can queue up at the border. So you need not stand in the actual queue for 24 hours (you can take the opportunity of getting to know Narva). If you are in a hurry you can buy yourself a faster passage for 300 Estonian crowns. But not that fast... You might bring it down from 24 hours to 12 hours. The actual border crossing takes about 2 hours once you have been allowed to queue up at the border in Narva.
The border crossing at Luhamaa (or Shumilkino at the Russian side) is easy to cross with a little preparation. It will take you some time to get through (2-3h minimum) so plan carefully and set time aside.To cut the waiting time you can book a time slot at www.estonianborder.eu through a system called GoSwift. It will save you time. Without a booking, you'll most likely have to wait longer. It is possible to buy a faster passage, cutting the line, but it will not save you much time from the actual border crossing process. The crossing takes place in several steps: