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aug 25 2008

The lowdown on Russian visas

About a year ago BT provided some tips for arranging visas for several countries, including Russia (“Veni, Visa, Vici”). I just went through the process of getting visas for myself and my wife for a trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow, and I got conflicting information from other sources. I also paid a fee that—I later learned—I didn't have to pay.

I hope you’ll learn from my example. Save yourself time and money by asking yourself the following questions.

1. Are you going with a tour group or using a travel agent? In either case, consider letting the tour group or travel agent arrange your visa for you, even if it means paying a modest fee.

2. Are you arranging your own travel and staying at only one hotel? Then you should ask your hotel to send you a visa support letter (also called a tourist confirmation letter). Some hotels are authorized to give you this letter themselves, and some are not, according to Yelena Baranova of Russian National Group, a company that helps arrange visas by providing visa support letters. If your hotel says it isn’t authorized to provide a letter, then see the answer to question 4.

3. Are you arranging your own travel and staying at more than one hotel? Multiple visa support letters can be used in one application as long as all of your time in Russia is accounted for, according to a spokeswoman for the Russian consulate in New York (who, following official policy, would not give her name).

Be aware that some private companies are claiming that any traveler staying at more than one hotel is forced by the application rules to hire them to get a single letter covering the entire stay. That's not true, says the official spokeswoman. In other words, If you are staying at several hotels and each gives you a visa support letter, you can arrange your visa yourself. Still unsure of what to do? The spokeswoman advised applicants to call their regional consulate with any questions. (For example, travelers in the Northeast should call the New York Consulate at 212/348-0629.)

4. But what if you are staying at a hotel that cannot give you a visa support letter?

My wife and I are staying at a B&B; in St. Petersburg and a rental apartment in Moscow. Neither could give me a visa support letter, but both had “partners” who could provide the letter, for a fee. These are companies like Russian National Group, but I didn’t realize that at first.

Here’s what happened: Thinking I needed a letter from each hotel, I asked both places to provide me with letters (and I agreed to pay for both). But the owner of the St. Petersburg B&B; put down the dates for our full dates of travel, including our time in Moscow. That meant that we did not need the letters from Moscow. Bad traveler! I haven’t even left for the trip yet and I’ve already wasted money. If your hotels provide visa support for a fee, have just one of them give you a letter covering your whole trip. All of this sounds complicated, and it is.

5. Did you learn any other helpful tips? Yes. The owner of our St. Petersburg B&B; gave me another piece of advice: Add a few days to the beginning and end of your stay when requesting a visa support letter. (In other words, if you will be in Russia from August 28 to September 6, request a letter for August 25 to September 9.) This is in case your travel plans change; if you stay in Russia a day longer than your visa (because of a canceled flight, for example), you’ll have to update your visa before you can leave.

6. How much does a visa cost? Here is an update since BT published its article: As of January 1, 2008, the State Department raised the fee for a U.S. visa to $131 from $100, so the Russians followed suit; a Russian visa now costs $131.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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