Wednesday, 20 June 2012

How we got our Russian visa

I've wanted to go to St. Petersburg, Russia for a long time, particularly to see the Hermitage. I didn't really want to take a tour because it wouldn't give us enough time in the museum, se we decided we could do it on our own. This involves getting a tourist visa. It took me two full days, actually more, to figure out how the visa process works for Russia. Partly this is because I did not believe the process actually works the way it does. When I searched "Russian visa" online, a lot of websites appeared offering to help get the visa.  I couldn't find any guides or independent sources with the information (I looked online at the NYTimes, Fodor's, Frommer's.). It took me a while to realize that if you aren't able personally to go to the offices in Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco, Houston, or Seattle, one of those companies will probably be necessary. The actual process seems to take about three weeks if you go through normal channels.

I found it kind of amazing, hard to believe, that we needed an invitation to Russia and a documented hotel reservation, but we did. Fortunately, before I worked on getting the visa, I searched and found a hotel, and the online booking site,, also provided an invitation at no additional cost. Several of the booking sites make the same offer, as do the agencies that help you get a visa.

Next we had to get passport-sized photographs, easy to acquire at FedEx/Kinkos or Walgrens or other places. Fortunately our passports are good for a few years and still have some blank pages.

Then there's the form. The Russian consulates have outsourced visa applications to a company called Invisa Logistics Services LLC ( You go there online, get an id and password, and fill out the form, which asks for much detailed information, including your family names, several of your previous jobs and your education with addresses, and everywhere you've been outside the US for the past 10 years, with the year you were there. (Also your criminal record and the like.) You submit the form online to ILS Houston (or whichever office is closest to you). Save the id and password they give you because you may need to edit the application form. I had to do it twice.

After indicating on this application a time for an appointment, set the following week, I realized that somehow I had to have the documents personally delivered there, so I searched for someone to do that for us. There are many, many services, with fees that seem to range from about $50 to $90 per visa.  I had no way of knowing which of the businesses was reliable, but used one noted by the site where I found our hotel. It is Travisa ( whose office in Houston we used.  Travisa has an application form you must complete. They do not charge your credit card until the visas are processed, which is reassuring to know. The official consulate application fee for the tourist visa is $175 per person and there are additional costs, plus the Travisa fee.We printed out the ILS application forms, the invitation, and hotel reservation, and enclosed our passports and photographs and FedExed them to Travisa.

The Travisa representative takes your materials to wherever the visa needs to be processed. There my application was rejected because I had written our destination, St. Petersburg, twice. So I edited it, printed and signed it and sent it again. This time I had missed clicking something that controls the margins and it was rejected again. The third time seems to have worked. I'm grateful that there is someone to help me get through this complicated bureaucratic process, and the representative at Travisa has been most friendly and understanding.

So, the process:
1. Be sure you have a passport that is good for at least 6 months after your trip and that has two blank pages for the visa (not the last two pages)
2. Begin the process at least a month before leaving, preferably 6 weeks or more
3. Book a hotel (They advise against getting non-refundable airline tickets or hotels before the visa is approved) For some visas they require copies of your airline reservation.
4. Get an invitation to Russia (the hotel, booking agency, or visa company can help with this)
5. Have passport-style photographs taken
6. Choose a company to be your representative in Houston, DC, NY, SF or Seattle and fill out their application form.
7. Fill out the visa application online (  and submit it to ILS Houston (or the city of your closest consulate). Fill it out carefully. Be sure to submit it to an ILS office.
8. Print all the application forms and sign them to send. Make copies for your own records. Copy your passport.
8. Send all your materials securely (FedEx) to the company representing you.
9. Be ready to repeat parts of the process if your application is rejected.

This really is the way it works. Travisa, and some of the other sites, provide lists of what is required, as well as the variations for different types of visa. I'm sure tour companies and travel agencies also provide a lot of help. I would have liked to have a friend tell me what I know now.

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