Before you attend our wedding, you’ll need to get to Russia. American citizens generally need visas to enter Russia. Unless you are a high-ranking diplomat or a member of certain Alaskan native tribes with permission to fish visa-free in Russian territorial waters, you will need to obtain a visa in advance of your trip – you can’t obtain a visa on arrival, and airlines will check that you have a visa before allowing you to board a flight bound for Russia. You will be obtaining a tourist visa. The process is somewhat involved, but rest assured that–if you fill out all the paperwork correctly–you are nearly guaranteed to receive your visa. It’s also important to keep in mind that Russians applying for American visas face far more paperwork, and (unlike Americans) have a significant chance of being denied a visa. In short, the process will be inconvenient for you, but Russians must suffer through much more inconvenience to visit your country. There are several steps to apply for and receive a Russian visa.
1. Getting An Invitation:
You need a приглашение (invitation) in order to obtain a tourist visa; this invitation can only be issued by a Russian entity, either a natural person or a company. It’s not practical for Margarita’s family to issue invitations to all guests, so you will need to obtain your invitations from companies within Russia. There are two ways to do this: via a dedicated service, or via your hotel.
A. Using A Dedicated Invitation Service (recommended):
Invitation services can provide you with an invitation for a reasonable cost (generally $30 to $100), and offer you flexibility in that you will be able to start the visa application process before booking your hotel(s), and can also obtain a visa valid long before and long after your hotel reservations; validity up to 36 months is possible. We recommend the following site, which we have used: https://waytorussia.net/Services/VisaSupport/Tourist.html . Although DBA “Way to Russia”, the actual name of the legal entity issuing your visa is “OOO «East West Link»”, which also DBA “AllRussianVisas.com”. Select currency = USD; group size = 1 (each person in your group will need a visa; a couple or family can’t travel together on a single visa); number of entries = double-entry visa (more on this later); purpose of visit = tourist; registration = none needed; country applying in = United States. The form should appear as follows:
Next, fill in your personal details (passport number, sex, date of birth, etc.) exactly as they appear on your passport. It’s worthwhile to double-check your passport number and similar, as tiny errors (for example, mixing up the month and day of your passport issuance) can cause delays later:
The actual visa type you will receive is a 36-month visa (valid for unlimited entries to, and exits from, Russia). However, to get this type of visa, you actually need an invitation for 30 days; it’s not possible to receive an invitation for longer than 30 days, but per a bilateral agreement between Russia and the United States, 36-month multiple-entry visas will be issued against 30-day dual-entry invitations. Therefore, when filling out the next section of the invitation form, select an “Entry 1” date that is before the day you plan to enter Russia (for example, August 1st, 2019), and an “Exit 2” date that is 20 to 30 days later (for example, August 25th, 2019). The “Exit 1” and “Entry 2” dates are not particularly relevant; even if a multiple-entry visa was issued (which it won’t be), you are not required to enter or leave Russia more than once. I recommend setting the “Exit 1” and “Entry 2” dates one day apart from each other, approximately in the middle of the 20-30 day interval.
In the “cities to be visited” section, indicate Moscow, and choose a hotel at random. You will need to make sure that these match what you will write on another document, so keep track of them, but these selections aren’t important in any other way – you don’t need to have reservations or plan to stay at the hotel you indicate. Finally, you can add your contact information, and you are ready for checkout:
Once you have filled out the form, click “Continue” and proceed to payment. You will receive your visa invitation via email, and will need to print it out, so be sure you will have access to a printer.
B. Requesting An Invitation From Your Hotel (not recommended):
If you wish, you can request that your hotel provide you with an invitation. The primary disadvantages of this method are (1) that it requires your hotel to be cooperative (not all hotels are, in my experience); and (2) that your invitation will only be valid for the length of your hotel stay. In essence, every day of visa validity will require a day’s worth of pre-paid hotel accommodations, which isn’t ideal for flexibility if your plans are uncertain, or if you plan on staying somewhere other than a hotel (for example, if you plan on staying in an AirB&B like a tech bro, or in a hostel with Russian hippies, or in a tent in the woods, or with a Russian citizen, etc.). Although any Russian who owns inhabitable property can theoretically produce an invitation for you, this is very difficult for most Russians in practice, because many of them do not have easy access to a specific document (called a “Прописка”) that they need to issue an invitation and also to register your visa (more on that later). Obtaining a прописка is so difficult for Russians–especially in desirable cities, such as Moscow–that one of the most popular songs in Russia consists of a young woman signing about how overjoyed she is to have gotten her прописка. If you do choose to ask your hotel for an invitation, see if you can convince them to write the invitation for a longer period than you will actually be staying in the hotel. The hotel staff will collect from you all of the same information that you would need if you were using an “invitation company” (passport number, date of birth, and so-forth). Ask your hotel for further instructions.
2. Choosing Where & How To Apply:
You can apply for a Russian visa by mail or in-person, but either way, you will need to choose your visa-processing center in advance of filling out the application. It isn’t possible to apply entirely online, because you will need to physically ship your passport to a visa application center. Even if you apply by mail, you must choose a location to apply in advance. Several points are noteworthy here:
A. Russian visas are processed in part by a private corporation (InVisa Logistic Services, hereafter “ILS”). ILS isn’t the Russian government; ILS offices aren’t embassies nor consulates; the employees are not diplomats, nor do they work directly for the Russian government, nor are they Russian citizens. Rather, ILS is a private company which is subsidized by the Russian government and has a statutory monopoly on visa processing. If you have applied for visas to other countries for which Americans require visas (ex. China, India, Algeria), then your visas were processed by diplomatic missions of those countries–not private companies. The situation for Russian visas is highly unusual. Although in theory it is possible to apply for a Russian visa directly at an embassy, this doesn’t work in practice, so you will need to work with ILS. However, ILS (being a non-government entity) cannot itself issue visas. In effect, you as an applicant interact only with ILS, but the Russian diplomatic mission (with which you can’t interact) makes all actual decisions on visa issuance.
B. Information on both the ILS website and Russian government websites is wrong. As you may know, a coalition of retards in the American government recently forced the closure of several Russian consulates, and this affects visa-processing services. In particular, consulates in Anchorage, Seattle, and San Francisco were closed. On their part, both ILS websites and Russian government websites have failed to update information on which consulates are open, and it is all too easy to submit an application to a consulate which no longer exists. Only the following consulates remain open:
- Houston, TX
- New York, NY
- Washington D.C., DC
If you live near one of these locations, you can hand in your visa in person (approximate processing time: 2 weeks). Otherwise, you’ll be going through the visa process by mail (approximate processing time: 6 weeks). If completing your visa by mail, choose the location closest to you; I recommend the Houston, TX location.
3. Completing The Government Visa Application:
Now that you have chosen which consulate to apply through, you will complete the government part of the visa application. The process will be the same whether you plan on applying for your visa in person or via mail. Go to the following site:
On the first page, you’ll select the country in which you will be applying, as well as your language of choice. Note that you cannot obtain a Russian visa from a Russian consulate in America unless you are an American citizen (and, in general, you can only apply for a Russian visa in a country where you have citizenship). Are you an American citizen living in Germany on a work visa? You can’t apply to a Russian consulate in Germany; you must apply to a consulate in America. Are you a Canadian citizen working in America under a NAFTA visa? If so, you’ll need to apply for your visa at a Russian consulate in Canada. This is true even for permanent residents (“Green Card” holders); unless you have actual citizenship in a particular country, you can’t apply for your visa from there. The instructions are reasonably brief and worth reading:
Select “Complete new application form”, create your username and password, and prove to the Russkies that you’re not a робот (robot). Next, save your ID number, which will be randomly generated. Keep your username and password in a safe place.
Next, you will fill out your “Visa Details”. Please heed the following:
- “Purpose of Visit” should be set to TOURISM / TOURISM / Common Tourist, as shown.
- Select “Number of Entries” as “MULTI”. This will allow you to receive a “Многократная” (multiple-entry) visa.
- Set your “Date of Entry Into Russia” to match exactly the date of “Entry #1” on the application form you filled out when you applied for your invitation.
- Set your “Date of Exit From Russia” to be exactly 36 months minus one day after your “Date Of Entry”. Your “Date of Exit” therefore will not match the “Date of Exit 2” on your invitation application; this is normal.
Your application should look approximately like this:
Next, fill in your Personal Details. Your “Surname” is your last name; you should include both your first name and middle name in the second field:
Next, you’ll enter your passport details. Unless you are living in Guam or Puerto Rico, your passport was issued by the United States Department of State:
Now it’s time to fill out the Visit Details page. You will need to have the email from the invitation service handy to fill this out. Several points are worth noting:
- When you fill out the name of the “Inviting Company”, omit any special characters, such as chevrons (« ») often used by Russians in the place of quotation marks.
- The “Name of Organization”, “Address”, “Reference Number”, and “Confirmation Number” should all come from your invitation.
- Your “Itinerary” should also match your invitation. It’s fine if it includes only one city (MOSCOW); this won’t prevent you from being able to travel to other cities in Russia.
- For “Medical Insurance”, answer that you do have medical insurance valid in Russia, and add the identification number from your insurance card. It doesn’t matter if your insurance is not actually valid in Russia.
- State that you will be staying in a hotel, and add the hotel information from your invitation. It doesn’t matter if you will not actually be staying at this hotel; what is important is that this information exactly match your invitation. You can look up the address and phone number of the hotel online; if you can’t find them, just put in the address and phone number of any hotel in Moscow.
When completed, the page should look approximately as follows:
Next, fill out the “additional information” section, so that the Russkies can make sure you’re not a criminal (they like to keep Russia safe); that you’re not infested with HIV or Tuberculosis (they like to keep Russia clean); etc. The only question that you should answer “yes” to is “Has this application been completed personally by you?”.
When filling out the “Education and Work Experience” section, you can be brief; including the university you completed and one or two places of work should be fine.
Finally, on the “Appointment Details” page, choose an ILS or VLS location (not an Embassy or Consulate) to process your visa application:
You will have a chance to review your information before saving and submitting the visa application – I recommend that you do review passport numbers, dates, and similar. Once the visa application is submitted, you will need to download the PDF produced by the Russian government site and physically print it – do not print double-sided, and use a paperclip to bind the pages together. Keep the PDF file handy in case you need to print it again. Whether you will apply for the visa in-person or via mail, you will need at least one printed copy. With that printout in hand, you’re done dealing with the invitation-providing company and the Russian government, and you’re ready to begin the next step: filing documents with ILS, a private company.
4. Submitting Your Application To ILS:
Whether you are applying at an ILS office in person or submitting your documents via mail, the documents required are the same–in both cases, you’ll need to surrender your physical passport for some period of time for processing. The only real difference is that ILS offices accept cash payment over-the-counter, but this payment option is not available through the mail. The documents required differ slightly between ILS offices. For the Houston office, you can find the information here:
The Houston ILS requires the following documents:
- A printed and signed copy of the application that you created in Step 3 (from the Russian government website);
- A printed copy of your invitation, obtained in Step 1 (from the visa invitation company);
- Your passport, which must (1) be valid for at least 6 months; (2) have at least 2 blank pages;
- A color photocopy or scanned-and-printed image of the “Vital Information Page” of your passport (this is the page that has your photograph);
- A passport-style photograph (the ILS applies the same standard as the US Department of State regarding passport photos: the photo must be clear, in color, against a neutral background, and not digitally edited, etc.)
- A printed and signed physical copy of the “Principal Agreement” Essentially, this is an agreement with ILS by which you agree that all fees are non-refundable; that all decisions regarding visa issuance are final; that ILS’s stated visa processing times are estimates and not binding; that ILS isn’t responsible if they lose or destroy your passport; etc. You can find this form here:
- Payment for the visa processing service. The total fee is generally $316 for processing by mail (includes $85 mail fee), and $231 for processing if you drop off and pick up your documents at the ILS center. Be careful not to under-pay if processing by mail; the $231 amount is quoted in various locations on the ILS website, but you must pay $316 if sending your documents by mail. You can see the fee schedule here:
- If processing by mail, the only acceptable payment forms are cashier’s checks and money orders (go to your bank to get one of these, in the amount of $316, payable to “Invisa Logistic Services, LLC”. If processing in-person at an ILS office, you can pay your $231 either by money order, cashier’s check, or cash. In no case may you send cash through the mail; in no case will ILS accept credit cards, debit cards, or personal checks, neither via mail nor in-person.
- If you are applying by mail from Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico, you must pay an additional $10 (so, $326 rather than $316).
Once your full packet of documents is ready, you can send them by postal mail (I recommend using trackable insured services, since you’re sending your passport) to the address of the ILS center that you chose. The addresses are at the very bottom of the following page:
If you are applying in-person at an ILS office, you can take your documents to the office during normal business hours. Note that ILS offices observe Russian holidays, so make sure not to show up to an ILS office at 9AM on a Monday that happens to be Defender Of The Motherland day, because you’ll need to wait until Tuesday (I am ashamed to admit having committed this exact faux-pas).
Congratulations – your passport, documents, and money are now in the hands of ILS, and your passport and visa should be returned to you within 4 weeks. If you don’t receive them within 4 weeks and haven’t been contacted by ILS, you can call the ILS office processing your visa; look for their contact information at https://ils-usa.com . In general, ILS is reasonably responsive to calls.
Any questions? Don’t hesitate to contact me via:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- US phone number (phone calls from America, SMS, & WhatsApp): (616).264.8433
- Russian phone number (phone calls from Russia, Telegram, & WhatsApp): +7.(968).399.36.52