Getting a tourist visa to visit Russia as an American was not easy. I say this as someone who has traveled to a lot of countries, however I’m so glad that we visited Moscow this winter. When researching how to get a Russian visa, I encountered a lot of websites that are written exclusively by the vendors themselves and a lot of bad advice/advice intended for other nationalities, so I decided to write about my experience doing the Russian visa process and getting a invitation letter for Russia in order to get a single-entry Russian visa (similar for multi-entry Russian visa). The process on how to get a visa for Russia varies A LOT by country, so I'm focusing on the process for Americans.
This post containsaffiliate links for Amazon, NOT for any visa agency. I traveled to Russia as an independent traveler interested in exploring the Moscow region.
Contents of this blog post about how to get a Russian visa for Americans
Which Russian tourist visa is best for Americans?
There’s a couple types of tourist visas that Americans can get for Russia and I'll be going into the visa process for these tourist visas for Americans very soon along with things to know when applying for a Russian visa. It depends on your needs.
Your options for Russian visas:
Single entry tourist visa for Russia or multi-entry tourist visa for Russia?
It depends on your budget, however the single entry tourist visa for Russia is cheaper and if you don’t have plans to visit Russia again within the next 10 years or you lack a meaningful connection to Russia besides wanting to visit, I’d recommend getting the single entry tourist visa for Russia.
We calculated it and it’s worth it to get the multi-entry tourist visa for Russia if you intend to visit Russia at least two times within ten years. At the time of the application with our visa agency, we had the option of switching our visa to a multi-entry visa for about double the fee and no additional paperwork, however I ended up choosing the single entry Russian visa as I didn't know when I'd visit Russia next.
If you're planning to visit many of the former USSR countries or you occasionally fly to Russia, it might be worth it to get the multi-entry tourist visa. I will need to redo the whole procedure if I visit again.
Russian transit visa for Americans
You will need the Russian transit visa if you have more than 24 hours in Russia OR you need to change airports within Russia. This requires valid tickets showing onward travel. If you do not have a Russian transit visa and you intend to do the Trans-Sibieran railroad OR fly to one of the former-USSR countries with a layover in Moscow exceeding one day with leaving the airport, you will get into a lot of trouble. Russia requires planning ahead.
Megan Starr writes about the Russian transit visa: When I was on my way to Kyrgyzstan, I ended up with one of those dreadful twenty-four-hour layovers in Russia courtesy of Aeroflot. I planned to stay in the airport during the process, but after realizing it was December 25, the day that my part of the world celebrates Christmas, I knew I needed to take a chance at getting a transit visa to leave the airport for a bit.
I went to the Russian embassy in Oslo and they directed me to a specific visa center they had in the city. I went there, picked up the forms I needed to fill out, and sat in a cafe with my applications to Russia and Kazakhstan in hand (FYI: Americans no longer need a visa to Kazakhstan if staying under 30 days).
The Russian application asked for the list of countries I had been to and gave me about three lines to fill this information out. I typed my previous travels in a Word document and printed it and turned it in with my visa application the following day. At the time, the Russian visa center didn't take credit cards, which is an anomaly in Scandinavia, so I had to go to the post office and get a certified payment to submit to them. Once all of this was submitted, I received an email a week later stating that my visa had been approved and I just needed to go to the visa center and pick it up. The transit visa cost me around $160, which is around the same price as a regular visa. When I arrived at Moscow Sheremetyevo, everything went seamlessly.
72 hours in Russia - visa free travel in Russia!
Getting this visa for Russia is the holy grail as you don't need to apply although it's ONLY for 72 hours and it must involves a cruise from another country to Russia. Many people take a cruise from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg and spend three days there. Click here for a local's guide to Saint Petersburg with 72 hours to explore! This is the easiest way to visit Russia as you just need to book a cruise as well as a local excursion, but it's only for three days in Russia....
Some things to keep in mind prior to applying for your Russian visa as an American:
Know that UNLESS you're going to going to St. Petersburg only for 72 hours by cruise, you must get a Russian visa if you're American.
Getting a Russian visa requires hard work and planning. If you're not a planner, consider doing a tour that will assist you with the paperwork as it's not fun.
Your visa will be ONLY valid for the dates specified unless it's a multi-entry tourist visa. Do not overstay your visa.
Carefully check your paperwork for errors.
You realistically need at least one month to organize your tourist visa for Russia WITH hiring a competent visa agency.
Although you can apply at the embassy, most people end up applying at a visa agency and this was recommended by my Russian friends.
Remember to get your visa registered within seven days of arriving in Russia if you're staying over a week.
Should you get your Russian tourist visa through a Russian visa agency?
Getting a Russian visa for Americans is a bit trickier than it is for others and Russian friends have encouraged me to go through a visa agency instead of going myself in person at the embassy. This seems counter-intuitive as an independent traveler, but it’s well known that visa agencies have the ability (and connections) to push your application forward in a reasonable time frame and to ensure that your documents are fully in order. As the fee for Russian visa is quite pricey, I think it’s worth it to apply through a visa agency and I’ve only known one person who did it without one. It took him over a month to receive it from the moment that he applied while I received my visa within one week. It was $30 extra, but I think it’s worth it 100%. You’re paying the extra money for piece of mind and the process going smoothly. I had to send my passport to the visa agency for about a week.
Should you do an organized tour in Russia?
If you’re going with a tour, it’s often expected that the tour will take care of many of the details, however if you’re planning to do independent travel in Russia like I did, which involved no tours, you need to do everything yourself or have some incredible friends who will show you around. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking a tour in Russia. The language barrier is akin to visiting the US without knowing a few words of English; it can be done, but it won’t be easy. Similarly, if you don’t know Russian (or have a Russian friend/guide), you will lose out on cultural experiences where translations aren’t always available. I still think it’s worth it to visit and many Americans will be surprised how friendly Russians (who do speak English) are. At minimum, teach yourself the Cyrillic alphabet.
How long does it take to get a Russian visa?
Even with an expedited application through a visa agency, you really need at least a month to prepare your application as getting the paperwork together can take time, even for someone organized (like myself). We did ours under the wire and a month was cutting it close. I do not recommend this, especially if you want to go without
How much does it cost for a Russian visa?
A Russian visa is NOT cheap. Not including the cost of insurance, flights, hotels ALL booked before the trip, I had to pay $123 as well as an additional fee of about $50 to the visa agency in addition to $11 for the visa invitation letter. This was for a single entry Russian tourist visa. Note: I applied for my visa in December 2017 and this may become outdated in the future. Please check the visa fee.*
Important notes about planning your trip to Russia
You need to have everything booked before you apply for your Russian visa from the United States and there’s not a guarantee that you’ll get the visa. This includes hotels. You will need to account for every single night in your application, including which cities you’re visiting. Uncertainty won’t look good for your application, so think on what you want to do/see in Russia BEFORE you apply. I know it’s annoying, but we ended up putting down Moscow and another city (Yaroslavl). We visited both cities and stayed in a hotel in each city, so this was accurate.
I had the Lonely Planet for Russia. I got a lot of great inspiration for things to do in Russia by browsing through it and many of these experiences a bit off the beaten path would be harder to figure out without a good guidebook.
It’s important to have your visa registered at your hotel at least once if you stay over a week, so ensure that you do so or stay at a hotel that will register your visa with the federal migration bureau for you. You can also register yourself at the Federal Migration Service near you. You should receive a paper indicating that you have registered your visa from your hotel in addition to your "migration card". Hold onto both carefully until you leave.
Most important point: DO NOT FAKE ANYTHING. I assume that every single part of my trip was documented and honestly, it’s not worth getting denied a Russian visa over $100 for booking some hotels even if you’re still not done planning your trip. Yes, it’s cheaper not to book them, but it’s also cheaper not to apply for your visa twice. They will ask for where you’re staying in Russia on the official application and although they might not check up on whether you have an application, it’s not worth it.
Keep in mind that visiting Russia is a red flag for many federal government clearance applications, so if you intend to work or you’re currently working for the federal government in any capacity, you might want to rethink if visiting Russia is worth it. Quite a few friends of mine work for the federal government and visiting Russia is off their bucket list due to administrative concerns.
The Russian visa application is quite invasive (although maybe not to people who’ve applied for American visas). You’ll need to catalog all the countries that you’ve visited in the last ten years with exact dates, provide your past employers’ contact information, indicate if you have a knowledge of chemical weapons/military training, provide your travel plans, and write out your previous education (along with where/when). The application in itself took me about three hours to complete as someone who is well-traveled although I think most Americans will find it incredibly invasive. It is what it is and you need to fill out the Russian visa form. If you have a history with drug addiction, it may harm your chances of getting a visa.
Documents required in order to get your visa for Russia
How to get a Russian invitation letter
We went through the Visardo Russian visa agency, which is accredited visa agency recommended by a Russian that I know with an Australian spouse. Everyone told us to go by the book when it came to the visa. For $150, I didn’t want to pay a second time to apply after my application got denied.
You can get your invitation letter for a cheaper price (we paid $11 each) if you look around online although you should verify that the invitation agency is registered with the Russian tourism bureau. Most fancier hotels will offer you an invitation letter if you stay for over a week although a friend tipped me off to the fact that some hotels will write you a invitation letter if you ask politely before you book. Call before you book if you prefer this. One of the hotels that we booked offered to help us with the visa invitation although the fee was $50, which seemed very high given that we got our letters for $11 through a reputable invitation agency.
Which travel insurance is valid for Russia for Americans?
Not all travel insurance will meet the standards for the Russian tourist visa, however I spent a while searching for a suitable travel insurance for Russia that covered Americans. We ended up with World Nomads after they promised to give a signed letter stating the coverage for Russia meeting the specific requirements. (if required by the visa agency). Our visa agency was satisfied once we sent the policy over, but some visa agencies will ask for a signed letter with a stamp, which can take a few days to send over.
How to get a tourist visa for visiting family and friends in Russia
If you’re planning on visiting family (that you’re planning to stay with), your family member can write a letter of support indicating how they will host you. They can look into the paperwork for you more fully as the onus is on them to prove that they can host you.
I have a friend who lives in Russia that I wanted to spend time with while visiting, however I was warned not to go through the private sponsorship process for friends unless an institution will sponsor you on their behalf. The visa agencies that I called all told me that they’d refuse to do the application if I did it this way and I’d need to go to the embassy to apply in person if I wanted to do this. Needless to say, we ended up booking hotels to stay in instead.
Have you visited Russia? Anything that I left out?
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More Russia posts coming soon!
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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