Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Visas: Russia

This is our first visa application that has required a separate Letter of Invitation (LOI) application. This is a document that invites you to Russia, and is normally issued by travel companies or businesses. This needs to be applied for in advance of your visa application (see step 1). There are several different types of Russian visa available, with two classes being suitable for this trip (tourist or business). Avoid going for an 'auto-tourist' visa, this will create more problems than it is worth. You can also get single, double or multiple (business only) entry visas. In the end we opted for a 90 day business visa. The reason being it gives us a huge amount of flexibility in terms of first entry date, and we are not worrying about rushing back through Russia on our way home. Some quick facts:
  • Cost: £170.70 per person (including signed for postage, consular fee, and LOI fee)
  • Visa Duration: 90 days
  • Number of Entries: Double
  • Visa Processing Time: 1 Week
  • Place of Application and Nationalities: London and UK Citizens
  • Application Date: 27th May 2015 (over 2 months in advance)

So how did we do it? Firstly here is our little check list of things you will need per person:
  • Passport Photo 35 mm x 45 mm (x1)
  • Printed Application Form (x1)
  • Scanned Digital Copy of Passport Main Page (x1)
  • Copy of Letter of Invitation (x1)

Step 1 - The Letter of Invitation (LOI)

There are many many many companies offering LOIs for Russia. We chose Real Russia. They have the best reviews, quick processing times, and are very professional in their approach (very quick replies to emails etc). As mentioned the LOI is an invitation to Russia. In reality it is a formality, you pay a company and you get the document emailed to you. Tourist LOIs generally get processed in days, if not minutes. Business LOIs take a little longer, ours took a couple of weeks to process, and there are also various conditions about how quickly you want it processed, and how far in advance. A general rule of thumb, it will cost more the quicker you want it processed, and it will cost more the further in advance you want it doing.

Above is our choice for the LOI. At £57.50 per person it is not cheap, but in comparison to the overall cost of the Russian visa we decided it was worth paying that bit more to give ourselves lots of breathing room. In reality it is only about 30-40 pounds more than a tourist invitation, and removes a lot of worry. Below is a copy of what we put for our itinerary and comments.

Real Russia emailed us to ask what the purpose of our visit was. I told them I was travelling by public transport, visiting places and documenting my travels. They replied and told me that I must say I am travelling for business reasons, should I be asked. I then asked them what these business reasons are, and they responded 'Business reasons are enough'. Real Russia require a scanned copy of your passport with the LOI application. We submitted our application on the 28th April, and received our LOIs on the 18th May.

Once all the documents are processed, you wait. Finally receiving a pdf containing the amazing document seen above.

Step 2 - The Application Form

The next step is to head on over to the VFS Global website to fill in an online form. You need to select the relevant visa type and follow the instructions carefully. The website gives you the chance to save your application as you do it, this is incredibly helpful as you're almost certainly going to get bored of filling out this form and want to come back to it later. Below is the screen you will be faced with, make a note of your application number.

You will encounter a variety of fun questions. A couple of my favourites include 'list all countries you have visited in the last ten years and indicate the year of visit' (basically account for the visa stamps in your passport), and 'do you have any specialized skills, training or experience related to fire-arms and explosives or to nuclear matters, biological or chemical substance? If yes, please specify'!

For the itinerary we chose five cities that we would visit, and I also added the addresses of five (unbooked) hotels in those cities for section 34 about the names and addresses. If you are applying for a business visa the section about the invitation will ask for a TIN number, you can leave this blank. Once you have completed each section you will be given a PDF version of the form, that will fill two sides of A4, you will need to print this off.

Step 3 - Visiting the VFS Global Centre in London

This is an annoying step, more so if you don't live near London. As of December 2014 all British visa applicants are required to have their fingerprints during the application process. You do not need to book an appointment, it is a drop in centre. It can be found near to the Barbican tube station (about 10 minutes walk away).

I read on several places that you can't take bags in with you. This is nonsense. There were plenty of people with backpacks, handbags, and even full on hiking rucksacks. As for things that you need to take with you:
  • Your completed and printed application form
  • A copy of your LOI (B&W print out is fine)
  • A passport photo
  • Payment
On arrival you will most likely be greeted by a burly Russian man who will indicate that you should take a ticket from the machine. This will have your queue number, and there are Argos style boards telling you when it is your turn and which counter to go to. When your number is called, head to the relevant counter and hand over your documentation. The conversation will be highly limited, it seems the centre is geared up for fast processing. The person at the desk will mainly check dates on forms against LOIs and your passport info. You will then be instructed to place your fingers on the fingerprint scanner. Finally comes the payment time. If you are opting for them to post you passport back for you then you will need to fill out a self-addressed DX delivery envelope (and add an extortionate £9.80 to the bill). The cost of the visa (regardless of visa type) is £103.40 (including VAT).

Step 4 - Sit Back and Wait

One week later we got our passports back with our shiny new visa sticker. 

If this guide has been helpful (and saved you many many pounds compared with using a visa service), and you would like to say thank you then feel free to donate a couple of quid to our charity, Anthony Nolan, through our Just Giving link.

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