With all the planning involved in putting together our Kamchatka adventure, the one thing I was dreading the most was getting everyone through the visa process. Obtaining a Russian visa can be a complicated experience. To get a simple, single-entry tourist visa into the country, you must provide a passport (valid for more than six months after return from Russia), a visa application, and a passport-sized photo. Sounds simple enough…well, not quite that simple.
In addition to the usual documents, you have to provide an “invitation letter” from an “approved” Russian company. Along with the letter, you need a voucher from your company showing that you’ve paid your tour in full. It’s hard enough to get these letters/vouchers for yourself, but when you have to get it for twelve people, it can be a challenge. I had to obtain all the required information from everyone in the group and provide this to the guide so he could generate the letters. The challenge was making sure that I gave the guide accurate information for each member; one wrong misplacement of a number or a date and it can cause a traveler enormous grief when trying to enter the country. I double-checked all the information, made sure each member checked their own information, and sent it on to the guide. Our guide was very responsive: within 24 hours I had letters and vouchers for every one of my Kamchatka participants.
So, the next step was filling out the application. The Russian visa application is a two page monstrosity that asks the most probing (and useless) questions you can think of. For example: “Give name, address, phone for your last two employers not including your current employer.” Are you kidding me?! I’ve been working for the same company for over twenty years. The companies I worked for before don’t even exist anymore. Well, let’s just say we used some creative memory on this question; I doubt the Russian government will be checking very closely on the accuracy of this information.
When applying for a Russian visa, you pretty much have to hire an agency to process your application. Your only other option is to visit a Russian embassy in person, and if you don’t live in a city with one of these, you must have an agency do it for you; the embassies/consulates do not accept mailed-in visa applications. The company I chose to process our visas was VisaHq.com; the price is very reasonable ($45 for a single-entry visa). The thing I found the most useful about them is their website provides an on-line application process. The site queries you for all the information needed for the application. Dates questions use drop down boxes for month/day/year, which avoids the chance of getting the day/month backwards. All the information entered on to their website is then placed into the proper place on the visa application. You just print, sign, and toss it in to the envelope along with your passport, photo, and invitation letter and voucher. The company was also very good about updating us on the various stages of the process, so we’re not left wondering what happened to our stuff. From dropping in to the mailbox to return by FedEx, the whole process took just under three weeks. It can be done much faster, but it will cost more. Also for an additional cost, they can obtain an invitation letter/voucher for you if you don’t have your own.
Other than having a few questions on the applications, the members of my Kamchatka group got through the application process without losing too many brain cells. Glad we got through that bureaucratic challenge so we can concentrate on more fun aspects of planning, like going on a buying spree for equipment at REI!