Inside Travel: Visas from Russia with luck

Just seen a cheap, last-minute airfare advertised for Moscow or St Petersburg? Fancy a bit of impromptu driving in the Russian outback?

Just seen a cheap, last-minute airfare advertised for Moscow or St Petersburg? Fancy a bit of impromptu driving in the Russian outback? Stopping off, maybe, at some of those more obscure places that nobody ever seems to go to?

Good idea. Apart, that is, from the fact that you'll need a tourist visa. Which is where the obstacles begin to arise. Because before you risk spending all that money on your ticket, you'll have to find an organisation (a hotel, say, or a tour operator) inside the country that can sponsor your presence there. And to get this so-called "visa-support", you'll need to book and pay for your accommodation ­ for every night ­ in advance.

To get that tourist visa you'll now need to take the evidence of your confirmed bookings to the Consulate in Notting Hill, west London, and probably stand in a long queue (unless you can get there by 9am sharp, on a day which isn't a Wednesday or a holiday in Russia).

By which time, that last-minute flight will probably have sold out long ago. And anyway, you'll still have another five days to wait before you can collect your visa. Well, either that, or pay some exorbitant amount, upwards of £100, to have it issued on the same day.

So you'll probably go to Istanbul instead, and Russia will lose another tourist.

How do you get round the rules? Can you travel independently in Russia without sticking to a pre-planned itinerary, and if so, how?

I recently went to some lengths to find out if it could be done (experiencing nearly three months of Siberian winter in the process), and am pleased to report that independent travel in Russia is ­ just about ­ beginning to take off.

Whichever way you plan to go, you'll still need to get your "visa support", and to take this to your local Russian consulate. But the good news is that this visa support is getting easier to obtain. Evidence of confirmed bookings is not required. I found a Moscow travel agency over the internet offering visa support for $70 (less than £50), which I paid by credit card. This agency obtained official approval from the relevant government ministry, and telexed it to the Russian Consulate in London. To my amazement, I was promptly issued with a three-month visa valid for the entire country.

The key was to have applied for a "business" visa. Tourist visas require evidence of prior bookings. Business visas (which can last up to a year) do not.

What you will want to know is whether this is illegal. Is pretending to be a businessman or woman a crime in Russia? Are you liable to be fined or arrested upon entry into the country? According to people like Neil McGowan, a Moscow resident and founder of specialist tour company The Russia Experience, these business visas are indeed of dubious legality.

"The agencies tell the ministry that they have taken care of your accommodation and travel for the duration of your stay, which they have not," he told me. "I've known people chucked out for using fake paperwork, though normally the application is blocked at the visa-issue stage. The comeback is more serious for the issuing company than for the recipient."

But according to an organisation called Visa to Russia (020 7229 1412), based in London, which specialises in issuing visa-support to travellers (for large fees), the Russians themselves don't know if it is illegal or not.

The important thing, the company explained, is that you can be construed as a potential businessman or woman. That is to say, in travelling through the country (even as a tourist), you are effectively, if unwittingly, scouring Russia for business opportunities. Other companies issuing "visa support" from inside Russia told me that the limit of their responsibility was to be liable for any trouble that the travellers (whom they had sponsored) might cause while in the country.

In my case, at no time during the visa application process or during my stay, did anyone ask me the nature of my "business" in Russia. While there I bought my own train tickets, booked my own flights, turned up unannounced at hotels, even rented a flat ­ in short, I did all the things that travellers or tourists might do in any normal country in the world.

Which is not to say Russia is or will be a "normal" country for tourism any time soon. Travellers in most out-of-the-way cities are still rarer than rhododendrons. In many ways it is hard to think of a less tourist-friendly country: for towns other than Moscow and St Petersburg (which are easy to visit on packages), I found guidebooks were inadequate, local information was impossible to come by and very little English was spoken. Hotels could be of abysmal value, flight schedules were sparse, and the food in restaurants across much of the country was revolting.

But set these off against the thrill of being among the first to travel independently in the world's largest and least-explored country, and you will find they are pretty minor inconveniences.

All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator, you are strongly advised to leave visa formalities with them to deal with. Travelling independently, "visa support" is required from an organisation inside Russia. Jeremy Atiyah used the Maria Agency ( maritour@online.ru) based in Moscow. He paid US$70 for "support" for a three-month double-entry business visa. After your visa support has been sent from Russia to the Consulate in London, you can apply in person at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QX. Two photos, a completed application form and £30 is required for five-day processing.

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Sport
footballLive blog: Follow the action from the Capital One Cup semi-final
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Day In a Page

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century