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.

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
  • Get to the point
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: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

    £Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence