Getting a tourist visa to visit Russia can be a confusing -- and expensive -- process, especially if you are coming as an independent traveler.
Russia may no longer be the Soviet Union, but the country's reputation for glacial bureaucracy still exists. Paperwork snafus can easily torpedo your trip.
If you are heading to Russia as an independent traveler and need a tourist visa, here are a few things to consider before you go through the process.
Note: If you're going to Russia on a cruise ship, you don't have to worry about getting a visa, as long you take your shore excursions through the ship or with a licensed tour operator. While some lines now offer "at your own pace" shore excursions where they take responsibility for you off ship, you will need the visa if you want to explore a city such as St. Petersburg completely on your own.
Have a good Internet connection. Since July 1, 2011, the Russian Consulate requires would-be travelers to fill out and file an application online. It's the first step in a process that requires you to either present your printed application in person at a Russian Consulate or send it to a visa expediting service such as CIBT (www.cibt.com).
Keep in mind that the online application is a lengthy document that asks you where your spouse and parents were born, your full employment history with names and phone numbers of supervisors, and the names and dates of all the countries that you've visited in the last 10 years. It's not uncommon for the form to take at least 45 minutes to fill out. Plan accordingly.
Think about your health insurance. Your Russian visa application requires proof of health insurance -- and most U.S. employer-based health plans don't cover overseas travel. You'll want to have a travel insurance policy that would cover your medical expenses, should you fall sick or get injured. Consider choosing policy that covers medical evacuation.
Know where you're staying.Besides your application and proof of health insurance, you'll also need to turn in a "letter of invitation" as part of your visa support documents. Most hotels will issue you one that usually covers the dates you'll be staying there, sometimes charging a fee. Your hotel will also register your visa once you get there. Russian visas are also specific about how many times you can enter the country. If you're crossing borders, even if it's just a day trip to see the castles in Ivangorod and Narva (the latter is in Estonia), you'll want to have a multiple-entry visa. Spontaneous travel is difficult: If the dates of your trip change after you've received your visa, you'll have to apply for another one.
Make sure you can give up your passport. If you use CIBT to expedite your visa, the process can still take two weeks. Apply when you don't have other travel scheduled. Your passport should be valid for at least six months, and you should have at least two pages free. You'll also need to submit two passport-sized photos with your application, which you can get at almost any local drugstore with a photo counter.
The entire process is not cheap, so make sure your travel budget includes visa costs. For the expedited visa via CIBT, expect to pay $460 for a single-entry tourist visa, including overnight shipping charges. Multiple-entry visas cost more.
Going in person? If you live in a city with a Russian Consulate Department (there are five in the U.S.), you can turn in your application in person. But that's not necessarily easier. Each consulate has different business hours for accepting visas. Get there early so you won't be caught in line when the embassy closes, necessitating another trip. Remember to bring a money order or a cashier's check to cover the processing fees. Don't forget a cover letter outlining your dates and including your visa support information.
It all sounds like a lot of hassle. And it can be, especially when your flight is a few days away and you still haven't gotten your passport back. But as you walk along the St. Petersburg canals, you'll know all the paperwork was worth it.
Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust dishes up travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World. She's also a member of the Value Luxury Network. Follow her on Twitter at @CAroundTheWorld.