Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Because I don't know how to write "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting a Russian Visa" in Russian yet.

Disclaimer: This applied to Canada, in 2013, with my particular company. Your experience may differ depending on your country and where you are working. With the current political situation, future changes to the process are very likely, and not for the better. It also covers a work visa, which differs from a business visa, which I didn't know for an embarrassingly long time. 

A couple of people have asked me for some tips on coming to Russia. As you can see in all my posts last summer, the process was rather labyrinthine. Bureaucracy in Canada is annoying enough, and Russia makes us look like we're not even trying. Here's a basic overview of the process, and some tips for getting through it.

The most important part of the process is efficiency. On your end, that is - don't expect any whatsoever on theirs. I got my job offer in early May, with a late August start date, and I barely got there. The best thing I can tell you is to hit the ground running when it comes to collecting paper work. Get your background check (whether it's private or through your local police), your references, your HIV test, and all other required documentation in order as soon as you can. You are going to need all the time you can get.

Even if you are perfectly on the ball with your paperwork, everything will come to a grinding halt once you send off for a letter of invitation. See, some countries let you in without a visa, or provide one automatically. Others simply let you go to a consulate and fill out some forms. Russia has decided that they are extra special, so you need to be invited to come. You can't get your visa without it, and you are really not advised to get your plane ticket before you have a visa. Tourists can get one from a hotel or tour company. If you're coming to work, your employer will generally provide one for you. Be wary of one that doesn't, especially on your first time around. Even if your company is efficient and punctual (spoiler alert: it isn't), Russian government processes are infamous for taking forever. You're going to be waiting six weeks, minimum, for that little piece of paper.

Once it finally arrives, you have to assemble yet more paperwork, to the exact specifications of the embassy. If you live far from a visa-processing embassy or consulate, there are several companies able to help you out. I used Travisa, which got the job done. (Note to Canadians: There is no visa-processing consulate west of Toronto, because the West doesn't exist, dontcha know! You will be mailing a lot of stuff to Ottawa, to put it mildly.) Depending how late in the game it is, you will probably have to go for a rush visa. From Canada, this cost about $300. If you're okay with leaving no room for error - and government agencies are often not so much stations of public service as error-factories - then it's about half that for a regular visa. Pay attention to the instructions given, and do not screw up. You will wind up having to resubmit your paperwork, multiple times, which is a huge PITA. If you live far from an embassy, you'll have to overnight it, which is an expensive PITA.

The good news is, you don't throw in a lot of money until late in the process. You need to pay for passport-style photos (to Russian specifications, not your own country's!), background checks, any photocopying or mailing, transcript orders if applicable, and possibly the HIV test. (Disregard the last for civilized countries countries with universal health care - I have no idea how much an HIV test goes for in the States, though I'm told there are cheap or free options out there.) Often, the school will reimburse you for part of this. However, if you quit early, you may have to pay everything back, including fees on the school's side of things, which are not insignificant. Luckily, if you need to save, your first significant expenses will be the visa and the subject of the next section of this post - the plane ticket.

Do not buy the ticket until you have the visa. That is basically courting trouble. It's also another reason to get a rush job - those ticket prices aren't going down anytime soon. Once your be-visaed passport is in your hot little hands, however, hit the Internet and search for the best deal possible. You can get to Moscow pretty rapidly and cheaply from any major European centre (though it's expensive by European standards), and from there to anywhere else in the country. Coming from North America is a bit more convoluted, though I know for sure that there are direct Moscow flights from New York, LA and Toronto. The tickets are also hella expensive. From the West - small-town British Columbia specifically - it cost about $1400, all in. Like a dumbass, I chose an afternoon flight from my town, a red-eye from Vancouver to Toronto, spent the day in Toronto with friends, then took another red-eye to Moscow. This meant losing out on two nights of sleep, which turned me into a zombie for about a week after. Learn from my example, and either go as quickly as you can, or break up the trip a little. A colleague of mine, for example, used the opportunity to overnight in Istanbul and had a great time (and a good sleep!).

So, you've arrived! Congratulations! Get some sleep, look around and settle in. Be sure to have some funds set aside, both to get set up (though your school may provide you with a loan, to be taken out of your salary in increments) and to have an escape hatch in case things aren't working out. In the meantime, you have a tough adjustment ahead of you. Take time to enjoy your new home and to see the beautiful country that you've - finally - reached!

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