|Subject: Re: Baltic Cruise (Russian Visa Process)|
First let me appologize, I'm really sorry about the delay on this. Sometimes I get behind on my email.
Second, let me outline the process that we just finished on April 28th with my mother for a tourist visa.
First, Russian law requires an invitation from a certified Russian travel agency. Not all travel agencies, even in Russia, are certified to grant these invitations. However, you an get them online and if you book a tour, those agencies usually will do that ground work for you. (Students would get these invitations through thier schools, who still have to request permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of the Interior is still in the process of taking over this function.) These invitations usually cost from 25 to 30 USD. The good news is that for tourists, as of January 2006, they can be obtained in one day. They are a formality that tells the government that you will have a hotel to stay in before you arrive (and some hotels can issue them through their agency departments, I believe).
Once you have an invitation, then you have to apply for the visa itself. This process can be easy, as long as you have the correct paperwork and all things seem to be in order. It's just a lot of paperwork. The cost for the longest period of processing (14 days) is now 100USD. I have heard of this longest processing time lasting for 30 days, but my mother got hers in exactly 14. [Note: I never wait, I just pay to get it faster. But I live in Russia, so I have to leave for that 1 or 2 days to get it anyway.]
That's really about it. If you go through an agency the process is usually pretty simple--and often they do it for you. It does cost more than doing it yourself, but it may be worth it in the end.
My only other recommendation is to know before you go. In America, a 1 day processing fee is $300. In Finland, it is about $300. I once decided to get my visa in Prague, Czech Republic (as I had known a few other visiting Americans to do). This mistake, even though we had called to check in advance, cost me $560. When the chief consular officer finally had to talk to my 'wife' (a Russian citizen), he explained to us that the embassy there had a scheduled list of prices that were different for citizens of different countries--he then went on to explain again in English.
After your arrival in Russia, you then have to register with another department--luckily, your hotel will take care of this for you, usually for free.
While the process itself is a bit crazy, much of the same process is similar to the bureaucratic processes that it puts Russian citizens through--who also require registration and legal accomidation or they face heavy fines or jail time. Russia also justifies these processes because it has an estimated 11 million foreigners illegally living here (mostly in Moscow and Saint Petersburg). Unfortunately, these new and highly publicized numbers are also causing some racial backlash now.
Regardless of any trouble, I have to say that Russia, and Saint Petersburg especially, is one of the most wonderful cities in all of Europe. In Summer (actually by the last week of may), we have 24 hours of sunlight and lots of festivities. In early June of 2006, we host the G8 meeting/conference of 'wealthy nations'. Then in July, this year, we will also be having an international film festival. It should be exciting.
Sky Saint Petersburg, Russia