The Russian Visa Problem

1.  Visas:  A Russian entry/exit visa has two dates, written in the European style (day/month/year) as opposed to the American style (month/day/year).  The first date indicates the earliest day a traveler may enter the country, the second the date by which a traveler must leave.  A Russian visa cannot be extended after the traveler has arrived in the country, except for a medical emergency.

Russian tourist visas are often granted only for the specific dates mentioned in the invitation letter provided by the sponsor.  Some are valid for as little as four days.  Even if the visa is misdated through the error of a Russian embassy or consulate, the traveler will still not be allowed into Russia before the visa start date or allowed to leave after the expiration date.  Any mistakes in visa dates must be corrected before the traveler enters Russia. Someone who reads Russian should check the visa.  Also, travelers should ensure that their visas reflect their intended activities in Russia (e.g., tourism, study, business, etc.)

2.  Exit Visas:   A valid visa is necessary to leave Russia.  Travelers who overstay their visa’s validity, even by a day, can be prevented from leaving until their sponsor intervenes and requests a visa extension on their behalf.  Russian authorities may take many days to authorize an exit visa, leaving the traveler stranded.  The ability of an embassy or consulate to intervene in these situations is extremely limited.  Travelers with expired visas may have trouble checking into a hotel.

Travelers who lose their passports and Russian visas must immediately replace them at their embassy or consulate.  They must then have the visa sponsor get a new visa in order to leave.  Embassies and consulates cannot help in replacing a visa.  It is prudent to make a photocopy of your visa, but a copy is not sufficient to permit departure.

Travelers who are leaving Russia by train should be aware that if they board a train on the last day of a visa’s validity, Russian immigration officials may consider the visa to have expired if the train crosses the international border after midnight on the day of expiry.  Travelers have been detained at border crossings, unable to leave Russia, because their visas were expired by hours or minutes.

3.  Migration Cards:  Foreigners entering Russia must fill out a two-part migration card upon arrival.  The traveler deposits one part of the card with immigration authorities at the port of entry, and keeps the other part for his or her stay.  Leaving, the traveler must hand over the card to the immigration authorities.  Foreign visitors to Russia must normally present their migration cards in order to register at hotels.

Migration cards are, in theory, available at all ports of entry from Russian immigration officials.  The cards are generally distributed to passengers on incoming flights and left in racks at arrival points.

Replacing a lost migration card is difficult.  Some claim that they may be abstracted during handling.  While authorities do not prevent foreigners from leaving the country if they cannot present their migration cards, they may conduct a shakedown for considerable sums.  Also, travelers may have trouble when trying to re-enter Russia.

So, good advice is, do not to leave the migration card, passport and visa in your hotel, but rather keep them in your pocket.

4.  Visa Registration:   Travelers who spend more than three days in Russia must register their visa and migration card through their sponsor.  Travelers staying in a hotel must register their visa and migration card with their hotel within one day.  Even travelers who spend less than three days in one place are encouraged to register their visas.  If travelers do not, they should keep copies of tickets, hotel bills, and itineraries.

Russian police officers can stop people and ask for identity and travel documents without cause at any time.  Here again, shakedowns are reported.

5.  Transit Visas:  Travelers transiting Russia must have a Russian transit visa, even if only changing planes en route to a farther destination.  Russian authorities may not allow travelers who do not have a transit visa to go on, obliging them to return to the place where they came from.■