Despite the constant negative news about Russian/U.S. relations, Russia offers a 3-year tourist visa exclusively to U.S. citizens. It is multiple-entry and permits you to stay in Russia for 6-months at a time.
After 6-months, you simply need to travel outside of Russia and then can immediately re-enter and stay for another 6-months. This means you can stay in Russia for nearly three solid years with only 1 “visa run” per year! Almost no country on Earth offers such a generous visa!
This makes Russia an excellent (but little known) expat or digital nomad destination for U.S. citizens. The cost of living in Russia is comparable to more popular destinations like Thailand or Cambodia (I’ve lived in all three), but Russia offers the longest and most hassle free visa. You sacrifice warm weather but get a much more European standard of living.
The Russian visa process is shockingly easy too.
The origins of this awesome visa arrangement
In 2012, an agreement was made between the U.S. and Russia to simplify visa applications. A rare case of governments actually reducing bureaucracy.
“In accordance with the Agreement between the Russian Federation and the United States of America on the simplification of visa formalities for nationals of the Russian Federation and nationals of the United States of America effective September 9, 2012. US citizens are able to obtain multiple-entry business, private, humanitarian and tourist visas for a stay of no more than 6 months starting from the date of each entry that are valid for three years (36 months) from the date of issue of the visa.”
How to Apply
While my natural inclination is to apply directly through a country’s consulate, this case is an exception and I recommend a third party visa application processor.
An organization called Invisa Logistic Services (ILS) was established when Russia and the U.S. changed their visa policies in 2012. Their purpose is to “enhance the quality of service for United States citizens, foreign nationals, and stateless persons by simplifying and expediting the overall process of obtaining a visa to the Russian Federation.”
ILS makes the process easier in several ways.
First, their website (https://ils-usa.com) is excellent. It has clear and thorough explanations of how to apply for all types of Russian visas. If you still have questions you can call them and get clarification. If you live near one of their offices in Washington D.C., New York, San Francisco, or Houston you can stop by in person – without an appointment.
They also offer a service to review your application and correct any problems (with your permission), before submitting it. This was valuable to me because there were several parts of the official visa application where the instructions were not clear. (Since they submit applications every day, they know what little errors will get your app rejected – and Russian bureaucrats love to reject things!)
If you’re making plans at the last second (like I always do), they offer several options for expedited mail service.
The visa center’s base processing fee is $33. The application corrections service was an additional $30. (I will detail all of the visa application costs later in the article.)
I realize that this sounds like an advertisement, but I get nothing for recommending them. It was simply the easiest visa application process I have ever done. I have talked with people that applied directly with the Russian consulate, and it sounded like a nightmare in comparison.
- Visa support document
- Visa application
- Passport style photo
- Money order
- Customer Agreement and Service Order From (only for ILS)
Visa Support Document
This is commonly refereed to as an “invitation letter.” It is required for almost all Russian visa types and is the most confusing part of the application. I will thoroughly explain it in this section.
The visa support document was originally intended to be an invitation from an individual, business, or tourist agency whom, in theory, would be responsible for you once you come to Russia. This is no longer the case. Nobody is responsible for you and you don’t need to stick to an itinerary. Now it is just a vestigial formality – just checking a box.
Dozens of agencies can provide you with an invitation letter instantly online. You pay for the visa support document, they give it to you, and that’s the end of it.
This is the one item that ILS does not offer, so you need to obtain it elsewhere.
I purchased my visa support letter through waytorussia.net. I chose them because their website is a wealth of information on travel in Russia so it gave me a sense of trust that I didn’t feel on the more scammy looking websites. It was easy and it worked perfectly for me. It costs $30.
Here is what the application looks like. *See the important notes below regarding the sections highlight in red and green.
Visa Support Doc – Entries and Duration
*This is the most confusing part of the applying for a Russian 3-year visa. Read carefully*
Visa support letters have a set entry and leaving date on them. To my knowledge, no agency sells a visa support letter that actually states that the invitation is for 3 years to match the 3-year visa you are applying for. (I don’t think they can legally do it.)
*To apply for a 3-year, multiple entry tourist visa, all you need is a visa support letter for a single entry and a 30-day duration. This absolutely doesn’t make sense – but it is how the process works. I have verified this with both ILS and the Russian consulate AND it is how I successfully applied.*
[My guess is the Russian government changed their rules regarding visas but neglected to change their rules regarding visa support letters – which created an inconsistency. I think the consulate has decided to overlook this inconsistency so they can issue visas in accordance with the new, 2012 rules.]
As you can see in the sections outlined in red in the photo above, my visa support letter states that it is for a “single entry visa” and I have stated entry and exit dates that are only 30 days apart. This is all you need.
Visa Support Doc – Itinerary
In the section highlighted in green in the above photo, you can see a simple itinerary I put on the application. Again, this is just a formality that absolutely nobody checks. It is simply needed for outdated documents so that bureaucrats can check the box that it is filled out.
I didn’t need to make or provide reservations for the hotels listed or provide any other proof. Nobody checked or cared that I actually visited the listed cities or hotels.
You fill the application out online through the official Russian visa system at: visa.kdmid.ru
At the begging of the process you will be given an application number and create a password. This lets you save your work and login later to complete it.
You can provide this application number and password to ILS-USA. This allows them to correct mistakes if you opt to authorize them for this service. I found several parts of the application to not be clear and ILS-USA did, in fact, need to correct a couple errors for me.
Standard requirements here. At least two blank visa pages and valid for at least 6 months after the visa expiry date.
Passport Style Photo
Only one is required. Size is 3.5cm x 4.5cm (2″x2″ is also accepted).
Money Order or Cashier’s Check
If applying through ILS, make payable to “Invisa Logistic Services, LLC.”
Customer Agreement and Service Order Form
These documents are only required if you apply through ILS.
Regular processing time is 10 calendar days from the day the documents are submitted to the Russian Consulate. Expedited processing is 3 business days from the day the documents are submitted to the Russian Consulate.
If you apply in person and don’t require expedited service, the minimum cost for the 3-year, multiple entry visa is $303. This is a bargain compared to both the expense and hassle it would take to get 3 years of nearly uninterrupted stay in any other country.
- Consular Fee (Regular/Expedited): $270/$540
- ILS Processing Fee: $33
- Processing by mail: $85
- Express Delivery: $30
- Visa application correction service: $30
See ILS for more info and current prices
What does the 3-year, Multiple-Entry Visa look like?
A thorough explanation on how to interpret Russian visas can be found here.
While this is an ideal visa for expat or digital nomad living, be warned that it is difficult to live in Russia without good Russian language ability. In more popular places like Thailand, you can get by much easier without the local language because there is an established infrastructure for expats and tourist that makes the details of daily living much easier.
The unique thing that Russia offers is a more European standard of living (in the cities) at Southeast Asian prices. The streets and air are clean, there is good public transport, beautiful parks, open sidewalks, museums, and art.
This is also a very useful visa for the long-term traveler who make up their plans as they go. With this visa in your passport, you have the convenience of being able to drop into Russia any time you want over a 3-year period. Since Russia is so large, you are often not far from her borders!
Russia is also a great option if you need to spend 6 months outside of the Schengen zone in Europe or if you impulsively decide to take the famous Trans-Siberian railroad on your way to Mongolia or China!
Few logistics of travel are flexible, but this visa certainly is.