Russia is the largest country in the world and one of the most fascinating, beautiful, and diverse places on earth. But so many people don’t visit it for one simple reason: every person needs to have a visa to enter Russia. And the visa process is complicated and can be quite tedious.

My first tourist visa for Russia (June 2014)

I’ve done this visa process twice in the UK now, and both applications have been successful with no problems at all! I have done this twice as an American living in the UK (aka as a UK resident), although even if you aren’t a UK resident, legally you should still be able to apply for a visa through the London embassy. You will just need to be able to have a significant chunk of time without your passport and it will take longer.

I applied both times on my own, without going through a tour company or other organization. So if you’re wondering how to get a tourist visa for Russia in the UK on your own, here you go!

For anyone visiting Russia as a tourist, you will apply for a tourist visa (they have other specific visas for other things: business, diplomatic, student, work, transit, etc.). Your visa will be for specific dates and specific cities, and the Russian Embassy in London will issue visas of up to 30 days maximum. If you are going to Russia and leaving, you’ll want a “single-entry” visa—this is what I did both times. A double-entry visa is if you go to Russia, leave, go back to Russia, and leave again. A double-entry visa costs more than a single-entry, and will take longer to process. Multi-entry visas will cost even more.

Everyone visiting Russia needs to have an invitation and be “invited.” Visa invitations (visa support, visa invitation, tourist invitation, etc.) are something most hotels and hostels will provide for a small fee. You should start the application process at least one month before you plan to travel.

Before you book anything, you will need to make a specific itinerary: choose which days you will be in which cities. It is not legal to travel in Russia with a “free itinerary,” and make it up as you go—you must say in your visa application where you’ll be throughout your whole trip. Once you have a plan, check in advance that your chosen accommodation has visa support (aka they will issue visa invitations). This is generally listed on the website, although you may need to email them. You will have to pay for visa support—for this trip, I paid £15 (~$19 USD) for mine (more on costs below).

Once you are certain you can obtain visa support from your accommodation, the next step is to book your flights and your accommodation. Make sure that you count the calendar days of your trip, and that your trip is for 30 days or less. For example, June 6-20 is 15 calendar days, not 14.

Next up: purchase your visa support. You only need one invitation for your stay in Russia, but it must list the different cities/accommodation you’re staying in. When you purchase the visa support, they will ask for your passport information and for the names and addresses of your accommodation. Again, you will need to pay for this, something that can usually be done online. When you get your visa invitation, you will need to check that you have the name, address, and reference number of the organization inviting you.

After you have the visa invitation, you can fill out the visa application online. Applying in the UK, you’ll apply through VFS Global, which the Russian Embassy contracts to take care of the application process. Make sure that you have a good internet connection when you do your visa application, and to save the application frequently! My internet cut out halfway through my application, which then logged me out, and so I then had to start all over again… not ideal.

Besides the name, address, and reference number of the inviting organization, you’ll also provide a lot of other information in your application. You’ll be asked basic questions about you, your passport, any previous visas to Russia, and lots more: if you’ve been arrested, if you are/were in the military, have any knowledge on nuclear substances, etc. You’ll need to list your education and employment history, and whether you’ll have travel insurance in Russia (which you should!).

And of course, the worst list of all: every country you’ve been to in the last 10 years. This is a huge deterrent for people wanting to visit Russia, and can be such a pain to deal with! The good news is that the application only allows for 30 countries/trips to be listed, so it will cut you off eventually. If you’ve been out of the country more than 30 times (like me!), I think you should start with the most recent trip and work your way back. This is what I did and I got my visa just fine. You will need to list specific dates for international trips, and they will be checked against stamps in your passport.

After you’ve completed and submitted your visa application, you will need to apply in person and submit your biometric information (fingerprints). You will need to go to one of the VFS Global Russia application centers, in London, Edinburgh, or Manchester. You’ll need your printed application form (make sure to sign it!), your visa invitation (which I’m pretty sure needs to be printed in color for the stamp on the invitation), your passport, and a passport photo for the visa. If you aren’t a British citizen, you should also bring in proof of your UK residency (your BRP should be fine). Even though I brought my BRP in, they didn’t take it with the application, but that might just be because I’m an American citizen. You’ll submit your fingerprints, pay the visa fee, and address an envelope to yourself for your passport.

I went to the application center in Manchester, and it was an absolute breeze. We only waited about 10 minutes until we were seen, and the entire process took less than half an hour. The office is tiny (literally just two desks and a few chairs) but it was a very stress-free process. Do remember that they are only open on weekdays, and are closed on both UK and Russian national holidays. If you are planning to apply at the Manchester application center, you’ll need to state in your visa application that you’ll apply through London.

The visa fee to apply for a single-entry Russian tourist visa in the UK is £118.20 altogether. The visa itself costs £70, the service charge is £38.40, and it costs £9.80 for postage for it to be mailed back to you. My visa invitation cost £15, bringing the total cost of my visa (excluding train tickets to Manchester) to £133.20.

I looked at a few tourism companies that arrange Russian tourist visas to price compare. The organizations I looked at charged £150-180 for the process. So you’ll save a bit of money doing it on your own, but not a huge amount. It’s up to you to decide what’s worth it!

It generally takes 10 calendar days if you apply in Manchester before you receive your passport/visa back in the mail—or about 7 working days. I submitted my visa application on June 2nd, and my passport (with my visa!) arrived on June 12th. This is why you should give yourself at least a month to do the entire visa process, just in case. Once you get your visa, you should check it to make sure all the information is correct—especially that the dates of your visa are correct. Go to the VFS Global website to see what you need to check for—if you don’t speak Russian—here.

My most recent tourist visa for Russia, for June/July 2017

And that’s it! You’ve get your visa! The whole process can be so stressful, but as long as you know what you need, you’ll be just fine. Just make sure you know what information you need when and double and triple check all your paperwork.

There are just a few things to remember for once you arrive in Russia. When you go through immigration upon arrival, you’ll be given a slip of paper. Make sure to hang onto this, since you’ll need to exit the country (and might run into problems if you don’t have it). You’ll also need to register with the police when you arrive in a new city, something your accommodation will do for a small fee. You should also keep your passport on you at all times, just in case you get checked by the police.

The process for getting a Russian tourist visa in the UK can be stressful, but overall it is so worth it. Russia is an amazing country and absolutely somewhere you should see once in a lifetime!

Have you ever applied for a visa before? What was your experience like?