All foreigners visiting Russia need a visa. In order to get one, travelers need an invitation from a Russian citizen or a company, which is then taken to a Russian embassy or consulate, where the actual visa is issued. Within three working days of arrival in Russia, the visa needs to be registered by the person/organization that issued the invitation. If you don't make it through this bureaucratic loop, you may have problems leaving the country.
Prices for processing Russian visas vary according to the applicant's citizenship and the embassy/consulate applied to. Perhaps in response to the trials the U.S. Embassy in Moscow puts Russian visa applicants through (see articles), U.S. citizens routinely pay more for Russian visas.
There are six types of Russian visas, but most travelers get one of three kinds:
Tourist visas are best for short visits. According to Russian law it is illegal for a hotel to provide you with an invitation if you are not going to stay there but this law is broken more often than it is followed. Many agencies can get you a visa and have it registered without a night booked in a hotel, and many hotels will give you give you an invitation and register it even if you're only staying with them for part of your trip.
Business visas aren't just for foreigners working in Russia. Far more flexible than tourist visas, they are often the best choice for tourists who are visiting friends and don't need a hotel, or who are looking to spend an extended period of time in Russia, especially those who want to travel independently or extensively. In order to get a business visa you need an invitation from a Russian firm, which can usually be arranged through a visa agency. You do not need to plan hotel reservations or an itinerary to get a business visa.
Student visas are a great deal; they're flexible, lengthy, and entitle you to Russian prices for trains, planes, the theater, and a host of other goodies. The only catch is that you have to prove enrollment at a Russian institution. If you are planning to enroll in a Russian university, the school authorities can probably help you arrange the visa.
Other types of visas include Transit Visas, On-the-Spot Visas, and Diplomatic Visas. Transit visas can be a cheap option for travelers headed for China or Central Asia, but it's often hard to make it in and out of the country in your allotted window of time. On-the-Spot Visas are dubious, not universally available, and very expensive. Diplomatic visas have a narrow range of applicability.
How to Get a Russian Visa
Although it is possible to arrange your own Russian visa, most travelers choose to hire a visa service to do the work. Invitations can cost anything up to and beyond $200, depending on the type of visa and the speed of service. For an extra $20-$30, agencies take your invitation to an embassy or consulate and send you the visa. Some services will even take care of registering the visa when you arrive in Russia. Given that each Russian consulate and embassy has different tastes and temperaments, it's usually best to have somebody who knows the ropes do the dirty work.
The only problem with hiring somebody to handle your visa is figuring out who to hire. Amid many honest and efficient agencies are a handful of fly-by-night firms that tend to disappear as soon as they get your credit card number. That shouldn't stop you from using a firm; just choose wisely! See below for a list of visa agencies with an Internet presence.
General Russian Visa Resources
Visa Advice from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow
Russian Consulates and Embassies
Click here to see our list of Russian Embassies and Consulates abroad.
One way to find reliable visa agencies is through Russian embassies and consulates. Unfortunately, only a handful of them are online.
Russian Embassy in the U.S.: www.russianembassy.org/
Russian Consulate in New York: www.ruscon.com/
Russian Embassy in Canada: www.magma.ca/~rusemb/
Consulate locator; this page has contact information for Russian consulates and embassies all over the world: www.russianembassy.net/
Russian Visa Agencies
International Hostel Holiday
Traveler's Guest House
Ulitsa Varvarka, 14, Office 308
Tel: (7-095) 298-4737
Tel: (7-095) 298-3863
Fax: (7-095) 298-3801
Though they don't have a web site, Adentina does a reliable job with visas for Russia and most CIS countries.
Ziegler & Partner
In the United Kingdom:
In the United States:
Go to Russia Travel
Complete Visa Center
Intelservice Center and its Visa to Russia service
Travel Document Systems