I hadn’t realized how terribly troublesome it can be to get a visa (spoiled we Singaporeans are, I know).
Dealing with long waiting times (bad for people who can’t plan ahead of time but thankfully I have an awesome boyfriend), and sifting through contradictory or outdated information online = not my idea of a fun Friday afternoon. To make matters more complicated, we were not in Singapore and its neat network of embassies but all the way in Philadelphia, in desperate need of a Russian visa each.
Anyway, this is a story about a girl and her arduous quest for legitimate entry into the Motherland.
Visa applications in the US are no longer handled directly by the Russian embassy/consulate but a subsidiary company called Invisa Logistics. For those trying to get a visa in the States, yes, the company is legit. It’s hard to believe because they don’t pick up their phones — none of their five American offices do. This didn’t boost our confidence in the company; we had the option to mail in our applications but we weren’t even sure if Invisa existed.
And so the process of booking Greyhound tickets and dreaming of all the awesome things in New York we would eat began. Invisa has offices in Washington DC, Houston, Seattle & San Francisco, but the New York branch was the nearest.
We made an appointment (they’re not too strict about this, though you would do well to come before their lunch break) and Alan researched the must-eats in the Big Apple (Luke’s Lobster, how did we not meet earlier??) and, of course, the requisite paperwork for our visa.
The typical tourist visa requires the following documents:
- Passport (duh)
- Make sure you leave enough time to do this (especially if you don’t have the option to travel intra-US flights with a driver’s license)
- Regular visa processing takes 5-20 business days while the expedited service takes 3-5 business days
- Invitation letter
- This is a legitimate letter issued by your hotel, hostel or tour company, who will usually provide yours for free
- One poor old man literally brought out a handwritten letter from his Russian friend, and while I thought the unfortunate situation was kind of hilarious, this will not be accepted
- We got ours from Real Russia, a travel agency that aids the purchase of Trans-Siberian tickets, Russian accommodation and visa issues — the company was started by a Brit who now lives in Russia, and the staff speak English (don’t underestimate the importance of this!!!)
- The letter lists your confirmation number, name of inviting organization and reference number for the organization, which you’ll need for your visa application form (see below for reference!)
- Visa application form
- Fill this up correctly or you’ll be hit with a US$25 “correction fee” that Invisa charges for any amendments
- Alan and I got hit for a total of $50 (sobs) for not having our Chinese names (often regarded as our ‘middle names’ by Western standards) in the exact order as reflected in our passport
- BUT YOU TELL ME, HOW TO REFLECT IN THE SAME ORDER WHEN THIS IS THE QUESTION YOU GIVE US?? You ask us for ‘first name’ then ‘middle name’ so we put that lor…
- I suppose people in possession of both English and Chinese names could avoid the penalty by appending their Chinese name to their last name, eg. Last name: Tan Xiao Li (as opposed to just Tan)?
- 35mm x 45mm (1 3/8″ x 1 3/4″), with the head centered in the frame, light background, full-face
- Technically you shouldn’t be smiling but honestly they didn’t seem too picky about my glaringly obvious toothy grin; heck, they didn’t even use the photo in our visa
- Health insurance
- Required for Americans, and peeps of other nationalities on the basis of reciprocity
- Basically, if your country mandates that Russians have an appropriate health insuracen policy, then you gotta show them one too
- Singaporeans don’t require this!
- Tickets (another duh)
- Must reflect confirmed dates of entry and exit from Russia
- Cover letter
- That reflects the traveler’s info, destination and purpose of the trip; the template can be found here
- If you’re American, tough luck — the visa costs $170 for regular admin charges + the visa processing fee, while an expedited one will set you back $280
- Europeans and Singaporeans in the States — damage is far less; even with our $25 “correction fee”, we shelled out just over $100 (expensive, but not as painful as the above)
Armed with all our requisite paperwork, we headed down to NYC. Even though our bus crawled through the weekend traffic and made us late for our appointment, we walked into a relatively empty office filled with, as we now know, stoic / nonchalant / disinterested Russians. We handed over our paperwork, got scolded by a hungry cashier ready to go off for lunch, and were told to collect our passports and visa on May 8.
Whew, that was effortless, we thought, and we went off to bite into an orgasmic lobster bun from Luke’s.
BA-DUM-TSK. PLOT TWIST!
On May 8, I headed up to New York. I was in high spirits — my parents & grandmother had arrived for my graduation. I did a little visa-victory dance in my head all the way up the Amtrak (yeah, not BoltBus, little luxuries).
But when I arrived, the scene was far different from the one Alan and I had seen three weeks ago. Some 20-30 people crowded the cramp office. One half of the office was dedicated to processing bulk visas from tour groups; men debated who should go first (“Let me go first, I only have eight to collect,” ” Yeah but I have been here for the last two hours,” etc).
I pushed my way through the individual collection side. As the minutes turned to hours (I always thought this was a cliched sentence but woe is the day you truly experience it), it became clear that we were not getting our visas.
Along with other irate visa-less tourists, we clamored for answers. Why no visa? Didn’t you tell us “May 8”? What do you mean the “embassy is on holiday”?
I’m still not exactly sure what holiday the authorities in the Russian embassy were celebrating (because it seems like the first 10 days of May is partay time) but they just didn’t process our visas. Invisa simply had no passports to return to us! Apart from those who paid their expedited fees, everybody else was left hanging in the lurch.
It’s not like we demanded to come on May 8. I was feeling very sorry for myself because we had already booked our flight to San Fran, and Alan and I couldn’t fly without a passport. I was so stressed I started to cry, which I hate to do cos then I look like a pug with massive sweat glands on her cheeks.
A Brit cursed in resolute, polite tones, knowing he had to use another day of leave just to come back to this awful place. Another lady resigned herself to missing her entire Russian holiday because her plane ticket was for the next day.
I was reluctant to shell out another $200 to reschedule another flight, especially after hearing the reassurances of the hapless staff: “Maybe, possibly, the passport might come on May 14. Maybe. I cannot promise.”
I flirted so hard with the idea of canceling our Trans-Mongolian trip at that moment. My parents weren’t keen on us going to Russia anyway (the usual worries: language barrier, “it’s unsafe,” “you traveling alone with Alan puts him and you in danger”). I thought about the dime-a-dozen graduates going off to Europe and doing Paris, and in that moment, I sob-thought, “I really wouldn’t mind finally buying a freaking Longchamp bag once and for all.”
Anyway, to cut a long story short, we got our visa in the end but not without a whole bunch of mafan-ness. We had to buy new flights to SF and BoltBus tickets to NY. But I think I felt worse that my family had to go on without me — I mean, even though we were only separated for a day, I thought it was kinda shitty that they came all the way to the States for me and I didn’t get to bring them around. (Also, we had to fork out about $150 or something to check in the extra luggages, which would have been avoided if Alan and I travelled on the same flight cos we have Star Alliance Silver.)
While it wasn’t really Invisa’s fault (more like the embassy’s), I think a lot of heartache and wasted time could have been minimized if the company actually bothered to use their phones. You know, call the people coming from Philly that hey, maybe you don’t need to spend four hours today coming to get what you can’t?
For all those planning a trip to Russia: get your visa as early as you can, no later than a month before you leave. Your heart will thank you for it.
But anyway, I came, I saw, I survived. Hopefully this account will minimize the pain. And Russia was a blast — no pain, no gain, right?
Also, just got a WordPress notification that this is my 50th post! Woohoo. This is probably the longest personal endeavor I have ever taken which, while sad if you think about it, is also cause for celebration. I wanted to make like random Singaporean female bloggers and insert a self-indulgent selfie right about here, but since I am neither exceptionally beautiful nor skinny, I shall insert a photo of another jovial occasion: last night’s birthday celebration of my 15-year-old cousin.
Stay handsome, stay strong and start watching something better than Pretty Little Liars, Josh.