How to get Chinese and Russian visas as a United States citizen: My experience

 

batman bin suparmanHis parents obviously had high expectations.Preparing for my trip to Asia, I had to obtain visas before arrival to China and Russia. Since I am just finishing up this process, I wanted to describe the steps that I went through in case anyone might be doing the same thing and wants to save some time on research. This is geared for the independent traveler without set itinerary.

I want to emphasize that it may be different depending on where you are from in the United States (and obviously different if you are from a different country, check here for the Russian consulate and here for the Chinese consulate for your state), what kind of visa you want to get, and that some of this information may change given the capricious nature of immigration officials (this is being written Feb 2011). I got a basic tourist visa for both Russia and China (L Visa). It is different for business or other types of visa for each country and may require additional documents, this is just my experience getting tourist visas.

 

Important notes up front:

1. Make sure you start the process with about a month per visa before arrival to allow for complications (I started about 1 month and 3 weeks before leaving and had about 2 weeks to spare after receiving both visas)

2. Russian visas are only good for 30 days and must have specific dates, whereas Chinese visas are good for 90 days require no specific dates.

3. Russian visas must be registered within three days (update: as of March 25, 2011 it's increased to 7 working days!) of entering the country.

4. Russian tourist visas require an invitation from a registered tourist company with earliest date and latest date of stay (you can come after the earliest date and leave before the latest date), whereas Chinese tourist visas do not require invitation or specific dates.

5. If you don’t live by either the Chinese or Russian consulates/embassies for your jurisdiction, you will have to hire a company to process the visas for you (info below).

6. You must have a visa to each country before arrival. One exception is if you arrive in Hong Kong, you can get your visa for mainland China there for a comparable price (minus the service fees if you have to hire a visa processing service like me, and in Hong Kong you will have to wait a few days).

7. The maximum ahead of time that you can get Chinese and Russian visas is 90 days before arrival (check specific consulates to be sure), so time the application submission process well. For example, I planned to enter Russia at the beginning of April, so the earliest that I could send my documents to the Russian consulate was the beginning of January.

8. You cannot apply at the same time for the visas since you have to include your actual passport for each application.

 

Total cost: $18 (Russian visa invitation aka visa support letter) + $215 (inc. Russian consulate visa fee, processing service fee, shipping) + $189 (inc. Chinese embassy visa fee, processing service fee, shipping) = $422. Yeah, not cheap.

veiled passportI would love to see what would happen if she tried to fly to the USTotal time: 1 month 1 week, immediately sent out my Russian visa application (already had invitation) to Washington DC after receiving my Chinese visa from Chicago. My timeline for this whole process was:

Dec 26 – Got Russian visa invitation (visa email in PDF).

Dec 29 – Sent out Chinese visa application to US China Visa (Russian consulate was closed Jan 1 – Jan 14)

Jan 12 – Received Chinese visa

Jan 13 – Sent out Russian visa application to Travisa Outsourcing

Jan 18 – Was marked as sent to Russian consulate for processing

Jan 28 – Processing complete for Russian visa, sent via overnight mail

Jan 29 – Received passport with Russian visa

Getting the Chinese visa

This was fairly painless, and I used the cheapest service I could find: http://www.uschinavisa.com/. It was recommended by Chinese people that I work with since they use it for their families. They apparently service all 50 states. You will have to get a passport photo (2”x2”), fill out the Chinese visa application (fill out all fields! If you need to leave it blank, just put N/A, for ‘Place of Issue’, I just put the ‘United States Department of State’ and it was fine) and print off, affix a passport photo to the application, include your passport and the service form they give you when you purchase their services, and send it off to them. A messy checklist that they have can be found here, and they also give you tracking info and email updates.

Note: On the application, they require a hotel that you are staying at. Apparently you can just find a random one (I used “Captain Hostel” in Shanghai even though I have no plans of staying there), but just make sure it is in a city you plan to travel/arrive in so that it’s reasonable. My rough itinerary includes flying into Shanghai, exploring a little, going to Beijing, exploring a little, and then to Mongolia, and I have no set plans.

Cost: All of their services, including shipping, process, and the visa fee came out to $189. I think the visa alone costs $140, so if you have easy access to a nearby Chinese consulate, I think you can just do it in person. It still takes a few days, so you have to be able to drop it off and pick it up when it is ready.

 

Getting the Russian Visa in three general steps

1. Get an invitation (aka tourist voucher, visa support). After searching around for reputable places, I found the cheapest place to get this was Express to Russia, at $18. I accidentally put the wrong dates initially, but they changed them really quick for no charge. They also had very quick service (the invitation was sent to me in PDF format). You could also get it here at Way To Russia for $30, they supposedly have good service. Way To Russia also has a nice guide to the visa process.

Notes: If you want to travel around like I will be, you will want to check the inviting company to make sure you will be able to do so, and that you aren’t locked into an itinerary (unless you want to be). To get the visa support, you have to have a rough idea of the cities you want to go to since they need to be listed (I am planning to enter from Mongolia and traveling around Siberia, then leaving into Kazakhstan near Omsk, Russia). You will also need to check if you need the original copy of the invitation for the visa, and you can find this out for the Russian embassy for your jurisdiction (your consular region can be found here). Most just require a copy of the original. This process should take no more than a few days.

2. Send in the application. Since the Russian consulates (at least in DC) no longer accepted personally mailed in applications, I was obliged to use the visa processing service Travisa Outsourcing, which was recommended by the Consulate. No doubt there is some collusion, but they at least have a nice tracking system to be able to monitor the process. Just the visa costs $140 for Americans, United Kingdom, and Georgia, and less for EU citizens, but then they add a $55 visa processing fee. They say the total is $195, but then they add overnight FexEx shipping which boosts the total to $215. If you live near a consulate, it may be worth your time to give them a call and just see if you can do it yourself to save and extra $70 or so dollars. You will need to include a passport sized photograph (2”x2”), the visa invitation, your passport, and the visa application (this was automatically filled out by information you fill in one the website). This is a comprehensive list of everything needed for the visa application: https://russiavisa.travisaoutsourcing.com/russia/guidelines

3. Register the visa. Once in Russia you have to register your visa within 72 hours. Apparently, if you don’t plan to stay in one place for more than 72 hours then you don’t have to register, but you have to at least save all of your travel documents to prove where you were and when. Probably the best guide on this is http://www.waytorussia.net/RussianVisa/Registration.html.

 

Links

Check here http://www.ruscon.org/consular_regions_ENG.html for the Russian consulate and here http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/hzqz/t84229.htm for the Chinese consulate for your state

Chinese Tourist (L-visa) info: http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/hzqz/zgqz/t84246.htm

Service I used to get Chinese visa: http://www.uschinavisa.com

Chinese Visa application form: http://www.uschinavisa.com/chinavisaform.pdf

Hotel that I'm not actually planning to stay at that I put on the Chinese visa application: http://www.captainhostel.com.cn/en/

Chinese Visa Application checklist from US China Visa: http://www.uschinavisa.com/checklist.htm

Where I got my Russian Visa Invitation/Tourist Voucher/Visa Support: http://expresstorussia.com/Russian_visas.html

Visa Support from Way to Russia: http://www.waytorussia.net/Travel/VisaSupport.html

Service I used to get Russian visa: https://russiavisa.travisaoutsourcing.com/russia/homepage?

Pretty comprehensive review of Russia Visa registration procedures: http://www.waytorussia.net/RussianVisa/Registration.html

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