Russian Consulates & Visa Centers: Good or bad idea?
If you are planning a trip to Russia, there are a few things you’ll have to get taken care of before your departure. Yes, it’s good to learn how to pronounce those consonant clusters like ZDR in zdrastvuyte (hello), TSTV in sootvetstvenno (accordingly) and SR in sredny (average or medium-sized), which are so unnatural to English speakers. But more importantly, and probably easier than perfecting your pronunciation of the above words, is getting a visa to Russia. Securing a Russian visa means dealing with bureaucracy and standing in lines at a Russian consulate, right? Well, luckily it doesn’t. Nowadays, Russian consulates in the USA work through official visa centers when receiving applications for visas. Even if you wanted to go to a Russian consulate, you’d only have three options as of March 2018, New York, Washington D.C. and Houston. The Russian consulates in San Fransisco and Seattle have both been closed, unfortunately. But be of good cheer because you don’t even have to leave your house to get a Russian visa. Read more about how here.
In some countries, foreigners making their way to a Russian consulate or embassy is the norm. In fact, it used to be that way in most countries. However, in the recent past visa centers like ILS in the United States VHS in Germany have popped up and now serve as official visa processing centers for Russian consulates.
This is definitely a good thing and here’s why. I was getting a new visa to Russia in my German passport in Germany in 2009. I was applying for a business visa for 90 days and made my way to Hamburg, where a Russian embassy was located. My cousin from Hamburg graciously gave me a lift there and when we arrived, there was a huge crowd at the gates of the Russian embassy. It was a disaster trying to get in because you couldn’t even manage to get to the gate to ask the guard where to apply for a visa. There were lots of Russians in the crowd trying to solve their own passport renewal questions, pension questions and other issues. I realized that I was in the minority with my visa application. Just then, a man with a big briefcase full of foreign passports politely pushed his way through the crowd and when he reached the gate, the guard greeted him and opened the gate just for him alone. I realized at that moment it was a representative of a travel agency. I looked around and caught eyes with another young man hoping to apply for a visa to Russia. Realizing we were there for the same purpose, he told me there’s a visa agency around the corner. We walked there together, filled out the visa documents, paid for the service and walked out feeling like we dodged a bullet. It was well worth the agency’s fee in doing the process for us instead of stumbling through the process only to wait in crowds and lines.
I went through a similar experience at the Russian consulate in San Francisco in 2012. My wife and I dealt directly with the consulate when applying for our daughter’s Russian passport. There requirement is that you must apply in person. So, this time we had no choice of using a third party. At that time, we lived in Utah so I got some time off work and we made the 12-hour drive to San Francisco. We booked a hotel, paid the exuberant parking fees and the next day went to the consulate. We arrived at around 10am, stood in line for well over an hour, with our 5 month-old girl mind you. We were told the pictures weren’t of good enough quality and were requested to provide another document. We left, got the passport photos, went to Kinkos to get the other documents copied, got a $55 parking ticket for being 5 minutes late and by that time it was too late to submit the documents that same day. We finally managed to submit them the next day after standing in line for about 2 hours. It was a huge relief having everything approved and submitted.
I often talk to friends or see posts online asking whether it’s possible to go through the visa process by yourself. I address that topic here. In very few circumstances could it be worth the effort to go through everything yourself. In most cases, you will be much better off using the visa center, or, better yet, a third party visa service. Remember that visa centers like ILS, although more efficient, still represent Russian consulates. Their customer service is limited and according to their own schedule. It’s difficult to get answers to your questions and they don’t offer much flexibility. If you’re going through the visa process for the first time, will only visit Russian once or twice or do not have access to one of the ILS offices, just do yourself a favor and save your time by going through a third party Russian visa service. Befriend your visa service company and you will be so much happier you chose to get your visa to Russia done through a company like LetsRussia.
We’re planning to write a post about certain situations when it would be best to go through the Russian visa process yourself. Stay tuned!