As tourists, Caroline and I attempted to secure Russian visas while staying Korea’s capital. After taking all of the steps written below, I got to the office and discovered that I couldn’t even apply for a visa because I’d missed out on some small detail.
New Zealand passport holders cannot get a Russian visa in South Korea without a Korean Alien Registration Card (ARC), and I would need to be travelling in Korea on a specific visa before I could apply for that. That same nugget of painful bureaucracy applies to UK passport holders (I have both). In fact, if you’re a UK passport holder it sucks even harder, because you have to actually get fingerprinted as well. As far as I know, this can only be done at a facility in the UK.
I know Australian passport holders in Korea can apply without the ARC, and so can Malaysian passport holders. Therefore Caroline was able to apply for her Russian Visa in Seoul, but I had to send my passport back to New Zealand (argh!) I’ve written all about that at the bottom of this post.
If in doubt – and you should be, because Russian visas are a pain in the arse – email VFS Global. They are the people who manage Russian visa applications in South Korea. Their email address can be found on their contact page.
So, if you’re ready, this is how some countries can get a single entry Russian tourist visa while staying in Seoul. A single entry allows 30 days in the motherland.
Step 1: Figure out if you actually need a visa
Here’s a very long Wikipedia page about Russia’s visa policies. You should also email VFS global to make sure your passport is okay. Finally, if you skipped my first paragraph, you should read that too.
Step 2: Plan where you’re going
This is something that you might not want to do, but must be done. The Russian bureaucrats need to know how you’re entering Russia, how you’re exiting Russia, and where you’re staying during your trip. So figure all that out, and write it down on a spreadsheet for later use.
Step 3: Get invited to Russia
You have to provide ‘visa support documents’ when you apply. These consist of an ‘invitation letter’ and a ‘tourist voucher’. There’s no point in asking why these are required, let’s just call it fun tax, sigh, and move along. There are plenty of companies online that will supply you with these support documents for a fee, or a friend living in Russia can sponsor you.
We used a company called Real Russia. They were cheaper that a few other sites we looked at, and within seconds of paying we had all our printable documents by email. The payment screen was dicky with Google Chrome, so we had to use Microsoft Edge (eeeww) which worked fine. The cost was £15 per person.
On the Real Russia application form, we had to include the cities we’d be visiting (‘Trans Siberian – multiple stops’ is an option), and the dates we’d be in Russia for. Make sure you choose your dates and places carefully, because you’ll have to put the exact same dates on your actual Russian visa application.
Print the support documents.
Step 4: Fill out the online application form
Next, you have to fill out a form on the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s website. This online form is comparatively merciful, because you can save it and return to it later with a password.
Apart from your basic personal information, you must include the cities you plan to visit. Some nationalities are required to submit their insurance certificates too, and those areas are: Schengen zone, European Union, United Kingdom, Ireland, and Turkey. Sorry guys.
Once you’ve finished that, you’ll need to print the pages and file them with your ever-growing pile of paperwork. If something is wrong, you can’t change it with pen, you have to log back in, fix your mistake, and print it again. The only pen marks on the form should be your signature and the date.
Step 5: Get your shit together
Put the following things into a pile:
- Your passport with at least 6 months remaining on it AFTER your intended exit date from Russia, containing two free pages. The pages don’t have to be consecutive.
- One 3.5 x 4.5 passport photo following the usual rules: white background, no smiling, no head dress, no sunglasses.
- Visa support documents from step 3 (tourist voucher and invitation letter)
- Your printed application form from step 4
- Your insurance certificate if you need it (see step 4)
- Maybe a Korean ARC (Grrrr! See first paragraph of this post). There are likely dozens of other nationalities who will need an ARC too. So I stress again, email VFS global if you’re unsure.
Step 6: Take your pile to the visa office
Now you need to take everything down to the VFS Russian Visa Application Centre. Here’s the address:
Russia Visa Application Centre
5F Danam Building, 10 Sowol-Ro,
Jung-Gu, Seoul, South Korea
(Postal code 04527)
The centre is rather small (especially compared to the Chinese visa centre), with only three people working on the applications. The first time we went we were told, very apologetically, that I couldn’t apply with my NZ passport. The second time, we got the same woman. She was very friendly and made sure Caroline’s application was all in order. We paid upfront, and were given a ticket to collect. Here is a table of fees in Korean won.
Step 7: Collection day!
Well, everything went smoothly for Caroline. She got her visa just fine. We had to return to the same place, take a number, and make sure all the details were correct.
Your photo actually gets put on the visa. That’s kind of cool.
Bonus section about me sending my passport back to NZ to get my visa
As I mentioned above, I couldn’t get my Russian visa in Korea because New Zealanders need to have a Korean Alien Registration Card in order to apply. I emailed the Russian embassy in Wellington about my situation, and they said I could send my application documents to a friend to post in for me.
I had all the same documents as listed above – the same things that Caroline successfully submitted, but I was paranoid that they would be anal about something weird. I read through the NZ Russian Embassy’s site guidelines carefully, and noticed a couple of things.
The photo, which in Korea had to be 3.5 x 4.5 cm, needed to be 3 x 4 cm when applying in New Zealand. It also had to be on matte photo paper, not gloss. It may seem ridiculous, but bureaucrats thrive on this kind of thing. I had to go to a studio to have more photos taken, because all the passport photo machines in Seoul print on glossy paper.
Okay, done. But it was still confusing. The guidelines state the following:
- One professional passport sized (3 x 4 cm) photo
- Please, write your name in capital letters on the back of the photo
- Please, be aware that your photo should be neatly cut out and glued to the specially marked place of the application form.
Wait… What? How will you know if I’ve printed my name on the back if it’s glued into the application?
So I included two photos – one with my name, and one glued in. This breaks their first rule (include one photo), but if I have to break a rule – and I think I do – it might as well be the least significant one. Dammit.
This was also written in the guidelines:
Please put a rough date you expect your courier bag would be delivered to the Embassy into the field “Date of the visit to consulate or visa center” on the application form.
Now, everything I’ve read about Russian visas says that whatever you do, don’t write in pen on the application apart from your signature and the date signed in a specific box. But the rule above asks otherwise. It’s not a field you can fill in online, so it would have to be written in pen.
After the initial, short reply, the Russian embassy in Wellington stopped answering my jittery emails. It was going to be a series of gambles from here.
I wrote the date in pen, and looked at it fearfully. Was that the right thing to do?
Then Caroline and I read up on some anecdotes about other people applying in NZ. There wasn’t much, but we found a story from the early 2000’s by somebody who was denied their Russian visa in NZ because they hadn’t included a separate, detailed itinerary. Dammit again!
I spent a couple of hours booking hostels on booking.com, finding out train times for various journeys, and writing up a detailed itinerary. It included every day we’d be in Russia, the address and phone number of all the hostels, the numbers of each train, and notes about our entry and exit. I printed off the itinerary and all the accommodation proof.
The guidelines don’t say anything about having to do this, but after reading about people getting denied for not including an itinerary, my paranoia was increasing.
The person I was sending my application to in NZ was going to add some cash ($160 for urgent processing). They would then have to courier it to the embassy for me with a return courier bag. I had to be sure that everything was in the envelope before I sent it.
Semi-confident, we went to a post shop to send the documents and my passport to New Zealand.
“Sorry,” said the woman at the counter, “You are not allowed to send passports out of Korea.”
This was unexpected.
Freaking out, we debated burying the passport among the paperwork and pretending it wasn’t there (and trying another post shop). Instead, we found a DHL service centre who were happy enough to send everything for me. 33,000 won later, and my application was flying towards New Zealand.
Then New Zealand had a huge earthquake, and the central business district in Wellington was closed for a couple of days.
In spite of this, my friend was able to send my passport and documents to the Russian Embassy. They processed everything in three days as I’d requested, and then sent everything back with my Russian visa. Success! The next step was to find a return postal address in South Korea. We had since left Seoul, and were cycling through the DMZ, so we had to quickly book somewhere to stay for at least a week. This would ensure we had enough time for the package to arrive.
We found a nice, quiet motel with an address that seemed legitimate. A phone call between us, the owner of the motel, and a guy we knew who can speak both languages, ensured that my envelope was expected. One week of nail-biting later and my passport was finally in my hand. For some reason, my photos wasn’t used in the visa. Instead, I got a hologram.