Getting to Minsk

Getting to Minsk seemed like a complicated process from the very beginning. The Belarusian entrance requirements were one thing; as it turned out, there were delays, unexpected developments, and last-minute machinations on top of the basic visa application process.

Prospective US visitors need to do several things before visiting Belarus: obtain an invitation from a recognized travel agency, complete the visa application form, obtain a visa, and purchase health insurance. (For anyone arriving by air, the health insurance purchase can be taken care of at the airport upon arrival.) Easy peasy, right?

My first and most straight-forward obligation was to secure an invitation from one of ten approved Belarusian travel agencies before showing up at the embassy here in London to apply for my tourist visa. I sent out a general inquiry via Twitter. Gadling’s own David Farley responded, recommending Belintourist as efficient and pleasant. Belintourist certainly delivered. Their English-speaking agents answered the phone and responded to emails in short order. They were also very patient as my travel companion and I tossed several itinerary changes their way during the course of planning. In addition to furnishing us with our official invitation, Belintourist booked our hotel.

Then there was the visa itself, priced at a not insignificant $140 (£90 from Belarus’ London embassy) for five-day turnaround and almost twice that for next-day service. I showed up at the embassy in London and submitted a completed visa application form and my letter of invitation from Belintourist.

In addition, I had to purchase the requisite health insurance. As mentioned above, anyone entering the country by air can purchase health insurance at the Minsk Airport on arrival. Since I planned to arrive via train, however, my health insurance had to be bought in advance. Belintourist took care of this requirement for me, and emailed me a PDF of a photocopy of the receipt, which I printed and included in my travel folder.

Everything was in order. And then I ran into a snag. The consul at the Belarusian embassy in London did a spot of search engine research and discovered that I was a travel writer, producing a printout of an old copied-and-pasted writer’s bio as evidence. He insisted that I obtain press accreditation before he would issue me a visa. It was a quick process, he assured me, and gave me contact information for Belarus’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press accreditation office.I sent a dozen emails over the course of several days to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minsk. I was told that an application form and a letter of request from Gadling’s editor would suffice. I emailed the form and had Grant Martin email the letter of request. Then came an email informing me that this would not do, that the letter of request would have to be on letterhead and would have to include Grant’s signature.

A panicked set of emails to my esteemed editor followed. Grant took care of the matter quickly and without complaint. Three days before I was due to leave, the Ministry emailed me to tell me that my press accreditation had been processed and that I would need to pick it up in Minsk the following week. And a few hours later the London consul telephoned with the news that my visa had been granted. The consul was terribly polite. He even gave me his business card and suggested that I follow up after my return with any questions.

I’d never been asked to do so much before being granted a visa, not by a long shot, and I wondered if my arrival on the train from Vilnius would be stressful. Happily, the border formalities were anticlimactically placid. The friendly young woman in the seat next to me translated questions posed by a stocky border agent in a gravity-defying peaked cap; he inquired as to the purpose of my trip and asked for my medical insurance information. My passport was stamped and soon thereafter the train resumed its steady lumber toward Minsk.

Once I was on the ground in Minsk, my remaining obligation was easily met. I showed up at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, turned in two passport-sized photos, and was given a laminated temporary press accreditation card within ten minutes. Though it expired shortly after I left Belarus, that card instantly became a prized possession, something I’ll keep around for some time.

Was all this a pain? Why yes, yes it was. Yet it is impossible, particularly as the holder of passport that provides (according to one recent survey) visa-free access to 169 of 223 of the world’s countries and territories, not to think after an experience like this about the stresses and bureaucratic contortions that the citizens of many countries have to go through–and with much greater frequency and under more invasive scrutiny, to boot.