Getting to Minsk

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.

10 countries Americans need advance visas to visit

advance visaWe live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.

Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites.
Asia

  • China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
  • India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
  • Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
  • North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
  • See also: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan

Eurasia

  • Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
  • Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
  • Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
  • See also: Turkmenistan

Other

  • Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
  • Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
  • Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
  • See also: Nigeria, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Suriname

The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Thomas Claveirole.

Visa-free travel by the numbers

visa-free travel

Visa-free travel is easy travel. Procuring visas takes time, energy, and money, and is beyond debate a pain for frequent travelers. The erection of visa barriers responds to a number of factors, though it can be said without too many qualifications that the citizens of rich countries tend to have a much easier time accessing the world visa-free than do the citizens of poor countries.

The Henley Visa Restrictions Index Global Ranking 2011, excerpted in the Economist last week, was just published by Henley & Partners, an international law firm specializing in “international residence and citizenship planning.” Henley & Partners divide the world into 223 countries and territories.

And who gets to travel with few visa restrictions? The best citizenships for visa-free travel belong to nationals of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, at 173 apiece. On their Nordic heels is Germany at 172 and a mess of countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, United Kingdom) at 171. The United States isn’t too far down the list, tied in fifth place with Ireland at 169. The US comes in ahead of Switzerland (167), Canada (164), New Zealand (166), and Australia (166).

Some of the least lucky countries, according to the Henley Visa Restrictions Index survey: India (53), China (40), Iran (36), Lebanon (33), and Afghanistan (24).

[Image: Flickr | megoizzy]

Planning a trip to the United States? Get that visa first

Planning a trip to the United StatesProbably one of the most heart-breaking stories we hear is that of travelers who have done their homework, planned their travels well with the exception that they forgot all about a visa that may be required for entry to a country they are visiting. It’s easy enough to check at various websites including the U.S. Department of State’s site that lists worldwide entry requirements. Still, travelers planning a trip to the United States are getting bad news and don’t have a lot of options.

In a text book case of why obtaining a visa before booking travel is important, close-by Bahamian travelers planning to visit the United States for a cruise are having problems.

U.S. Embassy visa officer Kyle Hatcher told the Tribune that while the embassy sympathizes with the cruise ship passengers, it is not a priority at this time.

“I understand what they are going through, but it is the responsibility of the individual to make their appointment well ahead of their trip” said Hatcher.

Last week, the embassy said due to the large number of students attempting to go back to school in the next two months, college students will get first priority when it comes to visas.

“I understand that students need to go to school but just like they are telling me I should have applied early, they need to tell them to do the same.” said one traveler asking “Who is going to give me the money back I spent to go on my cruise?”

Well, nobody is.

Having the required documentation for entry to countries on a cruise itinerary is solidly the responsibility of the passenger and those without it will be denied boarding, if they make it to the embarkation port at all.

“We have made every effort to inform the public to apply as early as possible. We also encouraged people not to book a trip before you get your visa” said Hatcher adding “You can still apply for your visa but you won’t get a date until the end of September.”

Expedited visas are available but only to certain groups of people including applicants with urgent medical treatment needs, those attending the funeral of a close relative, students, exchange visitors, applicants claiming urgent business travel and temporary workers.

Flickr photo by Thomas Claveirole

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Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

european passport stamps
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.
european passport stamps
Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.