Letter from Europe

Visa changes: Russia and Belarus

Issue no. 2020/2

Picture above: Many visitors to St Petersburg can already take advantage of an e-visa scheme. From Jan 2021, the e-visa scheme will cover the entire Russian Federation (photo © Dmitry Erokhin/ dreamstime.com).


As the United Kingdom tightens its entrance requirements, the progressive relaxation of visa regimes elsewhere in Europe is of course very welcome. In this Letter from Europe, we look at changes in visa regulations relating to Russia and Belarus.

Dear fellow travellers

As the United Kingdom tightens its entrance requirements, the progressive relaxation of visa regimes elsewhere in Europe is of course very welcome. The Russian Federation announced last week that from the start of next year it will switch to an e-visa scheme for many foreign visitors. And, unlike the existing Russian e-visa scheme, which is limited to travellers visiting Kaliningrad, St Petersburg and Russia’s Far East, the new scheme will be nationwide.

This is real progress. But before we give it an unqualified thumbs-up, we’ll wait to see the small print. The existing e-visa scheme covering just those three designated Russian regions has one big plus - there is absolutely no charge. But the new nationwide scheme will have a fee which, it is suggested, will be about €45. It will allow a stay in the Russian Federation of up to 16 days - that’s twice as long as the current period covered by the e-visa for St Petersburg, Kaliningrad Oblast and the Far East.

A real limitation of the current e-visa scheme is that it specifies permissible points of entry. The list for St Petersburg, for example, unfortunately excludes the high-speed rail route from Helsinki to St Petersburg. So here’s hoping that the new nationwide e-visa scheme will be a little bit more flexible in that respect.

The new 16-day e-visa will be available to citizens of over four dozen countries, including 35 European nations. The list of privileged countries does not include Britain, nor have British citizens been able to participate in the existing more limited e-visa scheme. Consider it the result of political tensions, if you will, but we suspect it’s more a tit-for-tat move by Russia in response to the unusually high visa charges which the United Kingdom demands even for short visits by Russians (and indeed citizens of many other countries).

With Britain now having left the European Union, it will be interesting to see how other European countries (beyond those in the EU) will feel about visa-free travel for UK citizens. Our suspicion is that some countries in eastern and south-eastern Europe, whose own citizens require a visa to visit Britain, might be inclined to impose reciprocal requirements on visitors from the UK.

Another east European country where things are quickly changing is Belarus. The European Union and Belarus signed a visa facilitation agreement last month. It is expected to come in force in mid-2020, ushering in much cheaper fees for visas on both side. Belarus already permits visa-free visits by tourists to two of its western cities - Hrodna and Brest, and their respective rural hinterlands.

The key thing to look out for is whether Belarus might be inclined to extend the current scheme which allows visitors from certain countries to enter without a visa. Apart from the Hrodna and Brest exemptions, it’s a privilege granted only to air travellers entering and leaving the country through Minsk International Airport. It seems to us utterly bizarre that if we take the direct train from Berlin to Minsk, we need a visa, but if we fly then the trip becomes visa-free. Here’s hoping that Belarus will embrace pro-environmental travel options in extending visa-free travel to the country.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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