Note: this is a long read. It’s a detailed two-week account of what happened to us when we overstayed our Russian visa.
Visas are a tricky little thing that every traveller has to deal with at some point. The trick to tackling them is organisation. That’s why we applied for our Russia visa back in March, before we actually left the UK in April – four months before we expected to enter Russia. But all that forethought and planning was quashed by an incompetent Visa Agent, leaving us with an expired visa and a trip to Russian Federal Court.
You see, unlike most countries, you need a Letter of Invitation to get a Russian visa. If you’re a business person, this letter is likely to come from the company you’re doing business with in Russia. If you’re a tourist, that letter will have to come from a travel company. Essentially, the letter indicates that you've been invited to Russia by an accredited Russian travel company or business – and they're responsible for you while you're there.
After choosing a UK-based travel company, we explained our trip in full to our assigned Visa Agent. The fact we would be cycling to Russia. The fact we would travel through Russia and exit to Mongolia. And that most important fact, that we did not know the exact date of entry to Russia.
We repeatedly asked her whether not knowing the date of entry would be problem. She repeatedly told us no. She told us that if our trip will be at some point in July, that we should apply for the period 01.07.2018 – 30.07.2018. So that’s what we did. And so we left the UK in the understanding that our Russian 30 Day Tourist Visa would begin on the date on which we entered Russia, between July 1-30. Fast forward four months, nine countries, and only eleven days into our tenth country, Russia…
Wednesday 1 August
The hostel we checked into in Kazan informed us that our Russian visa had expired at 11.59pm on July 30. We were so sure they’d been a mistake. There hadn’t. It really had expired. We rang The British Embassy in Moscow for help and advice, because that’s what you’re meant to do when you’re in trouble in another country, right? They said there was nothing at all they could do. We later found out that they can issue emergency exit visas within 72-hours of your visa expiring. We rang them 42 hours and 18 minutes after our visa expired. Useless is an understatement…
Anyway, It was late evening by this point, so there was nothing else we could do. Dan did have to sweet talk the hostel into letting us stay for the night, as legally they aren’t allowed to house people without a valid visa. They get fined.
Thursday 2 August
We woke early and taxied straight to the Kazan Immigration Office. Side note: The Yandex taxi app became one of the most useful apps throughout this ordeal. It was recommended by Dmitriy, the guy who helped us out with the bikes in Saint Petersburg. 'It's like UBER, but better', he said.
We jumped out of the taxi to find a derelict building. They’d clearly changed offices and not updated their address on Google Maps. Sigh. We rang the local visa centre, which turned out to be a Schengen visa centre. No use to us, but someone there spoke perfect English and offered to call the Kazan Immigration Office for us. We were given the new address and told to go there. Taxi!
The new office was well out of town. We waited a while. Again, no one spoke English, but a lovely local who was ahead of us in the queue offered to translate. The Immigration Officer told us, with a big smile, that there was nothing she could do and that we'd have to go to the Moscow Immigration Office – 800km away! But. You. Told. The. Woman. At. The. Schengen. Visa. Centre. We. Should. Come. Here.
We booked an overnight train back to Moscow. Luckily there were 2nd class cabins left with an upper and lower bed. Luckier still, the conductor didn’t inspect our passports and visas too closely and we boarded without any trouble.
Friday 3 August
6.45am we arrived in Moscow. The Moscow Immigration Office didn’t open until 10am, so we waited it out in McDonald’s with a coffee and Bacon and Egg McMuffin. Okay, I lie, we had two each. And two hash browns.
Eager, we got to the Immigration Office at 9.30am. After waiting around for what seemed like forever, we finally spoke to someone who spoke enough English to understand that we had a visa problem. He didn’t care for excuses. He disappeared with our passports. When he returned, he said that we had a serious problem – yup, we knew that – and that there was nothing that could be done until Monday. Wait, what? You literally just opened. There’s a full workday. Surely something can be done?
We pushed him to see speak to whoever he spoke to again. That’s when the boss man – who we learned was the Head of Immigration – came out of his office and yelled at our Russian translator, without once looking at us. It sounded bad. We were told that he did not have time to draw up the papers and take us to court. Come back on Monday. Brilliant. All the horror stories we’d read online were coming true. We were going to court.
Next hurdle: accommodation. We had to ring around hotels to find somewhere that would let us stay with an expired visa. No one spoke English so we decided to go to them in person to explain. We didn’t want to book and pay for something online, to be rejected when we arrived.
Seems we got lucky, after not being able to actually find the first place, the second place agreed to let us stay if we paid in cash. An off-the-books booking. Done.
We dumped our stuff and ordered a taxi to the British Embassy. We stupidly thought that if we spoke to someone face-to-face, they’d be something they could do. It was the middle of their lunch hour when we arrived so we had to wait on the street. Twenty-minutes later we were invited inside.
Security. Bag checks. Passport checks, “your visa has expired”. “Yes. We know.” We made it to the Consular Department. The woman we spoke to said exactly the same thing as the woman on the phone: ‘there’s nothing we can do’. Although this is when we learned the 72-hour rule…
Back to our illegal hostel we went.
Saturday 4 & Sunday 5 August
I wish I could say we enjoyed the weekend exploring Moscow, but we had no motivation to leave the hostel, if truth be told. We spent the weekend binging on beers, crap food and Game of Thrones. I did have a productive couple of hours compiling, printing and stapling together ‘evidence’. I wrote it in English and then Google Translated it into Russia; it works well if you use simple sentences and basic vocabulary. The ‘evidence’ pack included:
- A letter explaining our situation in full (this was extremely helpful in the coming days, as no one spoke English).
- Our Visa Agent’s details…and her failings.
- Our detailed 30-day itinerary, which showed that we truly believed we could be in Russia legally until August 20.
- All email correspondence between us and our Visa Agent. We re-read this umpteen times over the weekend, to see if it had been our misunderstanding. It was definitely her incompetence.
Monday 6 August
Then it was Monday. As we checked out of the hostel, they cheekily asked us to lie to Immigration and say we stayed with friends, as they’d get into trouble. Lie to the Russian authorities? I don’t think so. When we finally spoke to the right person at Immigration, he did ask where we’d stayed and we definitely didn’t say ‘our friends’. It did take a while before we actually spoke to the right person though…
We were back at the Immigration Office for when it opened at 9am. Of course the department had a 9am Monday morning meeting. By 10.30am we still hadn’t been seen, so I went to find someone to help us. The letter of explanation came in really handy here. We were directed to a guy who wrote an address in our Google Maps. He said to go there.
We got in a taxi and went ‘there’. ‘There’ turned out to be the Office of Federal Migration Services in Moscow. The security guards wouldn’t even let us through, despite our little Russian letter. One of them put another address in Google Maps and told us to go there.
Another taxi later, we arrived at the Russian Visa Centre. We knew this wasn’t the right place, but we tried to find answers anyway. No one had a clue. We were given another random address. Instead of doing a taxi tour of Moscow, we decided to head back to the first place.
Thankfully the queue was much smaller by now. We knocked on the door everyone was waited outside early. This happened to the office of the angry Head of Immigration who sent us away on Friday. Great, here we go!
We handed him the letter and waited for the rage to come. Yet there was no anger. I genuinely think he felt sorry for us. We used Google Translate to communicate. He said we had two options. 1) The British Embassy should be able to get you home. 2) You go to court. You’ll also need to take an interpreter with you as a judge won’t see you without one.
We made one last-ditch attempt to get help from the British Embassy in Moscow. The only good thing to come out of the third conversation with them, was that we could find a list of interpreter agencies on their website. Thanks a bunch.
Back in the Head's office, we told him that we’d have to go with option two. He said to come back on Wednesday with an interpreter. And so we left to go and wait it out in another hostel somewhere. We didn’t want to go back to the same one, as he’d asked where we’d stayed…
Finding somewhere to stay with an expired visa this time was much harder. Three places turned us away. Again, rather than calling, we literally turned up at their front desks and they just said ‘no’. The owner of the third place said she did have an apartment in the city centre we could stay at for £15 per night. With no other choice we agreed. She made a few phone calls and put us in a taxi bound for her flat.
Thankfully we got her to book the taxi with our Yandex app. During the ride, Dan happened to zoom out on the journey, curious as to which part of town we’d be in. That’s when he saw that her flat wasn’t in the city centre, and that our taxi was heading around 30km outside of Moscow. We cancelled the taxi and jumped out.
At this point I rang the British Embassy for a fourth and finally time. We were two British citizens unable to find legal accommodation in Moscow. Surely there was something they could do now? Nope. Not only was she useless, she was terribly rude. I quote, ‘I can’t just wave my magic wand and force a hotel to let you stay’. She also insisted on saying ‘yeah’ at the end of every sentence. ‘You broke the law, yeah’, ‘there’s just nothing I can do, yeah’, ‘try a hostel or Air BNB, yeah’. Erm, sorry love, but you need to learn how to speak properly, yeah.
On a serious note, it was now 5.30pm and we were running out of options. We hadn’t actually thought to try Air BNB, so speaking to the inarticulate representative of our country wasn’t a total waste of time. We quickly signed up – neither of us had used AirBNB before – then booked and paid for a whole apartment just down the road from where we jumped out of the taxi.
We had to wait two hours before the owner could check us in. Two hours of not knowing whether or not she’d ask to see passports. Two hours of not knowing whether or not she’d let us stay. Two hours of not knowing whether we’d be truly stuck. To kill time, we sunk a couple of pints.
In the end, we had no reason to worry. The owner was lovely and didn’t ask for ID of any sort. Sorted. We had somewhere to legally stay for a few nights while we sorted this mess out. We stocked up on beers and picked up where we’d left off in the pub.
Tuesday 7 August
With sore heads, we spent the morning ringing around nine interpreter agencies. One quoted $300 per day. Another €600 per day. These were both international companies clearly making a killing in Russia, as the Russian-owned companies were a lot more affordable.
We arranged to meet our interpreter, Alexander, at 9am outside the Immigration Office the following day. Then we got back to our Game of Thrones binge. I still can’t believe I never got into this series before…
Oh, how could I forget about the bikes! As you know, we shipped them 6,000km from Saint Petersburg to Irkutsk. They arrived safely on August 5 – live tracking is amazing. We were under the impression we’d have 24-hours to leave Russia once we'd finally seen a judge. The only option we could think of at this point, was to ship the bikes back to UK. After getting a couple of quotes exceeding £2000, we decided to hang fire and see what happens.
Wednesday 8 August
Desperate to finally get this mess sorted, we arrived at the Immigration Office at 8.30am. We met Alexander, give him the lowdown, then waited patiently to see the Head of Immigration at 9am. By 10.30am, we were getting fidgety. Thankfully we had a Russian speaker on our side now, so he could go and hunt someone out who could actually help.
The next guy in the food chain – let’s call him the Senior Immigration Office – finally caved and agreed to take our ‘case’ on. We were ushered into his office, which he shared with what appeared to be the Junior Officer (more on him later). We spent the next hour preparing our court papers, which involved sharing our life story and fingerprints. What. A. Farce. We were told to go to the court house the next day at 11am.
Exhausted, we returned to our soviet flat and fell back into our Games of Thrones spiral.
Thursday 9 August
We arrived early to court, as you would. Alexander was already there waiting for us. He told us we weren’t allowed inside until our Immigration Officer arrived. It was news to us that he’d be coming along. At 11.30am, thirty minutes late, the Junior Officer slunk around the corner, shades on, carrying a bag of snacks. We went inside with little said.
After signing a couple of papers, we waited. And waited. And waited. After a few hours, we were told that there were lots of mistakes with our court papers. Rather than send us away to redo them, we had to wait until the judge wrote an essay explaining all the errors. This took her until 6.30pm to complete. According to Junior, there are two judges in the court house who like to play the good cop, bad cop routine. We got the bad cop..
We were told that if we wanted to see the judge tomorrow, we’d have to complete the papers by the end of the day. We didn't have to think twice. Junior carted us back to the Immigration Office in a rented carshare, which he ragged all the way. I felt sorry for that poor clutch.
It was after 7pm by the time we had repeated the paper process. As we said goodbye to Alexander, he reminded us of the famous English saying, ‘third time’s a charm’. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Alexander...
To cheer ourselves up, we went out for beers and curry.
Friday 10 August
We were back at the court house for 10am. This time, the Senior Immigration Officer met us. He was far more professional – and friendly. There was no lolling on the table or ignoring us. He kept us fully informed and even chased people along. He also had an older Canadian guy in tow, who had also overstayed his visa. The Canadian got pretty annoying; he kept asking the same questions and made a big song and dance about the situation.
Within a couple of hours, we were standing before the judge, glad to hear that she was the good cop. The actual court hearing was a doddle. We had to stand up and answers the judge’s questions through Alexander. Dan was up first. Name? Age? Birth place? Address? Occupation? Why did you come to Russia? Why did you overstay your visa? At this point, Dan asked if he could show the judge that tatty Russian letter we had toured around many government buildings in Moscow. She agreed.
After reading the letter, to our surprise, she said she understood our confusion, but could not accept liability for it. Ultimately, she said, we’d still broken the law and would be punished. That was fair enough. We were ushered back into the waiting room to wait some more.
At 3.30pm we were given our deportation papers. Alexander explained that we had to pay a 5,000RUB fine each (£57.80) and that we had 15 days to leave Russia. He said we also had 10 days to appeal the court’s decision – no thank you. We couldn’t actually see anything about 15 days on the court papers, so we decided to make sure we left Russia within 10, to be on the safe side.
All six of us – the Senior Immigration Officer, Dan, myself, Alexander, the annoying Canadian, and his interpreter – jumped in a taxi and went back to the Immigration Office to pay the fine. Afterwards, the Senior guy offered us a shot of cognac. A toast to the end.
That was it. It had taken ten days, but it was over. Well, technically it wasn't over over. Our bikes were still thousands of kilometres away. We taxied straight to the shipping company’s office. We figured it would be easier to rearrange the shipping in person. We ended up conducting the whole conversation using Google Translate.
I’ll speed this bit up. Originally, we’d paid for slow shipping from Saint Petersburg to Irkutsk. It took ten days and cost £45 for three boxes totalling 90.90kg. To return the bikes to Saint Petersburg using Express Shipping, which their website advertises as 2-3 days, we were quoted £520. Ouch. With limited options, we had to take the hit. The woman went on to explain that actually the delivery time would be more like 6-7 days because of the weekend. STOP THE ORDER! We couldn’t afford to wait that long, especially not for £520.
By this time, our little predicament had attracted five other members of staff, who were also trying to help fix the situation. It seems it was a big ask to try and retrieve our parcels in such a short time frame. After all their efforts, we felt bad telling them that we'd think about it overnight.
To work out a plan, we went for beers and curry.
By the end of dinner, we’d cracked it. Originally the plan was to go to Mongolia, but since we didn't have the visa already, and didn't fancy applying for it in a country we'd overstayed in, we decided Mongolia wasn't the best idea. Instead, we’d fly to Irkutsk the following evening and collect the bikes in person. Then we’d fly from Irkutsk to Kathmandu, Nepal. We’d read UK citizens can get a 90-day visa on arrival. Risky, but doable. This seemed the quickest way to get the bikes and get the hell out of Russia, without going home. We went back to our soviet flat for one last night and booked the cheapest flight to Irkutsk.
Saturday August 11
We were packed and gone before check-out time. Of course, we went to McDonald’s for breakfast. Here I wrote another magic letter that we could hand to someone at the airport, should they wonder why we’re flying to Irkutsk when we should be leaving Russia… We got it printed then found a Starbucks to sit in for several hours, before taxiing to the airport. We’re starting to get used to all these taxis…
So now we were at the airport, with a letter of deportation, trying to get to the other side of Russia instead of leaving the country. What could go wrong?
As we approached the entrance to the departures area, for both international and domestic flights, we noticed the staff were checking boarding passes and passports. Armed with all of our documents, we were ready to defend ourselves. But the woman simply scanned our mobile boarding pass and checked it matched the names on our main passport page. Phew.
In anticipation of some sort of problem at the airport, we arrived there five hours before our flights was due to depart. So we sat in a bar and relaxed. It was a strange feeling to think we could be in Nepal in a matter of days.
sunday august 12
Sunday was a blur. We arrived +5 hours ahead of Moscow time. So even though it was 10.45am in Irkutsk, it was really 5.45am for us. Aside from booking our flight to Kathmandu, we just slept the day away. We went through the same rigmarole of finding accommodation. Thankfully we had official court papers now, but the hostel we arrived at did 'umm' and 'ahh' before saying we could stay.
monday august 13
I'm getting to the end of the story now, so you'd think this would be the easy bit? Wrong. It very nearly all came crashing down around us again...
This was the day we were finally reunited with all of our belongings. It took a good hour to collect it all from the warehouse as it was so busy. Thankfully our taxi driver was happy to wait – for a fee, of course – and he even helped with the collection process.
Anticipating trouble, we arrived at the airport about ten hours before departure. This was so we could rearrange the boxes to try and not incur an excess weight cost. We were already having to pay for a third piece of luggage, since we had three boxes of kit.
Boxed and sealed, we went inside the airport to find that you had to go through security scanners to enter the building. The smallest cardboard box went through the scanner fine. The two boxes with the bikes in were too big for the scanner. Would you believe, the woman made us open the two boxes, take everything out, and put it all through the scanner individually. Give me strength.
After emptying the boxes onto the conveyor belt, we re-packed it all inside the terminal. Then we had a four hour wait before check-in opened. As soon as it did, we (for once) were one of the first in the queue. Despite our efforts to shift weight around, all three boxes were still overweight. Yet another chunk of money that just evaporated. But at least everything got on the flight. Seems that was the easy bit...
The moment of truth: passport control. I went first. I handed over my passport, the deportation papers, and a newly written Russian letter explaining the last two weeks. She assessed everything then asked why I wasn't flying home since I'd been deported. My heart sank. They're not going to let us fly. They're going to keep us here for another night. It's not over.
She asked if I was alone. I pointed to Dan. He was the only one in the passport control queue at that point. Irkutsk International Airport is tiny. There were only two flights that evening, so there was barely any passengers. Then she got really mad because he was waiting next in my queue. "Why is he waiting?" Why doesn't he go to another queue?" "He should move." I reckon she just didn't know what to do with me and wanted to ask the guy Dan ended up seeing. He was none-the-wiser and the two star officers had to call the three star. Dan said the three star officer placed some 'you're banned from Russia' papers on the desk, but he was never asked to sign them. After about fifteen minutes of deliberating, we were allowed to go through.
Now that was really it. The two week ordeal was over. And our new adventure in Nepal – a country we never intended to go to – was just beginning. Of course we were/are sad, gutted, angry – all the emotions you’d expect from a dream trip becoming a nightmare – but we just kept reminding ourselves that it could have been a lot worse. We’re about to see Mount Everest, that’s not such a bad result.
So what does it cost to overstay your visa in Russia?
Hotel & Air BNB: £225
Train back to Moscow: £85
Beers: too many
Court fines: £115
Flight to Irkutsk, Russia: £254
Flight to Kathmandu, Nepal: £994
+excess baggage: £240
Total: £2,153, plus stress and heartbreak.