Friday, September 9, 2016

Belarus Tourist Visa

Most people who want to visit Belarus need to arrange a visa in advance.  It tends to be a bureaucratic pain in the arse but there's no way around it.  The easiest one to get is the 10-day maximum tourist visa.  Here's what's required for an American citizen to get one of the single-entry 10 day visas.

  1. A copy of your passport
  2. A completed application form
  3. A passport photo
  4. A confirmation letter from the hotel/hostel 
  5. Proof of travel health insurance showing worldwide or Belarus coverage
  6. Proof of payment for the visa fee
Belarus Embassy in Bratislava
Normal visa processing takes 7 - 10 business days unless you double the fee to receive your visa in 3 - 5 business days.  Two visits are required; the first to apply and the second to pick it up.  Belarus has embassies in Prague, Bratislava, and Vienna.  I would loose two full days of work travelling back and forth to Prague so this became my third choice.  The embassy in Bratislava handles visas between 9 AM - Noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  This worked great because I could do what I need to do at the embassy at 9 AM and then I could work the rest of the day from the IBM office in Bratislava and catch an eventing train home.

It used to be pretty expensive for Americans to get a visa.  Something like $120 or $160 but a couple of years ago the price dropped.  The problem is that the cost seemed to vary a bit depending on where you applied.  I e-mailed the Belarus Embassy in Bratislava and they confirmed it would cost €60.  The embassy does not accept money so you have to transfer the money to their Bratislava bank account and bring proof of payment.  

So two weeks ago I caught an early train and was at the embassy by 8:20 AM.  By 9 AM there were four others in line behind me.  The clerk spoke to me in Russian but my Russian isn't what it used to be.  I asked her in Czech if she spoke English or Czech.  She grunted and nodded her head.  But she didn't actually indicate that she spoke English.  Since I figured she had to speak Slovak I decided to just go with Czech.

That's when the questions began.  Why do I want to go to Belarus?  Have I ever been to Belarus before?  Do I know anyone in Belarus?  Where will I go in Belarus?  What will I do there?  

She went through all of my paperwork.  She told me that she did not know the hotel I booked.  How did I find this hotel?  Why did I book this hotel?  

Since I have permanent residency she also wanted a copy of my Schengen ID.  I knew to come prepared so I just happened to have a photocopy of it.  I also had copies of my flight itinerary/receipt which she took even though I doubt she really needed them.

I provided a screen print showing the bank transfer to their account for the €60 fee.  No problem.  She took my passport and told me to come back in two weeks to pick up my visa.  They would hold my passport until then.

All said and done and I was done by 9:15 AM.  I wasn't thrilled about leaving my passport especially since I just got it.  I don't need to carry my passport in Czechland because I have my Czech residency card but technically I need to carry both when I am outside of Czech Republic.  I didn't have any trips planned and figured I would be fine between CZ and Slovakia with only my ID.  Besides I went through this before when I applied for my Azeri visa which required three visits - the first to apply, then once approved you go back to give them your passport and finally on the third visit you get your passport back.  I defiantly don't want to deal with that sort of drama again.  

The entry for visa services
Two weeks later and I was back at the embassy first thing this morning to pick up my passport.  It was a different clerk this morning but I explained that I was there to pick up my passport and visa.  She took out my file and went through every document.  She then asks me for my receipt for the €60 fee.  I explained that I provided a screen print with all of my paperwork.  She looks through everything again.  She can't find it.  She tells me that I need to pay €60 for the visa.  I tell her again that I provided proof of payment.  She pulls out my passport and the visa is in it but she needs proof of payment.  This is starting to feel like a shake down and I'm not rolling over for €60.

I explain to her that why would they have accepted my application in the first place, or even processed the visa, if I hadn't already provided proof of payment.  Now I'm getting annoyed and switch to Russian.  Then the supervisor comes in and she briefs the other woman what's going on.  The supervisor just happens to be the clerk I dealt with two weeks ago.  I see her look through all of the same submitted papers again and she asks me about the receipt.  I explain that I provided a screen print from my bank when I applied.  Who did you give this to?, she asks.  My response...I gave it, to you, with all of my other paperwork.  She then hands me my passport and I check that the dates on the visa are correct and I left.  The whole thing still only took about 20 minutes.  What's interesting is that on the visa itself it says how much was paid.

I don't know if this was an actual shake down.  I don't know if they relented because they saw that I wasn't going to give up or maybe things changed once I switched to Russian (even though it's pretty rusty).  I don't really care because the main thing is that I now have my visa for Belarus which is the only country in Europe that I have not been to.  Belarus will be #50.
My Belarus tourist visa
Update:  As of 12 February 2017, Belarus will now issue free visas on arrival to passengers flying in to Minsk.  The visas are for a maximum of five calendar days and, again, are only available to tourists who fly in to Minsk National Airport.  This is available to citizens of 80 different counties, including the USA.   

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