In the preceding post in this series I opted for a 48 hour transit visa as a good way to get some time in Belarus on the cheap. I booked a pair of sleeper trains from Kiev to Minsk and then 18 hours later from Minsk to Riga, using full timetables on RealRussia.co.uk to ensure that I would enter and exit the relevant borders within a 48 period. This visa would be £50 instead of the £120+ for a tourist visa and would also negate needing a letter of invitation to visit the country. All sounds great so far until you actually start applying for the visa as it is not the most straight forward one to get.
Firstly there is no separate application form for this unique type of visa, you use the same form as if you were applying for a longer visa meaning you end up leaving a lot of very important looking questions blank (but not blank as in incomplete as the guide I found tucked away on the embassy website said you have to put ‘N/A’ or the form will be rejected). There is also a reasonable amount of ambiguous and contradictory statements on the form/website that add to the confusion, my personally favorite being “Please detail the person/organisation inviting you to Belarus, even if an invitation is not necessary”.
In my attempts to answer these questions I found that there is a real lack of information online about getting a transit visa for Belarus. Now I know the route I’m taking (Kiev-Minsk-Riga) is not exactly a common thing to do but a lot of people transit Belarus from Poland to Russia on their way to Moscow to do the Trans-Siberian railway. I decided that if my nervously filled out application form got approved then I’d write up a post with some advice on the trickier questions.
Firstly lets take a look at the form, Belarus Visa form. Now the first question that poses a pause for thought is number 19. In numerous places on the Embassy website it says that a transit visa is valid for 48 hours, but in other places it is said to be 2 days. Now this raises the question of whether your stay could span 3 calendar days if you were in the country for less than 48 hours. Erring on the side of caution I opted to conform to the 2 calendar day limit. Now the time that you enter and exit the country is not when your train arrives at your destination but the time you cross the border itself. Well how do you figure that out? What I did was use the search on this page, RealRussia, and then on the results page you click on the train number on the left. You’ll get a pop-up with each stop the train makes and the time it is there, it’s then a process of finding which stop is the first inside the border of Belarus, in my case Homyel on the way in and Bigosovo on the way out. Once I was happy my entry and exists were within two days I bought my tickets. I now had my ticket receipts (needed when applying for a transit visa), the rough times I’d be crossing the borders and at what border points I’d be crossing. The location of the crossing is needed for a later question.
Next problematic questions are 20 & 21 for the same reason. If I hadn’t read the phrase “Please detail the person/organisation inviting you to Belarus, even if an invitation is not necessary” it would have been a simple “N/A”. You don’t need an invitation for a transit visa, just copies of your rail tickets so this comment on their site got me a bit worried about what I should put, but I opted to still put “N/A”, as what else was I going to put? The address of the company I bought the train tickets off of? Again for 22 I put N/A as we wouldn’t be staying at a hotel.
I wasn’t too sure on 23 but opted for “To make a transit connection whilst travelling from Kiev to Riga” and it was accepted. After that for 29 I put “Sleeper train from Kiev”. Question 30 is where the previous information about at what border point you will be crossing becomes relevant. On the form it just asks for your itinerary which seems simple enough but in a separate section of the website it says you must put in detail what border points you will cross and the times, a lot of information to fit in the small space of the form.
For 32, the medical insurance question, there is conflicting information on their website. In one place it says to write “Insurance will be purchased at the border crossing” no matter what, but in another place it says British people do not need to purchase this. On top of this I thought it would make sense to enter the details of my travel insurance policy. In the end I went with the statement about purchasing at the border as the website seemed quite firm on this, trumping the other options.
That’s about it for the confusing questions, now to actually apply. The visa application centre is in the basement of the Belarusian embassy, it’s open from 9am – 12:30pm despite the website saying it opens at 9:30am. Useful information if you want to apply before going to work in the morning. On both of the days I went there were only a couple other people in the queue when it opened and I was in an out in under 15 mins. When applying the staff went over my documents thoroughly, this took about 5 minutes and then took my £50 fee. When you come and collect 5 days later the staff seem happy to let people who are collecting skip the queue of applicants as it takes a couple of seconds for them to grab your passport. I hurriedly thumbed through mine to see if I was successful and was quite relieved to find I was, much to the annoyance of the man applying at the window who’d had his rejected due to an out of date passport.
So after all this I am now going to be in Minsk for 18 hours and need to figure out how to make the most of that time!