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What visas do you need to travel the Trans-Siberian railway?
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Have you ever wanted to travel the Trans-Siberian railway? It’s like something from a dream. Can you imagine the rhythmic thumping of the wheels? Being sat on a cold winter night, a cup of hot chocolate in your hands, watching out of the window as the Siberian tundra rolls by under a pitch black sky? Can you imagine stepping off the train to stretch your legs, cheeks rosy from the blasting winds, the snow crunching beneath your feet, little babushkas shuffling around the platform beside you in their weather-beaten shawls? There’s something romantic about it – something mystical, something awe-inspiring. It is a dream, and it’s just in reach.
Well, at least until you google it and find out how much of a faff it is. Pfft, who’s got time for that? What, 4 visas? 4? That’s insane. I’m not even sure what visas are. Nope, too much hassle. The Trans-Siberian can stay a dream. I’ll go to Scarborough this year instead – is what you would say if this article didn’t exist.
Don’t be intimidated by visas.
What are visas?
If you’re a seasoned traveller you might want to skip over this section, because I’m going to start with the very basics. A visa is an official pass that says that you’re legally allowed in that country. They tend to be issued as a sticker in your passport. You don’t need one every time you travel, it depends on your home country and the country you’re travelling to. It’s worth checking before you travel.
If you do need a visa, you’ll need to know about the different types. There’s loads of types, so I won’t bore you with them all now, but I will talk about tourist and transit ‘cos you’ll need them for the Trans-Siberian.
You might need one if you’ll be travelling through the country to get to your destination, but you aren’t stopping there.
These are probably the most common visa. It’s what you’ll need if you’ll be staying in the country and doing tourist-y things. Think of it as a holiday visa.
It’s pretty simple really, isn’t it? There’s a couple of other terms relating to visas that you’ll need to know:
The length of time that your visa is valid to get you into the country. You must enter and exit the country within the validity period of your visa.
The length of time you’re allowed to stay in the country once you’ve arrived.
The number of times you can enter the country on that visa. You’ll generally only need singles for the Trans-Siberian, unless you’re travelling back too!
The time taken for your visa to arrive after it’s been submitted to the embassy.
Please note – we can’t guarantee this, it’s just an estimate.
To ride the Trans-Siberian railway, you’ll need anywhere between 1 and 4 visas, depending on where you want to go.
Choosing my route
There are three main routes for your Trans-Siberian journey:
- Trans-Manchurian: Moscow – Beijing (2 visas)
- Trans-Mongolian: Moscow – Ulaanbaatar – Beijing (3 visas)
- Trans-Russian: Moscow – Vladivostok (1 visa)
It’s up to you which you’d prefer – the Trans-Mongolian is the most popular route, travelling through Russia, Mongolia and China. It depends on which countries you want to visit.
Depending on where you start your journey, you might need a fourth visa.
If you’re starting your rail journey in Western Europe you’ll need a transit visa to travel through Belarus. I can’t tell you how long a Belarusian visa will be valid because I don’t know. It’s not that I’m lazy and haven’t done my research (honest) – but it differs from person to person depending on the dates on your application form and travel tickets. I can, however, tell you how long you’ve got in Belarus – 48 hours. Not that you’ll need it, but it’s handy to know in case of any delays. Standard processing time is about 6 business days, express is about 2.
If you choose the Trans-Mongolian route, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear you’ll be passing through Mongolia. It’s a beautiful country steeped in culture, but it’s up to you whether you want to stop off and explore for a bit or just admire it through the train window as it rolls by.
If you’re not staying over you’ll need a transit visa. They’re valid for 3 months from the date of issue and they allow you to stay for up to 10 days.
If you are stopping, there’s loads to do. My personal favourite is the turtle rock in Gorkhi Terelj National Park. It’s a massive rock that looks like a turtle. What’s not to love? You could also visit the Gobi desert, maybe camp out in a Ger – they’re little yurts. It’s like glamping. You could ride a horse around the crystal clear waters of Lake Khövsgöl. Do it topless, pretend you’re Putin. If you’re going in July, see if you can catch any of the incredible Naadam festival. It’s 5 days of traditional Mongolian wrestling, archery and horse-riding.
Your Mongolian tourist visa is valid for 3 months from the date of issue and allows you to stay in the country for up to 30 days.
Please note: citizens of Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lao, Macau, Malaysia, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United States and Uruguay are exempt from needing a Mongolian visa for travel or tourism purposes.
If you’re travelling the Trans-Manchurian or the Trans-Mongolian route you’ll need a Chinese tourist visa. And you probably will want to do tourist-y things in China, because it’s incredible. You could visit Tiananmen Square and see where the iconic ‘tank man’ stood. Guy stared down like 6 tanks. Hero. You could go see Beijing’s Forbidden City, an immense palace complex dating back to 1406. It’s the most valued piece of real estate in the world, valued at about £50 BILLION. And what trip to China would be complete without seeing the Great Wall? Whatever takes your fancy, there’s plenty to do and soak in.
For China you’ll need a tourist visa. If you’re from the UK, we’ve got an agreement with China so your visa will be valid for 2 years from the date of issue because after all, teamwork makes the dreamwork. You can stay in China for up to 90 days and the visa will be multiple entry by default.
If you’re aged between 14 and 70 (and I’m going to go out on a limb and presume that you are) you’ll need to visit a Chinese visa application centre in either London, Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast to submit your biometrics. Submitting your biometrics sounds quite scary but don’t worry, you’re not in some dystopian society (although that’s debatable, I suppose). It’s just a fancy way of saying ‘take your fingerprints’ to help prevent crime. Fair enough.
Standard processing time for a Chinese visa is 4 business days after submitting your fingerprints and express processing time is up to 3.
The most important of all – the Russian visa! All of the routes require a Russian visa. Well, you are travelling pretty much the entirety of the country. Luckily for you, there’s so much to see and do along the way.
In Moscow, you might want to spend some time admiring the beautiful architecture of the train station (see the image at the top of this article if you don’t believe me!). From there, visit the iconic Red Square. There’s the Kremlin, there’s the enchanting St Basil’s Cathedral – a must see, it’s like a fairy-tale. Further afield, there’s Lake Baikal – the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. Stop off and have a picnic! Honestly, there’s so much to do that I could write a hundred articles and still not talk about everything. Spend some time looking it up yourself, plan your own adventure.
Back to visas. It’s a bit more complicated to get a Russian visa. You can’t just apply for one. Well, you can, but you need to apply something else first. Thanks Russia. You need a ‘tourist voucher’.
Tourist voucher, tourist coupon, invitation letter – there’s numerous names for this, but they’re all the same thing and you only need one. It’s a document that you need to provide as part of your visa application, and they’re easy enough to get – you can just get one online. It’ll be emailed to you so you can just print it off and send it with your visa application. If you want more information on tourist vouchers, you can find a helpful blog here.
Once you’ve got your tourist voucher then you can apply for your tourist visa. Try not to get them mixed up – voucher first. Your visa will be valid for up to 30 days (dependent on the dates on your application form and voucher) and will let you stay in the country for up to 30 days. Much like China, you’ll need to go to the Russian visa application centre in London and submit your biometrics (fingerprints). For a Russian visa, anyone over the age of 12 has to do this.
Standard visa processing time is up to 21 business days after biometrics submission and express is 4.
Russian visas are issued strictly according to the travel dates on your tourist voucher and application form. When you apply for the voucher and visa, you’re probably best off adding a few extra days onto your intended leaving date, just to cover yourself if there’s any delays. You don’t want to end up with a big fine.
One more thing! Once you arrive in Russia you’ll be given a ‘Russian Migration Card‘. This is basically just a little card that you’re given confirming you’re in the country legally. You fill it in when you get there. It’s just things like your name, date of birth and passport number – nothing too complicated. You’ll need to hand your card back in when you leave the country, so make sure you keep hold of it. Try not to lose it – you don’t want to be getting fined!
Which visas you need depends on which route you’re wanting to take:
Don’t forget you’ll also need a Belarusian transit visa if you’re starting the train journey in Western Europe. Don’t be daunted by the visas needed for the Trans-Siberian railway. They’re easy enough to sort out.
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