In December 2014 I booked some really cheap flights to Moscow and I was very excited about it. Got my tourist invitation and my visa so everything was sorted for my impending trip in March. Was so excited to get there to see what Moscow is all about.
And I did. Kinda…
How I got stopped at the Russian border
Technically, I was on Russian territory, practically I didn’t cross the border.
They stopped me at the border due to an issue with the visa. No one told me why or how or what is happening, they just took to a side and escorted me to a seated area to wait.
But wait for what?
I didn’t know and no one was telling me anything. Firstly, because no one at the border could understand basic English. Secondly, because they probably didn’t really care that much about a crying Romanian with a visa problem.
After an hour of waiting on the chair and crying, an Easy Jet employee Yuri, came to the rescue. He took me down a corridor and into an office which I later found out was for people trying to illegally get into Russia and has issues with their visas. And I was one of them.
The actual problem with my Russian visa
Yuri was trying to translate what the guy in the office was explaining to me in broken English:
Yuri: There is problem with visa. It says Slovakia but you Romania. Are you Slovakia?
Me: Of course not, I am Romanian, I have a Romanian passport.
Yuri: That’s what we think. We try solve visa but there is problem with tourist invitation agency. They have licence fee pay in February when you got visa. But not pay licence for March. So problem.
Face dropped, tears running down my face and panic. Those who know me will understand. I panic for anything. Literally anything. I make sure I go through the worst scenarios in my mind before I do anything just so I know what to expect. So you can probably imagine what was going through my head.
Simply put, to get your tourist visa you need a tourist invitation and accommodation booked. Then you go to the Russian embassy in London or Edinburgh and get your fingerprints scanned and pay a fee (amount depends on your nationality: as a Romanian I paid £78 but I know a Brit that paid £98).
Also, at the airport, the airline you’re flying with is obliged to double check your visa.
My visa went through so many checks I can’t believe no one spotted the Slovakian thing. I couldn’t have because it’s in Russian, but surely when they check at the airport they should see. That’s why they double check?!
Simples right? Not quite.
Being detained on Russian territory
My visa said I am from Slovakia. They tried to change it at the Russian border but because that stupid agency (infinity.com) didn’t pay its licence fee I was illegally on Russian territory and classed as a political refugee with status for immediate deportation to the UK.
Lovely. Got that one crossed of my bucket list!
So Yuri took me back the corridor to the chair.
Me: Co can I go in the departures area?
Me: Can I go get a coffee or food?
Yuri: No, sorry. You can’t leave the chair or this area.
And he left.
By that point I was awake since 4 am, it was 5 pm and the flight back was at 7:20pm.
They had my passport and all the flight info. All I knew is that I can’t move for another hour or so.
The room with the Uzbekistani women
Around 7pm I was expecting them to come get me or at least give me my passport. No one showed up. I tried to ask officers but they couldn’t understand English.
At 7:20 I was panicked massively.
Around 7:30 a guy came and pointed at me and three other men to follow him.
We went back through the corridor and he opened a door to what I was expecting to be a passage way leading to the terminal. Boy, I was wrong.
I started crying again. “Again” is a strong word considering I didn’t really stop in the first place.
I tried to go through the door following the men but the guy didn’t let me. He closed the door and took me further down the corridor where he opened another door.
He shoved me in there and closed the door behind me without any explanation. Obviously, as it is my trademark in these situations I started crying again. “Again” is a strong word considering I didn’t really stop in the first place.
When I turned around there were three other women there. One had her shoes off and lounging on three of the chairs in the room, another was dancing on oriental music blasting from her phone and the third was cleaning some spilled water. It seemed like they’ve been there for ages.
To my surprise, no not really, they couldn’t speak English. From what they were saying, I could only get that they are from Uzbekistan and they understood I am American for some reason. Not that it really mattered.
When they saw I couldn’t stop crying they started making fun of me and imitating me.
Throughout the day I felt like less and less of a person and more of a chunk of meat that can talk. That’s how they treat you and that’s what you are to them. It doesn’t matter how you ended up in that mess and what your circumstances are. When you are classed as illegally being on a foreign territory you are one with the rest.
Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not.
Spent another hour or so in that room with barred windows and foil plastered all over them so you couldn’t see outside.
At 8:45 Moscow time someone opened the door, shouted my name and signed I should follow.
And I did.
They escorted me through security and on the plane to London Gatwick.
When the plane took off I started crying again but this time because I was relieved. I knew I was going to a country that treats people right and a country I feel safe and at home.
Landed in Gatwick safely but that still meant I lost 1 day of holidays out of 5. THAT was really sad. I couldn’t let that happen so I quickly made another plan. But that’s a story for another blog post.
Moral of the story: if you decide to go to Russia don’t go alone. Always triple check your visa with the help of someone who speaks Russian or at the airport make them go through each line. I wasn’t even supposed to leave Manchester with that visa if EasyJet staff there would have done their jobs.
Thankfully Easy Jet redeemed themselves by letting me transfer my return ticket from Moscow so I didn’t have to pay the flight to Gatwick. And Yuri was a doll. But maybe that was because they realised they made a mistake when checking my visa. Not sure.
Practical information about your trip to Russia
- Plan your visa trip well in advance and make sure you get your tourist invitation from a good agency. Infinity.com was the one that I used so I would NOT recommend it. There are loads online that offer it for a low price compared to the Russian embassy one which was £100 when I checked. Prices vary and it may be different now. Visit Russia website seem to offer it for £25. You can check it here: http://www.visitrussia.org.uk/visa/invitation.php There is also Real Russia that offers the same type of service.
- A tourist invitation is NOT A VISA. You need an invitation and a travel voucher (given by the same agency) and your accommodation booked BEFORE you apply for the Visa in either London or Edinburgh.
- I got accommodation booked through Airbnb (4 nights, £50). Honestly, it was so cheap and it looked amazing. Make sure your accommodation is licenced and will register your visa. It’s a mandatory legal requirement.
- Once you have all your documents you have to go to the Russian Visa Application centre in either Edinburgh or London to get your fingerprints scanned. This is applicable since December 2014.
Also, I have a Russian guidebook I really don’t need so if you’re going to Russia anytime soon register for my newsletter and I will pick one of you lucky travellers to get it. 🙂
Did you have a similar experience? Share the pain with me in the comments. Also, any advice or updates on the info I provided are much appreciated. I struggled a bit to find all of the info so let’s help everyone else who is planning a trip to Russia.