I began my quest to get a Belarus visa back in early October.  According to the website of the Belarussian Embassy in the United States, I would need a letter of invitation from a registered travel agency – similar to the invitation requirement for Russia.  On the other hand, rumor had it elsewhere that nothing more than a confirmed booking from a hotel was required.

While I pretty much had to get my Russian visa while I was still in the United States, from what I read on the Lonely Planet message boards, I would be able to get the visa to Belarus from the embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Working with a Travel Agency

I initially sent emails to three travel agencies in Belarus, all listed in my Lonely Planet and Bradt guidebooks. One responded telling me I could not get my visa in Vilnius (which I was 99.9% certain was not true), so I ruled them out immediately. I went back and forth with the other two for several weeks as my level of annoyance grew.

One told me they would only provide visa support if I booked all hotels with them (I hoped to save some money by staying at the only hostel in Minsk).

The other told me they would only provide the invitation if I also booked an excursion with them – in addition to 10 nights of hotels!

Both quoted me different rates for the same hotels.

In the end, I went with Alatan Tour and could not have been happier.  We had to tweak my itinerary several times based on hotel availability and transportation options, but my contact with Alatan was always incredibly patient and responsive. Once we finalized my itinerary and booked the hotels, they sent me a hotel voucher and a letter of invitation via email and gave me instructions on how to complete the sections of the visa application relating to my inviting organization. The application was available online so I could complete it before going to the embassy in Vilnius.

Visiting the Embassy

I arrived in Vilnius on Monday, December 12 and went directly to the Belarussian Embassy, located about  a 15 minute walk from the Old Town on a fairly unnoticeable side street (I walked by it the first time). It was 1:30 when I arrived and it turned out that the embassy was closed for lunch until 2:00 so I grabbed a spot on a nearby bench and waited as about a dozen people showed up behind me.

Once inside the embassy, everyone immediately darted to various numbered windows – I seemed to be the only one who was a newcomer. I tried to explain to a large man in a grey suit that I was there to apply for a visa and he gruffly asked me (in Russian) where I was from and asked to see my passport. He then directed me to a window where, to my surprise, an English-speaking woman greeted me and reviewed my application, together with the invitation and hotel voucher. The only point she asked me to clarify was my occupation – I simply listed “consultant” and she wanted me to write in exactly what kind of consultant I allegedly am.

Then she broke it to me that I needed to buy medical insurance.

I had read this was a requirement of entry to Belarus – they don’t recognize any other insurance policies even if they should be valid worldwide.  However, I didn’t realize I would need this to obtain the visa.  Luckily (and not surprisingly), there was a conveniently located travel agency just across the street from the embassy. Fifteen minutes and 17 Litas (just over $6) later, I had my insurance policy valid for the same period as my requested visa.

Back at the embassy, I was given an invoice and directed to the cashier’s window, where I was told the fee was 100 Euros.

Everything I read indicated that the visa fee for United States citizens was $140 and I assumed that meant the embassy would accept dollars as payment.

Nope, only Euros.

I found that interesting considering that I was in Lithuania and applying for a visa to Belarus and neither country uses the Euro. On the plus side, due to the exchange rate, my visa actually ended up costing slightly less than the advertised $140.

With only dollars on me, I headed out to a bank about three blocks away to change my dollars for Euros.  Arriving at the bank, I took a number and waited for about twenty minutes until I was called.

Back at the embassy once again, I handed over my 100 Euros, received a receipt and was sent to yet another window. There, I got a slip of paper with my name and passport number on it indicating that my Belarus visa would be ready the following Monday, December 19.

The fact that the woman told me “passport, visa ready” gave me confidence that the hard part was over and waiting was just a formality.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the embassy mid-morning exactly one week later, I walked right up to the window, showed my slip of paper and got my passport with a shiny new Belarus visa pasted squarely inside.

In retrospect, getting my visa to Belarus was pretty painless. Working with Alatan Tour simplified the process and the staff at the embassy in Vilnius could not have been friendlier. Getting the visa abroad was also likely cheaper and quicker than trying to get it back home in the United States.

So if you’ve been thinking of checking out Belarus (there must be someone else out there!), don’t let the red tape of getting a visa stop you – what little hassle was involved was worth it to visit this former Soviet country that’s still far off the beaten path for most Western tourists.

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