Kazakhstan: Border Crossing and Documentation

This post is about the government documentation we needed and obtained to bring our car and ourselves into Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan in General

To quote our Lonely Planet guide book; “Visas and permits can be the single biggest headache associated with travel in ex-Soviet Central Asia. Collecting visas for a multi-country trip through Central Asia can take months and cost hundreds of US dollars. Visa regulations are getting easier every year but our best advice remains ‘start early and do your research’”. Well that didn’t sound too promising. Kazakhstan would be our first attempt to get a visa for a Central Asian country.

The good news was that Kazakhstan does not require a Letter of Invitation (LOI) to obtain a 30- or 60-day tourist visas for us. But the visas are date-specific with no extensions possible and registration is required as we were entering the country overland. We were also applying for a dual entry visa as we wanted to exit Uzbekistan back into Kazakhstan.

Before the Border

While in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) we applied for a Kazakhstan visa. We had a little trouble finding the Kazakhstan Embassy and were ultimately assisted by the kind staff at the Oasis Cafe and Guesthouse who provided us with the address. It is located at 47.892587°N and 106.907713°E.

We completed the application form, which had English translations, provided passport photos, a letter (signed by us) requesting tourist visas and an accompanying day-by-day itinerary with specific dates. Turned out that there was also a form to request a visa, which we filled out, but it was a nice touch we wrote our own. We requested a dual entry visa with no Letter Of Invitation (LOI).

The only painful part of the process was the waiting. To get the form and hand it back took 90 mins. And we were the only people there. The delay was because the english speaking person was busy doing something else. Oh well.

Four days later we got a phone call that our visas were ready for collection. We had to pay the fee at a local bank and present the deposit confirmation slip at the Embassy. For us the visa fees were $60 each.

Entering Kazakhstan (from Russia)

We crossed from the town of Rubstovsk in Russia which is about 40 kms from the actual border. The A349 basically continues straight into Kazakhstan and clearly there was no need for a border post here when Kazakhstan did not exist as in independent nation and was part of the former Soviet Union. The Kazakhstan checkpoint we used is located at N51.207314° and E81.115065° and is quite a sizable facility. The steps involved in the crossing:-

  • Step 1: There is a Stop sign and a little office at the security perimeter of the checkpoint facility. After parking our car behind a line of other cars, we headed to the security hut just like the other drivers before us had done. Here the border guard took our passports and asked us a few question about where we were going after Kazakhstan. A few minutes later he haded back our passports and a completed the immigration card for Stephen and another blank immigration card which he told us to copy with Caroline’s details. Stephen had to sign his card. We thought this was very nice of him at the time. He also gave us a small slip of paper which would be used to control our progress through each step of the entry process and identified our car and one passenger.
  • Step 2: We went back to the car and filled in the second immigration card. At this moment we should have detected a major problem, but we didn’t. The immigration card has only very limited information on it; a) Passport Number, b) Surname, c) Given Names, d) Purpose of Visit, e) Inviting Party and f) Signature. All pretty obvious except for Purpose of Visit we wrote “транзит”, which is NOT “tourist” in Russian. It is actually “transit”. Anyway, we filled out Caroline’s card and then drove through into the facility proper.
  • Step 3: We parked outside the first big building on the left in the car-park there. Inside the administration building were two immigration desks and we joined the short line.  We got the usual questions about travel plans, length of stay etc. We got a stamp in our passport and two red stamps on our immigration cards. Once processed, Caroline walked through the building and Stephen headed back to the car to drive through. Our little slip of paper got stamped with a red stamp.
  • Step 4: Drove to the other side of the administration building to another hanger like build where customs would inspect the car. The official was extremely friendly and could speak a little english. He asked the about guns and drugs and then wanted to know about where we have been and where we are going. The inspection was not a real inspection at all. Our little slip of paper got stamped with a blue stamp.
  • Step 5: The last step was security at the exit gate where we handed in our little slip of paper, we were waved on and we entered Kazakhstan.

Everyone was friendly. There was no inappropriate suggestions of bribes. And we were through in less than 30 minutes.

After the Border

200 meters after the border we saw a small bunker like shack which housed a lady selling car insurance. The sign above the shack stated they were open 24 hours. We pulled over, slipped our documentation through a small window and asked for 2 weeks car insurance. It took ten minutes, but then our documentation came back through the window along with an insurance policy. The cost was 500 doubles or around USD $10. Not bad.

Four days later we had the idea to buy more car insurance to be used when we cross out of Uzbekistan and back into Kazakhstan. we will be crossing at a very small border post and maybe there is no one selling insurance at the border. So we popped into a Notary office that also sells car insurance. The ladies in the office spoke very good English and we had no trouble explaining what we wanted. So, for another 2,200 Tenge (or USD $13) we another another month of insurance to start after the first policy expires. Prefect. Also we found out this policy is good for all the Stan states, so that is the last insurance we have to buy for a while.

Buying Insurance.
Insurance Policy

There is a requirement in Kazakhstan to get registered with the immigration police within 5 days of entry into the country. Being stamped in at the border is not enough. Once we had checked into our Hotel we headed off to the Police Station and see about this registration process.Registration after the Border

The police officer gave us a blank form and told us to go back to the hotel to get a stamp on the form and return within 30 minutes and he would complete the registration. We hurried back, got the hotel stamp and returned as told. At this stage the officer noticed that we had “transit” written on our immigration cards, and claimed that meant he could not register us. His advice, go to Almaty and register there. We were a little shocked by all of this and pretty confused. It was clear this cop was not going to register us and we had no real option but to leave and think about our options. The options were

1) Head back to the border (150 ams away) and see if they would fix our immigration card. Worst case we would have to leave Kazakhstan and enter Russia, and then immediately leave Russia and re-enter Kazakhstan. This would blow the second entry on our visa and might mean we could be stuck in Uzbekistan in a months time. So we would have to get another visa for Kazakhstan. While quite possible, it would be a pain.

2) Head to Almaty as fast as we can and see if they can sort it out there. If they can’t (or won’t), then we have to leave the country within 5 days.

3) Ignore the problem. This would likely lead to a several thousand dollar fine.

We choose option 2. Three days later and after an epic drive south we got to Almaty. But we never went to the Immigration Police as that would mean wasting time with them and we would rather spend time walking around and enjoying Almaty. So, on the 5th day after entering Kazakhstan, we left. We planned to stay 7-10 days but were ago with the early departure.

The immigration card with “transit” in the Purpose of Visit section. Big mistake.
The best “little slip” of paper on the entire trip. Very professional

Leaving Kazakhstan (for Kyrgyzstan)

We departed Kazakhstan on the main border crossing with Kyrgyzstan very near Bishkek. We choose this border crossing as we were not 100% sure the one in the far east would be open on the weekend, and we really needed to cross. The actual border post is located on a banks of a river at the end of the A2 highway near the Kazakhstan town of Korday N43.025471° and E74.706061°.

Leaving Kazakstan at this border post was by far the most frustrating crossing we have had on the entire trip. The officials wanted money and because we did not pay them, the whole process took a lot longer than it needed to and was much more confusing as no one wanted to help us. But we got through in and hour making it still a pretty easy crossing. It does leave a very bad taste and it would have been nice to left on a good note.

The steps in detail

  • Step 1: At the checkpoint we joined a short line of cars waiting to enter the facility. Cars were moving slowly through and we expected a long wait. As we drove through through the perimeter gate into the inspection area the guard gave us a blank slip of paper and we wrote our license plate number of on it. This would be the control document used to record our progress through the various stages. Caroline had to get out of the car and use the pedestrian crossing while Stephen stayed with Sterlin and continued with the car crossing.
  • Step 2: There was a pathetic attempt at an inspection of the vehicle contents. And a much more concerted effort of getting money off us. It was all a little sad actually. Stephen was asked to step into an office and was shown some manual written in Russian with pictures of cars and then asked multiple times for money. I think it was important to enter the office to avoid being seen by the numerous security camera. After a few awkward minutes we headed back to the car and continued to the next step.
  • Step 3: There was a lot of waiting around. The someone pointed to a window on the left side of the inspection area where Stephen had to take Passenger Customs Declaration form we got when we entered Russia. The official immediately asked me to enter another little office and wasted no time asking for money. After a few minutes the official gave up and stamped the custom paperwork and let me go. He did not stamp the little piece of paper.
  • Step 4: More waiting around trying to find out what the next step was. Finally found the customs officer again and he stamped the little slip of paper. He was a little pissed however.
  • Step 5: More waiting around trying to find out if I go into the immigration hall or not. Finally someone pointed to the another window right next door to the customs window. The two immigration officers we actually very friendly and did not waste anytime stamping Stephen out of Kazakhstan. He also stamped the little slip of paper.
  • Step 6: Back to the car to join a line of cars trying to leave the facility through the exist gate. Another process of waiting. But eventually they took the little slip of paper and the boom gates lifted and over the bridge to Kyrgyzstan we went.

During the above steps Caroline was processed very quickly and professional. She had to watch from behind a low fence the painful process Stephen was going through.

This was one of the worst border crossing either of us have ever had. Ok, there was one worst 25 years ago into Kenya, but this was also pretty bad. We were glad to be through and out of Kazakhstan.

Leaving Kazakhstan. Waiting to be let in, so we can leave.

Entering Kazakhstan (from Uzbekistan)

We crossed from the western border of Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan 85kms south east of the town of Beyneu. The E40 crosses the border in the middle of the desert with the actual border checkpoint located at N44.89584° and E55.99729°. The steps involved in the crossing:-

  • Step 1: We drove the short 100 meters or so across the no-mans land from the exit gate of the Uzbekistan checkpoint to the entry gate of the Kazakhstan checkpoint. The no mans land was busy and packed with parked trucks.  Two lanes of parked trucks entering Kazakhstan and two lanes leaving. We joined the melée. We went up to the security gate to let the guard know we had arrived, to our present our passports and get some blank immigration cards. The guard was extremely friendly letting us know it would be 30 minutes before the trucks blocking the access to the entry would be moved and before we could enter. The guard gave us two blank immigration cards and a little slip of paper which he fillef in with our license plate number and the number of passengers. This slip of paper would record and control our progress through the checkpoint. We returned to Sterlin to fill in our immigration cards and wait. A few minutes later the guard showed up to see us and our car presumably to check us out. We were hidden from the guard shack by the trucks.. We jointly worked out with a little bit of effort we could maneuver Sterlin around and between the the trucks, so we did this and were soon into the checkpoint facility avoiding a long wait. Very nice.
  • Step 2: We parked to the right in a small parking lot as directed and proceeded into the administration which was located to the left. Unlike when we entered Kazakhstan from Russia and the security guard filled in Stephen’s immigration card, this time we did it. And this time we put “Tourism” as the purpose of visit. At Passport Control the immigration officer quickly and efficiently stamped us into the country and stamped our little slip of paper.
  • Step 3: We passed through a switched off metal detector and walked around a large and switched off x-ray scanner to find customs. We were quickly directed to the other side of the building, the side for people leaving Kazakhstan. Here we handed over drivers passport, some car documentation and the Customs Declaration form we got when we first entered Russia. The Russian form worked a treat and the official was soon typing away at her computer and photocopying the passport and car documentation. The eagle eyed official noticed that the passport number on the form was from Stephen”s US passport and our Kazakhstan visa was in Stephen’s UK passport. This problem was soon resolved by heading back to the car, getting the US passport and presenting it. Having two passports gave the officials a few minutes of concern, but they decided it was ok and used the US passport. Which is good, as we will have to leave Russia later and it will be better to use the US passport at that time. The official printed out two Custom Declaration forms, Stephen signed both and kept one and returned the other. Sterlin had just been cleared into Kazakhstan.
  • Step 4: The customs inspection was cursory with just one bag being opened. The inspector was very friendly and chatted away with us in his limited english. He stamped our little slip of paper and waved us goodbye.
  • Step 5: The last step was security at the exit gate where we handed in our little slip of paper and passports. The guard checked we had all of the necessary stamps and then opened the gate and we entered Kazakhstan.

Everyone was friendly. There was no inappropriate suggestions of bribes. And we were through 45 minutes.

After the Border

There was no insurance booth at this border post, so glad we had pre-purchased insurance in Almaty during our first visit to Kazakhstan. We only stayed two nights in Kazakhstan before leaving to Russia, so we didn’t bother with registration. Registration has to be completed if staying more than 5 days.

Leaving Kazakhstan (for Russia)

We departed Kazakhstan on the most western border near the Russian town of Astrakhan. The actual border at this location is formed by a river separating the two countries. The Kazakhstan checkpoint is a few kilometers before the river. Our plan was to head to the Caspian Sea and this was the most obvious point to cross. The actual border post is located on a banks of a river at the end of the A27 highway near the Kazakhstan town of Kotyayevka at N46.552941° and E48.76523°.

Leaving Kazakstan at this border post was a delight compared to leaving Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan  No one wanted money and everyone was quick, efficient and polite. The exit process, to our surprise, lasted a mere 18 minutes. The steps in detail:-

  • Step 1: At the checkpoint perimeter gate the guard gave us a small slip of paper which would control our progress through the checkpoint. The gate was opened and we proceeded directly to the customs inspection area.
  • Step 2: After we stopped and got out of our car we were directed to passport control. We handed over our European passports containing our Kazakhstan visa to the immigration officer. She was having trouble finding our Russian visa, as they are in our US passports. We then gave her our US passports. The fact that we had two passports caused a little confusion, but this was soon sorted out and passports and little slip of paper were stamped and we were through immigration.
  • Step 3: Once back at the car, the customs officials did a very cursory inspection lasting about a minute. Our little slip of paper was stamped and we drive to perimeter security.
  • Step 4: The border guard inspected our passports, opened the gate and off we went.

During the above steps we stayed together which was nice. Usually drivers and passengers are separated. After our terrible experience leaving Kazakhstan for Kyrgyzstan we were a little apprehensive about this border crossing. Turned out we had nothing to worry about.