Russia: Border Crossing and Documentation

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

Russia in General

The Russia government website has a pretty good description of the process to temporarily import a vehicle into Russia. Basically vehicles can be imported without duty or garantees for 3 months by filling out a few forms at the broder checkpoint. We of course needed a visa to get ourselves in.Our experience with the entry into Russia and with the Russian officials was very painless and efficient.

Before the Border

Getting a Russian tourist visa for us was not too difficult as we had a commercially organized tour to Russia prior to entering overland. The visa was expensive however. As part of our trip to the White Sea, we obtained our Letter Of Invitation (LOI) from the company operating the ship we would be aboard. Getting a LOI is a key step in the process to get a visa. There are travel agents that can arrange these for you, but inour case this was not necessary. We did use a travel agency (Goto Russia) to take our LOI and obtain the visa from the embassy, just to make our life a little bit easier. Of course we paid the visa fees and a fee for the travel agency. We asked for and got a 3 year multi-entry visa, something that US citizens can get. Most of nationalities can not obtain a visa valid for 3 years. We would be visiting Russia at least 3 times, so the exepnsive multi-entry visa was the best for us.

While we were in China we arranged for European Green Card car insurance to be sent to us in Ulaanbaatar and made sure this insurance was valid for Russia. We heard rumors that car insurance is checked at the border and it is a problem if it is not in order.

Border Crossing into Russia (from Mongolia)

We crossed from the town of Ulaanbaishint in Mongolia which is about 5 kms from the actual border. The bumpy, dusty and unsealed AH4 in Mongolia magically transformed into a beautiful sealed road as we drove over the border into Russia. The adjoining road in Russia is the M52.

There are two checkpoints on the Russian side. The first is at the actual border (N49.643344° and E49.643344°) and the second is around 20 kms away at the first major town (N49.710095° and E89.201519°). We presumed the first was to make sure we could cross before sending us along to the where all the paperwork would be processed in earnest. The steps involved:-

  • Step 1: As we drove up to a small border post, a Russian guard appeared out of a little building, opened the gate and directed us to a parking spot. We handed over our passports and car registration papers. A quick inspection satisfied the guard, he handed the documents back and asked to wait 1 minute. The guard seemed to speak pret good English. 1 minute later we returned with his log book, noted down our License Plate and sent us on our way. Although we had we been processed into Russia, there was a nice reminding us that we were in Russia and subject to the laws of Russia.
  • Step 2: 20 kms later we reached a much more substantial border checkpoint and administration complex which was visible on the other side of a closed entry gate. A man appeared and sprayed the wheels of our car with some type of insecticide. The cost for this service was 100 RUB, which we did not have. He did not accept Mongolian Tugrik so we paid $3 which seemed to work.
  • Step 3: The guard at the gate gave us two blank arrival/departure cards and motioned that we should fill them in. Once we did this, he opened the gate and we drove to the inspection area.
  • Step 4: We entered the administration building and immediately found the immigration desk. An official appeared and opened the desk for us. The only questions he asked was to confirm our names and wanted to know how we had entered Mongolia, presumably because he could see no Russian stamps. Once he knew told him that we entered Mongolia from China, he was happy. We each got an entry stamp in our passports with the current date and no exit date. We also got both sides of our arrival/departure card back.a little strange, as Immigration usually keeps the arrival half.
  • Step 5: We left the building and headed back to the car to see 4 officials waiting there for us. We were expecting a vehicle search, so we opened up everything without being asked. We were a little surprised that there really was no inspections, just some questions about our tent and fridge. That was easy. One of the officials directed us to a little shack in the inspection area where the customs paperwork would be completed.
  • Step 6: In the customs office were a pile of Passenger Customs Declaration forms in Russia and another pile in English. We filled out a form and handed it over. The customs official looked at the form, found a few mistakes, marked the form accordingly and made us fill it out again, with the corrections. We declared the amount of money we had, that was a mistake. We also declared goods over 50 kegs and/or high value, another mistake. On the second attempt we left those sections blank. Apparently we had to give two forms, so we also completed one each in each of our names. Another mistake, we had to give two forms, both in the same name and both filled in exactly the same. One form was for them and one would be stamped and returned to us. There was some typing of information into the computer and a barcode sticker was placed on our form along with 5 blue stamps. This completed e proces to temporarily import Sterlin into Russia.
  • Step 7: Back in the car and we drove up to the exit gate of the complex. The guard checked our paperwork, once satisified we told us to drive 300 meters and checkin with another immigration office. We nodded and headed off.
  • Step 8: Just pass a covered and aging inspection area on the left side of the road is a small green shipping container housing some sort of immigration office. We joined the line behind a bunch of Kazakhstainees heading to Mongolia. The immigration asked if we’re heading to Moscow, we said no, we are heading to Kazakhstan. That was the only question. He typed some stuff into his computer, detached the arrival half of our arrival/departure card and wished us well. Not sure why there was a second immigration, but it was painless enough.

The whole entry process lasted 1 hour and 5 minutes. Everyone was friendly enough which was nice. No one checked our car insurance.

After the Border

We had read on the Internet that Russian law required us to register our presence within 7 business days of arrival in the country. We also read in our Lonely Planet guidebook that we also have to register in the Altai republic prior to entry. These registration requirements are all a little vague. In the end we didn’t do anything to register and we only stayed 6 nights or 5 working days in Russia, so were probably exempt form these strange registration laws. Three of the hotels we stayed in gave us some paperwork which looked very much like registration papers. Two of the smaller guesthouses we stayed in did not give us anything and made it clear (in confusing Russian) that they would not becregistering us. We figured we would be okay, so didn’t worry too much. Maybe if the police had stopped us we might have been hassled a bit, but we managed to avoid police checkpoints.

Examples of Hotel registrations.

We departed Russia on the southern border with Kazakhstan near the town of Veseloyarsk (about 10kms away from the border) and the bigger town of Rubstovsk (about 40kms from the border). The actual border post is a small facility just off the A349 highway at N51.211085° and E81.113032°.

Leaving Russia was pretty painless, and the officials were friendly and engaging. Before the actual border crossing process started, we got a little confused about something that “maybe” we had to do at the little shop just before the checkpoint facility. Another driver waiting in line waved at us to go to the shop and do something. Once in the shop there was a small desk, a computer and a non uniformed person who wanted our passports and car documentation. But once we gave them our paperwork, everything got very confusing. We did not understand their Russian or their blank stares. They did not understand our English or our blank stares. In the end we took our paperwork back and left them not knowing what was meant to done.

We read on the Internet that Russia and Kazakhstan share some sort of free-trade zone which simplifies the customs paperwork. No idea if this is true or not, but we did not have to give anyone any customs paperwork and we retained our Passenger Customs Declaration form which we used to subsequently leave Kazakhstan. So clearly they have some sort of arrangement. Here are all the steps in more detail than is probably useful.

  • Step 1: Joined a short line of cars waiting the enter the facility. They were letting three cars in at a time and processing them before letting in the next bunch of three cars in. It was not long before the boom gate opened and we were driving to the customs inspection area. To our right was a car park and the shop which confined the small office doing something we couldn’t out.
  • Step 2: After parking in the nspection area, we were directed into the small administration building to the left where we were stamped out by immigration. Very quick and efficient. We did not have to complete any paperwork or show any of our accommodation receipts. Immigration retained our departure cards. Immigration also did not look for our Kazakhstan visa, because if they did they would not have found it. Although we exited on our US passports we would later enter Kazakhstan on our European passports which contained our visa.
  • Step 3: The customs official wanted to make sure we did not have any guns or drugs, although we had trouble understanding his Russian, but eventually worked it out. He we through the motions of looking in the car, but didn’t really do any real inspection. He spent more time trying to tell us how beautiful Russia was. Our customs paperwork was not inspected or stamped.
  • Step 4: We left the checkpoint facility and Russia.

Waiting in line took 20 minutes and being processed took 25 minutes. We did not have any silly small slips of paper to carry around with us. Overall a painless process.

Border Crossing into Russia (from Kazakhstan)

We crossed from the western edge of Kazakhstan into Russia on our way to the Caspian Sea. The border between the two countries is formed by a river making up part of the Volga Delta. We were glad to be leaving the potholed roads of Kazakhstan for the smooth roads of Russia. On the Kazakhstan side the A27 changes to the A340 and both form part of the E40.

There are two checkpoints on the Russian side. The first is at the actual border on the Russian side of the bridge (N46.547693° and E48.751702°) and the second is around 10 kms away at the first major town (N46.545780° and E48.637140°). We presumed the first was to make sure we could cross before sending us along to the where all the paperwork would be processed in earnest. The steps involved:-

  • Step 1: As we drove across the bridge on the far side was a small small border post containing two Russian guards. We handed over our passports and car documentation and in return got a little white slip of paper, two blue pieces of paper with control numbers printed on them and two blank immigration cards. The white and blue slips of paper would ensure we passed through the second control point later. The guard registered us in his log book and then gave us an extremely friendly “Welcome to the Russian Federation”.
  • Step 2: 10 kms later we reached a much more substantial border checkpoint and administration complex. We joined a line of waiting cars and trucks to be let in. It was not long before a lady emerged from the buildings on the right and wanted to know if we had Green Card insurance. We did, but I am confident she could sell us some if we didn’t have any. While we waited to be let in the border post, we started to fill out our immigration cards. We had not even finished when the perimeter guard came up to check our paperwork. After a quick check of passports we were let in.
  • Step 3: There was small window on the right side at the end of the inspection bay where we handed in our passports and control slips of paper. A minute later we were both stamped in. The officer kept the blue slips of paper but returned the white slip with a stamp on it.
  • Step 4: Back at the car a customs official performed a very cursory inspection lasting a minute or so. That was easy. No one wanted to see the paperwork for Sterlin to show that we had temporary import papers.
  • Step 5: We drove to the exit gate where our passports were inspected and the little slip of paper was retained. We were back in Russia.

The whole entry process lasted 35 minutes. Everyone was friendly enough which was nice. None of the officials checked our car insurance.

Border Crossing out of Russia (into Finland)

We departed Russia on the western border with Finland near the town of Vyborg. The border can be reached by heading 50kms west from Vyborg on the M10. About 10kms before the actual border we passed through a small checkpoint where the official asked to see our passport. We can only assume that Russia wants to control access near the border regions. The actual border post is huge, and one of the bigger ones we have passed through on the entire trip. It is located at N60.596006° and E27.915130°.

Leaving Russia was pretty painless, and the officials were mainly friendly and engaging. There was a line of about 40 cars waiting to enter the border facility when we arrived, so we joined the queue. They were letting in around 10 cars at a time and it took about 30 minutes before we got let in. Once in, it only took 20 minutes to complete the process. The steps in more detail:-

  • Step 1: Buses, cars and trucks each have there own road lanes. We joined the lane full of cars. Most of the cars were from Russia. This was the queue to enter the checkpoint facility. Once we got to the barrier the officer checked our passports and let us in.
  • Step 2: We followed the cars in front of us and ended up driving to another series of lanes. Most of them were for Russian cars and one lane was dedicated to European. As our car is from the USA, it was a little unclear which lane we should join, so we picked one of the Russian lanes. A few minutes later we were told to move into the European lane. Once the cars ahead of us had cleared we drove to the inspection area.
  • Step 3: We parked and approached the customs control booth providing our passports and custom declaration form. This was the form we had got when we entered Kazakhstan. The customs official seemed to be a bit confused at what he was looking at, so we also gave him the Russian customs declaration form we completed when we entered Russia the first time. And then we waited. Pretty sure the customs official was trying to work our what to do. The silence was getting a little uncomfortable as we expected at least a few questions. But after several minutes the official obviously gave up and told us to proceed to passport control. He kept the customs declaration forms.
  • Step 4: We drove forward a little stopping again before approaching the passport control booth. Here we handed in our passports and some documentation for the car. Our license plate caused the usual confusion, but they could see that the license plate on the car agreed with our paperwork, even though the license plate is a word and not a series of numbers. The officer typed a few things into her computer and then stamped us out. There was no check that we had completed hotel registrations.
  • Step 5: A friendly customs officer did an inspection of Sterlin and contents. This inspection was a little more through than typical. We had to open the roof top tent, the cargo box on the roof rack and some items stored within the car. But it was all very friendly and did not take long, maybe 5 minutes. Then we were waved on. The boom gate lifted and we were on our way. There was no further check at the perimeter security.

Overall a painless process.