Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Tech and travel in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine

Over the past couple of years, I’ve spoken at quite a few conferences in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – DotNext in Saint-Petersburg and Moscow, BuildStuff in Kyiv and Odessa, and .NET Summit in Minsk. Later this year, I’ll be heading back to Saint-Petersburg for DotNext, and travelling to Novosibirsk in Siberia for CodeFest. All these events have open calls for papers, and if you’ve ever wanted to visit these places, tech conferences are a great way to do it. Lots of people have asked me what’s involved and whether it’s something they should look into - so here’s what I did, how it all worked for me, and some tips that might be useful.

Please remember I’m not an immigration lawyer. This is all based on my own experience, and I’m a straight white British cis male with no special dietary or medical requirements who is quite happy travelling alone in strange places. Laws, customs and cultures can vary wildly, so do your own research if you’re concerned about anything.

First up – yes, do it! I’ve had fantastic experiences on all these trips. The conferences I’ve spoken at have been first-class, professional events, with excellent facilities and really attentive, engaged audiences. Travelling in a country where you can’t even read the alphabet can be a bit of a culture shock at first, but I’ve had no problems navigating hotels, public transport and conference venues as an English speaker. Apps like Uber are great for this: being able to call a taxi and see exactly where you’re going and how much it’ll cost is hugely reassuring when you’re somewhere unfamiliar and can’t speak the language.

The church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.The Winter Palace, Saint-PetersburgC'mon, you can work out what this says...2017-05-19 17.45.47

If you’re up for a challenge, have a go at learning to read the Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian language is hard, but you’ll find lots of the words on things like street signs and restaurant menus are familiar words, once you can read the language they’re written in. Being able to recognise things like Банка (banka – a bank), Гамбургер (hamburger) and Феттучини (fettucine) will get you a long way. (Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian are distinct languages with some broad similarities, but being able to recognise familiar English words in Cyrillic will stand you in good stead throughout the region.)

Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood, Saint-Petersburg

Visiting Ukraine and Belarus

If you’re a British passport holder, visiting Ukraine is easy; you can enter Ukraine without a visa for up to 90 days. Belarus has an interesting visa waiver: British citizens can enter without a visa as long as they stay less than five days and they enter and leave via Minsk international Airport. You need to show proof of medical insurance to clear passport control (and the authorities don’t consider a PDF on your phone to be documentary evidence). If you don’t have insurance, you can purchase it at the airport. It’s priced in euros, and you can pay in cash in Belarusian rubles, Russian rubles or “freely convertible currency” – I paid in euro coins without any problems.

Welcome to Belarus!Minsk

The Red Church in MinskThe conference venue for DotNet Summit in Minsk, 2017

Visiting Russia

Visiting Russia is more complicated. British citizens will need a visa to enter Russia, which means you’ll need to apply through VFS Global, the agency that handles Russian visa applications in the UK. (Note that Russian embassies in other countries often won’t process visa applications for British nationals living abroad – if you’re a Brit living elsewhere in the EU you’ll probably need to travel to London to apply for and collect your visa.) There’s a dizzying array of visa types – tourist, private, student, work, business – and you’ll find various opinions online about what kind of visa you need if you’re speaking at a technical conference. Given this ambiguity, I’ve always insisted on a business visa for my trips to Russia; I’ve never been asked anything on arrival other than when I’ll be leaving, but your experience may differ.

Here’s how it works. The whole process takes about two months.

TL;DR:

  1. Ask the conference organisers to prepare your visa invitation
  2. Fill out the form on the VFS Global website
  3. Wait for confirmation that your invitation has been issued
  4. Go to the VFS Global office in London with your passport, form and documents
  5. Submit your application
  6. Wait 5 days (or 24 hours if you've paid for overnight processing)
  7. Go and pick up your passport and visa
  8. Go to Russia!

Your hosts (normally the company organising the conference) will issue you with a visa invitation. This can take a while, particularly if there are public holidays in Russia; they won’t do it more than a month in advance so you need to time everything quite carefully – especially if you have other travel commitments for which you’ll need your passport. The invitation will be sent by telex from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the Russian consulate in London. Your first application must be for a single-entry visa; if you’ve already done one trip and it looks like you’ll be doing a lot more you can ask them to prepare an invitation for a multi-entry visa valid for one year.

Meanwhile, take a look at the online application form on the VFS Global website. You can’t submit the form electronically – once you’ve finished filling it in, it’ll produce a PDF that you need to print. It asks for things like your parents’ dates and places of birth, details of every country you’ve visited in the last 10 years, information about your marital status (and, apparently, current contact information for your former spouse if you’re divorced or separated). It might take a while for you to dig out all the details you’ll need, so make sure you look at it well in advance. You won’t be able to complete your application until you’ve got your invitation, but you can make a start and save your progress.

Once your invitation has been issued, your hosts (or their travel agent) will send you an email with a ‘telex reference’ on it, which you you’ll need in order to complete the visa application form. Take the printed form, along with your passport and supporting documents, to the VFS Global application office in Gee Street in London, just north of Barbican tube station. There is a PDF on their website that lists the supporting documents you’ll need – passport, application form, passport photo, invitation (telex), introductory letter, and certified bank statements if you’re self-employed. I’ve never been asked to show the introductory letter or the bank statements, but take them with you anyway, just in case.

The VFS Global office is open 08:30-15:00 Monday to Friday, but if you turn up to submit a business visa application between 12:00 and 14:00 they’ll ask you to come back later – they’ll need to phone the Russian consulate to confirm receipt of your telex before they’ll accept your application, and they can’t do this between 12:00 and 14:00 because the consulate closes for lunch.

They’ll take your passport and all your paperwork. You’ll get fingerprinted, and pay the visa application fee and service charge. Cash or credit/debit card is fine, but they don’t take Amex. It’s about £120 total for a single-entry visa ready in 5 working days; if you’re in a hurry, they have an express overnight service which costs more. They’ll give you an application receipt. Don’t lose it – you can’t get your passport back without it.

When your visa’s ready, you’ll have to go back to pick it up – the office is open for collections between 16:00 and 17:30. Check that your visa details are all correct – it’ll be a full-page colour sheet stuck in your passport. One thing I’ve noticed is that names may not be transliterated into Russian consistently – I’ve got two visas in my passport right now; one says I’m Дилан Битти and the other one says I’m Дилан Бети (that’s roughly ‘bitti’ and ‘beti’ written in Cyrillic), but this doesn’t appear to be a problem.

That’s pretty much it. When you arrive in Russia you’ll be given an immigration card at passport control, which you’ll need to show when you check into your hotel to prove you’re in the country legally, and which you’ll need to go through passport control when you leave. Take a picture of this card on your phone (or ask the hotel to photocopy it for you), so you can keep the original with you and leave a copy in the safe in your hotel. The UK foreign office says you must carry your original passport with you at all times in Russia, and can be fined if you don’t produce it when asked. I’ve never been asked to produce mine, but I keep my passport, visa and immigration card on me, with printed photocopies of them all in the hotel room safe and digital copies in Dropbox, just in case.

Practicalities

Most hotels will change major foreign currencies into local currency. There are also foreign exchange bureaux everywhere, but I’ve always changed money in my hotel or used an ATM. If you’re planning to change money, carry cash in a combination of euros and US dollars, since these are most widely accepted by foreign exchange bureaux. It’s easy enough to get Russian rubles from a UK foreign exchange bureau before you leave for your trip, but you probably won’t be able to get Ukrainian hryvnia or Belarusian rubles. There are also ATMs everywhere and most restaurants will take Visa and Mastercard. If you’re using something like a Monzo card or other prepaid payment card, remember you may not have roaming data on your phone so top it up before you leave the hotel.

Roaming data outside the EU is seriously expensive. It’s a lot cheaper than it was a few years ago – during my first visit to Ukraine in November 2015, roaming data was £8/MB – but it’s still not cheap; in Russia, EE currently charges £7.00 for 100Mb, valid for 24 hours. Public wifi is widely available; in Kyiv it’s pretty ubiquitous and often completely unsecured (although you’ll need to know how to accept the terms and conditions in Ukrainian!) but in Russia and Belarus you’ll often find you need a local mobile phone number to register on public wifi spots. Make sure your phone’s unlocked before you go, pick up a local pay-as-you-go SIM card, and ask one of the conference organisers or a friendly local to help you activate and register it (remember that all the confirmation messages from the phone network will be in Russian or Ukrainian).

One of these buttons will connect you to the free wi-fi... do you know which one?One of these messages is confirming that I've added prepaid credit to my phone... apparently...

It’s also worth caching Google Maps offline using the “ok maps” feature, and downloading the Google Translate app and the language files for Russian to your phone so that even if you’re not online you’ll be able to navigate and translate some basic phrases.

Saint Basil's Cathedral, MoscowThe Monument to the Conquerors of Space, MoscowLenin's Mausoleum in MoscowBunker-42 - a museum set in a Cold War nuclear bunker in Moscow

And finally – don’t forget to actually see the place! It’s all too easy to travel halfway around the world for a conference and never see anything except the inside of the Radisson Blu, so if the conference organisers have arranged a tour of the city or any excursions, go along – you’ll get to see some really interesting things. Or head out on your own. Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, and Kyiv have fast, efficient metro networks, with stations and maps in English as well as Russian/Ukrainian. The metro is great for travelling around without having to talk to anybody – buy tickets at a machine, use the automated barriers, watch the locals when it comes to navigating around the stations and do what they do. There are metal detectors everywhere, which go off constantly. It looks like they’re being ignored but apparently they give the police probable cause to search anybody they don’t like the look of - personally I’ve never had any problems at all.

The great thing about being at a tech conference is that many of the attendees will be locals who know the city and will be perfectly happy to take you their favourite bar or a good place for dinner or some live music or whatever you fancy doing with your spare time. Enjoy the conversations, soak up the culture, try the local food, and remember not to stay up drinking vodka until 2am when your flight is at 06:30... unless you really, really want to.

Sounds like fun?

If all that’s piqued your interest... awesome! Here are a few events that are accepting papers at the moment.

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