I recently got back from a three day jaunt through the city of Minsk, Belarus. While not exactly as rare a destination for travelers as somewhere like Somalia or Yemen, Belarus is still a relatively untouched country on the tourism trail. One report I saw from 2014 by the World Tourism Organization ranked Belarus 140th overall in overall visitors, making it the third least visited country in Europe that year behind Liechtenstein and Moldova. That's twenty one times fewer visitors that the tiny nation of Estonia just down the road.
So what keeps people out? Could be a lot of things.
Often called Europe's last dictatorship due to President Alexander Lukashenko stranglehold on power from the collapse of the Soviet Union till now, many consider Belarus a bit of a pariah on the international stage. The nation has faced negative press over the years due to its authoritarian government and various alleged abuses of power that have lead to periodic economic sanctions from the European Union and US. Belarus' struggles have lead to what many consider an underdeveloped tourism sector that is ill prepared for international visitors. It should also be noted that for the LGBT community, the Belarusian government and population has often been labeled as rife with homophobia and hate crimes against the community can be easily found with a Google search.
On top of all these barriers was an issue that compounded upon everything - an administratively burdensome visa process that involved a cumbersome application, paperwork requirements that ranged from annoying to panic-inducing, and a fee structure that often times seemed cost prohibitive depending on what nation you called home. It all combined into a fearsomely unwelcoming message which liked works - people don't seem to be clamouring to visit.
And then suddenly in January of this year, a tiny little welcome mat was laid out. Sort of.
A decree by President Lukashenko was issued stating that starting in mid-February, citizens of 80 nations would be allowed to enter Belarus visa-free if they met a specific set of entry requirements. Entrants would be allowed to remain in the country for a period of five days and would have freedom to move about the country as they saw fit as long as they met all requirements. This decree represented a relaxing of Belarus' border controls at a level that was unprecedented.
I've been on a travel kick recently where I've been dropping in on former Soviet republics. Georgia and Ukraine started things off for me last year, and I had a ticket booked to Armenia this month to continue the trend. I hadn't picked a secondary destination to visit after Armenia (I try to visit at least two different destination when I travel internationally) and the Belarusian visa relaxation seemed like an excellent opportunity to drop in on a country that's often difficult to visit. Plus, I didn't know how long the relaxed visa policy would stay in place and didn't want to risk seeing it evaporate into the night as quickly as it had appeared. So I booked a ticket and dropped in on the capital city of Minsk last week.
I was a little nervous about the whole procedure prior to arriving and looked online for any personal anecdotes from fellow travelers on their experiences with the new visa policy and found very little. So the goal of this post is to simply walk through the visa free travel policy in general and then quickly discuss my experience arriving into and exiting Belarus to hopefully boost the signal on this topic.
If you are seeking to enter Belarus visa-free, you need to meet ALL of the following requirements, and please note that this is the information as listed at the time of the article posting and it could change at any time. Which is my way of saying you should do your homework to see if it's all still valid.
1. Be a citizen of one of the 80 approved country.
I'm not going to list every approved country, but the full list can be found HERE. It includes what many would consider the "usual suspects" of wealthy first world nations such as the US, EU members, and Japan, though it also includes some interesting places like Vanuatu, Honduras, the Gambia, and Namibia. I'm not sure why, but the more the merrier I suppose!
There are a few obscure caveats to the rule above that should be noted.
Some countries are only allowed to enter visa-free if they have a valid multi-entry visa for an EU member or a member nation of the Schengen area AND have entered a EU nation or the Schengen zone on that visa. (China, Lebanon, Honduras, the Gambia, Namibia, Samoa, Vietnam)
Latvian residents with non-citizen status are allowed.
Estonian permanent residents without citizenship are allowed.
2. Enter and exit Belarus through Minsk National Airport.
This is pretty straightforward and simple - you are only eligible for a visa-free visit if you fly into Minsk National Airport (MSQ airport code) AND depart from it as well. Wanna take the train from Lithuania? You cannot enter visa-free. Wanna take a car from Russia? You cannot enter visa-free. Wanna walk across the border from Poland? You cannot enter visa-free. Fly, baby, fly!
And emphasis again on the enter AND exit portion. You cannot fly into Minsk and then leave by car, foot, train, boat, or even Harry Potter-style apparating.
Fly into Minsk National, fly out of Minsk National. End of story.
3. Fly into Minsk National Airport on a flight that does not come from an airport in Russia.
Now this is the requirement that almost tripped me up when I was booking my tickets. I was looking to get to Minsk from Yerevan and Aeroflot was offering a very cheap ticket with a connection in Moscow. Good thing I double checked the visa free entry policy because had I booked that ticket I would have likely been denied boarding in Yerevan or Moscow.
Why the ban on entering Belarus from Russia? Flights between the two nations are treated as domestic, so flight that arrives in Belarus from Russia often unload without any customs and immigration checks. Which would be problematic to begin with until you realize that parties that are not Russian or Belarusian citizens are now banned from traveling on flights between the two countries. So it's a non-starter.
Airlines that fly into Minsk National while avoiding Russia include Air China (Beijing), AirBaltic (Riga), Austrian (Vienna), Azerbaijan/AZAL (Baku), Etihad (Abu Dhabi), Iraqi Airways (Baghdad), LOT Polish (Warsaw), Lufthansa (Frankfurt), Turkish (Istanbul), Turkmenistan (Ashgabat), Ukraine International (Kiev), Uzbekistan (Tashkent), and of course the national carrier Belavia from a variety of points across Europe and the former Soviet sphere. Admittedly a few of those airlines are more practical than others for getting into Belarus.
For my trip I flew into Minsk with Ukraine International through Kiev and flew out on Belavia directly to Paris, thus meeting the requirement by arriving and departing from Minsk National without transiting through Russia.
*UPDATE 10/7/2017* - I have had an email exchange with a reader named Chris who recently tested this requirement. Chris flew into Minsk from Stockholm but flew out of Minsk to Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. He was able to exit Belarus, board his flight, and arrive in Moscow without incident. Chris has a 3 year tourist visa for Russia, which may or may not have impacted his ability to do this. Also, I have read various news articles WITHOUT citations noting this specific requirement was being relaxed. Despite these articles and Chris' experience, I will emphasize that the rules published by Belarus have not been updated to remove this requirement. Do with this information what you will at your own risk.
4. Enter Belarus for a purpose other than official government business.
This is an odd caveat but should be noted - you cannot use the visa-free policy if you are visiting Belarus for official state business/diplomatic affairs. The language of the decree seems aimed at tourism and as far as I can tell does not differentiate a policy for business travelers. If you plan to enter the country for the purpose of work, I would recommend doing a bit of research on your own.
5. Have a valid passport.
Not that complicated - make sure you are entering Belarus on a passport that is valid. Previous requirements for a Belarusian visa required six months of validity and two blank pages within your passport, though the stamps I received in my passport upon entry and exit were the standard 1/4 passport page sizes you see in most countries.
6. Demonstrate financial means of 25€ for each day of your stay.
Again - pretty straight forward. To quality for the visa-free policy you are expected to have at a minimum 25€ per day of your stay. I'll go over this a bit more in-depth when I go through my personal experience below, but suffice to say that this didn't seem to be that important to the Belarusian immigration officials.
7. Medical insurance that is valid in Belarus with a minimum coverage of $10,000 USD.
This seems pretty daunting at first but rest assured - it's very easy to take care of. If you have personal medical insurance that meets the dollar requirement and is valid in Belarus already - great! Make sure you print out EVERYTHING for your policy and be ready to have the information poured over by the immigration agent. My research online regarding this requirement (which is mandatory for all visitors, not just those using the visa-free option and has actually been a requirement for decades it seems) showed that pretty much anyone bringing in insurance documents from a foreign country were told it wasn't good enough even if the traveler was sure it was 100% valid.
Do not fret though, there's a desk in the arrivals hall that sells medical insurance that meets the requirement for all visitors. You can purchase a policy right there and for relatively little money. I'll go over where the desk is located and how much it costs when I discuss my personal experience.
8. Stay for no longer than 5 days.
Now this is a very important rule for the visa-free policy. You are welcome to visit as long as your total stay does not exceed five days. These five days INCLUDE your arrival and departure days, which means you cannot enter Minsk one day, explore for the next five, and then leave the following day. Your five days are exactly that, so make sure your itinerary is compliant with the rule. The last thing you want to do is get into immigration problems in Belarus, right? I wanted to play it safe so my trip had me arriving in Minsk in the late morning on a Thursday and exiting in the morning on Saturday. Really I only had a total of about two full days on the ground, but that still counted as three days based on this policy. In case of a flight cancellation I wanted to avoid problems, so I kept things short and sweet for this round.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I just want to take a little time to walk through my personal experience entering and exiting Belarus on my trip to give people a little insight into how the policy worked for me while I was on the ground. As noted above, I would caution that this was simply my personal experience for a single visit. If you choose to enter Belarus using this visa-free policy, you may experience the exact same or something completely different. I, of course, make no guarantees you will receive the same treatment, for better or worse.
My flight from Kiev to Minsk was blocked at a short one hour. The flight crew passed out Belarusian immigration forms at the very beginning of the flight and announced twice over the speakers that they encouraged you to have the form completed prior to getting off the plane.
The form comes with two duplicate sections, and you need to fill out both sides correctly and identically. The quality of paper the form was printed on wasn't particularly high, so be careful when handling it so it doesn't rip.
Once we were on the ground and our transfer bus unloaded in front of the immigration hall, I was lucky enough to be one of the first passengers through the doors. Once you get to the main immigration hall area the booth that sells the mandatory medical insurance is on the left hand side and was staffed by a single person. I was the first person to arrive so as soon as I walked up the woman greeted me in Russian. I replied in English and asked her if she spoke English - "Yes, I do. You need insurance?"
Switching to English she asked me how long I would be in the country to which I replied and then I handed over my passport. I purchased insurance for four days even though I was only staying for three just in case I had a flight cancellation that kept me in Minsk an extra day. Again - better safe than sorry. For the four days of full coverage she said the cost would be $4 USD, which almost made me laugh. Quite the bargain at $1 a day! I actually didn't have any USD on my at the time and asked if paying in euros was acceptable. Yes, but the number didn't change - still €4. No problem, I handed over a €5 bill and received changed in Belarusian rubles. She printed out a receipt to demonstrate I had purchased the insurance and placed it in a big printed envelope for me and sent me on my way.
With my insurance policy in hand I headed over to the growing queue of lines to get through the immigration check point. There's a row of desks lined up with various lines snaking back from each one - it was all very orderly and neat. No pushing, shoving, or confusion over what line went where. The booths have signs above them trying to indicate that the booth served only Belarusians, foreign citizens, or airline crew/diplomats, though after about 10 seconds of watching people queuing up I quickly determined those signs weren't being followed by passengers or by the airport staff. I quickly found the shortest line further down from the entry choke point and waited patiently for my turn to meet with an immigration official.
While waiting in line I watched the process play out ahead of me. If the passenger was a foreign visitor, the official did take a noticeably longer time processing them. On average I would say that moving a Belarusian through the review took about two minutes while a foreigner took between three to five minutes. Not a massive amount of time but slower than most other immigration interaction and significantly slower than getting into the EU on an American passport.
Once it was my turn I walked up to the desk, handed over my passport with the immigration form and insurance receipt through the small window opening to the booth, and said hello. The agent took my passport and opened it up to the information page and looked over it for about 30 seconds. Apparently satisfied with the information, she moved on to checking my picture against my face for about another 30 seconds. I was a bit concerned about this as my passport photo is from a "previous life", meaning I was significantly heavier than I currently am by the tune of about 60 lbs. I actually had issues when I was entering Ukraine as the immigration agent didn't think I was the same person in the photo which resulted in me being held at immigration for about 15 minutes while a supervisor was brought over, I was asked many questions, and ultimately I was only released when they asked me to sign a piece of scrap paper and they then compared it to the signature in my passport.
The Belarusian immigration official seemed to be able to recognize it was still me though and proceeded to thumb through each page of my passport and examine the various stamps I had for entry and exit. About every fourth page she would stop and bring out a magnifying glass, examining the pages for what I'm assuming are signs of forgery. She also had a light box next to her which she'd occasionally turn on and hold my passport up to and examine my passport even further. Of note - the passport examination also happened with Belarusians however it wasn't nearly as extensive and lengthy.
After about five minutes of examining the passport pages, she returned to the information page and examined my photo against my face for awhile. Without a word, she then opened my passport and stamped me into Belarus. She tore the immigration form down the middle and placed one half of it back into my passport on the page where the stamp was placed. I was handed back my passport and insurance receipt and then she pushed a button on her desk that unlocked the glass door preventing me from exiting into the baggage claim.
Of importance to note during my entry into Belarus .....
* I was never asked a single question by the agent. No conversation whatsoever other than me saying hello and then saying thank you in terrible Russian upon having my passport handed back to me.
* I did not provide, nor was I asked to provide, any documentation of my itinerary that showed I had a flight out of Belarus or that the flight departed from Minsk as required under the policy.
* Related to the above lack of itinerary provision, I did not have to provide any documentation that showed my trip would not exceed the five day maximum.
* I did not have to provide any documentation that I had the required amount of financial means that was outlined in the visa-free policy though I did make sure to have enough euros on hand in case they did ask.
Despite all of the above, I would note that I wouldn't take the lack of checking on these documents as an indication that they aren't required or enforced. It's just what happened with me on this particular day, and honestly a few of them are likely easier to catch when people violate the requirement. It may just be a question of whether they want to proactively identify a problem or deal with it if someone violates the requirements at a later date. Proactive vs. reactive.
On my exit from Belarus, there was actually nothing different than what you would normally expect in just about any other country. I simply presented my passport with boarding pass and the second half of the immigration form that was placed in my passport when I arrived (which I needed to present to my hotel during check in and they stamped with information on the back). The passport was looked over in a very similar way to my entrance into the country but overall it was a very simple affair and before I knew it I was stamped out of Belarus which meant I had successfully used the policy to enter and exit without applying for or paying for a visa.
I will eventually get to writing some posts about my three days in Minsk and of course there will be some photo essays outlining my favorite sights visited while exploring. A quick summary would be to say that I was actually shockingly impressed with how much I enjoyed my time in Belarus. Yes, it's not exactly Paris or San Francisco when it comes to developed tourism infrastructure or even the number of things to see and do, but I found myself highly entertained while exploring the city. Considering how much I enjoyed my time there, I actually wished I hadn't played it safe and did an additional day or two on the ground. None of this really changes any of the various political and social issues that are rampant in Belarusian society, but I can leave the commentary on how I make decisions to travel where I do for another day.
Travel is of course a very person choice, so Belarus may not appeal to you for a variety of reasons. Maybe the dictatorship and anti-LGBT environment make you feel like visiting gives credence to or empowers either one. Maybe you're not looking to visit some of the darker corners of the Soviet Union's former empire. Maybe you like beaches, or high end shopping, or familiar foods on every corner. No worries, I don't judge. But I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a little snippet of life in Belarus and I'm currently considering a return trip to have additional time to explore a bit deeper and also head further afield out into the country. It's difficult with only five days, but worth it in my opinion.
As always with anything I post, if you have any questions or comments about using the visa-free policy to enter Belarus, feel free to contact me using the link at the top of the page in the blog's header.