Tourist Visas: The Mongol Rally
*Prices and visa requirements can change at anytime, and rules can differ depending on your Nationality. Most visa services will have up-to-date information, as will embassy/consulate websites for the countries you’re visiting.
It is impossible to do the Mongol Rally without tourist or transit visas (Now if you want to spend hours and hours searching Google to try and prove me wrong, be my guest! If I am wrong, then email me at…. Wait. I’m not wrong. I’m not giving you my email address!). Everyone will need to apply for tourist and/or transit visas for the Mongol Rally, and once you have chosen your route, you really should plan out your visa timeline. I know, it sounds way too practical and you’re a spontaneous person. Blah, blah, blah.
Do I Use a Visa Service, or Apply Myself?
How you apply for your visas is up to you. The Adventurists will give ralliers a discount code to use with The Visa Machine (which is in the U.K.), but there are a lot of visa service companies. Try looking for one in your home country (VisaHQ, TraVisa) so you’re not dealing with exchange rates, and extended periods of time (some ralliers are without a passport for 2 months, which is fine if you’re not traveling before the Mongol Rally starts).
Using a visa service is easy in that you can send all of your visa applications in at the same time, but it is also more expensive (through VisaHQ.ca a Russian visa processed in 3 business days is $240. If you live near a Russian Consulate you can go in person and get the same visa, in the same amount of time for $135). If you’re going to use a visa service, plan it carefully. Give yourself plenty of time so you’re not freaking out because your flight to the UK leaves in 2 days and your passport hasn’t arrived yet.
When applying for visas through a visa service read the visa requirements carefully. You’ll need to write a personal letter of intent for a Kazakhstan visa. You may need a letter of invitation for Mongolia (through a third party). You’ll definitely need a letter of invitation for Russia. Make sure you have everything you need when you apply as missing information can hold things up.
If you live in a major city, it may be possible to obtain your visas directly through an embassy or consulate. If this is a possibility, do it. The money you save will be worth the time you spend waiting in lines. We’re talking about hundreds of dollars in savings. Search Google for Embassy or Consulate addresses in your country/city. Remember to pay attention to your timing, and plan out your visa applications so you have enough time to get all of them.
Which Countries Require a Visa?
As you may remember from the ‘Picking a Route’ chapter, there are three main routes that teams take after leaving the EU (European Union), and depending on your route, you will need a tourist or transit visa for three or more of the following countries.
Tip: Countries like Russia and Turkmenistan are date sensitive. If you do not arrive by the date on your visa, you will not get in. Read visa requirements very carefully.
To obtain the up-to-date information on visa fees, and requirements visit a few different visa service websites, as well as embassy/consulate websites. I recommend The Visa Machine, VisaHQ, and TraVisa. Compare the prices, the processing dates, and which service can process all of your visas. If your route includes Iran, The Visa Machine is your best bet; unless you plan to apply for your visas in person.
I Don’t Have to Plan! I Can Do This on a Whim!
Are you sure? I mean, you can get some visas on the road, but it’s not easy. Waiting to obtain visas on the road can add a lot of unwanted stress to your team, so think about it carefully before deciding to wait until the last minute to get your tourist and transit visas squared away.
It is possible to obtain your visa for Azerbaijan at the last minute in Georgia. Depending on when you arrive in Tbilisi, this process could take anywhere from one to three days (You can also apply in Batumi which is near the Turkey/Georgia border). Several ralliers will arrive in Tbilisi, Georgia and look for a travel agent who can arrange their visa, this is where the whole timing thing comes into play. If you’re looking for an excuse to relax, hanging out for a few days won’t bother you. If you’re in a hurry you may be able to get your visa in 24 hours, but you’ll need to arrive at the agency first thing in the morning, and pay more money.
It is possible to send your application, a photo, and a copy of your passport to a travel agent in Tbilisi in advance, and then pick-up (and pay for) your visa when you arrive. The best bet is to email some travel agencies before you leave home to find out who can preform this service.
Cost: 180 USD for US Citizens. 120 USD for Canadians.
This is a tricky one. There are definitely some advantages to applying for this visa ahead of time, but you’ll have to be precise in your timing. There are also some advantages to applying for the visa on the road, but you’ll have to deal with red tape and it may cost a little more money. So which choice do you make?!
You can apply for a Letter of Invitation (LOI) ahead of time (when the Adventurists send the email urging you to apply for an LOI), or you can try to get a transit visa without an LOI (if you’re American or Canadian) in Istanbul.
Let’s talk about the process involved if you already have a LOI
Istanbul – You can apply for a transit visa in Istanbul using your LOI. Arrive at the **Embassy early as you’ll need to fill in an application form, then go to a local bank (the Embassy will give you the address and deposit information) and pay anywhere from 55 USD to 100 USD depending on your nationality and the guy behind the desk. Once the application is filled out, and you’ve handed in your passport, and a copy of the deposit receipt, you’ll be told to come back the following day to pick-up your passport and transit visa. Remember, your visa is date sensitive. If you haven’t planned your route properly, this date can end up being a burden, and be a cause of contention later on.
As I mentioned on the last page, US and Canadian citizens do not require a LOI if they are applying for a transit visa to Turkmenistan; at least that is what several embassy websites told me. Although you can apply for a transit visa in Istanbul without a LOI, it will take 10 business days to process. Chances are that you will not want to stay in Istanbul for 10 days waiting for your visa. The Embassy staff may tell you that you can apply for this visa in Istanbul, but pick it up when you arrive in Baku, Azerbaijan. This is a risky move (I’ll address Baku in a moment), but not completely impossible. My advice is to get a LOI before starting the rally. Trust me, it will save you a lot of headaches!
If you’re going to wait until you get to either Baku or Istanbul to apply for your transit visa (using a LOI), do it as a team. If one of you is going to apply at home, through a visa service, then everyone should do the same thing. Trust me, this will save time and arguments on the rally if you’re in sync about your visas (and if you’re looking for my tawdry tale about how this can f-up your team, well, I’m still deciding on whether I should include that story in this book).
**The staff at the Istanbul office speak very little English and they are not very happy guys. Try to avoid pissing them off (another advantage to being early is that most of the douche bags sleep in, and they haven’t had a chance to piss the Embassy staff off, yet)
Baku – Several teams bypass the Istanbul office and decide to get their visa in Baku, Azerbaijan as these teams are planning to take the ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan (I’ll go into how to take the ferry in another chapter). First of all, how do you find the embassy in Baku?
Finding the **Embassy of Turkmenistan is tricky. It has recently moved and the address online is wrong (14 Shemhi Rahimova Street is the old address). Although I don’t know the exact address of the new office, I do know where it is located in Baku. It is here (look for the red dot):
The street to the Embassy does not look like a regular street, it’s more like an alley; which means there is no parking. It’s best to either take a taxi here, or park your car near the main road and walk over. The new location is about a 5 to 10 minute drive from the old one. If you get lost, ask a taxi driver. Azerians are an extremely helpful people and most taxi drivers in the area will know where the new location is.
The Embassy of Turkmenistan in Baku does not issue visas, they issue letters giving ralliers permission to board the ferry bound and apply for a visa on arrival in Turkmenbashi. Once you have your name on this letter you can proceed to the ferry port and inquire about when the next ferry leaves; unless the local fixer is hanging around, then you’ll have no choice but to go through him (I’ll write about him in a different post) to get your name on the letter, as well as buying a ticket for the ferry.
Cost: 15 USD service fee (through the local fixer) for the letter of permission.
**The embassy is open for visa processing on Mondays and Fridays, however if you decide to use the fixer to help you, he may instruct you to meet him at the embassy on another day.
Turkmenbashi – Arriving in Turkmenbashi is exciting, but be prepared to wait and deal with a lot of red tape. If you obtained a visa in Istanbul the process is fairly simple. You’ll fill in a customs form, wait in line for your passport to be stamped, pay a 10 USD service fee, then deal with the mind numbing task of importing your team vehicle into Turkmenistan.
If you’re applying for a transit visa on arrival you’ll need to fill out the customs form, and hand over your LOI. Once the visa has been processed you’ll be asked to pay your visa fee, as well as a processing fee at the next window. When your fees have been paid you’ll then go back to the first window, show your receipts and have your passport stamped.
Sounds simple, but don’t let that fool you. If there are 10+ teams on the ferry, the visa process in Turkmenbashi can take 1-3 hours to complete!
Cost: 65 USD (55 USD for the visa + 10 USD service fee)