A Small Visa Problem – Wednesday, September 13
I was on my way home from Uzbekistan via Moscow. At the airport the immigration official asked to see my Russian visa. When I showed it to him he frowned. “I think,” he said slowly, “your Russian visa has expired.” I wasn’t exactly sure how that could be but his face told me it was going to mean trouble.
So I spent the next hour talking to him and then to his boss. They said things like, “We think you should stay here and get a three-day transit visa from the Russian Embassy tomorrow,” and “The Russians will just send you back on the next flight if you don’t have a proper visa.” I countered with things like, “If I stay here I’ll miss my flight to New York and have to buy a new ticket,” and “What can I do to convince you guys to let me go?” Because I had an onward ticket 12 hours after I arrived, I figured the Russians would, at the very least, let me wait in the airport.
As we talked and talked, I was painfully aware that my plane was loading and getting ready to leave – I tried not to panic. Right up until the very last minute it looked like they weren’t going to let me go. They were worried that I would be sent back and that they would get in trouble. About five minutes before my plane was scheduled to leave they brought out a piece of blank paper and asked me to write a letter stating that I was leaving against their advice and would pay any penalty I incurred. I quickly wrote what they asked and signed it. The last thing they said before they let me go was, “We don’t want to see you back here in the morning. If you come back, we both will be in trouble. Don’t come back.” They were friendly, but serious. I ran to my plane and it took off almost as soon as I was on board.
Then I had four hours to think about what lay ahead.
I arrived at 1:00 in the morning and, of course, was stopped at immigration. The officer asked if I had an onward ticket, which I showed her. She then pointed to a seat along the wall and told me to wait. Soon all the other passengers were processed and they started locking up and turning off the lights. As the last of the staff was leaving, I started asking what was going to happen to me. No one could, or would, speak English to me so I just waited. About 2:30am I realized that the plane back to Tashkent was about to leave. I took that as a good sign – I wasn’t on it. I continued to wait. About 3:00am a bus pulled up and a woman unlocked the door and came in. She was holding my passport. I got up and asked her, “Are you going to let me go home?” She smiled and nodded yes.
We got in the bus and drove around to the international terminal. Again, I was put in the immigration reception area. I looked around and thought how unpleasant it would be to spend the next 10 hours in that cold, bare room. “Am I going to have to spend the night here?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “Unless you have a reservation at the hotel,” meaning the Novotel airport hotel. In fact, I did have a reservation – I hadn’t wanted to spend the night sitting in the airport. So she called the hotel and after about 10 minutes another bus arrived.
At the Novotel, an armed guard escorted me to my room. I noticed that there were surveillance cameras and a guard on duty. Doors off the floor were also locked. As it was 3:30 I simply collapsed in bed with no more thought. In the morning I went looking for breakfast. The guard on duty told me to go back to my room, that I was scheduled for breakfast at 9:30. At about 9:25 I got a call telling me to come to the elevator in five minutes. When I got there I found about 15 other people. We were all escorted to a private room where breakfast was laid out. As we ate we talked. I found that some of the other travelers were making what is known as a “visa-less transit” meaning that they were simply passing through the Moscow airport without a visa by staying at the Novotel hotel. Others, like me, had had some kind of problem with their visa. There were two Lebanese guys who had missed their flight to Beirut and, while waiting for the next flight, their visa had expired. They had been in the hotel for two days already. They said it was like being in jail: they were never let off the floor. They were very happy to have someone to talk to, I think.
At 11:00 I got a call saying that a bus was waiting to transport me back to the airport. Of course, I couldn’t enter the airport through the front door, as legally I wasn’t in Russia. In the airport I was given a boarding pass, but there was still one last complication. When I tried to enter the Delta departure lounge they said no – I didn’t have the passport control stamp on my boarding card. How could I? I had come in the back door. After I tracked down the correct person and got the stamp, I was finally allowed into the departure lounge and on to the plane. It was a very stressful 12 hours and when I got home I wanted to kiss the ground.
I learned a valuable lesson: you need help with the Russian visa. I’m used to doing all my own pre-travel legwork and had applied for my Russian visa myself. Unknown to me there had been a mistake made on the dates of validation for the visa. As the whole visa was written in Russian, I didn’t find out until I was already in trouble. In the end it all worked out ok and it’s true I have a great story to tell, but I would have rather had just another boring trip home.