Visa-free travel and registration in Belarus: not so simple
Starting 12 February, citizens of 80 states, including 39 European countries, will be able to enter Belarus visa-free through the Minsk National Airport. But unlike Kazakhstan, which allows foreigners to stay in the country for up to 30 days, Belarus introduced a much more tricky visa-free regime.
Foreign travellers should be prepared for strict penalties should they fail to understand or abide by the rules. The current practise of registering people with Belarusian visas staying for longer than five days sometimes creates an impression that Belarusian migration authorities view tourists as cash cows.
Since 2016, the Belarusian authorities have been gradually opening up the country to foreigners. On 26 October, Belarus allowed visa-free entry for up to five days for tourists from most Western countries coming to Hrodna Region by bus or car. This has already brought thousands of tourists to the region.
The visa-free regime through the Minsk National Airport introduced in January has more far-reaching implications. Belarus opened to 'favourable countries in terms of migration' and 'strategic partners', including the European Union countries, United States, Canada and Japan (see the full list
Tourists should have a valid passport or other document permitting foreign travel, a small amount of money (minimum €25 per day), and medical insurance. For some poorer countries, visa-free entry is allowed only on the condition that they also possess an EU visa.
Unlike Kazakhstan, which expanded the list of countries allowed to travel visa-free for up to 30 days in January 2017 and whose policy is fairly straight forward, the Belarusian visa regime is more complicated in practise than at the first sight.
Visa-free tourists must both arrive and leave only through the Minsk National Airport. This is the only international airport in a country of 9.5m people. The airport is far from Minsk (40 km) and is poorly served by public transport.
Although regulations are ambiguous, it is most likely that the day of arrival will count towards the five-day limit. This leaves visitors with only three full days in the country.
Due to the scarcity of flights connecting Minsk with the rest of the world, having even a full three-day slot in Belarus could be problematic. For example, there are only three direct flights per week to London.
This short time period effectively makes travelling to other parts of Belarus, such as Hrodna or Brest, very difficult because this requires at least half a day's travel from Minsk.
Kafkaesque migration regulations and procedures
Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to create a positive image of the country to promote the visa-free regime, the Ministry of Internal Affairs seems to have a different goal.
On 10 January 2016 the Head of the Department of Citizenship and Migration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Aliaksei Biahun, explained that those who overstay their five-day visa will face a warning or a fine of up to €550 with or without deportation. We will not know until February how the new visa-free regime will work in practise, but the current procedure for registering foreigners with Belarusian visas who want to spend more than five days in Belarus is perhaps a hint.
If you are a foreigner with a Belarusian visa and want to stay for more than five days not in an officially registered hotel you need to register with the police. The point of this procedure is to ensure the authorities know where you are staying. Ironically, by this time you will have given the authorities this address twice: when applying for the visa and receiving a migration card.
Belarus probably has the strictest system of registration of foreigners in Europe. For example, the United Kingdom only requires police registration from those foreigners with visas who are planning to stay for longer than six months in the country. Russia permits visits without registration of seven working days, which can mean eleven if you include weekends. Belarus only allows five days, which following a strange logic includes Saturdays but not Sundays (this tiny detail is often omitted and can lead to serious problems).
To make things even more complicated, on Saturdays the police registration offices are usually open for only a few hours, but the banks where you need to go to pay fees are closed. On Mondays, police departments are usually not open for registration procedures but this day still counts towards the five-day limit.
Under normal Belarusian law, counting the days starts on the day following the event (i.e. crossing the border). However, migration officials also count the day of arrival, even if you arrive at 23:59. This makes it even more difficult to figure out when exactly you need to register.
Although Belarus bills itself as a new Silicon Valley, home to successful startups such as Viber and World of Tanks, registration for foreigners cannot be done online; foreigners need to register in person in a remote office.
The registration fee is very small (around $10), but you are likely to spend at least half a day registering yourself. You will need to figure out the procedure (which is not explained when you cross the border), find and reach the registration office in a remote location and queue to get an application form. You cannot go there alone even if you speak the language, because the application form has to be signed both by you and your Belarusian host.
It is not possible to pay on the spot, so you also have to find a local bank and queue there to make the registration payment. With confirmation of payment and a number of other documents, you will then need to return to the registration office to join the queue to submit it to a migration official.
The wrath of Belarusian law and the hungry Belarusian budget
your Belarusian host will also have to pay a fine of a similar amount for failing to ensure that their guest is registered
If you think that failure to pay a small $10 registration fee on time is not a big deal, you don't understand the logic of the system. The main purpose of the fine is not to compensate the damage caused by failure to submit your address for the third time, but to bring in money for the budget. As Belarus is experiencing a deep recession caused by falling oil prices and lack of reform, the government has to be creative.
Thus, if you miss the registration even by one day, you will face a fine equivalent to hundreds of US dollars. Although the law also provides the possibility of a warning, in practise this will be of little help, even if you have a very good reason for missing the deadline.
What's more, your Belarusian host will also have to pay a fine of a similar amount for failing to ensure that their guest is registered. According to this logic, a driver should pay a fine for violating a traffic rule as well as a passenger for failing to prevent it. This absurdness, however, helps raise money for the budget.
Is it worth all the hassle?
Belarus is an interesting country for tourists, not only because of the remnants of the Soviet past such as monuments to Lenin, but because of its rich history.
It has four UNESCO World Heritage sites and beautiful nature with plenty of forests and lakes. The prices (particularly for alcohol) are generally very low, the country is very safe and easy to reach.
The best advice for tourists would be to check and double-check all regulations and procedures in advance in order to avoid fines.
The new visa-free regime is certainly an important step which makes political and economic sense. One would hope that the Belarusian government would think more of the bigger picture and the country's reputation. Belarus should welcome tourists so they can stay in the country longer and spend more on pleasurable activities than fines.