Originally part of Kievan Rus, Belarus was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the Polish Partitions in the 18th century. After over a hundred years of Russian rule followed by seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. However under authoritarian rule it has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration. Although Belarus agreed to a framework to carry out the accord, serious steps towards implementation have yet to take place.
Visa requirements, basic information
Visa fees and processing changes so make sure that you check with the local embassy or consulate before you plan your travel. A visa will take a full page of your passport so make sure you have at least 1 page free.
The easiest way to obtain a visa is doing it on arrival to the National airport Minsk 2 at the Consular office (contact phone + 375 17 279 20 58) at a fee of: in case no consulate or embassy of Belarus is established in the country of residence:
private or business visa - 100 USD
tourist visa - 45 USD
transit visa - 30 USD
in case consulate or embassy of Belarus is established in the country of residence:
private or business visa - 140 USD
tourist visa - 60 USD
transit visa - 50 USD
There is no possibility to get a Belarusian entry visa on the border (except for the National airport Minsk-2)
Latest prices and procedures are available from the Embassy Sites. Pre-issued visas save a lot of time on entry.
Belarusian visa is issued in 5 working days, there is also a possibility to get it urgently (in 48 hours) by paying double fee. Normal fee for Belarusian private or business single visa can vary from 40 to 80 USD. Visas for children under 16 are issued free of charge, visa processing fee can be levied in this case by certain Belarusian embassies or consulates.
In order to get a visa you will also need: medical insurance and documents, depending on the type of visa you apply for. There is a compulsory state medical insurance for visitors to Belarus. For a week's visit you will need to fill out a form and pay US$3.
To get a Belarusian BUSINESS VISA a foreigner has to present an original invitation of any Belarusian legal person, which is officially registered in the Republic of Belarus. The invitation is to be written on letterhead paper and should contain name, personal and passport details as well as purpose and duration of visit. The invitation is to be signed and bear official seal of the inviting organization. Embassies or consulates (with the exception of Consular office at the National airport) in certain cases can except invitations received by fax. Multiple business visa is obtainable against payment of 300 USD from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Consular department upon presentation of all required documents (contact phone + 375 17 222 26 61).
To get a VISA FOR PRIVATE PURPOSES a foreigner has to present the invitation issued for a Belarusian resident by his citizenship and migration office. The original invitation should be handed over to the embassy/consulate or Consular office at the National airport in this case, any fax or photocopy is excluded. Multiple private visa is issued upon presentation of the original invitation to foreigners, visiting their close relatives. Belarusian tourist visas are issued upon presentation of the original of the tourist voucher received from any Belarusian tour operator or tourist agency.
Visas can be valid for one, two, three or multiple entries. They are to be used within the period indicated therein. Foreigners visiting Belarus must register within a period of 3 working days with local passport and visa office and have registration put in their passport. If staying in a hotel, this will be arranged by the hotel. In case of need, private or business visa can be extended up to 90 days when staying in Belarus. It will be done by Minsk city citizenship and migration office (contact phone + 375 17 231 38 09) or Regional citizenship and migration office in Hrodna, Brest, Minsk, Mahilyou, Homel upon presentation of all required documents. Exit permits required for all foreigners intending to leave the country with expired visas. They are issued by Minsk city passport and visa office or Regional passport and visa offices in Hrodna, Brest, Minsk, Mahilyou, Homel.
Several European airlines have flights to Minsk (operating at National airport Minsk situated appr. 40 km from capital Minsk). Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Lot Polish airlines, Air Baltic, Czech Airlines, and some other carriers offer this destination. The only national airline - Belavia - could be competitive due to attractive tickets prices.
Flying directly to Belarus is VERY expensive, possibly one of the most expensive tourist destinations in Europe. Do you have time and want to save some money? Fly to Vilnius Lithuania with LAL(or Kaunas, Lithuania with Ryan Air) and take a train to Minsk. The train ride from Vilnius is only four hours and generally trains leave twice per day. You will save a great deal of money.
Some of the entry/exit points along the Poland/Belarus border include:
Passport, customs controls
Passport controls happen in the train itself. In the get in to Belarus direction, they happen typically even before the train leaves the station in Poland.
Customs controls happen in a room of the train station in the Belarus train station. As of 2005, you are most likely to have a short chat with a customs officer - the system of green (nothing to declare) and red (something to declare) streams and random checks of suspicious looking people in the green stream - everyone is presumed to be suspicious. In practice, the rules seem to be fairly standard - declare expensive goods, you can import/export a small quantity of alcohol, cigarettes, computer equipment for personal use. However, the formal content of the customs form asks whether you are carrying any publications. So if you have, e.g. a US passport and are carrying a whole bunch of do-it-yourself-color-revolution materials and you have that subversive look about you, then you will probably be giving the customs people have a legal reason to detain you and/or deport you.
Warning: the customs room in the train station where you exit Belarus may be difficult to find (especially if you walk around the station rather casually and your cyrillic is weak) and it closes a long time before the train leaves; if you arrive only 10 minutes before the train leaves, you will be refused customs control and access to the train. (please update: the delay before closing is unknown, but it is more than 10 minutes, and probably it is around 30-60 minutes).UPDATE 6/20/07-In the 6 months I've been here (I'm a US citizen), I've taken an overnight Minsk-Kiev-Minsk and the early morning Minsk-Vilnius one way. Both times, customs was carried out at the border while on the train. It added over an hour to the trip, but other than that, the officials were efficient and friendly. As far as I know, there is no more customs office in the Minsk train station.
On a local train between two border towns, chances are high that you will be accompanied/befriended by women trading underpants, soap powder, strawberries, cigarettes etc across the border. They may be friendly and casual or (leaving Belarus) they might put pressure on you to help them in their trade by carrying cigarettes over the border for them - the idea is that you buy it cheap in Belarus and that you resell it to them once you're in Poland. Chances are also good that their friendly mafia boss is with them and you'll all travel together in the same train carriage, so chances of you getting away and reselling the cigarettes independently are probably weak unless you're James Bond. If you're not James Bond, just smile, use your common sense and probably best not to provoke them. Don't look to the border guards for help. They know the women traders and seem to have some informal deal with them (e.g. not being strict about visas etc) - the Belarus border guards are only worried about political subversives, they have higher priorities than defending you against women trading underpants and cigarettes.
At the Terespol/Brest crossing, there are six different controls, some sort of mix of anti-spam filter, passport control and customs control from the two sides. It would be nice to believe that there's a geiger counter to check for stuff which is radioactive from the Chernobyl accident, but it's unclear if this is used in practice - it's not done in any obvious way.
Expect to wait half an hour to an hour between the three controls on the Belarus side. The three Polish controls are typically faster. In reality, the border guards/customs officers from the two countries seem to be present together at many of the control lines, so it's not easy to know when you're still in Belarus and when you're in Poland.
Taking the bus from Vilnius to Minsk is a quick (3,5 h) and fairly comfortable ride, as long as you stick to western international carriers such as Eurolines. Buy your ticket in advance. However bribery at the border is not uncommon, especially with EU citizens. Customs officers may implicate that something is wrong with your insurance (even if it is perfectly all right) and tell you to go back to Lithuania and buy a new one. This is a discrete cry for a bribe, as they know you won't have the time to walk back to Lithuania as you're on a scheduled bus (and probaby with luggage you don't feel like carrying - it's a long way back. If you agree to comply, put 10 € (per person) discretely in your passport) and that will do it. Naturally you won't get any additional stamp or document to "upgrade" your insurance, so do not wait or ask for it. Needless to say, such behaviour is condemnable and police authorities should be notified.
If you're at one of the double town crossings, e.g.
there may be some places where you can cross by foot - e.g. because you're on the last day of your Belarus visa and you want to be sure not to overstay - but more likely you'll have to befriend some people in a car who will adopt you for a few hours and will (implicitly) pretend that you're travelling with them. The border guards have no problem with this. Remember that the people in the car are taking a risk as well as you - as far as they know you might be a National Endowment for Democracy agent who will be discovered by the Belarus border guard and get them into a heap of trouble. So if they are Belarusians and they ask for a fee of US$5 consider it fair. See the section By car above for what happens in your adopted car.
Belarusian and Russian are the two official languages, but Russian is more widely spoken. It will be difficult to get by without some Russian. The two languages are closely related, so even the Belarusian monolinguals understand some Russian. Polish is spoken in the western parts, especially around Grodno.
Inside of Belarus, you can get belarusian rubles from automatic bank machines for standard types of credit/debit cards, and you can change US dollars and euros into belarusian rubles or vice/versa at many exchange kiosks in big railway stations and centers of big cities. Converting belarusian rubles back into hard currency once you are outside of Belarus will probably be extremely difficult. However, if you exchange all your rubles before leaving, any last minute purchases (or fines for overstaying, customs, whatever) would have to be paid in dollars/euros.
Be very careful, exchange kiosks will not exchange any bill that is damaged or marked on in anyway. Approximately half of the bills you currently have in your wallet will be rejected for exchange in Belarus. Be sure to take ONLY relatively new and undamaged foreign money with you.
A very rough conversion (summer 2006) is about 2200 belarusian rubles = US$1.
Prices are much lower than in Western Europe: if you buy local products (local train tickets, food, drink) in local markets, supermarkets, shops, then divide the cost you normally pay in Western Europe by something like a factor of 20 (summer 2005).
Potatoes , Pork , Beef , Bread , Italian pizzas,
You can get softdrinks and beers everywhere in Belarus. Most commonly found at bus stops.Vodka is the most common drink(alcoholic).
"Legal theft". Most hotels in Minsk are safe. However, be aware of the Belarusian trick. Since Belarusians are very afraid of the authorities and thus of committing a crime, some corrupt hotels may practice a very annoying way of stealing, so called "legal theft" inovolving maids (often in conspiracy with the reception personnel). While cleaninig your room (in your absence) they may hide your personal belongings in the most outrageous parts of your room, combining bizarre sets of items, such as a cellular phone with a piece of bread, a wallet with a cheap magazine or a pair of glasses (!). The trick is: if you miss them, the maid will come and collect them later, if you report the items missing (or find them by yourself) you won't be able to do a thing (since the items never left the room, it is not considered a theft). The personnel may also ridicule your allegation by pointing out why on earth they would want to hide some bread or a hotel magazine - they just accidentally tucked the items away while cleaning. Avoid such unpleasant situations by always locking your valuables in the hotel safe or at least taking them with you. Before checking out, always search the room thoroughly (wardrobes, cabinets, deep shelves, behind sofas and radiators).
As of 2005, the USA has given several overt signs that it wishes to overthrow the Lukashenko government, by supporting opposition parties in elections, e.g. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's high-profile meeting with people from Belarus opposition parties on 21 April 2005. Just as Sudanese or North Korean or Chinese or whatever local authorities would be rather sensitive about USA or Russian non government organizations supporting local opposition parties, the Belarusian authorities are rather sensitive about foreign organizations helping the Belarusian people overthrow the dictatorship.
If you participate in a street demonstration with political banners, expect to be detained within minutes. How fast you get out (24 hours or 24 days) depends on your support network, your social status, etc.
The KGB in Belarus has not changed its name since the days of the Soviet Union - it is still called the KGB, and its habits have probably not changed much either.
Some ethnic Polish journalists and journalists with Polish citizenship had hassles with the authorities (ranging from refused entry to a dozen or so days in prison) during 2005. If you have a Polish sounding name, better have good evidence that you're not a journalist. Polish and American diplomats have also been detained by Belarusian authorities in contravention of the Vienna Convention. So if you are a diplomat, you may not be treated in accordance with international law by Belarusian authorities.
In Belarus, there is a big institute and lots of funding for studying the after effects of the Chernobyl disaster, which happened in 1986 in a nuclear power plant on the Ukraine-Belarus border, in the food chain. In principle, food inspectors check food not only for bacterial contamination but also for radiation levels, and except for the banned region within about 50 kilometers of the Chernobyl plant itself and a second hotspot starting from the point where Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all touch each other, and running roughly 100 km to the North of this point, food is considered safe. (please update: if someone has more quantitative information, please provide this; just saying "safe" is rather vague.)