While planning the first few months of our world trip, we knew we wanted to go to China and Russia. Instead of flying country to country, we curiously looked up the Trans-Siberian Railway as an alternate route. We learned of various routes that joined up with the Trans-Siberian including the Trans-Mongolian Railway. The Trans-Mongolian route spans from Beijing to St. Petersburg, which fit our itinerary perfectly. As we became ready to obtain Chinese and Russian visas for our train trip, it became apparent that this would require more planning than expected.

Numerous online reports about the inconveniences of planning such a trip almost convinced us to give up on China and Russia altogether. However, riding the Trans-Mongolian is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so despite some doubts we pushed ahead with our original, (and favorite), plan.

After months of planning, mailing passports and purchasing tickets, both of our visas arrived in the mail! We hope sharing our own experience, which thankfully was a positive one, might help prepare any readers planning the same route. Here are some concerns we had before we bought tickets and applied for visas, and our solutions for them.

HOW TO APPLY

We read conflicting reports about whether it was acceptable to submit and pick up applications in person or by mail, or if application was required through use of a travel agency. We decided to use a travel agency to be on the safe side.

SOLUTION: Use a Travel Agency

China Visa Agency: Mark’s former boss, who currently lives in Beijing, recommended Oasis China to apply for our visas since their offices are in the same building as the Embassy of China. They were quick to respond to questions and provided helpful tips, (e.g. that both of our names needed to be on all the hotel reservations). We received our Chinese visas 18 days after mailing out our applications to the agency.

Russia Visa Agency: We chose Russian Universal Services because they told us they could process our applications 90 days in advance of our entry while other agencies told us only 45 days. They were great at responding to questions through email and on the phone. They also said if we filled out our forms incorrectly that they would make the appropriate corrections. We received our Russian visas 21 days after mailing out our applications to them. Luckily we received word of our Russian visa approval on the exact same day that the advanced payments of our Trans-Mongolian tickets were due in full to Real Russia.

PROOF OF EXIT AND ENTRY

Proof of a round-trip flight was a requirement for China’s visa applications. We knew this was not possible since we were flying one way into China and departing by train.

SOLUTION: Book Transportation in Advance

Although it felt risky, we went ahead and purchased one-way tickets from Hiroshima, Japan, to Shanghai, China, so we could have the flight itinerary to submit with our visa applications. For proof of exit we were unsure if our train bookings would suffice. We booked our Trans-Mongolian train through Real Russia and as soon as we paid the deposit on our train reservation, they provided us with an official train itinerary showing departure from China. This turned out to be sufficient for the Chinese visa application.

PROOF OF HOTEL RESERVATIONS

Another requirement for both Russia and China visa applications was proof of all hotel reservations. Both people’s names had to be on each hotel booking confirmation as well.

SOLUTION: Make hotel bookings with free cancellation option

We used Booking.com to make our reservations since no deposit was required and we could cancel, if needed, for free. There was also a spot on the reservation form where we could type both our names into the hotel confirmation.

LETTER OF INVITATION

Both countries required a letter of invitation.

SOLUTION: Receive Help from an Agency

For China we didn’t have to provide it since we could show the proper proof of entry and exit with our inbound flight and outbound train tickets. Since we booked Trans-Mongolian tickets through Real Russia they provided us with a Russian letter of invitation for free.

DATE OF APPLICATION

As U.S. citizens, we were told by several travel agents that we could only apply for the Chinese and Russian visas while at home in the United States. Both countries also had a rule that we could only apply for visas within a certain timeframe before our visit. This meant that we had to apply for our Chinese and Russian visas before leaving for our year-long trip and then visit those countries early in our itinerary.

SOLUTION: Show Proof of Itinerary

We were okay with China’s rules, (must use visa within 90 days from application), but with Russia we were unsure. One travel agent told us we had only 45 days to use the Russian visa after we received it. This wouldn’t work since we planned to be out of the U.S. for about 60 days before entering Russia. Another travel agent at Russian Universal Services told us they could issue our visa 90 days in advance as long as we could show proof that we would be leaving the U.S. during that time. Our itinerary showing flights from the U.S. to Japan and to China was sufficient for them. We also gave ourselves ample time to apply for the visas in case something was incorrect.

APPLICATIONS ACCEPTED!

While all this planning to visit China and Russia was time consuming, our visa applications were accepted and it turned out to be an easier process than initially expected. Stay tuned…we’ll be sharing our once-in-a-lifetime experience onboard the Trans-Mongolian this July!

Now that it’s all said and done, see the lessons we learned while traveling on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

7 Responses

  1. Kassidi Henrie

    I LOVE that you and your husband are doing a world trip. My husband and I have seriously talked about doing this multiple times. When I saw you guys on the news I had to start following your story. This post is extremely helpful. One question I have for you, have you guys been using credit cards the past 2 years that accrue airline miles to help pay for the transportation costs?

    Reply
    • Britnee Johnston

      Awesome, you guys should totally do it! We think that airline miles is a great benefit that credit cards provide, but for us avoiding credit card interest and debt was a greater priority. So we didn’t do that. Instead we found that when we booked flights in advance we’d get a pretty good rate. For example, we purchased the Hiroshima to Shanghai flight tickets about four months in advance for $200 each, and now they are going for more than $500 each. We saved $600 by planning ahead and purchasing them early on. Hope that gives you some ideas and hope to see you and your husband hit the road sometime soon! :)

      Reply
  2. Jenn

    So glad you guys decided to do this! All the research and paperwork will pay off as it really seems like the experience of a lifetime. I, too, have long dreamed about taking the trans-Siberian railway… can’t wait to see your photos!

    Reply
    • Mark Johnston

      Thanks Jenn. We’re stoked, albeit very tired having just arrived in Tokyo last night. Barely slept as our internal clocks were still on Utah time, but we’ll get out and explore this amazing place shortly. Thanks for following along!

      Reply

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