Taking advantage of Belarus’ new 5-day visa waiver

Victory Circle in Minsk

Just this year, Belarus enacted a waiver of their visa requirement for certain travelers. Now, travelers from 80 countries (including the USA, UK, EU, Canada & Australia) can stay up to five days in Belarus without having to get a visa. There are some catches, though: The visa waiver only applies to travelers arriving and departing from Minsk International Airport (MSQ) and the waiver does not apply to flights originating or ending in Russia or territories controlled by the Russian Federation.

When I read about the new waiver, I knew we had to detour to Belarus sometime during our Baltic explore. A call to British Airways confirmed we could move back our originally-scheduled departure from Brussels so we were good to go. (I actually got a refund from BA since taxes and fees were substantially lower for the identical flight on a later day. That’s only happened to me once before when changing an award booking on BA, but I like it!) The cheapest routes and most logical routes to Minsk for us entailed flights on Belavia, the Belarusian Airline. We flew from Vilnius, Lithuania, 30 minutes to Minsk and then from Minsk to Riga, Latvia, a 1-hour flight.

Belavia airplane ready for the 30-minute flight from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Minsk, Belarus. No jet bridges for these flights.

Belavia has an excellent on-time record. They’re a basic airline; everything costs extra, including water, but they’re efficient and friendly. Check-in is a firm 2-hours before boarding. Planes are relatively small on the flights we took, so expect to walk onto the tarmac to a bus then be shuttled to outdoor boarding. Overhead bins are small, so a small carry-on like my trusty Travelon* is in order, ideally one that will fit under the seat. Carry-on was not weighed, but checked luggage was and the limit is 20 kg, less than a standard US flight allowance.

[*I love my Travelon carry-on so much I have two variations, one even smaller than the other and perfect for when I’m taking the netbook and not the bigger (15″) laptop. A strap on the back lets me attach it to the handle of my 360-wheel checked luggage so maneuvering even a heavy load is easy. David liked my system so much he bought the same thing in black rather than my nifty eggplant purple.]

Cosy, but our carry-ons fit under the seat of this smaller plane

The waiver system worked very simply and smoothly. We filled out the landing card required of arriving visitors and simply indicated our departure date which was within the 5-day limit.

Welcome to Belarus! The mandatory health insurance counter is just to the left inside this door.

We still had to get the mandatory local insurance so joined the rush to queue up at the counter just inside the terminal entrance to the left. The insurance is very cheap and they accept dollars and euros (at an equal exchange rate), rubles and credit cards. The cost for a 1-2 day stay is $2 (or €2)/ person, for 3-4 days it’s $4 (or €4)/person, 5-6 days is $6 (or €6)/person. We showed our passports, paid the fee and were handed an insurance policy. Standing in line took more time than getting the policy.

With policy in hand, we then headed to passport control. The wait at passport control was longer than at the insurance desk because each passport is very thoroughly examined with a lighted viewing glass. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Several people were asked to step aside and at least one was sent back to the insurance desk to talk to some officials. It seemed that everyone got through; it was just slow although not that many people were queued up.

When I did get to an official, I showed her my passport, insurance and boarding card. She asked me if we had a visa. I said “no,” then she verified  that we were leaving within the 5-day limit and all was well. (The only “verification” was a simple question. I wasn’t required to show my return ticket as I was in China when using a visa waiver there.) She asked the purpose of our visit and when I said I was curious about Belarus, she smiled and asked “Tourism?” I nodded and she stamped me into the country. (David went through the same methodical process. There’s no stepping up as a couple traveling together, only individuals, one-at-a-time.)

We went through the same methodical inspection of our passports when we left Belarus, but there was absolutely no problem. The visa waiver system works smoothly. We heard several Belarusians mention that there’s hope the waiver will be extended to 10-days. They recognize the potential for increased tourism and are looking forward to it.

Nesvizh Castle, an easy daytrip from Minsk

I’ll write more on our stay in Minsk and our daytrip to Nesvizh and Mir, but am enjoying our travels rather than blogging right now. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and saw tourist areas being expanded and renovated in addition to an apparent general construction boom in Minsk. Departure from Belarus was as hassle-free as arrival. With cheap airlines bound to start pouring in, go sooner rather than later. I worry that the Ryanair/drunken-stag-party crowd will do to Minsk what it’s done to other Eastern European cities.


China’s 144-hour in-transit visa waiver

China has recently expanded their visa waiver provision, allowing certain in-transit visitors to visit the country for 144-hours (6 days) without a visa. This is really a great opportunity to get in a not-insubstantial visit without the hassle and expense of obtaining a Chinese visa before you leave your home country, the only other option for travel to China. The requirements for this waiver are specific, though:

You must arrive in China from one country and depart to a third country, i.e., you CANNOT simply fly to China and back from your home (or another) country.

The visa waiver is available to those arriving and departing from certain entry points including airports and cruise ship ports in Shanghai, Baoshan, etc.

You may visit certain other nearby regions and cities. For more information see: http://www.sh-immigration.gov.cn/listPageEn.aspx?lx=40&id=4414. (The link to the left of this page entitled “Interpretation of 144-hour Visa-exemption Transit Policy” has useful answers to FAQ’s, too.)

You need to advise the carrier taking you to China of your plan to use the 144-hour visa waiver at the time you check-in. You have to show that carrier your actual departure tickets to a third country (and itinerary if needed to clarify that you will be leaving to a third country). They will enter this information in their computer and, presumably, thereby notify the Chinese authorities that a passenger intends to use this waiver upon arrival in China.

Once in China, at immigration, you go to a clearly-marked visa waiver line rather than the usual immigration line. At the Shanghai Airport, this line was to the far right as you look at the immigration lines. The line for visa waivers was much shorter than the regular lines. You need to again present actual tickets showing your onward travel plans to a third country. Since we were leaving on a cruise, rather than a flight, we had to show our itinerary as well as our tickets which showed that the next stop on our cruise was in Japan, not China or the country we had been in prior to China (which, for us, was South Korea). [The cruise itinerary was not on our tickets and the original itinerary I had with me showed a first cruise stop in Xiamen, China rather than Okinawa, Japan, which was substituted for Xiamen, so it was crucial that we printed an accurate itinerary before departing South Korea.] Once you’ve presented the required documents, you receive an appropriate sticker in your passport allowing you to remain in China until your departure. (Your Chinese hotel will request your passport and verify your authorization under the visa waiver program.)