In Russia, as in most countries, the key issues for most people in obtaining a business visa are the definition of a 'business visa' and the scope of allowable activity. A 'business visit' is generally understood as a short-term trip taken to conduct business activities for which work authorisation is not required in the destination country. Questions about the inviting party are rarely raised - and many might wonder why they should be. In theory, the inviting party should be the party to which the foreign national is travelling on a business visit, but how do these arrangements work in practice in Russia?

According to unofficial estimates, 90% of business travellers to Russia have business visas with an inviting party that has nothing to do with them or the purpose of their visit. This is the case not only for foreign entrepreneurs who do not have a business in Russia and are coming to explore the vast opportunities of the Russian market, but also in respect of some multinational corporations that have long been established in Russia, but do not invite business visitors through their registered Russian entities.

Historically, the function of business travel was outsourced to travel agencies that not only completed the necessary paperwork, but also acted as inviting parties. Before 2003, tourist agencies had accreditation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and applied to the ministry for an official invitation letter, to be issued to a particular foreign national who wished to enter Russia. In 2003 the immigration laws changed, so that only international organisations (eg, the United Nations and its agencies) and Russian state authorities could apply to the ministry for official letters of invitation. Legal entities (including tourist agencies) were required to apply to the Federal Migration Service. The practical difference is that the ministry will not only process a letter of invitation in half the time taken by the Federal Migration Service, but will also telex it to the Russian consulate in the applicant's home country, saving time and money compared to the normal process of courier delivery to the applicant. As a result, applying through the ministry is twice as fast and half as expensive. However, since 2003 legal entities have been prohibited from using this process.

The decision may seem strange, but the letter of the law is clear. However, some tourist agencies, rather than explaining the rule changes to their multinational corporate clients and proposing a new (albeit longer) procedure, looked for a different solution. They approached state authorities - which might include civic government bodies, national ministries or other state organisations, such as the Olympic Committee - and proposed a new arrangement. The tourist agencies would complete the letter of introduction paperwork and send it to the state authority, to be printed under the latter's letterhead, signed and submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as if the foreign business traveller were travelling to visit the state authority. As a result, most business visas name a state authority as the official inviting party. Perhaps most surprisingly, neither the border control officers nor the multinational companies seem to see anything unusual in the arrangement. This attitude is difficult to understand, as if the Federal Migration Service (being the relevant controlling agency) were to identify such an inconsistency - for example, a foreign business traveller visiting an oilfield on an Olympic Committee visa - this would correctly be viewed as a clear breach of immigration legislation. Such an arrangement would be illegal and might lead to further problems, as the official inviting party is responsible for the visitor.

Such an approach is unnecessary, as there are legally approved procedures for business visas.

Legal entities that invite foreign nationals to Russia should register with the immigration authorities in order to sponsor business letters of invitations. This takes approximately two to three weeks and allows such entities to invite business visitors to Russia on their behalf. The paperwork and the submission and collection process can still be outsourced to a suitable professional entity.

Another option, which has been available since June 1 2007, is to prepare an invitation letter under the company's own letterhead and submit it to the Russian embassy (with other supporting documents), in place of the official invitation letter issued by the migration authorities. However, this option is open only to nationals of European countries that are party to the EU-Russia visa agreement (ie, all EU member states except Denmark, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Iceland.)

Individuals who are responsible for corporate business travel and wish to check their company's procedure have a simple solution: checking Line 6 of a Russian business visa, which names the inviting party, will show whether the company is compliant. Such checks are strongly recommended, as the immigration authorities are understood to be increasing their scrutiny in this area.

For further information on this topic please contact Timur Beslangurov at VISTA Foreign Business Support by telephone (+7 495 933 78 22), fax (+7 495 933 78 23) or email ([email protected]).