This summer, while traveling in Central and Eastern Europe, I was researching possible places to visit when I found out about the recently implemented visa waiver program for Belarus. I was intrigued by the possibility of checking out a new-to-me country without the hassle of applying for a visa in advance and/or incurring substantially more fees for obtaining one on arrival.
According to Presidential Decree No. 8, “On establishment of visa-free entry and exit of foreign nationals" which took effect on February 12, 2017, "foreign citizens of 80 countries can enter Belarus for up to 5 days and exit from the territory of Belarus only through the State border checkpoint of the Republic of Belarus Minsk National Airport." The program stipulates that participants must have the following:
- a valid ordinary passport or another substituting document for traveling abroad;
- financial means: at least 25 Euro (or equal amount in dollars or Belarusian rubles) for each day of stay;
- medical insurance with coverage for at least 10,000 Euros that covers the territory of Belarus.
I wanted to be sure I could comply with the conditions of the visa waiver so I started researching the logistics of my visit. Unfortunately, beyond the text of the decree as written above, there was very little information detailing how it would work and exactly what I should do to prepare. The information on the website of the Embassy of Belarus in the U.S. was somewhat confusing and provided no helpful information other than the text of the decree as written above. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus website was only slightly more forthcoming. While the general terms are relatively straightforward, there was no definitive information as to exactly how to calculate the days, how to obtain the required insurance, and how to provide proof of the necessary financial means. And, because the visa waiver program was so new, very few people had actually used it to visit the country and virtually no one had written about their experience.
Based on my limited research, I decided to take my chances and proceeded to purchase airline tickets. My flight on Ukraine International Airlines from Lviv to Minsk via Kiev was on June 20, 2017. My return flight from Minsk to Kiev on Belavia was on June 24, 2017. Note the dates; if you count the arrival and the departure date, then my total stay in Belarus occurred over five days. As it turned out, I was quite fortunate that I interpreted the decree literally. I met another traveler who landed at 10 p.m. but assumed that did not count as Day One. In fact, the visa waiver clock starts from the time your passport is stamped at the airport. Thus even if you arrive at 11 p.m. and your passport is stamped on that calendar day, it counts as Day One of your five day stay. Similarly, if your flight departs Minsk at 6 a.m., that counts as Day Five.
Tip #1: The five day clock is based on calendar days not 24-hour periods. Your arrival and departure days each count as one day. That means you technically only have three full days for sightseeing.
Another mistake I discovered travelers were making was to assume they could fly into Minsk Airport per the decree, but then could depart the country over land. One of my hostel dorm bunkmates, who was also visiting on the visa waiver program, ended up having to purchase a last minute plane ticket because he wrongly assumed he could take a bus out of the country.
Tip #2: You must fly both into and out of Belarus Minsk National Airport.
There was no ATM machine in the arrivals hall prior to passport control. As I had been in Poland and then Ukraine for a few weeks prior to my trip to Belarus, I was not carrying euros. In fact, I only had about 370 Ukrainian hryvnia (equal to $14 USD) in my wallet. If asked, my plan was to use my cell phone to show my current bank balance of well over 125 euros as proof of sufficient funds. Thankfully the agent did not request proof of financial means, and I observed other travelers with wads of cash in their hands who, upon approaching the checkpoint, were told to put it away. Note that there is an ATM machine in the public area of the arrivals hall after you have passed through passport control and collected your checked luggage.
Tip #3: Based on my experience, you do not need to physically be carrying the equivalent of 25 euros per day of your stay. I do recommend that you have either a printed copy or an easily accessible downloaded copy of a recent bank statement on your mobile device, just in case.
I was able to obtain insurance upon arrival at the airport. Just prior to going through immigration, there was a small desk with two women who spoke only a few words of English. I told them I needed insurance, filled out a form including the exact dates of my stay and then they issued me a certificate. The price was calculated per day of stay in Belarus. A 10,000 euro policy which covered me for five days cost 6 euros, which I paid with my credit card.
Tip #4: You can purchase the required insurance upon arrival at Belarus Minsk National Airport and you can pay with a credit card.
The vibe in the passport control area was a bit nerve-wracking. The all-white room had no windows and minimal air flow. A man wearing dress clothes and a stern frown patrolled the room, occasionally barking orders on a walkie-talkie. Even though my flight was the only one that had recently landed, and there were almost a dozen agents checking documents, I still had to wait in line for almost 30 minutes. When I finally approached the immigration agent, I made sure I had my printed flight confirmation and hostel reservation in hand along with the insurance certificate, but she never looked at it. She did however take a thorough look at my passport and even used a special magnifying glass to examine the photo page. She also asked the purpose and duration of my stay. Satisfied with my responses, the agent stamped my passport and, as the swing gate opened, she said "Welcome to Belarus!"
Tip #5: Have your documents in order and easily accessible but don't force them on the immigration agent. Make eye contact and answer any questions truthfully. Do not take photos or use your mobile phone while you're in the passport control room.
There is already speculation that, due to the increase in foreign visitors this summer, Belarus may extend the visa waiver to 10 days in the next year or two. So, should you take advantage of it?
Since I was already in the region, it was not too far out of my way to fly to Minsk. And, even though I booked my flights only one week before departure, my total airfare (from Lviv and to Kiev) was only $154. Four nights in a budget hostel, public transportation, simple meals, groceries and decent craft beer cost $75. I also decided to take a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Mir Castle and Nesvizh Palace in order to see the Belarusian countryside and learn more about the country's history. The 11-hour tour operated by Viapol cost $47. So, from a financial standpoint, it was well worth the slight detour from Ukraine as my visit only cost me $283 total.
Plus, I personally wanted to experience the vibe of the capital city of a former Soviet republic that is nicknamed "the last dictatorship in Europe." There were many contradictions, like the overwhelmingly grandiose postwar buildings, boulevards, monuments and memorials, the intimacy of restored Orthodox churches, and tourist-friendly Upper Town with its rebuilt historical center now featuring trendy restaurants and bars. In this regard, I was not disappointed.
While I wouldn't plan a trip from the U.S. solely because of the current visa waiver program, I would certainly consider adding Minsk as a side trip if you are already planning to be in the region.
Have you been to Belarus under the visa waiver program? If so, what was your experience?