Planning and paperwork on the Trans-Siberian

Planning your Trans-Siberian adventure

Organising the paperwork for a Trans-Siberian trip can be one of the hardest aspects to many travelers. Without support from the experts it can be a bit of a headache. Matthew Woodward shares some ideas for pulling together your plan.

How far to plan ahead?

You can’t really just hop on a train across the longest railway in the world at the last minute. This trip needs some forward planning. So what is the ideal timeframe for arranging a Trans-Sib adventure? I would suggest about three months. Allow me to explain.

Tickets for Russian trains do not actually go on sale until up to 60 days prior to your intended travel date. In China this is now 30 days (it used to be 12 days). So from that point of view, at two months out your agent can be ready to get the tickets the day they become available. This is important as some trains will sell out fast, and the choice of class and train may become much more restricted just a few days after this date.

The other key organisational challenge is arranging the visas. Each one works slightly differently, but generally from around three months before you travel it’s possible to start to get them issued.

I would therefore suggest you start your planning at least three months in advance, because you want to allow a week or two at the front of the process to discuss and fine tune your itinerary with your agent before going firm on the booking. Unless you like excitement in your life, you also don't want to be waiting for tickets and visas just a few days before you set off!

Talk to the experts

Once you have read some blogs and accounts of the adventures of others, you might have a good feeling for your preferences. Unless you really want to do everything yourself, getting some guidance and advice at this stage is well worth it.

The very best agents - like Real Russia - have advisors who speak several languages (including Russian) and have access to international booking systems, as well as people on the ground able to get tickets in the local countries. Once you have booked your trip it is very reassuring to know they will act on the earliest possible date to secure your tickets.

Passports and visas

Before you do anything else, find your passport and check it has more than six months validity (ideally a year or more) and enough pages for the number of visas you need – each one will take up a full page. If you do need a new British passport, this normally takes 3-4 weeks on the standard service, so factor this in to your plans.

You are going to need some up to date passport type photographs for your visas. I would recommend going to a photographer to do this rather than trying to do it yourself. There are actually some very detailed rules on the size of the photograph and the dimensions of your face on the image. There are places on most high streets that will do this, and they know the rules, which differ between countries. You don't want to be smiling, wearing glasses or inappropriately dressed for these. Carry some spare photographs with you on your trip.

You might be surprised how much personal information is actually needed for some visa applications, notably the Russian Federation and China. I would recommend completing the forms when you have some quiet time and have everything to hand. You won’t need your inside leg measurement, but almost everything else! For example, you will need to have details of every country you have visited in the last few years, copies of any previous visas issued, details of your employer, and every city and hotel you plan to visit on your itinerary. You may also need to have copies of travel documents and invitations.

Real Russia has a dedicated visa team and intricate knowledge of the visa paperwork. The process is made much more simple and streamlined by using their online application forms and processes. It is very comforting to have online chat support and also to get an email each time your visa moves from embassy to embassy. This is done in the best order to make the most of visa validity periods. For example, Russian Federation visas work on a fixed entry date, whereas a Chinese visa will normally be valid for three months entry from the date of issue – so this one will be organised last. The order is important – for example, to get a Belarus transit visa, you need to have a Russian visa already issued.

The current system for Russian visas issued in the U.K. means that you need to attend the consulate to provide fingerprints prior to the visa being issued. I found this very straightforward – you only need to make one trip and they take care of the rest.

Checking your travel documents

Once you receive your visas and tickets you need to check them in real detail. Carefully make sure the visa dates match your itinerary. It does not matter if your intended exit dates are earlier then the period the visa has been issued for, but the entry dates are critical. For train tickets you need to be able to make sure the dates, class and destinations are correct as well as knowing which carriage and seat you have been allocated. If they are in Russian, visit the Real Russia page on how to read a train ticket.

Preparing tickets for the Trans-Siberian

Preparing tickets for the Trans-Siberian

Insurance and medical documents

Other than your tickets and visas, your travel insurance is perhaps the single most important document to carry. Always keep this close to hand. If you have a European Health Insurance card bring it along (for the European part of your journey). If you wear glasses bring a copy of your optical prescription, in case you accidentally damage or lose them. If you are going to be carrying any prescribed medication, you should also bring a copy of the prescription or a doctor’s letter.

Money matters

I always use a pre-pay ‘top up’ card – the sort with no charges for ATM withdrawals - combined with more than one conventional credit card. I carry a small amount of cash in low denomination notes for every country I will be visiting, together with some U.S. Dollars, which are always easy to exchange. You can now easily get some Trans-Siberian currencies, including Russian Rubles and Chinese Yuan, from U.K. currency exchanges. Ordering these in advance can often get you a better rate.

Be prepared

Of course it is unlikely you will have any problems, but you should be prepared in case something does go wrong. Make a note of any emergency numbers and store these in your phone. It is also worth keeping a copy of these with your other documents, in the event that there is a problem with your phone.

Once you have all your visas in your passport I recommend scanning the pages of each visa and sending them to yourself in an email to an online cloud based account – put it in a folder that you will find easily in an emergency. Some people carry photocopies of their passport. This can be useful so you can leave your original passport in a hotel safe, for example. Whilst his has advantages, do remember that you should in theory carry your real passport on your person as identification, and also that if you lose these copies, your identity will have been compromised.

You may want to think about keeping a small emergency fund and an extra credit card in a different place from your wallet.

With these preparations made you should be able to sit back, relax and really enjoy your adventure on the most amazing railway in the world.


Matthew Woodward is a writer and train adventurer. He has completed several Trans-Siberian rail journeys, from his home in the UK to places including Shanghai, Singapore, Lhasa and Tokyo.

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