Beginning on 9 September 2012, business travelers and tourists from Russia will be able to apply for В1/В2 multi-entry visas that are valid for up to three years. Tourists and business visa applicants will also no longer have to show evidence of ticket reservations, accommodations, or formal invitations related to their stay in the US. Under new rules, the $160 application fee for these visas will remain the same, but the visa fee itself will now be $20 instead of the $100 it was before the rule change. In addition, the standard visa processing times for these visas will be 15 days or less, where possible. The timelines and fees for other visas will not be changed.
This is the third time in five years that visa rules for Russian nationals have been relaxed or simplified. In 2008, some Russian nationals applying for a second visa within an 11 month time period were exempt from fingerprinting and interview requirements. Another policy change in March 2012 means that the grade period of a previous visa was extended to four years. Under the new rules, Russian nationals who have already visited the US will face a streamlined process for entering the US and will be able to avoid most direct contact with the US Embassy, sending in any required documents by courier.
The move may be part of a larger effort by the Obama administration to attract more tourists to the US. Tourism is a big business in the US, supporting many businesses, including restaurants, resorts, hotels, and other businesses. In 2011, the 64 million foreign nationals who entered the US for a visit spent $152 billion in the US. However, Russia has not traditionally been a priority country for attracting tourists. According to the US State Department, priority countries for this purpose are Brazil, China, and India, among others. This is despite the fact that the number of Russians visiting the US seems to be on the rise. In 2011, 112 000 Russians made a visit to the US. Between January and May 2012, 92 200 Russians visited the US, suggesting that Russians are traveling to the US for visits in increasing numbers.
The latest rule change for Russian nationals visiting the US was brought about by a July 2011 visa agreement between the US and Russia. That agreement was ratified by Russia this year, and the agreement paves the way for three-year visas to become the standard for business and tourism travelers.
Under the July 2011 visa agreement between the US and Russia, Russia will also offer three-year visas to US visitors. However, US visitors to Russia will need to show evidence of accommodations for tourist visas. Under the new agreement, Americans will now be able to remain in Russia for up to six months. The previous limit was three months.