This January Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signed Decree No. 8 “On the introduction of the visa-free entry and departure for foreign citizens” that came into force in February pleasantly surprising potential visitors. Having been one of the most closed off countries in Europe with one of the most bureaucratic and mind-boggling visa obtaining procedures, Belarus is now finally showing its desire to join the global dialogue.
However, do not rush to pack your bags immediately upon hearing the news. There are quite a few things and hints to keep in mind before planning your visit to Belarus.
First of all, make sure you check the list of states whose citizens are given the visa-free welcome. It includes all EU countries, a dozen Latin American nations, Asian partner states and many others. To see the full list, please, refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. There you will also be able to find an additional list of 24 countries, whose citizens are not required to obtain visas for a 30-day, 90-day and longer visits to Belarus.
Furthermore, only holders of ordinary passports are allowed to take advantage of the Decree. Those that arrive on official trips with diplomatic, service, special and similar passports need to follow a different set of procedures.
Keep in mind that the only allowed point of entry and exit under the Decree is Minsk National Airport, therefore if you chose to travel to Belarus by bus or train from, for example, Vilnius, the same rules would not apply. There are two other enforced Decrees enabling tourists to visit the Augustow Canal park in Hrodna region for up to 5 days visa-free and Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in Brest region for up to 3 days visa-free that would be more suitable for those travelling by bus or train. Another important condition is that foreign visitors are not allowed to cross the international border of Belarus to go to neighboring states, such as Russia, during the visa-free visit.
One would need the following documents to make it through border control upon arrival: a valid passport or other document permitting foreign travel (The EU ID-card that European nationals use to travel within the EU would not be enough), 56 BYN per person per day (roughly equivalent to €27), and medical insurance that may be purchased at the airport. Additionally, citizens of Vietnam, Haiti, Gambia, Honduras, India, China, Lebanon, Namibia, and Samoa are required to travel with a valid Schengen multiple visa with a note of entry to the territory of a state-member of the European Union or a state-member of the Schengen area, as well as tickets confirming the date of departure from the Minsk National Airport within 5 days from the date of entry to Belarus.
The maximum duration of stay allowed under the Decree is 5 days. The day of arrival regardless of the exact time of arrival qualifies as the first day of stay. The safest option is to book return tickets prior to the visit as flights from Minsk to most other airports are not daily and may be sold out if you try to book them last minute.
If you don’t leave the territory of Belarus via Minsk National Airports within 5 days you risk violating visa-free rules and facing a fine of up to €550 with or without deportation. In case of illness, natural disaster or other unforeseen circumstances that prevent an individual from leaving the country on time he or she needs to contact an internal affairs body and apply for an exit permit. In this case and this case only the individual would be allowed to depart from Belarus through border check points other than Minsk National Airport.
Some argue that 5 days may not be enough for a quality visit, yet the bright side is that the number of such 5-day visit is close to unlimited. The overall time of visa-free stay for foreign nationals should not exceed 90 days in a calendar year. Thus, you are welcome to visit Belarus as many as 18 times a year visa free. For those that want to stay longer Belarus has recently lowered individual visa fees to €60 and group visas to €10 per person.
Once safely through border control checkpoint visitors are free to move within the state borders. Buses and shuttle buses to the capital depart from the airport every 20 minutes in daytime (the bus fee is approximately €2, the travel time is 1 hour). There are also trains and taxi service available. Once in Minsk, tourists have the option of staying in the capital and visiting a wide range of city tourist destinations or travelling to other Belarusian regions to take in the beauty of untouched lakes and forests, medieval castles, and WWII memorials.
There is no doubt that a visa-free 5-day visit to Belarus is worth a try – the rules are not numerous and easy to follow once you are aware of them, the people are welcoming, the food is delicious and the experience is bound to be memorable and rewarding.