Tourist Gets In Trouble With Non-Obvious Visa-Free Hitch

A tourist from Hong Kong came to Belarus visa-free but encountered an unexpected problem when it came to registration.

In the two past years, Belarus introduced several types of visa-free regimes with slight differences that may confuse travelers. The biggest catch lies in crossing the border with Russia.

An example of this travel confusion was told on TripAdvisor by a friend of a traveler who nearly got fined for allegedly breaking a migration law in Belarus.

Johny from Hong Kong learned about the 14-days visa-free policy between Belarus and Hong Kong (in effect from February 2018 – note BelarusFeed) on the internet. The guy booked tickets and flew to Minsk via Russia. He had a migration card filed by Russian border officers.

Two days after the arrival Johny went to register with a local migration department (called OGIM – note BelarusFeed). They told Johny that he had allegedly broken the migration law and had to pay a fine and an exit visa fee.

So what went wrong?

International border but not with Russia

According to the website of Belarus’ MFA in China, the holders of  Hong Kong passports don’t need a visa to enter, leave or transit Belarus for visits not exceeding 14 days if they travel via international border checkpoints open to international traffic.

However, the border between Belarus and Russia does not have international checkpoints. It means, in particular, the absence of passport control at Minsk airport for flights arriving from Russia.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why the 30-day visa-free entry (5-day visa-free entry back in February 2018 when Johny was in Minsk – note BelarusFeed) does not work for those flights. Travelers from the 74 states eligible cannot use this entry mode if they fly from Moscow or any other Russian city.

The no-visa-free-entry-from-Russia was specifically pointed in the rules. In the case with 14 visa-free days with Hong Kong, no exclusions were mentioned in the official source.

“It doesn’t say you can’t go through Moscow,” says Andrei, a private guide who helped Johny sort his trouble out.

“I called up the border guards. They confirmed that flying in from Moscow is not a crime (with them – note).”

So Andrei asked the same question to the local police who wanted to impose the fine.

It turned out that the OGIM was unaware of the specific visa-free mode with Hong Kong and would have returned the money. The following week, the officials had referred to a service manual, and told Andrei that the 14-day visa-free mode for HK passports didn’t specify if holders of HK passports can or can not fly to Belarus from Russia.

The situation remained ambiguous, the guide says.

How to be on the safe side?

While Belarus and Russia are juggling the international border checkpoints issue, and mutual visa recognition is also pending, BelarusFeed asked Andrei for advice to help travelers avoid trouble when it comes to unclear instructions.

“If you have doubts, try to get confirmations from several official sources – the embassy, the border committee, the visa section at Minsk airport,” the guide says.

Also, keep all the possible travel docs in paper form until you leave Belarus. For example, in Johny’s case, the boarding pass for Moscow-Minsk flight could confirm the date of his entry.

And remember – at present foreigners can only enter Belarus from Russia if they have a visa. But, as tour guides and experienced travelers have told BelarusFeed, it may be safer to fly in via a third country.