With a European Union or US passport most countries make it easy for you to clear immigration. Many countries require no visa or give you a VOA (visa-on-arrival). Things are different for Russia, China and India.
I applied for a Chinese visa recently and was impressed with the SF consulate – the whole process was done in minutes and my passport was ready in just 3 business days and that's without paying an expedite fee.
Russian visas are handled not by the consulate but by Invisa Logistic Services USA – an American company – so my expectations were a bit higher.
The online application is long and treacherous but not much different than what you need for other visas. Reserve 30 minutes for it to be on the safe side.
It's easy to miss but you need a current photograph of yourself for the application.
Next up is the visa voucher that needs to be issued by an organization in Russia. This in effect is your hotel. I emailed the Hotel Ukraina – the best Radisson in Moscow – and they had no trouble doing it within one day. They do require your credit card and original signature, though. Should you cancel your reservation they require a payment of $80.
Appointments were available at short notice at Invisa in San Francisco. I made the appointment on Thursday for Monday afternoon.
By Monday I was on my way to the Russian consulate as for some reason I was under the impression that this is where the visas are issued. Invisa has its own office downtown though – oops! I missed my appointment time by 5 minutes and was placed in the lower priority queue as the agent made it clear that missing an appointment even by 5 minutes means you lose your spot in line. To my surprise the office was bustling with agents for the visa agencies who each had 10-30 applications at one time. None of them had an appointment.
After a 20 minute wait the process was fairly quick. However, there was a change required on my application (the 'host organization' was my hotel – I did not know that when filling out the form online). The agent will easily change it for you – for a hefty $25 fee!!
In total it cost me $198 including processing fees – easily the most I have ever spent on a visa. I hope Moscow will make up for it though 🙂
In sum it's rather easy to get the Russian visa and while the agents are grumpy the process isn't much worse than other countries. If you live close to a consulate you should try it yourself.