On the surface, a Kazakhstan tourist visa should have been our easiest visa to obtain when we first visited the country. Kazakhstan is arguably the most developed of the former Soviet countries. But the bureaucratic machine still runs strong at the Kazakh Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan itself.
Fortunately, Kazakhstan visa requirements have eased and become more simplified since our first visit. But if you're curious as to how it used to be, read our Kazakh visa and OVIR registration war stories.
2018 Update: Kazakhstan's Visa-Free Regime
Starting from 1 January 2017, Kazakhstan has a visa-free regime for travelers from 45 countries (here's the full list of eligible nationalities). Under the visa-free regime travelers can stay in Kazakhstan for 30 days. If you'd like to stay longer, then you'll need to apply in advance at the nearest Kazkakh Embassy.
If you enter Kazakhstan on the visa-free regime you should not be required to register yourselves at OVIR (foreigner's police). You should receive two stamps in your passport when you enter the country – one showing the entry date and the other showing you are registered. If you don't receive the second stamp, ask for it so as to avoid any possible problems with the authorities (here's why).
For travelers who are not able to enter with the visa-free regime and required a Letter of Invitation (LOI) for the visa, they will still need to register at OVIR within five days.
When we first called the Kazakh Embassy in Tashkent to obtain some general information, the assistant there informed us that U.S. citizens were required to obtain and submit a Letter of Invitation (LOI) with their visa application. Every piece of information that we had uncovered prior to this call indicated that an LOI was not required. We followed the suggestion of the woman at the embassy and called around to some travel agents for help. Nobody could help us because, according to Kazakh law, U.S. citizens do not need an LOI to apply for tourist visas to Kazakhstan. One travel agent even called the Foreign Ministry in Astana (Kazakhstan's capital) to prove it to us.
As it turns out, the Kazakh monster behind the desk in Tashkent has a reputation. Apparently, we were not the first tourists to apply for a Kazkah visa only to be told that we needed LOIs, when in fact we did not.
So we went to the Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and printed out the Kazakh Visa Law, updated in March 2007. When we visited the embassy, the woman told us, “No LOI, no visa!” and closed the microscopically small visa window. We kindly pressed the printed law – complete with the relevant areas (#6, for those who might need it) highlighted – up against her foggy, puny window. Vexed, she angrily opened the window and snapped our papers away from us: “We’ll consider it.”
The next day, Audrey returned to the embassy to pick up the visas. The Consul questioned her for thirty minutes as to who was sponsoring our trip and which travel agent we had engaged. Audrey explained that we were just tourists wishing to visit his country. Hadn’t he seen the expensive ads the Kazakh government placed on CNN to promote tourism? Apparently not.
After repeated rounds of questioning, the Consul began to tire. Didn’t we know ANYONE in Kazakhstan? Audrey mentioned the name of friend of a friend, whom we had never seen and who had invited us to stay with him in Almaty. Audrey didn’t have his details with her and the embassy didn't have internet for her to retrieve them from her email. The Consul finally gave up and gave in; he wrote our friend’s name into our visas and let her go.
Once you are in Kazakhstan, the fun continues with foreigners’ registration at OVIR. Most western visitors manage to avoid this bureaucratic check-box by either flying into an airport (where the immigration police register you automatically) or by obtaining their visas from a Kazakh embassy in a western country (where visas apparently already include registration).
Unfortunately, we didn’t fit into either of these categories. We struggled across the border from Uzbekistan and we obtained our visas from the Kazakh Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
First, we should explain what OVIR is. It's basically a bureaucratic pillar in the Soviet paranoia parade which still exists in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Think of it as a red tape generating government tracking mechanism whose acronym officially means Office of Visas and Registration, but more accurately should read Office of the Violation of Individual Rights.
If, like us, you are unfortunate enough to have to register, here's what you need. The Almaty outpost of OVIR is on the corner of Baytursynuly and Karasay Batyr streets. Applications are accepted in the morning until noon. You will need to photocopy the application form, your passport and your visa. Bring the address of where you're staying. The clerk who handled our papers that morning was remarkably polite, friendly and helpful, going so far as to fill out the paperwork for us when she realized that our ability to write in Russian (Cyrillic alphabet) rivaled that of an infant.
The evening was another affair. Audrey found herself in the midst of another frenzied swarm of travelers and migrant workers from the former Soviet Union waiting to collect their stamped passports. Everyone was told to arrive at 6 PM, but the passports didn't come out until almost 6:45, raising the crowd's anxiety level to fever pitch. No signs indicated at which window anyone should queue. The lack of process transformed the crowd into a bunch of pinballs bouncing maniacally from window to window in search of their passports.
Audrey emerged from the office with a shaken, young Japanese tourist who imploringly asked, “Do I have to go through this in Uzbekistan?” Although Uzbekistan has its share of controls and regulations, registering at the foreigner’s police is fortunately not one of them.