Last Updated on August 13, 2018 by Audrey Scott
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.
What it Used to Be Like to Get a Kazakh Tourist Visa
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.
13 thoughts on “Kazakhstan Visas and Letters of Invitation (LOI)”
I think you experienced a hold-over from a previous Kazakh law which did require a LOI for everyone no matter what. Now, you do not need a LOI for a single-entry tourist visa. You DO need a LOI for a multiple-entry visa of any sort. That office in Tashkent probably wasn’t up to speed on the change a number of years ago.
I was there when my airline was doing sub-service flying for Air Astana in 2005, so I had an invitation from Air Astana. But, I brought my wife there from America on a single-entry visa for a couple weeks, and it was no problem without a LOI. We obtained her Kazakh visa from the embassy in the US, however, where they knew the rules better.
One thing is for certain, however. They are not used to Tourists in Kazakhstan. They don’t have them, and they don’t know why there are there when they do see them. Tourism doesn’t seem to register with them.
Being American, most locals thought I was Russian instead of Kazakh. One girl asked me if I spoke Russian, and when I said, “No”, she was confused and asked me “why don’t you speak Russian?” She truly didn’t understand the concept of a foreigner being in her country for any reason. It was quite and experience. I loved every minute of it, though.
Also, if staying at a hotel the hotel will send out your passport and get the police registration for you, for a small fee. It is totally worth it, as we just drank beer in the hotel atrium that night and the next day the passports were returned with the police registration. Totally painless. I highly recommend that route if possible.
@Jack: Thanks for your comment. That explains it. I figure the laws regarding Kazakh visas and LOIs change with the wind. It’s also clear that each embassy/consulate in the neighboring countries possess both different information and differing attitudes regarding how cooperative they intend to be in issuing visas. Good information regarding police registration through one’s guest house. As it turned out, we were staying with a friend in Almaty (to reduce costs, as Almaty accommodation was very expensive) when we went for our registration.
They are certainly not accustomed to tourists in Kazakhstan, still while we were there. All the more ironic given the “Visit Kazakhstan” tourist campaigns that were playing on CNN International during our time in the ‘Stans.
Flying for Air Astana…sounds fascinating. I hope your aircraft were better built than this:
For us, too, all of Central Asia has been a highlight of our entire journey.
i am living in UAE , Abu Dhabi and I decided to visit Almaty with my brother on 31 May 2014, but the Kazakhstan Embassy requested from me an invitation letter from Kazakhstan to approve our visa.
so please could you help me how can i get the invitation letter for me and my brother to visit Almaty on the end of May.
Hatem, we are not a tour operator so we cannot help you with your letter of invitation or visa support. You can try to contact the company that we used – Stan Tours. Good luck!
Kazakh visa procedure all changed June 15, 2014 for US Citizens, no application, no fee, just about a hour wait at the border which can be crowded. Same with Kyrgyz visa, free for the asking at the Pamir border crossing [M41]. Uzbeck and Turkomen visas much different, but if you get them in the US before you leave, its no problem. Lots of people got Tajik visas at the airport with lOI.
Thanks so much for the updates! That’s great news that there is now no fee or application process for Kazakh or Kyrgyz visas! And, that’s great that Tajik visas can be picked up at the airport as well. It’s always easier to get visas in your home country.
My name is Juan Gabriel Arredondo, a Colombian Volunteer who came to Almaty, Kazakhstan some time ago through a Aiesec program. My experience was very good; everything was so exciting and full of knowledge and happiness. In the time that I had been there, I got the help of Silk Road Kazakhstan + in my Visa issues, and I have to say that I’m very comfortable with the result.
I have to tell that in the beginning, before meeting Silk Road Kazakhstan+, I had several problems with my visa, and spend a lot of money and time in bad advices and non professional services related to those processes, plus that in the moment that you don’t understand the language, your only choice is to trust in the people that is doing the process for you. When I meet them (Thanks to the recommendation of another foreigner) All the pain that was getting my papers here disappear. They had been there for me everytime I needed, giving me advice about the situation and taking care of the process with all the related stuff. Plus, I can rely on them, because in all the time that I have been dealing with them, they have been exact in the schedules, trustful in the decisions and more than a client, I can rely on them like a support in my condition of foreigner.
I only have words of gratitude to the company! Thanks a lot for your time, and for the support on this experience!
Glad to hear that you got your Kazakh visa problems sorted easily. It can be quite complicated to sort out all the paperwork and procedures. Hope you had a good experience volunteering in Almaty!
Hello.. I am Collins.. I was searching through the LOI and I found this website because I have an issue about going to Kazakhstan.. The thing is that I have a friend there whom we have known each other for a long time and now she wants me to come over there but the problem is I don’t know what type of visa to take as I am an African .. I tried contacting an LoI agency and they said they only attend to Europeans .. Please what advice can you give me because I want to be living there
I imagine you should contact a visa service in Kazakhstan for what is needed for a long-term residency visa if you want to live there with your friend. Usually, this means finding a person or job to sponsor you for the visa. The company we worked with for the LOI was only for tourists visiting for a short time as that was our situation, so I’m afraid we can’t advise further on this. Good luck!
But can’t I take a tourist visa first and when I get there I can change it to a residency visa ?? because I heard that to make a residency visa takes a very long time ..
You would have to get expert advice on this from a visa service or lawyer in Kazakhstan to answer this question as we are not experts on Kazakh laws. Usually, it is best to apply for the type of visa you need from the beginning instead of changing it.