In this post I will explain most of what you need to know about registration when you travel to Belarus as a tourist on a visa valid for no longer than ninety days. The information comes from my personal experience, acquired along the several trips I’ve taken to that country. Along these lines I will mention Russia several times, since both states are direct inheritors of the same system, and their registration rules are pretty much the same, varying mainly in the deadlines and ways to register, but the particular details I will provide down below apply only to Belarus.
The so-called “registration” (регистрация in Russian, pronounced registratsia) is a pain in the ass, and a deterrent against tourism — most of all, travelers. In case you do not know, Russia and Belarus are control-freak states (probably worse than the totalitarian, population-control regimes Western countries are turning into): they want to know the whereabouts of every person within the borders of their territories, all the time; and although this goal might, of course, justify the existence of such measure as requiring from every single individual within the country to officially be “registered” at the address of their residence or stay, I have not yet grasped what is the real purpose of extending such requirement to normal tourists or travelers who simply come visit the country for just a few weeks, then return home; most of all considering that the economic penalty of such control greatly surpass -in my opinion- the benefits, as the registratsia hassle effectively discourages thousands of foreigners every year from visiting Russia or Belarus and staying around for a while. The kind of tourists most affected by this measure are, of course, those who -like me- do not travel on a planned route or on a tourist program and prefer to move freely at their own whim: maybe just a few nights in each place, riding trains or buses, driving their own van and sleeping at a chance rental room, at some private home or even in a tent. For such type of foreign tourists, the registratsia is a big no-no, a huge hindrance, when not an unsurmountable obstacle. I have the feeling Russian and Belarusian governments do not want the likes of me wandering around, or -in the best case- have never thought of us, thereby losing lots of tourists and the millions of precious rubles we would leave in the country.
Reading some Russian legal sites, I have come across the theoretical justification of the registratsia, that goes like this:
“Registration of residence of a foreign citizen in the Russian Federation: goals and objectives:
The state records and summarizes information about foreigners: how many of them live in the country, what they do for a living, for what reason they come to the Russian Federation and much more. This information is needed to create an effective migration policy, to conduct statistical observations. Migration registration […] is an organized state activity for the collection and analysis of information about foreigners. Registration of foreign citizens in Russia at the place of residence [or] of stay is one of the tasks that accounting solves.
Every foreigner is obliged to register with the Ministry of Internal Affairs if he comes to the country for a more or less long period.
Registration of foreign citizens in Russia solves security problems. It helps the authorities to maintain order, and at the same time allows visitors to avoid problems with the law.”
So, apparently, governments who do not implement the registration system (most countries in the world) cannot properly maintain order(!), create migration policies, collect information about foreigners or conduct statistical observations. It is meaningful to note that the “more or less long period” the legal justification talks about is just one week. Thus, a visit to Russia for -say- ten days is considered “a long period” by the legislators. And the alleged “problems with the law” visitors will avoid thanks to registration are precisely those stemming from the registration itself. Sort of: “We create a stupid law, and if you abide by it you will avoid breaking it”. Funny.
To me it seems obvious that such explanations are rubbish, and the main alternative I can think of as the real objective for the registratsia is (as said above) pure and simple people control, to which the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus do not hesitate in sacrificing -or at least hindering- freedom of movement -for residents same as for tourists- and in giving up millions on foreign income. There might also be another reason (purely speculative on my part) for keeping still in place this outdated Soviet-era creation that nowaday’s development in information technology, computing and electronic data-collecting systems render almost totally superfluous: Russian and Belarussian governments employ, in their Migration and Citizenship departments, thousands upon thousands of officials (in Russian, chinovniks) committed to deal with registrations, and perhaps the authorities would not know what to do with this legion of employees were the registratsia to be eliminated. Besides, it also works as a source of income for the state (albeit always a lot lower than what it loses because of this obstacle to tourism) via registration duties and the many fines those chinovniks impose on the poor devils who missed this or that deadline. And, lastly, it serves as a white check to police or administrative arbitrariness, when not plain corruption. But then again, these are my conjectures.
What the law says
So, let us focus on the registration in Belarus, beginning with the law that regulates it, which is Resolution nr. 73, 20-01-2006, and its subsequent modificaions. The relevant articles are the following:
Art 10: Foreigners arriving to the Republic of Belarus […] are obliged, in the term of ten calendar days, to register in their actual place of residence, either applying personally at the registration authority [Ministry of Foreign Relations or, more commonly, the local section for Citizenship and Migration], or through the inviting organization [hotel, health complex, etc.], or via electronic registration in the portal of [e-services].
The stay in Belarus is counted in calendar days.
Art. 11: When changing the place of temporary stay [and unless travelling on an organized tour], the foreigner, within the three working days counted from the date of arrival to the new residence, is obliged to apply for registration at the local section [for Citizenship and Migration] in the new place of residence.
Art. 29: Persons or organizations who invited a foreigner to enter in Belarus should take measures for his proper registration. […] Those who have provided for a lodging or other place of residence certify his stay in Belarus according to this law.
A few relevant notes on these regulations:
The initial term for registration upon arrival to Belarus is ten calendar days. That is: if you arrive -say- on day 5th in the month, the last you can register is day 15th. But whenever you change your place of stay (meaning: any new address, not just a new locality), the term is only three working days. That is: if you change to a new location on a Friday, the latest you can register in that address is Tuesday. Sundays and official holidays, as well as the days you spend on a transport (provided you can prove you were traveling), do not count. Thus, if you take a night train from A to B, departing -for instance- on Tuesday and arriving on Wednesday, your term for registering in B begins this day. It is also important to note that if you stay in the country no more than ten days you have no obligation to register, regardless of whether or not you have stayed in different addresses.
Online registration through the portal of electronic services (portal.gov.by) is only possible during the first ten calendar days after your arrival in Belarus, and it is only meant for your first registration (not the subsequent ones) during every of your visits to the country. In the online form you need to fill in there is a mandatory field for entering your arrival date in Belarus (and you cannot possibly fool the system, because it is connected with the migration database and they know exactly when you crossed the border), and there is no field for entering your “arrival date at a new address”. Thus, although a very convenient registration way for the tourist, and free of charge, unfortunately it is a one-use-per-visit tool.
Registration at your hotel or tourist facility is also free of charge (plus, they take care of the process), but if you stay in some private address you need to go to the local registration office and pay a duty of 0.5 basic units (as of this writing a b.u. equals 54 BYN). Mind that cities and bigger towns have more than one local section for Migration and Citizenship, and you must head to that corresponding to your address; so you will probably need to ask your host, or else you’ll find quite diffcult to learn which is the building you need to go to. By the way, your host does not need to present himself there for your registration, but you (or someone with a power of attorney on your behalf) absolutely have to. Hotels and local sections will issue a slip certifying you are registered, but online registration is paperless.
If you obtained your visa to Belarus on the basis of a personal invitation, or when staying in any private lodgings (including rental rooms or apartments), your hosts are as liable as you for your registration, but the fines awaiting them if you break these migration rules are ten times those awaiting you. So, be responsible.
Interpreting the law
Whatever the real goals of the registratsia are, this system -as I’ve mentioned- has obviously not been thought taking into account the tourist who moves often from one place to another. If you stay in hotels or commercial lodgings there is nothing to worry about, since they must register you by your request; but if you go around renting private rooms or apartments, or staying at friends’ or relatives’, then it’s your responsibility; and you’ll obviously try to minimize the hassle, time and cost of constantly heading to the local sections for getting yourself registered up to date; but be careful, ‘cos you can run into some little trouble.
Let us go with an example. Say, for instance, you are staying -properly registered- at a hotel in Brest, then on a Friday afternoon catch a bus to nearby Kobryn, where you have rented a private appartment for three nights, and on Monday take an express train to Orsha, arriving there on Tuesday, for staying a week at your friends’. Now, the question is: are you obliged to register in Kobryn? Let’s see:
Since the term is three labour days counting from Friday, your deadline is Tuesday, so there is no hurry. Sure, you can go register on Saturday and waste that morning queueing in the local section, but for as long as you don’t surpass the deadline you are legal, and there is no need to go beyond your duty. Then on Monday, as you leave Kobryn, it seems to you pretty absurd (and perhaps even ilegal) to go register in an address you are no longer at. Given that you’ve spent only two working days in Kobryn, your best logic strongly suggests you to skip that registration altogether and register directly in Orsha once you get there. So, after a night’s trip you arrive at your friends’ on Tuesday; and now, according to article 11 of the law above, your new deadline is Thursday. So, on the morrow, your friend kindly accompanies you to the to the appropriate local offices in Orsha in order to fulfil your migration obligations. There, the chinovnik asks you to produce your last registration, and seeing it expired on Friday and today is Wednesday, decides to penalize you with a fine of 0.5 b.u., and your friend with another one of 5 b.u. Why?
The answer lays in the interpretation of the law. Your best understanding tells you that, since the term for registering in any new address is three labour days, then if you stay no longer than that time in a particular place you are not obliged to register there at all. This interpretation not only makes good sense, but also is quite consistent with the fact that, according to the very same law, you are not obliged to register at all if you do not stay in Belarus more than the initial ten days. However, the officials will interpret the law differently: according to them, article 11 means that under any normal circumstances you can not stay unregistered longer than three working days in a row. And this is what you need to be aware of: try to make sure you do not surpass that term without some registration or other. The chinovniks might be inclined, at their own discretion, to be lenient with you if they see you acted in good faith, and for sure will take into account the nights you’ve spent on a train (in Russia, for instance, most long-distance routes span for several days), but do not rely on your logic interpretation of the “three days term” stated in the law.
Now, why did they fine your friends? Because they should have made sure, before hosting you, that your registration was in order. And here I must categorically state that, if the above interpretation seems to me quite questionable, this one is plain abusive, as it may force a tourist to sleep on the street if, having failed to comply with the rules (even unwillingly), he is denied being hosted at the place already agreed on and -possibly- even paid for; which is totally absurd; the more so when considering that hotels and other tourist bussnisses are exempt from that obligation: they can take you regardless of your previous registrations. But many chinovniks enjoy placing fines on people and, as said, the registratsia is a blank cheque for arbitrariness.
Practicalities and conclusions
Let me begin this last section with a question that comes to everyone’s mind when learning about the registratsia thing: What happens if you do not register at all, or fail to do it for longer than you are allowed to? The answer is simple: on leaving Belarus, you will absolutely be asked for your registration document(s) by the border officer, and if he finds irregularities you will most likely get heavily fined, much more than you would at a local registration authority. In case you cannot (or refuse to) pay the fine, under Belarusian law you can be denied exiting the country (in other words: be legally kidnapped) for a number of weeks, and then banned from entering again for a number of years.
A question whose answer I ignore is whether or not foreign tourists are required to carry on them at all times, along with the passport, proof of registration. I’d dare say not, but I am not sure, so do not trust me on this. What I know for sure (because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website explicitly says so) is that you do not need to carry proof of online registration (as a matter of fact, the portal of electronic services does not return any official-looking “printable registration”, but just a simple page with only a few text lines on it (the likes of which you could just type in a text processor). Therefore, if some policeman wants to check your documents on the street it’s always plausible to tell him you registered online. Besides, some hotels will only provide you with a registration upon check-out (although they should do it upon check-in). So, I would not worry much about this.
Something important to know is that registrations can overlap each other. That is, you can be registered for a number of days (or even till the end of your stay in Belarus) in one address, then change your plans and go somewhere else and register there again… Or not. I mean: theoretically you should, but since the main concern for you (as it’s the only one moment you’ll surely get into trouble in case of irregularities) is to arrive at the border check-point, upon leaving the country, with proof enough of having being registered wherever for most of your stay, you can reasonably skip overlapping registrations. Just use your brain and, again, try to make sure you are not unregistered longer than three woking days in a row.
Therefore, and taking into account all of the above, my strong advice is to make use of the portal of electronic services and register yourself online in your first place of stay for all the length of your visa period, same if it is a hotel or a private apartment. This way you are always on the safe side and can relax or even forget about subsequent registrations. As a matter of fact, that is the advice I was given by the very chinovniks at the local section: register in one place for the whole length of your sojourn in Belarus. Then you can move wherever you want and register again (or not, I insist, using your good judgement). Later on, if you come back to the addres you stayed in the first place, you are already covered by that registration and should not need to do it again. In any case, it is always easier to justify why you are not staying at the address you are supposed to than justifying why you do not have a registration.
Whichever the real objetive of subjecting tourists to the registratsia pain is, in practice the authorities seem to mainly care about it by the time you leave the country. Once at the border check-point, and if you registered online, the officers can check that on the system, so you do not need to handle any papers: suffice to tell them about it (although it does not hurt to print a copy when you do the process and keep it with you). But as to hotel registrations, my guess is they (the officers) cannot chek by themselves, or otherwise they would not need to ask you for receipts. So, try to not lose the slips you got at the hotels or local local sections justifying your registration during the days not covered by the online one (or if you did not use that tool at all).
I hope this guide is of any help to someone. If you happen to know something I do not, or want to make some question, or are sure some of the above is incorrect, please write in the comments below or send me an email, and I’ll reply or edit this article accordingly.
By the way: as for Russia, rules are very similar, but I must say I am not so familiar with them. I know that (as of this writing) there is no electronic registration (which is a pity), that the deadline for first registration is seven days instead of ten (though in this case I’m not sure if holidays count or not), and that the deadline for re-registration when changing place of stay is five working days. Also I know that fines for breaking the migration rules are sensibly higher than in Belarus.