On September 9, the Council of the European Union fully suspended the visa-facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia as part of sanctions imposed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Travel to the EU thus became more difficult and costly for Russian tourists.
Some Eastern European, Baltic, and Nordic states suggested adopting a total visa ban. Considering the current situation, they maintained, Russian tourists shouldn’t be allowed to visit Europe without any limits. But the EU at that point was too divided to agree on a complete ban.
Several countries, such as Estonia and Lithuania, decided to restrict the entry of Russian citizens at the national level. Others (Latvia and Finland, for example) said they wouldn’t accommodate Russians fleeing the military mobilization that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21. The EU finally decided to tighten visa regulations further as a response to the increasing number of Russians trying to enter the bloc.
Let’s have a look at what the data tells us about Russians traveling to Europe.
How Much Do Russians Travel?
According to data published by the independent Levada Center polling agency, the number of Russians traveling abroad has been steadily on the rise for the past few decades.
In 1996, 16 percent of respondents said they had been abroad. By 2022, that figure was 41 percent. The highest share was recorded in Moscow (62 percent) and cities with more than 500,000 residents (45 percent).
In 2019, Turkey was the most common destination for Russians. There were almost 7 million departures recorded that year. Russians also made more than 16 million trips to the countries of the European Union, with Finland, Estonia, and Germany the top destinations.
How Do Russians Get To Europe?
In order to travel to the EU, Russians need to apply for a short-stay visa. If the country they are traveling to is a Schengen area member, they apply for a Schengen short-stay visa. An application form, passport, itinerary, and other documents are required, as well as a visa appointment at one of the Schengen consulates in Russia.
Five EU members -- Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, and Romania -- are not Schengen members and therefore cannot issue visas for the whole area. Visa requirements are similar, but the visa is only valid for the country which issued it.
On the other hand, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland are not EU members but are Schengen area members. Therefore, they can issue visas for the whole region.
Between 2012 and 2021, roughly 123 million Schengen short-stay visas were issued at Schengen-member consulates around the world.
Almost 38 million (or about 30 percent) of these were issued at consulates in Russia -- far more than any other country over the same time period. Consulates in China, for example, issued about 14 percent of all Schengen visas.
Between 2014 and 2021, another 4 million visas were issued around the world to enter Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania. Almost half of these were issued in Russia. These visas don’t allow holders to visit the Schengen area, though.
The largest number of Schengen visas issued in Russia was granted in 2013 -- almost 7 million. The lowest number was in 2016 at almost 3.5 million. Even fewer visas (about 600,000) were issued in 2020 and 2021, mostly due to travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schengen short-stay visas can be issued for the purpose of single or multiple entries. As the name suggests, holders of single-entry visas (SEVs) can enter the Schengen area once and need to obtain a new visa for each trip, while holders of multiple-entry visas (MEVs) can go in and out of the Schengen area as many times as they like. The 90/180 rule, which allows holders to spend up to 90 days in the area within any 180-day period, always applies.
Globally, the share of all MEVs increased from 42 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2019, and as high as 72 percent in 2021. Visas issued at consulates in Russia have been on the same trend but above the world average. In 2012, about half of visas issued in Russia were MEVs. The share exceeded 80 percent in 2016 and reached almost 88 percent in 2021.
The fact that MEVs are usually granted after obtaining and using several SEVs suggests visa applicants at consulates in Russia are frequent rather than occasional travelers.
Schengen visas are generally valid for all countries in the Schengen area. However, visitors need to keep in mind that they must apply at the consulate of the country they intend to visit (or their primary destination, if they plan to visit multiple countries).
Between 2012 and 2021, Finland was the top primary destination for those who applied for Schengen visas at consulates in Russia, followed by Spain and Greece.
Bulgarian consulates in Russia also issued a significant number of visas, about 1.8 million, between 2014 and 2021 (earlier data is not available). These visas were valid just nationally, as Bulgaria cannot issue Schengen visas.
Russians In Europe After The Invasion
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, more than 1.36 million Russians have legally entered the Schengen area via land borders, mostly through Finland and Estonia (data as of October 5). More than 1.31 million Russians have returned to Russia via its land borders with the EU.
According to Frontex, these travelers were likely finding alternative routes due to restricted air connections.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military mobilization on September 21, the number of entries at the EU’s land border increased by 30 percent (during the week of September 19-25 compared to the preceding week), according to Frontex. There was also a spike in Google searches for ways to leave Russia and reports about one-way flight tickets from Russia skyrocketed. Frontex predicts there’ll be an increase in illegal border crossings and illegal stays.
Closing The Borders
Opinions on whether Russian tourists should be banned from the EU are still divided. Showing support for Ukraine, reducing security threats, and putting more pressure on Moscow are among the top arguments for the ban. On the other hand, those who argue against the ban cite the need to help people fleeing Russia and a desire not to contribute to anti-Western Kremlin propaganda.
As of September 19, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland had almost completely restricted border crossings for Russians with Schengen visas. In August, Finland announced it would reduce Russian visas by 90 percent and later closed its border due to recent developments, with only a few exceptions. The last remaining part of the land border with the Schengen area, in Norway, is now guarded with boosted security and might also be closed in the future. Other countries, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, said they won’t issue humanitarian visas to Russians trying to avoid mobilization.
After reports of thousands of Russians fleeing to Georgia, Kazakhstan, and other neighboring countries, German embassies in the region reported a surge in visa inquiries. However, according to the latest EU guidance, member states should not accept visa applications from Russians in a third country, further shrinking the window of opportunity for getting to the EU.