A Journeyman's Guide to Travelling to Belarus in the Summer of 2022
The purpose of this article is to provide guidance to persons sophisticated in travel in complex environments, to travel to Minsk and even beyond, in the Republic of Belarus, at the time of writing.
Before travelling, read carefully the earlier articles on travelling in Belarus on this website (they date back to the first half of 2020).
Russia is currently using Belarus as a base for her military invasion of Ukraine. However that does not mean that it is unsafe to travel to Belarus. Moreover this is not a subject you will discuss with anyone while in Belarus, or convey electronically, while you are in Belarus. Indeed Belarus remains an extremely welcoming place for tourists and visitors, as long as you remember the following principles and exercise prudence in what you talk about.
The border officials at at Minsk Airport are very efficient, polite and correct in every way. It follows that you will both enter and leave Belarus by air using this airport. Do not dream of trying any alternative airport, land border, railway border or similar lunacy.
The twice daily flight from Istanbul to and from Minsk with Turkish Airlines uses a modern aeroplane on a recognised route and is extremely reliable. It follows that this is the only flight you will use to enter and exit Belarus.
Flights routing via Moscow can be complicated in undesired ways. Do not use them.
Book travel arrangements on the internet before departure, so you may show them to the border guards. You may prefer to stay in Airbnb type private apartments. Minsk's hotel selection is a little quixotic. Check the location with care, as Minsk is a huge city.
If you travel as we have suggested, many western countries will be given 30-day entrance permits on arrival without a visa; but check that your nationality is on the visa-free list before travelling.
Extensions to the 30-day period can be obtained at a Police immigration office, and any stay of 10+ days must be registered at the same Police immigration office. You must insist that your accommodation provider arranges these things for you, and goes to the office themselves, although you will have to attend in person with them. You will come to know this office well; it is very nice. Do not accept accommodation with anyone who does not understand exactly how these procedures work.
Do not miss immigration or registration deadlines, even by one day. Laws are enforced to the letter.
Belarus, and Minsk in particular, is an extremely law abiding place. Obey the law. Do not attempt to bribe anyone. Do not attempt to procure illegal narcotics. Do not get into fights with drunks, bar or restaurant owners or anyone else. Cross the street only on a green light. If you obey the law in Belarus, everyone will be very courteous and respectful with you. If you disobey the law, then heaven help you.
Do not discuss the war in Ukraine with anyone, no matter how much they want to discuss it with you. You do not know who they might be.
Do not make contact with any opposition political activists. The Belarussian authorities will take a very dim view of this, and you may be arrested for espionage.
Avoid discussions of the flag. These are always political discussions; and you won't be having any political discussions.
Do not go looking for Russian armour or troops. You will see plenty in the ordinary course. You will have no problem with them, as long as you politely salute them on their way and do not try to take imprudent photographs (i.e. any photographs).
English is spoken to quite a high level by young educated people, who you can find quickly and easily if you are persistent. Do not encourage them to compromise themselves. You get to leave Belarus at the end of your trip. They may not have that opportunity.
Otherwise you can get by just fine in Russian. No knowledge of Belarussian is necessary.
If you have business with the government, of any kind, write a letter or email to the relevant Minister or other official as the case may be, in Russian, explaining that you would like a meeting and explaining in impeccable detail what it is about. The Belarussians, orderly, bureaucratic and rather direct people, will appreciate this very much. You will receive a reply - and probably fairly quickly. Do not try to do anything quasi-governmental or quasi-diplomatic until you have received the reply. Even the President's office will reply, if you write to them - possibly on the same day. The Belarussian bureaucracy is intriguingly efficient.
Politely reject invitations of every kind to participate in NGO activities. Some NGO's are government fronts; others have government infiltrators; the government does not approve of NGO's and will probably find a reason to declare everything they are doing illegal. You do not want to be part of that.
Belarus does not have a free media. No foreign newspapers are available in Belarus. Attempts to establish independent domestic media sources have ended up very badly for the participants. Stay well away from all such activities, and do not share internet links to foreign media articles about Belarus with Belarussians. You will only cause them problems.
It is easy to hire a car and drive round Belarus (but not across her land borders). The roads are mostly fine. Minsk has a lot of drunk drivers after dark. Do not be caught in a car in which the driver is drunk. It may well be considered a crime on your part simply to be in such a car.
Yandex Taxi provides an excellent cheap taxi App, although be ready to pay in cash in case your foreign issued credit card does not work. Moreover you may prefer to cancel your credit card as soon as you leave Belarus, because there have been significant cases of fraudulent copying and usage of foreign credit cards.
That having been said, foreign plastic does seem still to work in Belarus, although it is surely wise to have an ample stack of cash in cases ATM's fail you.
There is a bank open and staffed 23 hours and 45 minutes a day (!), seven days a week, in Minsk railway station although you must be persistent to find it. It has western-compatible ATM machines and cash exchange facilities. Keep your receipts from cash exchanges until out of the country.
There is a shop selling Belarussian SIM cards obliquely opposite the Church of Saints Simon and Helena on ulitsa Sovetskaya in central Minsk. It is unproblematic to buy and use such a SIM card.
Remember that Belarus is both an Orthodox and a Catholic country. There are no obvious frictions between the two churches.
Bring a health insurance policy with a value of USD10,000, and evidence of funds to support your stay, in case either are asked for by Minsk border officials.
Always remain polite and calm with everyone. Do not raise your voice. Belarus is a quiet, calm place.
If you need medical attention while in Belarus, there is a network of private doctors who will see you at short notice but you need a friendly local person to help you navigate the way that works. They will expect to be paid in cash. If you need emergency hospital admission, you will probably be admitted to one of the elite military hospitals in and around Minsk city centre. The standards will probably be high.
The rules on which medicines require prescriptions are rather different in Belarus than in other countries. Some WHO-150 medicines are actually banned; other potentially toxic medicines can be bought without a prescription. Foreign prescriptions are, intriguingly, accepted, but only with large amounts of form filling in the pharmacy. To avoid being ensnared in that bureaucracy, bring all your own conceivable needed medications for the duration of your stay.
Do not discuss issues relating to democracy with anyone. If people give you their opinions, listen politely without comment then change the subject.
There is some current economic hardship in Belarus. Be discreet. Supermarket standards may not be what you are used to, but restaurants and bars can be good. Never order seafood.
It is illegal to photograph public buildings, and that includes the inside of the metro (which is very attractive). Do not do it.
Clumsy or sloppy behaviour is to be avoided. Do not open a chocolate bar before you have paid for it. If you do, you are likely to be arrested.
Avoid wearing clothes with tears in them, t-shirts emblazoned with any arguably controversial text in any language, or dying your hair unusual colours. It is best to look smart in Belarus.
Courteous and discreet enquiries about Belarus and even her politics are acceptable, as long as you obey all these rules.
If you are arrested, there is nobody much who can help you. Apologise and sign a confession immediately, even if you have no lawyer; then apologise to the Judge (you will be brought before one promptly but the hearing will be private. All court hearings are de facto private in Belarus.) The prisons have a tip-out every six months to three years; hope you are part of that or that your deportation is ordered without undue delay. The more apologetic you are the sooner in the process, the better. Your Embassy might be informed of your arrest at some point, or they might not. Who knows what they will do once notified; probably nothing.
Hence it is sensible to stay in touch with friends and family minimum once every 24 hours, so they can sound the alert if you do not communicate with them within the prescribed period.
The security forces are nowhere near as bad as you might imagine; they are very polite and correct, provided you meticulously comply with Belarussian law (and you may not know what that is; for example, clapping one's hands in public is a crime). Always be very polite and correct towards them; they can actually be very helpful. We are aware of no compendium of Belarussian law; all we know is that there is a lot of it.
Some .by websites are blocked outside Belarus. Access them using a Russian VPN.
There is no substantial internet censorship in Belarus, although you may experience problems with Twitter and a few other social media websites. Use a VPN to evade such restrictions.
Do not drink tap water. Observe that not all supermarkets have refrigeration facilities.
Draw such inferences as you may think fit about encounters with unusually friendly English speaking females under circumstances of alcohol. Don't forget, just because you are drunk.
More generally, assume that all your belongings will be ploughed through and photographed at some stage, and simply accept it and the professionalism of the people undertaking their national security duties. It is definitely not worth trying to fight it; you will just raise suspicions of being noncooperative.
Minsk must have some of the most fascinating souvenir and other shops of any city in the former Soviet Union. Leave space in your luggage.
The people are lovely and the country is attractive, and prices are low. Enjoy it!