Although there is still some red tape around, Kazakhstan's visa and registration requirements have eased considerably in recent years, and there has never been an easier time to visit the country. Note that rules change, and you are advised to check the latest position with your travel agent or Kazakhstan Embassy before preparing your application.
VISAS Single-entry tourist and business visas valid for one month can now be obtained without the need for a letter of invitation (LOI) for citizens of the following 45 countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, the Sultanate of Oman, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.
You will need to submit your passport, valid at least six months beyond the validity of the requested visa, and with at least one full empty page on which the visa can be affixed, a passport-sized photo, a letter (from yourself, or in the case of a business visa your company) setting out the purpose of your visit, and a completed application form. The last can be downloaded from the websites of Kazakhstani diplomatic missions overseas, or from the central Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (www.mfa.kz; look under 'Consular information'). Some Kazakhstani missions require you to apply in person; others will accept postal applications. The Kazakhstan Embassy in London has recently changed its rules and will no longer accept either postal or proxy applications.
If you need a visa valid for longer than one month, a multiple-entry visa, or you are a citizen of a country other than the 45 listed above as eligible for simplified procedures, you will need an LOI in order to secure a tourist or business visa. For tourist visas, LOIs can be obtained from licensed Kazakhstani tour operators, who will charge you a fee for this service. They apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Consular Department, and will be given a registration number when the invitation letter is approved. They will then send you the LOI (the Kazakhstan Embassy in London confirms that they accept faxed copies in respect of both business and tourist visa applications), together with the registration number, and you submit these together with your application. For business visas, the procedures are broadly similar: the inviting organisation applies to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Consular Department, and again gets a registration number. You should submit with your application a copy of this LOI, with the registration number, plus a letter from your company confirming the purpose of your visit to Kazakhstan. If you are applying to come to Kazakhstan for more than three months, you will additionally need to provide a recent negative AIDS test certificate (it is recommended to check the current rules with the embassy in advance of taking any test).
Citizens of the 45 'simplified procedure' countries can theoretically also obtain one-month single-entry visas on their arrival in Kazakhstan if entering via Astana, Almaty, Atyrau, Uralsk and Ust-Kamenogorsk airport. But this can only be done with an LOI which has been submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Consular Department and given a registration number. If you are obtaining this through a local tour operator, they will send you a copy of the LOI, with the registration number, in advance of travel. You should then go to the visa counter at the airport on arrival. Please note that the registration number is essential: there have been cases in which British citizens, turning up with an 'invitation letter' from their Kazakhstani partner company that has not been properly submitted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have been turned away on arrival in Kazakhstan. Airlines unfamiliar with the visa on arrival option may not want to let you board your flight to Kazakhstan, so ensure you have the correct documentation with you and be prepared to argue.
To get a transit visa, which can be of no more than five days' duration, you will need to present to the Kazakhstan diplomatic mission a visa valid for entry to the country to which you are headed after your transit in Kazakhstan, together with an air or rail ticket to that country. This can be obtained on arrival at an airport, but you will need to be persistent with the consular staff.
On your arrival in Kazakhstan, you will need to fill out a migration card. These are usually doled out by aircraft cabin crews, but you can otherwise find them in the arrivals hall. It is stamped at the border, as is your passport. Keep the migration card safe with your passport: you will need to hand it in to the border guards on departure and may be fined if you lose it.
One rather awkward visa issue relates to those planning to trek or horseride across the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border, since you will have crossed the border without getting the usual stamp in your passport, which could create problems down the line. Several travel agencies run trips which involve remote border crossings; for example, a trek south from Almaty across the Tian Shan to Lake Issyk Kul, and a range of trekking, riding and cycling itineraries around the Karkara River and the foothills of Khan Tengri. You should take individual advice from the travel agency you are using (and cross-border trekking in these remote areas is certainly not an activity you should be attempting alone), but the general advice seems to be that, if your holiday involves a starting point in Kazakhstan, a remote crossing of the border into Kyrgyzstan, and then return into Kazakhstan by either a remote or road crossing, you should get a double-entry Kazakhstan visa and a single-entry Kyrgyzstan one in advance. These should have the same start date, which will allow you to demonstrate to the Kyrgyzstan authorities that you did not enter into Kyrgyzstan before the commencement of the validity of their visa. Depending on where the remote crossing takes place, travel agencies seem to have a range of approaches to try to get the appropriate visa stamps: for example, by travelling to the road crossing south of Karkara, or getting the Kyrgyzstan stamps at the regional office in Karakol.
There are reports that the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have agreed a regime to provide for the reciprocal acceptance of tourist visas for travellers whose trips took them no further than the border regions of Almaty and Zhambyl regions in Kazakhstan, and Issyk Kul, Talas and Chuy regions in Kyrgyzstan. However, border officials and local embassy staff do not appear to have been informed of the changes, so tourists with the correct documentation may still be turned back from the border. The reciprocal arrangement does not apply to holders of business visas.
REGISTRATION The previous rather irksome registration requirements have now been smoothed for most short-term visitors. Citizens of the 45 'simplified procedure' countries are usually registered automatically either when their visa is issued or when arriving at any Kazakhstani airport, by rail at the Dostyk border crossing with China, by sea at the ports of Aktau and Bautino, or at certain major land border crossings (according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, at the time of research these were Khorgos, Dostyk, Bakhty, Maikapshagai, Kordai and Kolghat). A second stamp on your migration card indicates that you have been registered. The latest regulations suggest that citizens of all countries may now be registered on arrival at the border.
It is the responsibility of the visitor to check they have received this second stamp and, if not, request before leaving the border that it be added to the visa. Failure to do this will necessitate registering at the OVIR within five days or paying a €100 fine (sometimes negotiable) to be able to leave the country.
If you have not been registered, for example because you arrived into Kazakhstan via a minor land border post, or you are not sure whether you have been registered or not, you should register at the local office of OVIR, the Department of Migration Police, within five days of your arrival. You can either root out the OVIR office yourself, who will register you for free, or do this through a travel agent or many hotels, who will charge you a fee for the service. Registration is valid for three months: if you are staying longer, you will need to contact OVIR. Emigration officials may fine you on departure if you stay in Kazakhstan longer than five days without registering.
RESTRICTED AREAS Some areas of Kazakhstan are designated as restricted areas, requiring an additional permit. The most significant from the perspective of tourists are border zones with China and the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The former include parts of the Altai Mountains (including Rachmanov Springs and Lake Markakol), the Dzhungarsky Alatau (including Lepsinsk and the Kora Valley east of Tekeli) and the area around Khan Tengri. The travel agency organising your accommodation should be able to arrange the permit, but you do need to allow plenty of time. Applying at least one month in advance (or 40 days for Baikonur, where permission also needs to be sought from the Russian authorities), ideally more, is recommended.
CUSTOMS REGULATIONS This is another area where regulations have eased. Unless you are otherwise bringing in goods subject to customs duty, you do not actually need to fill out a customs declaration form (available in the airport arrivals hall) if you have less than US$3,000 of foreign currency with you. It can, however, be a good idea to declare on a customs declaration form any expensive items of computer and photographic equipment etc, especially if they look new, to avoid the risk that you may be asked to pay duty on these items on departure. If for any reason you are bringing in Kazakh tenge, you should also declare this on arrival, as you are not allowed to export on departure more than the amount declared on entry to the country. At the time of research, the various duty-free importation limits for adults included two litres of alcohol and a 'reasonable quantity' of perfume for personal use.
There are restrictions on the export of antiquities, artworks, carpets, furs and jewellery. For instance, antiquities cannot be exported without a special permit from the Ministry of Culture and Information. If you do buy an item such as a painting, you should keep the purchase receipt as evidence that it is not an antique. The rules in this area are complex, and you should seek specialist advice before making any serious purchases. If you are bringing such items into Kazakhstan (for example, artworks purchased in one of the neighbouring republics), you should declare these on a customs declaration form to avoid any problems when you take them out on departure.