Disclaimer: this is what happened with/for us, at the time that we made our visa application. Everything and anything could have changed between when this happened, and when you are reading this.
This was a relatively straightforward application. We did our application through VFS Global. Their website had all of the information we needed on it, and was pretty easy to navigate. The online application form took quite a long time to fill in. It asks things like all of the countries you have visited in the last 10 years or so. You are limited to the number of countries that you can put onto the form, and we had been to more countries than spaces on the form, so Chris & I decided to mainly focus on the countries that we had stamps in our passports for. It also asked for the passport numbers of all of your previous, expired passports. A bit tricky for the seasoned traveller who isn’t on their first or second passport.
As well as the application form, you had to have a letter of invitation. For those booking through a travel agency, or with a nice hotel, this is relatively straightforward: they will (so I read) send you these documents when you book (and I presume pay). Ever conscious of our limited budget, we could not afford the luxury of a travel agent, or decent hotels. So instead, we did a bit of research and found on blogs/trip advisor a few people had recommended Hotels Pro who do the letter of invitation for you for a fee. We took a bit of a gamble, booked some free cancellation hotels on booking.com and then applied for a letter of invitation through Hotels Pro. This cost 1200RUB (£14). It came back instantly and appeared to comply with what we needed.
We went to the VFS Global application centre in London. It was a pretty efficient (and again straightforward) system, and the staff there were friendly which is always nice. On arrival we were given a number. We then sat and waited for our number to be called up, and then went to the desk and gave them our application. Once they had checked that we had everything, we had to scan our finger prints, then we paid, and got a receipt for collection (we chose to collect in person rather than getting the passports posted). The receipt had a tracking number on it so that you could track the application online. All applicants have to apply in person as they take your fingerprints. However, just one person (or a nominated person) can collect the passports as long as they have the collection receipt.
I think that applying for visas will always be a nerve racking process. Watching the person rifle through your paperwork whilst praying that you have spelt your name right, or put in the right date of birth, and simultaneously racking your brain to try to remember if you have ever been a criminal (knowing full well you have not) is enough to make anyone feel on edge. Our stomachs sank when the lady behind the counter told us that our letter of invitation was not valid (damn that random online company!) because it did not have the details of the car we are travelling in on it. She kindly told us that we could still submit our application that day, we just needed to get the letter amended first. We feigned confidence, assuring her that it would be no problem to get the letter amended, and went back to the waiting area. After a few minutes of manic Googling, we found a phone number for Hotels Pro. It was a Russian number, with a Moscow area code. Another Google told us that it was 10pm in Moscow. The chances of the phone being answered at all seemed pretty slim at that point, let alone it being answered outside of typical office hours.
Hoping that karma was working in our favour, we gave the phone number a go, and low and behold, an English speaking Russian was able to instantly find our letter of invitation and amend it with the details that we required. After a tense five minutes or refreshing our emails every 3 seconds, the new letter arrived in our inbox, and we were able to print it off at the application centre. Crisis averted, all for the meagre cost of a two minute, £7, long distance phone call. Hotels Pro were back in our good books.
After that, we just had to wait, and 21 days later, our application was approved. We went back to the application centre, were given another number, and waited in the same seating area. When our number was called, they gave us our passports and asked us to check all of the details before leaving. That was not as simple as it sounded, as all of the details on the visa are written in Russian, however it looked about right so we were happy.