How to prepare a trip to Russia
Russia has a lot to offer for tourists, from stunning nature in Siberia and the Caucasus to amazing cities like St Petersburg, Moscow and Vladivostok. It’s also a great place to get off the beaten path, since many interesting sites here receive few foreign or even any visitors. I think there are at least two reasons that quite some foreigners tend to avoid Russia. The first is not knowing what Russia has to offer (I hope my website can bring some change in this). The second is that many face some bureaucracy to get into Russia. Though getting into Russia can be annoying, it’s also doable. Here I will explain how to prepare for this.
Getting the visa
Bear in mind that visa regulations can change and depend on your nationality, so check the website of the Russian embassy / visa processing office in your country for the current situation and what rules apply to you. My girlfriend (Irish) and me (Dutch) live in Moscow, but I will draw from experiences of friends who recently visited Russia as a tourist. They applied for their visas between one month and six weeks before entering Russia. I read the Lonely Planet recommends to apply two months ahead of entry.
By December 2018 friends of us with EU passports needed the following papers to get a visa. Firstly, they needed an “invitation letter” from a tourist agency, hotel or hostel. This can be issued by the hotel (for more expensive hotels) or you may be directed by your hotel or hostel to buy it online - seemingly independent of the hotel booking, after which you get the invitation letter by email. Secondly, they needed travel insurance for medical costs, and a statement from their insurance company that it covers potential medical costs in Russia. By my experience this statement is routine work for insurance companies. Thirdly, they needed to fill in an online application form (check the website on the nearest Russian embassy / visa processing office). This changes depending on what passport you have. Finally they needed to glue a photo on the form and have a passport that’s valid for at least six months after the expiration date of visa. They either had to bring these documents to the Russian embassy / visa processing office or send it by post - again, check the current situation and what rules apply to you.
What clothes to bring
The most common misconception I hear about Russia is that “it must be cold out there”. Summers can be very warm here, and on one autumn day in Vladivostok I actually didn’t need to wear a coat. Check the weather forecasts before you go. For people visiting Moscow in winter I recommend either a coat that can handle minus 20 Celsius or a regular winter coat if you can find good thermal underwear. Due to the snow, waterproof shoes or boots are needed. And like during winters in Western Europe you’ll need a scarf, warm hat and gloves.
Plan your journey
Since English is not widely spoken in Russia - especially outside of the big cities - it might be challenging to ask for directions when you don’t speak Russian. Read in advance how to get from the airport or train station to your hotel or hostel. Handy apps to navigate with are maps.me and Yandex.transport which both work offline. Under “how to arrange transport in Russia” I give tips on how to travel here. If you want to do the Trans-Siberian, you can find tips on this under “How to do the Trans-Siberian”.
Arriving in Russia
When you arrive at a Russian airport a border officer will check your passport and visa, and print a migration card (with two sections) that you might have to sign. The officer then keeps one half, gives you the other half and stamps your passport. Keep the migration card safe, since you may need it to register in hotels and you have to hand it in again when you leave the country. Then you go through customs. I entered and left Russia by plane several times in 2018 and in the first quarter of 2019, but of course the rules and the process can change in the future.
When you enter Russia by train the process is slightly different. Before crossing the border the conductor will give you a migration card that you have to fill in yourself. This is in both Russian and English. A customs officer will board the train and ask if you have items to declare. The train will be searched. One of the border officers will check your passport and visa, keep half of the migration card and stamp your passport. I entered Russia only once by train - namely from Ukraine in January 2019 - so I don’t know about other borders and whether this process will change.
You need to register with the authorities within seven working days after your arrival (but this is subject to change). The staff of the hotel or hostel will do it for you, they will only need your passport, your migration card and your visa. Then they will give you a registration slip. Though to my experience the police rarely checks the registration slip, keep it with you anyway just to be sure. If you stay in Russia fewer than seven working days, registration is not necessary (but staff at your hotel and hostel are likely to insist on doing it anyway). You will need to be registered again at your next destination in Russia if you stay there a minimum seven working days. This was still the situation in the first quarter of 2019. But rules might change in the future, so check the current requirements. No foreigners we’ve met have ever been asked for their registration at the airport - it’s good to have, but you’ll get out of the country if you lose it. Just don’t lose the migration card!
A final remark
By my experience, bureaucracy is the biggest hassle about travel around Russia. Having said that, getting the visa is doable. Also passing customs and giving your passport for registration is straightforward. And once you are in, you can explore the biggest country in the world.