What do I need to know?
APPLY FOR YOUR VISA
Every visitor to Russia needs a visa. The visa application process takes time and money, but is worth it in the end! We highly recommend going through a trusted processing company who will make sure that your application is filled out correctly and everything is done right. There are many companies that process Russian visas, but Beyond Red Square has its own private visa processing partner: LetsRussia. We even have a customized application page on our website for our travelers. Get started on your application process (at the latest) three months before your trip.
CAN YOU DRINK THE WATER?
It depends on the city, but a general rule of thumb is not to drink tap water in Russia. It’s fine for things like brushing your teeth, but you’ll do better drinking either bottled water or water filtered by a “Brita”-like pitcher. Your private vehicle will always be stocked with bottled water. Any local grocery store or restaurant will have it available as well.
Russia uses 2-pin European outlet plugs (they’re 220V). So make sure you pack a couple plug adapters, and leave things like your hair dryer that take 110V at home. Plugging them into a 220V Russian outlet (even with an adapter) will fry them. You can buy adapters on Amazon or at REI.
Russia has great public transportation (metro, buses, trolleys, you name it!), but unfortunately most of the signs and schedules are in Russian. Moscow and St. Petersburg do have a number of signs in English, so they are feasible for non-Russian speakers to navigate. However, once you get outside of those two cities, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything in English (and you probably won’t find many people who speak English either). So if you want to explore Russia, we highly recommend going with a guide and translator who can make sure you get where you’re going and have a great time along the way.
PAPERS, PAPERS, PAPERS!
By law in Russia you must always have your passport on you (it’s the primary form of ID here). Russian police have the right to stop anyone at any time and ask to see their documents. You most likely won’t get stopped, but if you do, you will be glad you had your passport on you!
Because of this, make sure you keep your passport in a secure location on your body. Also make sure that you keep a photocopy of your passport in your hotel room in case it is misplaced.
Two other documents you should always carry with your passport:
1. Immigration Card – You will be handed this small slip of paper at customs when entering the country. Don’t lose it, as you can’t leave the country without turning it in at customs! It’s not a bad idea to take a picture of it (both sides) with your phone before leaving the airport.
2. Hotel registration – When you check into your hotel, they are required to “register” your presence there. They will give you a slip of paper the following morning, that proves you are staying there. This is important to keep, as you must turn it in to the next hotel on your itinerary for them to give you a new registration slip.
It often helps to have a passport “cover”, that you can store these pieces of paper in along with your passport, without fear of them slipping out.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Though credit/debit cards are becoming more popular in Russia, much of Russia still operates on a cash-only basis. So make sure at all times to have rubles on hand. If you travel to Russia with a foreign currency, any Russian bank can change them to rubles when you arrive. (Do make sure, however, that you have crisp new bills because Russian banks will only accept foreign currency if it is in excellent condition). Another option is to withdraw money from ATMs. While that is possible to do, note that ATMs here often have withdrawal limits of $100 and your home bank will likely charge a minimum of a 1% fee on all transactions.
That being said, you won’t have to use cash everywhere. Most restaurants and hotels will now accept credit cards. But again, be aware that you may get charged a fee if it isn’t an international credit card.
WHY THE POKER FACE?
You may think Russians are mean or aloof by their stoic faces when out in public; but, once you get behind the doors in people’s homes you will find them to actually be quite warm and hospitable. We recommend trying to fit in with the culture when you’re in Russia by avoiding being loud and overly boisterous while conversing in public (especially in public transportation). Such freedom of expression is so outside the cultural norm here that it’s viewed as being rude and disrespectful to others. But, once you’re in someone’s home, the guards come down and you can be as noisy and expressive as you want.
THE PAST IS NOT REALLY THE PAST
Russians love literature and history. All Russian school children can quote multiple poems by famous Russian poets from the past 3-4 centuries. Most Russians know the history of all of their relatives back multiple generations, and would love nothing more than to tell you all about it. So sit back, and prepare to learn! You may want to brush up on the history of your own family before you come, so that you can have something to contribute to the conversation 🙂 .