10 things you need to know before traveling to Russia
Even if you can travel to almost every country in the world without a visa, Russia is one of those countries that a foreigner needs to get a visa to.
The visa comes in 2 parts:
1) The invitation: this document is your invitation to visit Russia and is authorised by the foreign ministry Russia Moscow. Normally you apply/get your invitation through a travel agent in your home country. Typically it takes a few days to get an invitation for a tourist visit, but some other types of invitation (for business trips for example) can take weeks to get.
2) The visa itself. The visa application form requires detailed answers and information. The information in your passport, your invitation, your visa, and any other required supporting documents must all match. For many foreigners this process sounds too complicated so they decide not to visit Russia. Having said all that, if a Russian applies for a visa to visit the U.S., Great Britain, Australia or Canada, their application process is even more complicated and detailed. So make sure that you have enough time to prepare your documents and visa application process.
When a foreigner arrives at passport control to enter Russia, after having your passport and visa checked, you are then given a small slip of white paper, which is stamped by the passport control officer. It is called migration card. It's very important to keep it safe in your passport as it will be checked and retained when you leave Russia.
If you plan to remain in Russia for more than a few days you need to register your visa within 7 business days. If you're staying at a hotel, the hotel will do this for you, but if you're renting accommodation for your stay, staying with a friend, or have some other arrangement, you need to register your visa. Normally you do this at the office of the inviting organisation listed in your visa invitation, but you can also register your visa at a Russian police station.
The Russian police can stop you at anytime to request to check your passport and visa. Most visitors carry these documents with them at all times. I personally make copies of all travel documents, when I go abroad, so I don't have to carry my passport everywhere and leave it in a safe place.
The official currency of Russia is the Russian Ruble. Debit cards are accepted in most places, including shops, restaurants and hotels. The rates in the city center (in a local bank or currency exchange office are usually better, then rates in airports. Because the Russian Rouble is very volatile, even with the impact of Brexit it's still £1=80. It's a similar story for countries with the US $ and Euro, apart from the cost and hassle of getting a visa - your £, $ or Euros go a long way in Russia.
The Russian Alphabet uses letters from the Cyrillic script and consists of 33 letters. Since 1918 the alphabet remains unchanged.
Try to learn the Russian alphabet because, even if you don't speak any Russian, knowing the alphabet can help you read a little and navigate around the city you are visiting.
There's free wifi in most of the hotels, restaurants and cafes in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. If you want to be online all the time, and don't lose much money because of roaming, buy a sim card from a local company: MTS, Megafon, Beeline or Tele 2. These operators have network coverage across Russia, so you won't have problems when traveling to other regions. In Russia, you can only buy a SIM card if you have your passport (and, sometimes, registration).
Don't be scared to use the public transport in Russia. Before the Football World Cup last year, the BBC and a lot of foreign media were very negative. They said (for example) The Moscow metro signage is in Russian, that there was a great danger of Russian football hooliganism and violence, and also that Russian people would be very unfriendly to football supporters due to the current political situations.
None of this was true - it was the opposite: the metro itself is very clean and beautiful. The Moscow and Saint Petersburg Metro have announcements in English, even the local trains (электрички) have them too. Watch my video about Finlyandskiy train station in Saint Petersburg.
Russia is not only Moscow and Saint Petersburg-like. There are so many beautiful places that are worth your visit: Kazan, Sochi, Yaroslavl, Irkutsk, Суздаль, Dagestan (which is also Russia). The deepest lake in the world - Baikal, Kamchatka, Siberia, the Caucasus Mountains, Karelia, etc The weather in Russia depend on the region and time of the year. I was born in Siberia, the temperature there in the summer can reach 40 degrees. Install weather apps and make sure you bring the right clothes with you.
Generally the standard of service in a shop or restaurant (in say Moscow) still isn't as good as you might expect in the European countries. Even if your spoken Russian is not good, if you are friendly and polite, Russians will generally try to help you. Nowadays almost everyone has a smartphone, and the use of Google maps and a Russian-English/English-Russian translator (I always use Yandex - Google is hopeless for Russian) will make your trip much easier.
The people in Russia are much friendlier than you thing. Russia is a multi-cultural country with over 186 ethnic groups. Many foreigners come to study in Russia: I know a few Mexicans living in Siberia, Indians living in Ural and South Africans living in Saint Petersburg.
I think there's a massive misconception in Western countries,, that Russian people are very cold people. Russians are very sensitive, warm, friendly and family-orientated people. For sure, sometimes they can be wary of foreigners, but if they get to know you, if they then see you are a good person, the friendship, trust and loyalty you can get from your Russian friends is on a whole new higher level than you would get in your home country.
If you visit a Russian in their home, even if they don't know you well, usually the hospitality you receive is amazing: food, drink, warmth, kindness, and friendliness... Even if they don't have much, a Russian will often share what they have with someone else - even a stranger.
Not every Russian person drink vodka. In fact, many people here prefer healthy lifestyle.
Learn about the rules of etiquette in Russia. We, Russians, take the shoes off when we enter a flat and wash hands every time we come home. If you're visiting a Russian in their home, and they're allowing you in their home - you should always try to bring a small gift with you.
Many foreigners know how to swear in Russian, but please do not use filthy language, even as a joke. Subscribe to learn more information on how to be polite in Russia in my future videos.
Useful apps. Apart from Google.Maps and Google Translate, there are a few applications I recommend you to install to get around.
2GIS is a free app, it has business listings with a city map. It is available online and can be downloaded as an offline application for PC and smartphones.
Yandex.Metro is an interactive metro map of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other cities (like Kiev) which calculates your time and route
Yandex.Taxi operates on the same platform as Uber taxi. You can add a debit card or pay by cash to a driver. It shows the cost of your trip before you enter a taxi.
When I was in the U.S., i used SkyScanner to search for flight. Here in Russia I use Aviasales. It searches travel and airline sites to help you find cheap flights at best prices.
Most people visiting Russia for the first time will probably have quite a "cushioned" trip and be staying in a hotel, but if you go outside your comfort zone, like in most countries, and acknowledge the local people, be friendly and considerate towards them - you'll have your best time in Russia.