Russia is the largest country in the world and constitutes one-seventh of the world’s landmass and spans eleven time zones. It’s important to check which timezone you are in while traveling around the country. Also note that daylight saving time is not observed. The country has a population of 146.8 million people, 80% of whom reside in Western Russia and two-thirds of whom live in cities. The city of Moscow alone has twelve million citizens, and it’s the largest city in Europe.
After spending a week in Russia, here are a list of things I believe you should know before visiting Russia for the first time:
Firstly, make sure you have done everything on my Before you go abroad travel checklist
Which airport to arrive at:
Russia has 13 airports, the most popular especially for international travelers are in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
International Airports in Moscow:
•Domodedovo (IATA code DME). 42 kilometers to the south of the city. It takes between 1.5 hours to 2 hours, depending on the location of your lodging
•Sheremetyevo (SVO). Situated about 30 kilometers to the northeast of the city center.
•Vnukovo (VKO). Situated about 28 kilometers to the southeast of the center of Moscow. It takes between 45 minutes and 1.5 hour depending on traffic.
The most popular airport in St. Petersburg is Pulkovo Airport (LED).
Visa for visiting Russia
At the moment (May 2019) there are only 32 nationalities that have visa-free access to the Russian Federation. South Africa is one of them and we can stay for 30 days visa-free, without the intention of working, studying or living in the country. If you’re not South African, find out more about visa requirements for your country on the official Russian government website.
Immigration Card when visiting Russia
When you arrive at passport control you will be given an Immigration Card which has two parts, one is kept by the Immigration officer and the other must be kept safe and carried with you at all times. Hotels will not accept your reservation without an Immigration Card. The Immigration Card must be returned at the airport when you leave.
Passport Checks in Russia
You should carry your original passport with you at all times as you can be asked for identification any time by police who carry random checks. Don’t argue or ask why, its simply the law in Russia. Failure to produce a passport can lead to a fine or arrest. A copy will not be sufficient.
You can’t buy any alcohol onboard your flight in Russia. Stores also stop selling alcohol at 11pm.
Visitor Registration in Russia
If you are staying in Russia for more than 2 days you need to register with local authorities (at the police station). Usually hotels do this for guests automatically, but if you’re renting a property from a private company like AirBnB it will be your responsibility ensure this is done. Learn more.
Always print your boarding pass as electronic boarding passes on an app or email will not be accepted. Things are slowly changing but in May 2019 they didn’t accept electronic boarding passes.
I travelled with Aeroflot (The largest airline in the world during the Soviet era and today they are the official Russian Federation airline). On their website it states:
Aeroflot won’t accept passengers without a paper boarding card. If you don’t have time to print out your boarding pass at home, you can print it at one of the airport’s self-service kiosks. The exception to this is passengers who check in via mobile, as they will be sent a special 2D barcode which can be scanned by the gate agent. Traditional check-in, at the customer service desk, is also available (and is complimentary). Check in usually closes 40 minutes before departure. Learn more.
Language in Russia
The official language of Russia is Russian. This language uses the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Latin and is one of the five most spoken languages in the world. Everything is in Russian (Cyrillic writing) except for things that are tourist related. English isn’t widely spoken so I would advise downloading a language app like Google Translate or learning some popular phrases:
The currency in Russia is ruble or rouble (RUB), with 100 kopeks (or Kopecks) making up one Russian rouble. The most frequently used Russian money banknotes are RUB 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000, while coins are available in denominations of RUB 1, 2, 5, к.10 and к.50.
Debit and Credit cards are not widely accepted so make sure you always have cash. ATMs are open 24/7 and easy to find in cosmopolitan cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most have an English and Russian language option.
Terms to Know:
ATM: Bankomat / Банкомат
Bank: Bank / банк
Exchange rate: Obmenny kurs / обменный курс
Exchange bureau: Obmenny punkt / обменный пункт
Cash withdrawal: Snyatie nalichnykh / снятие наличных
Getting around in Russia
Russia has the largest urban metro system in the world. Its easy to navigate and operate between 05:25am and 01:00am. Find the latest timetimes and fare on the english website HERE.
Buy a Troika card and recharge it for use on the Aeroexpress, bus, and street car.
InfoBus is a website where you can buy tickets for short distances such as Moscow and Suzdal or between Vladimir and Suzdal; and long distances for example, Moscow-Saint Petersburg, Moscow-Saransk, etc.) and for international routes (for example, Moscow-Kiev, St. Petersburg-Tallinn, Moscow-Minsk, St. Petersburg-Helsinki, etc.)
Order a taxi on Yandex (Russia’s version of Uber): you can type in your destination and pay through the app (highly recommended) or pay in the exact amount in cash to avoid fake money scams. Read the ultimate guide to using taxis in Russia.
Apps to download before visiting Russia
Metro Route Planner: Interactive city map
Aeroexpress: Train tickets & Timetables
Yandex: Taxi app, Russia’s version of Uber.
Booking.com: For hotel or apartment bookings in Russia.
Google Translate: Russian to English or any other language translation.
Toptriptrip: Travel guides in different languages.
Tourist Activities in Russia
I highly recommend planning your itinerary and buying your tickets before you visit Russia. There is a lot to do, so you should research in advance and immigration might also ask for a copy of your itinerary, so it’s important to be prepared.