There are around 40 nationalities which are not required to have a visa to enter Russia. If you are not a citizen of any of these countries (and you don’t have a diplomatic passport), then you need to apply for a visa to Russia before departure. However, there are some minor exceptions to this general rule: travelers arriving to Russian ports in a cruise, for example, to St. Petersburg or those attending the next World Cup in 2018. In addition, some simplified visa procedures also exist in Kaliningrad and Vladivostok.
1. The visa exemptions
1.1. Countries with visa-free travel to Russia
The vast majority of foreigners traveling to Russia require a visa to enter the country, however, there are about 40 nationalities which are not required to have a visa to enter Russia. It can be briefly summarized to 4 groups of countries:
- The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most former Soviet republics are part: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Georgia, etc. Nationals of some countries may travel to Russia without a visa, without time limit, while in others there is a limit of 90 days. The 3 Baltic states are not included in this group (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which are currently members of the UE.
- South American and Central American countries. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, to which it can be added Israel in the Middle East or the Republic of Vanuatu in Oceania, which also don’t require a visa for up to 90 days (every 180 days) and also may not engage in any commercial activity or work related during their stay.
- Cuba, Montenegro and Serbia, Mongolia, Thailand, Seychelles, Hong Kong SAR (up to 14 days) and Macao SAR. Citizens of these countries can stay in the Russian Federation up to 30 days without a visa and are not entitled to work during their stay in Russia. Keep in mind that Turkish citizens are longer visa-free since January 1, 2016.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. Citizens of these Balkan countries can stay in Russia without a visa for up to 30 days, but need an invitation letter.
This is a list that may vary, since the Russian government can reach bilateral or multilateral agreements with other countries or economic areas. For this reason, it is best to consult the list of countries with specific exemptions on the official website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The site is in Russian but you can use the automatic translator)
1.2. Visa exemption for cruise passengers worldwide
If you are not a citizen of any of the countries that have visa exemption (and you don’t have a diplomatic passport and you are not part of the ship or aircraft crew), then you need to apply for a visa to Russia before departure, though there are some minor exceptions to this rule and some additional conditions that must be met, which I will explain:
- If you traveling in a cruise to St. Petersburg (or other Russian ports)
- If you are traveling by ferry from Helsinki, Tallinn and Stockholm (with a stop in Helsinki) to St. Petersburg with St. Peter Line company or from Lappeenranta to Saint Petersburg or Vyborg with the company Saimaa Travel.
Case 1: Boat cruise to St. Petersburg (or other ports of Russia)
Around half a million tourists visit St. Petersburg by cruise every year. So, if you are travelling on a boat cruise and St. Petersburg it is one of the stops on this cruise, then you do not need a visa to enter Russia if you meet the following conditions:
- If you’re going to be in town for a maximum period of 72 hours and you are spending the night on the boat.
- If you are visiting the city with an authorized guided tour, who will accompany you at all times on your visit to the city. This means that from the moment you leave the boat in the morning (usually around 8) until you return to it (about 17 hours), you have to follow the scheduled time and you won’t have the opportunity to visit the city on your own.
This rule also applies if you arrive to Russia through the ports of Anadyr, Kaliningrad, Korsakov, Novorossiysk, Murmansk, Sebastopol, Sochi, Vladivostok, Vyborg and Zarubino.
The question is: What guided tours can I hire in St. Petersburg to make this visit without a visa? Well, there are two possibilities:
- Hire the guided tour offered by your cruise. This is the easiest option, but note that the tours offered by cruises are significantly more expensive than those you can hire independently on your own count with any company in St. Petersburg.
- Hire a guided tour independently. The tours offered by cruises are not the only ones authorized to make visits to the city without a visa. On the contrary, there are a variety of tourist agencies in St. Petersburg which also have authorization to offer tours to their customers without a visa. The advantage of this option is that you have a variety of companies and tours to choose from with many different schedules (not only the most common, those usually offered by cruises). In addition, these companies also offer the opportunity to design their own itinerary and are usually more economic. To hire one of these companies you have two options:
- Contact through the website of any of these authorized agencies. There are many: Ulko Tours, TJ Travel, DenRus, Red October, Peter’s Walking Tours, Adventure Travel Russia, etc.
- Make an online reservation through the GetYourGuide guided tours hiring platform, in which several companies offer tours to St. Petersburg without a visa.
Is it worthwhile to make a guided tour or is it better to apply for a tourist visa to visit the city independently?
It depends. The easiest way is to hire a guided tour; however, if you want to be completely free to move around St. Petersburg, enjoy the city at night (especially during the time of white nights) or the Sapsan train to reach Moscow in 4 hours and visit the Russian capital, the best option is to apply for a visa before taking the cruise, which will probably mean a lower expense than hiring guided tours (in this article I explain you how to do it and how to gather all documentation in 1 hour).
If you plan to visit the city at night, it is advisable to book accommodation in St. Petersburg, since it is likely that there are restrictions on returning to the ship from certain times in the afternoon.
Case 2: Travel by ferry to St. Petersburg and Vyborg
From Helsinki, Tallinn and Stockholm
If you are traveling by ferry from Helsinki, Tallinn and Stockholm (with a stop in Helsinki) to St. Petersburg with St. Peter Line Company, you can also enter St. Petersburg without a visa for a maximum period of 72 hours.
The ferry ride is also considered a cruise and to enter the city without a visa, you are required to book a guided tour bus via St. Peter Line. This is a shuttle that runs along the journey from Vassilevskiy Island to the city center, in which you can make stops. On this map you can see the path that it makes:
Unlike cruise passengers who are forced to spend the night on the boat, if they want to enter the city without a visa, St. Peter Line’s passengers need to book a hotel or apartment during their stay.
Besides St. Peter Line, it is also possible to enter without a visa in St. Petersburg or Vyborg, making the trip from Lappeenranta with the Finnish company Saimaa Travel, and hiring some of their guided tours.
Case 3: Travel on the Allegro train to St. Petersburg
Finally, it has arose the matter of whether it would be a good idea to remove the visa for travelers that are going from Helsinki to St. Petersburg on the Allegro train, though to current date these travelers still need visa. We’ll see if in the future it is possible to enter without a visa by train from Finland.
1.3. Attending the 2018 World Cup in Russia
In July 2016, the Russian government approved a law for fans who will attend the World Cup in 2018, as they will have visa exemption during the competition period. If you are going to stay in Russia beyond this period, you must then apply for a visa.
So, fans who have tickets and who get issued for them an ID called “fan ID” by the Russian government, may enter the country without a visa.
It is a system that was used during the celebration of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi in 2014, through which viewers had to register their personal information in an online database, in order to receive the identification document from the Russian authorities.
1.4. Transit through Russian airports
Passengers that make stops at international airports in Russia to continue their journey to another destination outside Russia don’t need a visa if they remain for less than 24 hours and don’t leave the international area of the airport, and don’t cross the passport control, either.
Just 5 Russian airports have an international transit area:
- Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO). Terminals D, E and F.
- Moscow Domodedovo International Airport (DME)
- International Airport of Vnukovo (VKO) in Moscow. Terminal A.
- Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg (LED)
- International Koltsovo Airport (SVX).
When you make a plane trip with a stopover in a Russian airport, I recommend to always contact the airline, so they expressly inform you if you need transit visa for the journey.
It is also useful to consult the Timaticweb system to find the specific visa requirements.
2. Simplified visa regimes
2.1. Simplified visa procedures in Kaliningrad
The Kaliningrad region, with borders to the north with Lithuania and to the south with Poland, both belonging to the European Union (EU), is a Russian enclave of 15,100 km2 and has access to the Baltic Sea.
From February 1, 2002, citizens of Schengen states, the UK and Japan, can visit the Russian region of Kaliningrad as tourists and get a visa for 72 hours at the border checkpoints of Bagrationovsk, Mamonovo and airport of Khrabrovo, if they travel through one of the travel agencies authorized by the Russian government, though the Russian government planned to cancel this procedure, it continues to operate today.
The currently authorized agencies are:
The updated list is available on the website of the government of the Kaliningrad region.
To obtain a visa is necessary to provide to these above mentioned companies the following information, no later than 72 hours before arrival in the Kaliningrad region:
- Scanned passport
- Address of residence and phone number
- Arrival and border checkpoint through which you will arrive (Bagrationovsk, Mamonovo and Khrabrovo Airport)
- A Photo – Visa size (30 x 40 mm)
The visa is valid for 72 hours from 0:00 hours of the day indicated on the visa.
2.2. Electronic visa to visit Vladivostok
In 2017, foreign citizens may enter Vladivostok for a period of 7-8 days, through a simplified procedure, by filling out an electronic questionnaire visa application on the website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After verification of the questionnaire by the competent authorities, foreign applicants will receive notification of approval of the entry visa. It is a system that should have come into force in 2016, but it has been postponed to 2017.
This electronic visa is expected to be free and initially valid for entries in Russia via Vladivostok International Airport or Vladivostok maritime passenger terminal.
In short, it is not a visa waiver but a free electronic visa granting system, and to visit Vladivostok.
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