The Secret (Free) Way into Russia

I went first to the passport control desk, more nervous than I’d ever been while entering a country. As the woman flipped through my passport, there seemed to be a problem. With a thick accent, she began questioning me about the places I’ve visited: when did I visit Italy? Why was I there? Why was the stamp on my passport smudged? When was I going home?

My heart started to race. I knew this was a bad idea. I knew we’d be caught.

But then, suddenly, she approved of my recital of every country I’d ever been to and waved me through. Scott followed without a problem. I couldn’t believe it. We were in Russia without a visa!

After all, a visa is typically required to visit Russia. But getting a Russian visa is no joke. In fact, it’s recommended that you start the process at least three months before your trip.

In short: acquire a letter of invitation with details of your full trip itinerary from a host recognized by the Russian Foreign Ministry (typically costs $20-35 per person). Pick the type of visa you need—there’s about 80. Now fill out the application with every country you’ve visited in the last 10 years (and the dates), previous jobs, maybe even health insurance details, depending on your application. Attach two passport photos. Some people might be required to include a cover letter. Once you submit it online, you also have to submit a hardcopy—but you can’t just mail it. You either have to present it in person to one of the five Russian consulates in the USA, or send it (and your passport) to a visa agency to represent you (this typically costs about $120). The application fee is $160-190, depending on the type. You will also need to register your visa when you arrive in Russia, which can cost about $20.

Yes. That’s the short version. If you’re following along, you’re looking at a per visa cost of $340 and a migraine. (Don’t forget, there’s still a chance your application will be denied.)

Midnight mist over the Baltic Sea

But there is another way. It’s free. There’s no paperwork. And best of all: it actually is legal—I’ve done it.

You can spend 72 hours in St. Petersburg, Russia without a visa. Granted, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the rest of Russia. But it’s a great gateway into the country for beginners and/or those on a budget. The secret: you have to arrive by sea.

If you are traveling independently, you must have: 1. a tour of the city booked, 2. proof of your plans to leave the country (a return ticket), and 3. proof of where you’ll be staying (your hotel booking). For independent travel (non-cruiseline), St. Peter Line is the most popular option. You can travel from Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm, Sweden; or Tallinn, Estonia to St. Petersburg. And to fulfill that first requirement, St. Peter Line offers a cheap “tour” which is essentially a bus that drives you from the docks to the center of the city.

So in the summer of 2015, that’s what we did. And I was terrified that somehow this wasn’t actually allowed and we would end up caught by someone in Russia. (Because as any visitor will quickly realize: in Russia, the rules are…shall we say, inconsistently applied.) To tell the truth, I never felt entirely settled about it until we had successfully left and landed in another country. But it worked!

Sunset at approximately 11pm in the middle of summer.

We enjoyed an overnight trip to and from Russia on the St. Peter Line ferries, which are essentially small cruise ships. We sat back and enjoyed the gorgeous, otherworldly scenery of the Baltic Sea. (Here’s another post about our time on the ferry.) We then enjoyed a wonderful three-day, two-night stay in the beautiful city of St. Petersburg! And the best part: we saved ourselves nearly $700 and a heck of a lot of hassle.


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