TOP 27 important things you should know before visiting Russia
Russia – the largest country in the world with such a diversity of land and people! It is a real mix of religions, beliefs and opinions. And therefore there are so many rules and useful things to know when visiting this country! As our culture is quite similar to the most common Russian traditions and ethical norms, we didn’t find it difficult to move around, but for some it can be a real challenge! So prepare yourself with all these tips and you will be able to enjoy the journey in Russia even more!
1. Registration in Russia after arrival
Firstly, check in advance if you need visa to Russia and how that can be gotten as different rules apply to every country. For us it took 10 days and quite an amount of money, also we cannot get visa-on-arrival.
But there is another big confusion. It is said that after arrival it`s also necessary to register yourself in General Directorate of Migratory Affairs of the Ministry of Interior of the Russian Federation (GUVM, its acronym in Russian). This registration has to be done so that after your arrival in Russia, Russian authorities are able to find you if needed. Sounds scary, right? And there is always some confusion about this process – even the border control couldn`t explain us if this is compulsory and what are the rules. What we have found is that it is only necessary to register if you are staying in one certain place in Russia for more than 7 business days. There is information that if you generally stay in Russia more than 7 business days, you register in the first city you arrive to. But, hey, we stayed in Russia for a month, but didn`t stay in one place for more than 7 business days, so we didn`t register. We crossed the border to China after, and nothing was asked. Even during all those serious check-ups across the country nobody ever asked us any registration. No local knew about that, no police officer.
But.. If you wish to follow these unclear rules – here are some tips. Registration is the responsibility of your host, which must be a Russian citizen or a person with permanent residence in Russia (your friend or a hotel personnel). Registration must be made no later than 7 business days from your arrival and it can be made directly in the regional offices of the General Directorate of Migratory Affairs of the Ministry of Interior of the Russian Federation or in any post office in Russia. The last one has a small processing fee. For this you will need your passport and immigration card. There will be a form to fill in as well. But if you are taking the famous Trans-Siberian route by train overnight as well, the train ticket would be equivalent to the registration, so save the ticket! We hope that these tips will help you to start your journey in Russia. We also have to mention that the Russian police are not authorized to request proof of registration on the streets and registration accreditation is not necessary to leave the country.. So – that`s your call!
2. Consider the landmass
Remember that the land mass of Russia is just immense. You can experience many different nature scenes in one country! And the weather can be rapidly changing as well. Especially when it comes to Siberia – a territory that extends from the Ural Mountains to the watershed between the Pacific and Arctic basins, and southwards from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan and borders of Mongolia and China. Siberia is one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth and is known for its long, harsh winters. The snow falls in September already, and remember that stores or gas stations cannot be seen that often as well! So travel wisely!
3. Language – it is different here!
Russia is vast and it has it`s tourist flock as well. But not everyone speaks English in Russia and not all the signs will be translated. Moreover, Russians use Cyrillic writing system, so you might not be able even to read anything. We know Russian, so it was easy for us to travel around, but for some of you, our fellow travelers, we would recommend to purchase a small dictionary or just write down basic phrases from internet. Of course, good planning in advance could save you some troubles!
4. Help from internet
Well, to continue the previous point, internet translator could come handy as well. In Russia, you will find four major mobile network providers – Tele2, MTS, BeeLine and Megafon. They all have similar prices. E.g. Tele2 offers 7GB pack excluding calls and texts for 4 euros. That`s exactly something traveler needs! Though keep in mind the coverage – when you purchase the SIM card, let the seller know the approximate regions where you`re planning to use the SIM card. Also, you should ask how to top up your card as the language might create small difficulties with this as well. Yeah, and BeeLine and Tele2 are the best operators to get.
5. Take cash
Even if credit and debit cards are accepted across the country, there are many places which will take only cash. You can use Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Eurocard. Also, most ATMs accept international cards, but some of them will add extra fee and, moreover, in remote areas you might not find ATM at all! Remember to be mindful when carrying cash with you, but here it`s really needed!
6. Security checks
The police do not have to have a reason in order to stop, question or detain individuals on the streets or anywhere in Russia! Remember that Russia is still quite conservative, so be prepared to go through random security checks, and do not question them – well, at least be as polite as possible. There will always be bag checking by metro or train stations. Also, walking with your backpack attracts attention and the police might ask you to show the bag`s content! It was disturbing to remove our backpacks every 10 minutes in Moscow when we were asked to do so. But this is a foreign land you are visiting, so let`s respect the police and the duties they have to accomplish!
7. Carry passport with you!
Passport is a very important document, especially in Russia. You will be asked to present it several times, even in the same security check we were talking about earlier. So do not leave the passport in your hotel room! You will also need it to purchase the train tickets or even to enter the train. Passport is something that you should keep with you all the time in this wonderful land!
8. Train rides in Russia
Train system in Russia is well-developed, and moving around the country by train is very comfortable. You can purchase the ticket either online or on spot in train stations, though then you have to consider the availability and maybe struggle a bit with the language. But generally Russian rail system is one of the largest in the world, and train travel is safe.
Remember that smoking is not permitted in trains, there is no Wifi, and sometimes you will lose your coverage, but there are toilets and hot water available! Remember, if you have bought the ticket in the train station, it will be collected and given back at the end of the ride so that you wouldn’t give it to the next person. If you have bought the ticket online, your name will be printed on it, so the ticket won`t be collected. Also, bring your own food! And watch your bags.
9. Bus rides in Russia
When traveling by bus, especially the local one in smaller towns, you will have to buy the ticket on the spot. Sometimes there can be long queues, but in Russia, if you have only 5 minutes left to your bus, it is legal and understandable to get in front of the queue without any explanations. You will see people doing this. Remember that the local buses are much cheaper than minivans, also it is more expensive to book tickets online than to buy them in the ticket office. It`s opposite than in the rest of the world. Well, and sometimes the bus rides can be crazy fast and unsafe.
10. Public transport in Russia
If you use public transport within the cities, remember that you have to purchase the ticket from the conductor. So always keep small change with you!
11. Luggage in these rides
When traveling by local bus, it is common that people who are sitting offer the standing ones a hand in keeping their bags in the lap. If you are in this kind of situation, it is just worthwhile to know that. Also, if your bag is big the driver might ask you to have a luggage ticket as well. But do not buy it in the ticket booth even if it is possible – the driver will ask you less money, and try to bargain! And sometimes, when tourists buy the ticket for the luggage, there actually isn`t any special space for it in the vehicle! And then the bag has to be kept in the lap, same as the one without a luggage ticket. So basically – go to the bus and see what will happen with your luggage.
12. Metro in Moscow
The metro system in Moscow is incredibly amazing, so we just encourage you to use it! You can buy a ticket for 1 trip, 2 trips, 20, 40 or 60 trips and share it with other people! It is not personalized! Moreover, there is also a day ticket that is valid for every metro for 24 hours and costs only 3 euros, or three day ticket which is even more profitable. Moreover, every metro station is made like an art work and those just cannot be skipped once you are in Moscow!
13. Car-sharing in Moscow
Let`s start with explanation what car-sharing exactly is. It is a model of car rental where people rent cars for short period of time, often by the hour. This service is available to all qualified drivers and no separate written agreement is required each time for using a vehicle. These shared vehicles are available 24-hours, 7 days a week at unattended self-service locations. There are 15 car-sharing companies operating in Russia, and this is an amazing thing – with an app you can unlock the car that will cost you around 5 rybl per minute. As Moscow has problems with parking spaces for private vehicles, this is the most common and cheapest way to get around the city!
14. Night dancing in Moscow
First of all, Moscow is incredible, vibrant city where life happens 24/7. There are too many things to do, but, when we were there, we discovered something that is not mentioned in tourism guides. And that is free dancing lessons! If you are a music lover, just go out in the central Moscow – free dancing lessons can be found across Moscow`s parks and embankments in evenings. There are classical dances and club music. Latino, traditional Irish dancing, hustle and even capoeira! Start with the Gorky Park and then move around – you will see so many people joining in one dance! It is just incredible!
15. Monday is a day of rest
Well, in most of the cities Monday is the day when lots of art galleries, museums and exhibitions close their doors. Of course, there are some that remain open 7 days a week, but just keep the “Monday factor” in mind when traveling, so that you wouldn`t miss something just because it`s Monday!
16. Do not miss!
Well, Russia is rich. Rich with amazing sceneries, mix of cultures and delicious food. There are many places to adore and many tastes to enjoy, but do no miss some of the things that really characterize this vast country! One of them is Russian banya or a Slavic steam bath with a stove. Something you just have to experience! Another “do not miss” is flea markets that are just incredible – there you can find so many interesting things from Soviet era and even Russian Empire! And, of course, if you are in Russia, visit at least one monastery – the architecture in this country is just spectacular!
17. Tea and coffee
You will see tea being sold everywhere. Seems that Russians drink it more than water! But one important thing to remember is that usually Russians drink tea with sugar, and they won`t even ask if you need it – after ordering your tea you will get it with sugar anyways, so, if you do not have a sweet tooth, remind this along with your order, always. The same this is with coffee – here you might always get it with sugar and milk, too. If you prefer tea or coffee without sugar and milk, you often will be seen as an alien – in a good way!
18. Drinking water
What about the water? Mostly water is pretty pure, and tap water in Russia is safe, though it is advisable to drink filtered one. In many cities and towns across the country you will find water pumps from which it`s possible to fill in your water bottle for free. And in places these water pumps are, the water in the store usually is very expensive or you might only find soda water!
Russia is rich with different cuisines, some of which you will find extremely strange. Check out the list of traditional Russian food you should try! Also, draft beer in beer shops is cheaper than the bottled one in the stores. Along with the beer in beer shops you will find dried fish and different cool snacks to try! There will be places where to buy draft kvass – Russian traditional non-alcoholic rye drink. Across the country you will find ice-cream stands that are popular even in the winter and also places where to buy fresh milk and yogurt. There are bakeries which offer a range of mouth-watering savories, and, of course, do not skip typical Russian eateries or stolovaya that will introduce you to all the traditional dishes!
In Russia, prices vary from place to place. And, if you wish to explore them more, you have to know your destination. But we would like to remind you to pay attention in the stores – the price for hot meals, salads in salad stand and different products is usually displayed for 100 grams of product, so no – it is not that cheap as it might seem at the first sight!
21. Respect the people!
Remember that there are different nationalities living in Russia, so different customs and rules apply. Keep in mind that most Russians are very religious – respect that, do follow the rules in churches and monasteries. If you go to Lake Baikal, keep in mind that the shamanic culture is still alive there! It is just sad to see disrespectful tourists making a bad impression about foreigners. Do not be one of them!
22. It is still conservative
To be honest, Russia is still a bit conservative, therefore, if you are homosexual or if you`re having lots of tattoos or piercings, keep a low profile. If you are coming from African or island countries, you might need to get used to some attention in more remote areas, but do not worry – Russians are warm-hearted, and they are just curious.
23. Follow the basic etiquette
Even if you do not study the etiquette of your destination country, it is worthwhile to look around and pay attention to what locals are doing. There are some things we can advise, but we`re sure there are so many more! It is important to remove shoes after entering the house. It is common in many countries, also in Latvia, where we are coming from. For us it was very confusing to see that in some parts of the world shoes are kept on. But not in Russia. Similarly, the elderly are extremely respected in Russian society, so it is ok when grandmother goes in front of the queues, also – give your seat to elderly in metro or bus! And do not worry, if nobody answers your kind smile – smiling in public is really not the thing in Russia. Russians are friendly people in private, but you have to earn their trust!
24. Common practices
Russians also have some common practices that would be nice for you to follow, too. When visiting somebody, do not go empty-handed. Also, when you get a small gift from someone, or you get offered a snack, it is a common thing to give something in return. It doesn’t matter what –but when you get, you give.
Russians are very suspicious, too. Some of these practices might seem strange, but it`s better to know them before you go. Here are some of the most important ones. When visiting Russian, do not greet across the doorway, enter the house fully, or do it before the door, otherwise – it`s a bad luck. Never give anyone even number of flowers as that`s only for funerals. Try not to spill salt as that means there will be an argument. And never wipe the table with a hand, it`s believed that it will bring poverty. Respect the bread, never ever drop it on the floor. But if you accidently break a dish, it is finally a good luck. Do not eat food from the knife – it will make you evil. Do not whistle indoors as that`s also a bad luck. And never wish “happy birthday” before actual birthday of that particular person. Try not to step on anyone`s shoes as that means an argument, or use the solution and ask them to step back on your feet. Really. If you leave your purse on the ground, it`s said you will be poor. Do not show ailments on yourself – otherwise it will happen to you. If you are in Russia for the New Year`s celebration – remember, the way you start the New Year, the way it will continue!
A very interesting practice is sitting down before traveling or going on a smaller journey – just a minute of silence. Not something you will be told off if you didn`t do, but good to know the reason when something like this happens. To avoid bad luck, Russians spit over the shoulder three times or knock on the wood three times. When sitting at the table corner, do not be surprised if you hear that you will not get married – it is believed that the table corner has that kind of powers. You might also hear that if your nose is itching, you will be drinking soon, and if you have hot ears or cheeks, or if you have hiccups – someone is talking about you.
To be honest, we could continue forever with this. And that’s why Russia is so amazing!
25. Interesting celebrations
Of course, celebrations vary from country to country and you might also be there in the time of some kind of festival. Some celebrations in Russia are super-huge, like New Year`s eve or International Women`s Day on 8th of March which keeps most Russian florists in business. Also Victory Day on 9th of May, which can actually be called as the second most popular celebration after New Year when the end of war is celebrated. But one cool thing is name days. Yes, as in Latvia and around 13 more countries across the world, also in Russia name days are celebrated. This actually started with Christian church calendars when people named after saints would celebrate their name day on that saint’s feast day. But this has changed and now this celebration is no longer tied to Christian beliefs. Basically, all the names in Russia are divided by month and date, e.g. Maria celebrates her name day on 20th June along with Valeria, and so on. And, if by any chance your name is in Russian calendar at the time you are visiting, this can bring you lots of fun!
26. Topics to be careful with
Actually, always when traveling it is safer to avoid topics like religion and politics. And especially in Russia. As we noticed, Russians are not very supportive to their government, but they are the only ones that can tell bad things about their country and they will feel offended if you will say something bad too. The best would be to find things that you like and talk about those – locals will only be happy to hear compliments from a foreigner.
27. Travel advice
Basic tips for safe travel you can find in our article Minimum safety of travel. We felt save when traveled in Russia, but there are some parts of which you should be a bit more considerate. You shouldn`t travel within 10km of the border with the Ukrainian Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts. Also, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan and the districts of Budyonnovsky, Levokumsky, Neftekumsky, Stepnovsky and Kursky in Stavropol Krai. Try not to go within 10km of the border with the Ukrainian Kharkiv Oblast and also North Ossetia, Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria (including the Elbrus area). Russia is immense – we are sure you will find other places to explore!
Generally, Russia is an amazing country and we absolutely loved travel around it! And we hope that these tips will allow you to enjoy your trip even more!