To Russia with Love or: How to visit Russia Visa-free
Update 26. February 2022 +++ Do not travel
On 24 February, Russian troops invaded Ukraine and started an unprovoked war. I therefore advise you not to visit Russia while this war is going on. With further sanctions against Russia looming, you may be unable to fly to and from Russia, get cash out of ATMs, and other unforeseeable obstacles, plus visiting is likely to support a totalitarian regime that does not respect the independence of neighbouring countries.
February 1989: I’m on an airplane journey for the first time in ten years. For the first time, too, without my parents. It’s bitterly cold in Germany and in Moscow, where we spend one week practicing German-Soviet Friendship by visiting the great achievement of the brother state, admire priceless treasures and practice a language we never speak outside the classroom. My love interest at the time is there, too, my grandfather finally lent me his precious SLR camera, and at night we would ride the metro across town. It was one of the best trips of my life so far. But now – can I travel again to Russia visa-free? And – will it be as much fun?
Is it possible to visit Russia visa-free?
A year later, the iron curtain is down for us and we could travel anywhere. Still in school, I had no money. When I finally had some money, I would go anywhere but to the ex-socialist countries that my travelling was restricted for so long. And then, bit for bit, I rediscover the ex Soviet Union: first Armenia and Georgia because of their ancient culture, then Moldova and Ukraine – all easily visited visa-free.
Now I want to go to Russia and see some of its incredible architecture and art. But unless you are a citizen of these countries, you will require a visa to Russia. Meaning filling in forms, visiting a Russian Consulate or using a VISA Service, and parting with 100-150 Euro. But is it possible to enter Russia visa-free?
You can travel to Russia visa-free
For years, I couldn’t be bothered to apply for a visa. After all, I had already been to Moscow. Then I read on Facebook how cruise ships were exempt from the visa rule when visiting St. Petersburg. I am not a fan of big cruise ships, the way they pollute the environment, the organised programme, and the stampede of day trippers rolling into a new town every day. But St Petersburg is a wonderful city full of cultural treasures, and as for the cruise… can you avoid a floating, polluting city on water and use a ferry instead?
The pictures are from recent trip to the ex-Soviet Union. I wish I could dig out my old 1989 photo album and entertain you with photos from that brilliant trip. But I have searched, and the boxes with old albums have eluded me, But one day I will find them and update these pictures.
How does a visa-free trip to St Petersburg work?
Following some online research, I figured out that a Russian-Italian ferry company called Moby runs the St Peter Line, which offers visa-free trips to St. Petersburg. They have one old ferry plying the Eastern Baltic Sea between Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn and Stockholm, calling St. Petersburg two to three times a week. The ship, the Princess Anastasia, is a 1986 Finnish Ro-Ro ferry. It initially operated a UK to Bilbao Ferry route and carried about 2500 passengers.
You must have a valid passport and a multiple entry Schengen Area visa or European passport. If you are from outside the EU and do not have a Schengen visa or are permitted multiple Schengen Area entries, it is better to inquire with your consulate.
Take the Overnight Ferry from Helsinki
The overnight ferry trip from Helsinki run by the Moby / St Peter Line is the cheapest option to visit St. Petersburg in Russia visa-free. This is exactly the one that you will see being sold by all sorts of websites when you search “Russia visa-free” online. They may wish to sell you a “cruise” at crazy prices when all you might have to pay is approximately 50-90EURO one-way including a berth in a cabin. I booked directly on the ferry company website three months in advance and paid 190 Euro including transfer and one “Deluxe Breakfast”. This includes a double cabin for single use, staying in the cheapest cabin category (B2V) on the way in and a slightly better cabin (B4) on the way back, where I will get off in Tallinn.
How to buy tickets on St Peter Line directly
The website is a little confusing as there is a website where you can get all the info (https://stpeterline.com) and a booking site (https://booking.stpeterline.com/touchspl/vx-homeRoundtrip) where clicking “Book Now” on the top right corner on the info site should lead you.
To buy, just go to the top right corner, select your language, and click “Book Now” to be transferred to the booking site. I did it and paid using my regular VISA card using a secure payment system. Confirmation, passenger list info and invoice were emailed within two hours, and hotel confirmation and an updated booking confirmation following two days later by email.
Simple Roundtrip is most economical to visit Russia visa-free
You can buy a Helsinki-Tallinn-Stockholm-Helsinki round trip, but for me the more interesting option was to maximise my stay in St Petersburg, then return to Helsinki. Thanks to their single trip and round trip booking options (instead of a cruise), the simple round trip is a good option. Technically you can also travel from Stockholm or Tallinn, but this will take longer as the ship goes round the Baltic in a clock-wise direction calling at St. Petersburg-Helsinki-Tallinn-Stockholm and back to Helsinki, with an extra loop to St Petersburg. With the current ferry schedule, the maximum time you stay in Russia visa-free on this kind of trip is 60 hours.
The details of the visa-free rule can be read on the St. Peter Line Website here. Bear in mind that by all accounts I read, your passport must be valid for six months at the time of departure from Russia. They may sometimes accept three months. I am not going to take any risks, and hurried to the citizens office to apply for a new passport already.
Can I use any cruise/ferry?
Well, ferry-wise, only passengers on the St. Peter Line can currently make this trip, as this is the only company running this service. However, you can allegedly visit St Petersburg without a visa as a cruise passenger, although there are all sorts of red tape and cruise companies massively discourage you from venturing out independently, saying independent tour operators are prohibited to enter the cruise port for 90minutes after the ships arrival, and sell you excusions for top dollar. Yeah, 180-Dollar city trip anyone?
Why is the St. Peter Line different?
With St Peter Line, you are officially part of an organised tour and for an extra 25 EURO, sell you a minibus transfer to Nevski Prospekt, called the “City Tour”. As such, you are part of their organised tour, you can freely leave at Nevsky Prospekt, then do your own thing as long as you stay in a St.Peter-Line-approved hotel which will register you, and do not exceed the 72-hour stay in Russia. Taking the St. Peter Line schedule into account, this will give you a maximum time of 60 hours on shore in St. Petersburg. If you overstay your welcome, then you are likely to be deported and banned from entering Russia for a number of years.
On a lighter note, look at all the exciting option travelling on a Russian ferry will give you: for a small amount of money, starting at 3EURO, you can choose from a list of “surprises”, like having ten balloons delivered to your cabin or dinner table, a 1.5kg cake for you and your friends, and a “bouquet of roses and alstromeria” for your sweetheart. Well, if I weren’t travelling solo… give me that 1.5kg chocolate and strawberry cake for my 7sqm cabin, please!
Can I book any hotel I want if I travel to Russia visa-free?
As of 2019, you will need to book a hotel through the St. Peter Line Website. This isn’t so wonderful because there is a limited choice and room prices tend to be somewhat higher than if you book directly through the hotel or a hotel comparison site.
St. Peter Line says explicitly that staying in an private apartment or hostel is considered a breach of contract and that check-in onto the ship may be denied. So, who am I to take any risks? Especially since hotels can be easily booked in the same process as buying the tickets on the St Peter Line Booking Site, too. You will only be able to search for hotels once you have reserved the ferry cruising and put the passengers details in. They currently have a choice of 22 hotels, from the famous luxury Angleterre Hotel to a 18-EURO central hostel dorm, rather sadly somewhat marked up compared to my usual booking site, but not excessively so. I opted for mid-range and booked the highly rated M-Hotel just off Nevsky Prospekt.
What can you do in 60 hours in St. Petersburg?
Once you’re let off the mandatory “City Tour” shuttle bus of the St. Peter Line you can do whatever you please as long as you stay in the city.
Museums of St. Petersburg
I am not one for huge crowds and have been in two minds whether to see the Hermitage Museum. But I probably will, because it is huge and like the Louvre, you may find lesser-visited treasures.
I plan to pre-book pre-book tickets and pitch up there at opening time and march to the spectacular staterooms on the first floor, then walk off and look somewhere less crowded. Rather than paying a third party site, I will reserve/purchase the ticket directly from the State Hermitage Museum. At present, you can buy a ticket in advance starting at about 16 EURO for one day, while the same ticket bought in person will cost half that – but the queues are known to be ridiculously long. An agent will charge you from 3Euro more to double. If you feel particularly sneaky, you could purchase from the Russian Hermitage Webshop, 730 roubles (10 EURO) for one and 1020 roubles for two days, then go back on the second day after 16.00 when it’s supposed to be less crowded.
Theatre and Music Performances
Russia and St. Petersburg in particular are known for their world-class classical music and theatrical performances, and St. Petersburg has many famous theatres, opera houses and concert halls, You may all have heard of the Mariinsky Theatre formerly known as the Kirov. They certainly are a big draw for me!
Now that the entire trip including flights, ferry and hotel is still coming in under 450 EURO for the week, I thought let’s not blow the budget with 100 EURO for the cheapest ticket at the famous Mariinsky Theatre (and just three months ahead, there are only like 30 tickets left. And hey, isn’t Swan Lake in St Petersburg a bit cliched? However, if you do want to book, here is the official theatre website, buy them here rather than from very similar-sounding sites where they mark up the tickets: https://www.mariinsky.ru. Purchase well in advance! And yes, these are the cheapest tickets at the main Mariinsky Theatre for an evening ballet performance.
Tickets for the modern “Second Stage” or “New Mariinsky Theatre” cost about the same. Operas and matinees tend to be at least 50% cheaper, and for events in the concert hall you pay about two thirds less. You can find all venues along with an English schedule on the theatres website.
For the short time I was here, I only had Rigoletto at the New Mariinsky or Swan Lake for 100EURO, so I decided to look elsewhere for my cultural enchantment. And worry not, there are several world-class venues who are similar in quality but less famous. I am no opera buff but I have seen enough opera and classical music performances to have an inkling of what’s good and where you won’t need to bother. And I am definitely biased towards musical performances, so please look elsewhere if you look for drama theatre – also excellent in St. Petersburg. So I looked… and here are my cheaper options:
The Mikhailovsky Theatre
Always in the shadow of the Mariinsky. Founded ein 1833 by decree of Tsar Nicolai I, and older than the Mariinsky but nearly 30 years, it is one of the oldest in Russia and resides in an Empire style historical building, so you’ll get your grand tsarist musical experience here for much less money.
Theatre website: https://mikhailovsky.ru/en. I booked tickets for a ballet (“Corsaire”) for 500 roubles, that’s about 6 EURO. I’m not a ballet person, but I greatly enjoyed “Spartak” last year, so I’ll give it another try.
The Shostakovich Philharmony
Also known as Sankt-Peterburgskaya Gosudarstvennaya Akademicheskaya Filarmoniya Im. D.d. Shostakovicha. There goes without saying its better to by the tickets online to avoid trying to pronounce that. The oldest of the grand musical theatres, established in 1802, occupying a purpose-built Empire Palace, is considered one of the worlds top music venues and is the home of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by the acclaimed Yuri Temirkanov. I am gonna miss both the grand Philharmonic Season Opening and Sir John Eliot Gardiner and an excellent evening of Baroque Music, but I found a Hibla Gerzmava recital that looked promising, always good to discover something new… she normally performs at the Metropolitan Opera and the Bolshoi, so she’s probably good. Prices for the Philharmony vary wildly from 200 roubles (about 3 EURO) to 8000 roubles, with prices for a classical concert by its resident St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra ranging from 700-3000 roubles.
Theatre Website: https://www.philharmonia.spb.ru/en.
Can I visit outlying sites like Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo when I visit Russia visa-free?
It seems possible. As long as you carry the migration card and do not attempt to visit far-flung places within your short time in St. Petersburg, you will be able to visit the palaces. Also, what are the chances of running into a police checkpoint in the tourist hot spots half an hour outside St. Petersburg? I will try to find out more and update this accordingly. A lot of third party companies offer tours to Peterhof , Pushkin (Tsarskoje Selo) and Pavlovsk, so it appears to be fully legal. I will go to one of them and report back.
This is amusing – you can bring 75.000 US-Dollars worth of diamonds as a souvenir, according to Customs . Given how I was scolded in Berlin-SXF for having half a litre of vodka over the limit on me, which some eejit on the plane had swapped accidentally for my customs-approved amount of Ararat cognac, I am not gonna take any risks here.
I have not been to Russia other than on transit in Sheremetyevo Airport since 1989 and my shopping objectives have somewhat changed: Back then, it was sought-after brass and enamelware (I hear vintage ones are back in fashion!) and Soviet Editions of sought after literature by Umberto Eco or Arthur Conan Doyle, what do you look for in a place and time where you can literally buy anything online? I put some Russian linen on my shopping list, and if I come across some old posters, I won’t say no. Other than that… if I come across some nice things, I shall report!
Disclosure: This trip is entirely self-funded and this article not commissioned. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for this article. I only recently came across this visa-free opportunity to go to Russia. I thought I’d share it prior to my trip. You can trust everything I write here is unbiased and honest. I cannot guarantee that things especially concerning immigration and visa-free rule will remain up-to-date, so I will not take responsibility if things change – please check your consultate or the Russian embassy for up to date advice and I also refer to my Terms and Conditions which are valid for all articles on this site. There are no affiliate links in this article – I thought it would be a bit crappy, having to book my hotel through the ferry company then sending my reader to my preferred booking site, which I cannot use due to the visa-free rule. I visited Russia in Autumn 2019 and this post was updated in February 2022