Note: Russian visa regulations are notoriously changeable. Confirm everything stated here before you make your plans.
Do I Need a Visa?
To enter Russia, residents of most countries, including the US and Canada, are required to obtain a visa in advance. The only exception is for travelers arriving by sea (on a cruise ship or passenger ferry), who can be in the country for up to 72 hours without a visa. However, there's a catch: You must book a tour through a local organization.
If you're arriving on the St. Peter Line ferry, you will likely be able to pay for their "shuttle service" — an unguided, round-trip bus between the port and downtown, leaving you with free time to explore. This option, which exploits a loophole that could close at any moment, is the only way to see the city both unaccompanied and without a visa.
If you're arriving by cruise without a visa, things are a bit more restrictive: You must pay for a cruise-line excursion (or book a tour through a locally based company), and remain with your guide or escort the entire time you are on land — you'll have virtually no free time to explore on your own. An excursion is more expensive and completely scripted, but virtually effortless. If you're an adventurous traveler and want to experience the real Russia, consider obtaining a visa and exploring the city on your own. Note that if you go the visa route, you must start the application process well in advance.
Getting a Visa on Your Own
Getting a Russian visa takes several steps and a few weeks to accomplish. If the steps outlined below make your head spin, skip down to "Third-Party Visa Agencies."
- Before applying for a visa, you must first get an official document called a "visa invitation" (priglashenie; sometimes called a "letter of invitation," "visa sponsor," or “visa support letter") from a Russian organization recognized by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Visa invitations are typically issued either by a hotel or by a tour operator. If you're arriving by cruise, you'll need to arrange an invitation through a third-party agency — see below.) When you make a hotel reservation, ask the hotel to arrange for an invitation as well (they'll usually charge $15–30). If you're visiting more than one city in Russia, ask if your entire trip can be included on a single invitation, so that you don't have to get invitations from each hotel. You may find online agencies willing to issue invitations for a fee, but stick with the agency recommended by your hotel. Don't expect the invitation process to make sense; it feels (and is) bureaucratic. The organization that issues your invitation is legally responsible for you during your stay in Russia, but in practice, you will never have any contact with them.
- Fill out the Electronic Visa Application Form. Request a multiple-entry visa, which is valid for three years for $160, plus a processing fee of $33–103 (explained below). Note that your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the date of your departure from Russia, and must have two adjacent blank pages to accommodate the visa.
- Submit the invitation, the form, your passport, a passport photograph, and the processing fee (money order or cashier’s check only) to the Russian Embassy. Applications are accepted anywhere from 30 to 60 days before departure (the specific timeframe changes constantly, but you'll need a few weeks for the full process). There are Russian consulates in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Houston (for details, see the Russian embassy's website). You have three options for filing your application: You can deliver it to one of the consulates in person ($33 fee); you can mail it to a consulate ($103 fee); or you can submit your application through a third-party service ($33 in-person fee, plus the agency's add-on service fee) — see next.
Various agencies specialize in steering your visa application through the process. They can also help you arrange visa invitations and navigate the confusing application. I've had a good experience with Passport Visas Express.
In addition to the $160 visa price, visa agencies charge a service fee of about $80–110 (including the invitation fee). To ship your passport securely to and from the visa agency costs another $50 or so. Figure at least $350 total per person.
Entering Russia with a Visa
When you enter the country, the immigration officer will ask you to fill out a migration card in duplicate, listing your name, passport number, and other details. The officer will stamp both parts of the card and keep one. Don't lose the other half — it must be presented when you leave the country. (A digital version of this card is being phased in, but you'll still need to carry the hard copy.)
Once you arrive in Russia, it's wise to register your passport and visa with the local authorities. Usually your hotel will take care of this for you — they'll need a copy of your passport. You'll receive a confirmation slip, which you may need to show when you leave Russia. While this step is required only for stays of more than seven days, if you don't register, when you depart, you may be asked to show proof (such as hotel receipts) that you were in Russia for less than a week.
While in Russia, you are required to carry your original passport (not just a copy) with you at all times. Police in Russia can stop you at any time and ask to see your documents, though this seldom happens to tourists.