While U.S. citizens are welcomed with visas on arrival to 184 countries around the world, Russia isn’t one of them. American citizens need to obtain a Russian tourist visa before they’re allowed to depart for the country.
There is one loophole, at least for now: cruise passengers are allowed to visit Russia without a tourist visa for up to 72 hours, presuming they follow a rigid set of rules.
If you’re an American looking to plan a trip to Russia, here are your travel options:
How to Get a Russian Tourist Visa
Americans looking to visit Russia on tourist visas have two options, a single-entry visa for $113 or a multiple entry visa for $273 dollars. It’s recommended to apply for Russia travel visas 30 to 90 days before departure, but procrastinators can typically pay extra to have visa applications expedited.
The first step in getting a visa to visit Russia is securing a formal invitation. This is easier than it sounds. The Petr Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, offers guests visa invitation letters instantly online for a $16 fee. Many hotels, tour operators and travel agents provide similar services.
Once you’ve got your invitation letter, you’ll need to fill out an online Russia tourist visa application, but prepare yourself. The application asks for a detailed log of your past decade of travel abroad as well as for information about your schooling, parents, occupation, and involvement with professional or other organizations. If you’re an avid traveler it might take you awhile.
After completing your application, you'll need to submit it through a visa processing company and pay the required fees. Travisa, CIBT Visas, and Allied Passport & Visa are among the companies you can use. For Travisa, processing fees start at $164, but that’s in addition to the visa fee itself.
You will need to send in your physical passport and two passport size photos as part of the process. If approved, your passport will be returned to you with a full-page Russian tourist visa.
Getting a visa to visit Russia can be a good way to avoid the crowds that often accompany large cruise ships and to have more time and freedom to explore on your terms.
Lines at the Hermitage Museum and other sites are noticeably shorter once the cruise ships have pulled out of town, leaving a more authentic feeling in St. Petersburg. If you’re looking to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg, you’ll want more than 72 hours and will be best served by having a Russian tourist visa.
If this sounds like more work than you want to do, you’ll have to get on board.
Take a Visa-Free Cruise to Russia
Passengers visiting Russia on cruise ships or via ferry services are allowed to stay in the country for up to 72 hours without a visa. This option limits both your time and independence in Russia.
If you’re on a major cruise line that’s making a stop in St. Petersburg, you’ll need to buy a shore excursion from the operator or book a city tour with a local company. You will need to remain with your tour group the entire time you’re on land, so kiss that casual wandering goodbye.
If you opt for the St. Peter Line ferry from Helsinki, you’ll have a little more freedom but not much. You’ll have to either sleep on the ferry or at one of a number of pre-approved hotels. You’ll also need to take the company’s sightseeing bus tour, something that’ll eat into the precious little time you’ll actually have on land.
And while you won’t need a tourist visa, you’ll still have to go through Russian customs, which can be an experience.
It’s worth keeping in mind the St. Peter Line ferry is no luxury cruise ship. Rooms are small and basic, with the most budget-friendly options coming in at around $230, not including extras like the required shore tour, an extra $30 per person. There are restaurants, bars, and a dance club on board, but ships sailing this route look like they’re straight out of the 1990s.
This option will save you visa fees and the hassle of applying for a Russia travel visa, but there is a cost. Ferry schedules typically have passengers arriving in St. Petersburg around 9 a.m. after an overnight journey from Helsinki and departing two days later around 7 p.m., giving visitors a scant 58 hours to explore a sprawling metropolitan area that was Russia's imperial capital for two centuries and remains its cultural capital.