International visitors' first experience of Russia is the costly, often frustrating process of getting a visa. Brace yourself, and remember that the rest of your Russian experience -- the exhilarating White Nights, the gilded bell towers, the salmon tartlets following iced vodka -- will be worth the hassle.
All visitors to Russia need a valid passport and visa, with the exception of residents of a few former Soviet republics. Package tours usually take care of visas, though you will need to give the travel agency your passport for submission to the nearest Russian embassy or consulate.
I strongly recommend going through some kind of visa service if you are on your own, to limit troubles and misunderstanding. For independent travelers, visa applicants must provide proof of hotel reservations in an official letter from a hotel or travel agency. Travelers staying in private homes need an official invitation from a Russian organization. Three places that offer this service for a fee are www.waytorussia.net; www.travelinrussia.com (in the U.S., tel. 253/550-7816); and Sindbad's Hostel in St. Petersburg, www.sindbad.ru (tel. 812/331-2020). Fees for the visa (in addition to any fees for the invitation) range from $30 to $350 (£15-£175), depending on how quickly you need it, how long you need it, and how many times you want to enter the country. For example, a single-entry, 3-month tourist visa costs $100 (£50) in the United States. Start the process several weeks before you leave. If you do not live near a Russian embassy or consulate, you can apply by mail, but you will have to send your passport to them via Federal Express. Anyone applying for a visa for more than 3 months must provide proof of a recent HIV test, a discriminatory and futile effort to cope with Russia's growing AIDS/HIV problem.
Once you get your visa, which is generally a sticker affixed to your passport, make a copy of it in case of emergency. You will need the original visa to leave the country as well as to enter it, and for as long as you're in Russia. While in Russia you will also need to register your visa with the local authorities. Most hotels will do this automatically for you the first day, but ask to be sure. If they don't offer this service, check with the visa agencies listed above.
Contact your nearest Russian embassy for rules in your country:
United States: Embassy: 2650 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC (tel. 202/298-5700, 202/298-5701, or 202/298-5704; www.russianembassy.org).
Important Visa Information -- Passengers who participate in St. Petersburg shore excursions or arrange for private transportation through the ship's shore-excursions desk do not need to obtain a visa.
Those who wish to go ashore on their own, however, do have to obtain a tourist visa prior to departure. To receive a Russian visa, you must have a valid passport that remains valid at least 30 days past the last day of the cruise.
United States: 9 E. 91st St., New York, NY (tel. 212/348-0926); 2790 Green St., San Francisco, CA (tel. 415/928-6878);
2322 Westin Building, 2001 6th Ave., Seattle, WA (tel. 206/728-1910).
Britain: 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QS (tel. 0870/005-6972; www.rusemblon.org).
Canada: 52 Range Rd., Ottawa, Ontario K1N 8G5 (tel. 613/594-8488; www.rusembcanada.mid.ru).
Australia: 78 Canberra Ave., Griffith, Canberra, ACT 2603 (tel. 02/6295-9474; http://canberra.rusembassy.org).
Ireland: 186 Orwell Rd., Rathgar, Dublin (tel. 01/492-3492).
For an up-to-date, country-by-country listing of passport requirements around the world, go to the "Foreign Entry Requirement" Web page of the U.S. State Department at http://travel.state.gov/foreignentryreqs.html.
What You Can Bring Into Russia -- Visitors can bring in most things other than weapons, drugs, and livestock. If you have cash in any currency worth more than $1,500; anything antique; or valuable jewelry, laptop computers, cameras, or other electronics, then fill out a Customs declaration form upon entry and go through the Red Channel at airport Customs. That way you won't have any problem taking the items home with you when you leave. The declaration form will be stamped and returned to you, and you must present it again upon departure. You can take up to $10,000 (£5,000) if you declare it. Otherwise, you can pass through the Green Channel without filling out any forms. You can also register items that can be readily identified by a permanently affixed serial number with your home Customs office before you leave. Take the items to the nearest Customs office or register them with Customs at the airport from which you're departing. You'll receive, at no cost, a Certificate of Registration, which allows duty-free entry for the life of the item. If you go through the Red Channel, be aware that if the amount of cash you take out of Russia is larger than the sum you declared upon entry, you may be questioned on suspicion of abetting capital flight.
What You Can Take Home From Russia -- Most souvenirs are safe to take home, except antiques, artwork, and caviar. Overfishing has shriveled the population of Caspian Sea sturgeon, the main source of the world's black caviar. Travelers are currently allowed to take 250 grams (10 oz.) out of the country, though Americans should be aware that U.S. customs forbids importing fish products. The rules on artwork and antiques change with puzzling frequency. They primarily affect religious icons, old samovars, and artwork worth over $1,000 (£500). In some cases, the item cannot be exported at all; in others, export is permitted but only with special Culture Ministry certification. Fortunately, most vendors can complete the export certification for these items for you. Tourists wishing to export anything valuable or anything made before 1960 (including books or Soviet memorabilia) should have the store certify it or clear it themselves with the Russian Ministry of Culture's Assessment Committee (in Moscow, tel. 495/921-3258; in St. Petersburg, tel. 812/310-1454). Applications are cheap (about $10/£5), but export duties can run up to 100% and the process is tedious. Demand receipts when buying anything valuable, even items from open-air markets.
Until recently, visitors were prohibited from taking rubles out of the country. Now a small amount can be taken, but the limit is indexed to the official minimum wage and therefore changes often, so stick to small sums to be safe. Bear in mind that you may have a hard time exchanging them for dollars when you get home, since the ruble only recently became internationally convertible and is still not traded in most banks.
Returning U.S. citizens who have been away for at least 48 hours are allowed to bring back, once every 30 days, $800 worth of merchandise duty-free. You'll be charged a flat rate of duty on the next $1,000 worth of purchases. Any dollar amount beyond that is dutiable at whatever rates apply. On mailed gifts, the duty-free limit is $200. Be sure to have your receipts or purchases handy to expedite the declaration process. Note: If you owe duty, you are required to pay it upon your arrival in the United States, by cash, personal check, government or traveler's check, money order, or, in some locations, Visa or MasterCard.
With some exceptions, you cannot bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the United States. For specifics on what you can bring back, download the invaluable free pamphlet Know Before You Go online at www.cbp.gov. (Click on "Travel," and then click on "Know Before You Go.") Or request the pamphlet from the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20229 (tel. 877/287-8667).
For a clear summary of Canadian rules, write for the booklet I Declare, issued by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (tel. 800/461-9999 in Canada, or 204/983-3500; www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca). Canada allows its citizens a C$750 exemption, and you're allowed to bring back duty-free one carton of cigarettes, one can of tobacco, 40 imperial ounces of liquor, and 50 cigars. In addition, you're allowed to mail gifts to Canada valued at less than C$60 a day, provided they're unsolicited and don't contain alcohol or tobacco (write on the package "Unsolicited gift, under $60 value"). All valuables should be declared on the Y-38 form before departure from Canada, including serial numbers of valuables you already own, such as expensive foreign cameras. Note: The $750 exemption can be used only once a year and only after an absence of 7 days.
U.K. citizens returning from a non-E.U. country have a Customs allowance of 200 cigarettes; 50 cigars; 250 grams of smoking tobacco; 2 liters of still table wine; 1 liter of spirits or strong liqueurs (over 22% volume); 2 liters of fortified wine, sparkling wine, or other liqueurs; 60cc (ml) perfume; 250cc (ml) toilet water; and £145 worth of all other goods, including gifts and souvenirs. People under 17 cannot have the tobacco or alcohol allowance. For more information, contact HM Customs & Excise at tel. 0845/010-9000 (from outside the U.K., 020/8929-0152), or consult the website at www.hmce.gov.uk.
The duty-free allowance in Australia is A$400 or, for those under 18, A$200. Citizens can bring in 250 cigarettes or 250 grams of loose tobacco, and 1,125 milliliters of alcohol. If you're returning with valuables you already own, such as foreign-made cameras, you should file form B263. A helpful brochure available from Australian consulates or Customs offices is Know Before You Go. For more information, call the Australian Customs Service at tel. 1300/363-263; or log on to www.customs.gov.au.
The duty-free allowance for New Zealand is NZ$700. Citizens over 17 can bring in 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, or 250 grams of tobacco (or a mixture of all three if their combined weight doesn't exceed 250g); plus 4.5 liters of wine and beer, or 1.125 liters of liquor. New Zealand currency does not carry import or export restrictions. Fill out a certificate of export, listing the valuables you are taking out of the country; that way, you can bring them back without paying duty. Most questions are answered in a free pamphlet available at New Zealand consulates and Customs offices: New Zealand Customs Guide for Travellers, Notice no. 4. For more information, contact New Zealand Customs, The Customhouse, 17-21 Whitmore St., Box 2218, Wellington (tel. 04/473-6099 or 0800/428-786; www.customs.govt.nz).
For information on what you're allowed to bring home, contact one of the following agencies:
U.S. Citizens: U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20229 (tel. 877/287-8667; www.cbp.gov).
Canadian Citizens: Canada Border Services Agency (tel. 800/461-9999 in Canada, or 204/983-3500; www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca).
U.K. Citizens: HM Customs & Excise at tel. 0845/010-9000 (from outside the U.K., 020/8929-0152), or consult the website at www.hmce.gov.uk.
Australian Citizens: Australian Customs Service at tel. 1300/363-263, or log on to www.customs.gov.au.
New Zealand Citizens: New Zealand Customs, The Customhouse, 17-21 Whitmore St., Box 2218, Wellington (tel. 04/473-6099 or 0800/428-786; www.customs.govt.nz).
Clearing Customs -- Most souvenirs can be taken out of the country, but be careful when buying art or antiques. You will need an export permit for any item made more than 50 years ago, and items produced more than 100 years ago are unlikely to be cleared for export.
You will not need an export permit for: contemporary souvenirs, eletric samovars, or any books, posters, or reproductions produced within the last 50 years. You may export up to 250g of red caviar. Export of black caviar is forbidden.
You will need an export permit for any of these items, regardless of when they were made: icons, paintings (even recent works), carpets and rugs, samovars (non electric).
Most galleries and auction houses will assist in obtaining export clearance. If you need independent advice in Moscow, contact the Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Culture (Neglinnaya Ul. D. 8; tel. 495/692-1532) or refer to the Moscow Service for the Preservation of Cultural Property at tel. 495/244-7675 (www.culture-expert.ru). The Customs Service has advice desks at Both Sheremetyevo II and Domodedovo airports in Moscow.
If you need independent advice in St. Petersburg, contact the Ministry of Culture at Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa d. 17 (tel. 812/117-3496). The Customs Service has an advice desk at Pulkovo airport, terminal II.
No shots are required to enter Russia. Anyone applying for a visa for more than 3 months must provide proof of a recent HIV test, a discriminatory and futile effort to cope with Russia's growing AIDS/HIV problem. A positive test does not mean automatic refusal but can pose difficulties. Shorter-term visas do not require this.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.