Papers Please: Visiting St. Petersburg With A Visa
The first thing you need to know about visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, is that you will need a visa. That's right, the tedious and time-consuming paperwork for obtaining a visa must be completed, but not necessarily by you. That's because Russian visas come with several caveats. The one you need to know about is that if you are arriving by cruise ship, the cruise line that operates that ship has a relationship with a ground operator approved by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That ground operator has obtained a blanket visa to cover all passengers on the ship.
These so-called transit visas, good for visits of up to 72 hours, allow you to exit the ship only on group or private tours conducted by that ground operator. You are not allowed to disembark the ship and travel on your own - not even to stroll Nevsky Prospect, the most famous street in all of Russia - unless you've taken the time to apply for a tourist visa.
To obtain a tourist visa for a trip to St. Petersburg this past September, I completed the two-page form (which took 30 minutes) and sent it in with my passport (which was required to have two blank pages for visa stamps), a passport photo, and a cover letter outlining my dates of arrival and departure and means of transportation as well as my itinerary in Russia.
These documents had to be accompanied by a tourist confirmation letter from an authorized Russian travel agency or hotel that was hosting my trip and a voucher from my hotel or travel agency in Russia. There was also the fee for processing the visa: a money order or cashiers check for $100 (more if I had needed my visa expedited). No wonder the Russian Embassy's website offers this apology up front: "Sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation."
Our advice for cruisers: Stick with the cruise line shore excursions and avoid the tedium. Even better, pony up for a private tour if your cruise line offers it. You'll see a lot more of St. Petersburg in the one to three days that you are allowed in Russia, and you'll (mostly) avoid the long lines and congestion at the Hermitage and Catherine's Palace, two must-see attractions that are often crowded. More important, you won't have to apply for a tourist visa.
Even on a private tour, however, you'll still need to pass through passport control on each day of your visit. On a Baltic Sea cruise last year, two forlorn officials stamped passports for the nearly 2,000 passengers disembarking our ship. The stern-faced uniformed employees of the state were in no hurry. And they performed their hapless tasks without smiles or compassion. We stood in line for 45 minutes to move 100 feet across the border into Russia. Our guide had been waiting for us for two hours. "Not to worry," she said, "I am accustomed to waiting."
There is no way to skip passport control, but there are a few ways around being locked into the cruise line shore excursions. Two companies, Red October and Denrus operate in much the same way the cruise lines do in that they carry a group visa for all passengers who travel with them. Still, our recommendation is to book your shore excursion with your cruise line, and if possible, book a private tour.
The visa requirement may stink, but it's a political issue. "Visa policy is based on relationships between two countries, and we hope that some day there will be no need for visas, but for now they are necessary even for cruise passengers," St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko told The Avid Cruiser during a recent visit. Russian tourists who go to the United States also have to have visas. In other words, Russia is not budging on its visa policy until the U.S. does.
Nonetheless, it's important to understand that the splendor of St. Petersburg is absolutely worth the wait (in long lines) and the hassle (of obtaining a visa). Peter the Great, who founded the city in 1703, intended for his Baltic Sea gem to be a work of art and that it is. So much so, in fact, that in 1991, UNESCO declared the entire city center a World Heritage Site.
Inspired by London, Paris, Vienna and Venice, Peter built his capital as Russia's outward-looking city, a window on Europe, which is why visitors find much influence from the European Enlightenment that Peter imposed on what would become the Northern Capital of Russia.
Today, however, St. Petersburg may well serve as a window on Russia, and the world beyond. The city's museums, theaters and palaces have become repositories for some of the world's richest art collections and greatest cultural traditions. You or someone representing you only need to present your papers to see it all.