Many of those who are coming to St Petersburg on a cruise wonder if they need a visa to Russia. Good news is that according to the law cruise ship passengers arriving in St Petersburg may stay in Russia visa-free for up to 72 hours if they are on a tour (in other words, are using services of a local tour company) and if they are leaving St Petersburg on board a cruise ship as well. Please note that requirements for passengers of ferries that come to St Petersburg from Finland and are owned by St Peter Line/Moby Spl are slightly different, you can learn more here.
What restrictions are there for cruise ship passengers who are coming to St Petersburg and don’t want to get a Russian visa?
1.Unless you come from a country that has visa-free agreement with Russia, you need to book a tour (usually called shore excursion) offered by a local tour company. It can be a group tour or a private tour, but you should be with the tour guide the whole time. You can’t explore the city and leave the ship on your own any time during your stay. It’s very important. If you do want to see the city on your own without a tour, you will need to get a real tourist visa of Russia (in the majority of cases, a double-entry visa, but that depends on your plans and the duration of the stay of the ship).
2. If you want to come to St Petersburg visa-free, you can use services of any local tour operator in St Petersburg . Sometimes a cruise company makes you believe that you won’t be able to go ashore if you don’t book a tour directly with them. It’s not true – cruise companies simply want you to believe it because it’s hard for them to compete with local tour companies that can often offer a better value and smaller groups for your money. I would recommend checking those listed on Tripadvisor – any tour company owner realizes that if something goes wrong, he will get an awful review on the internet and since the competition between the tour companies in St Petersburg is very strong, it may become the end of business for them. What is more, you can check the company registration number in the Federal register of tour operators of Russia when you get a tour ticket. I will explain in details what a tour ticket is in a few moments in this article. Petersburgtrip is organizing visa-free shore excursions in St Petersburg and we are top-rated on Tripadvisor.
3. If you book a full-day program or a 2-3 day private cruise tour in St Petersburg , think about the tour program in advance. When you book any shore excursion, a tour company will e-mail you you a tour voucher or a tour ticket. It works like a visa in St Petersburg for you. Basically it’s a permission to go ashore with a certain tour company following a certain tour program. It looks like a piece of paper with the registered name of the tour company, its registration number , your full name, passport details and the tour program. You print this tour voucher and present it at passport control together with your passport.
A tour program is a part of this document, so it’s important: the tour company specifies the time of the beginning of the tour, the sites you are going to visit and the time you come back to the ship. If you want to return to the cruise ship several times during the day in St Petersburg or want to do something in the evening, it should be specified. For example, you decided to book a private tour and you loved your first day in St Petersburg so much, that you want to ask the guide if you can take a night boat rideif you pay extra. The answer is no, because it’s not in the tour program that was already given to the port.
Another example: you plan to have a full-day tour of St Petersburg and after that you want to go to the theater in the evening, but you would prefer to come back to the cruise ship to change before the performance. In that case let the tour company know that in advance – every arrival to the ship and departure from the ship should be stated in the tour voucher.
So what do cruise ship passengers get instead of a visa in St Petersburg?
Instead of a visa, a tour company you are using will issue a tour ticket for those who are coming to St Petersburg on a cruise. After you agree on a tour program and the price, the tour company will ask for your passport details and shortly after that will e-mail you a tour voucher. You will have to print it and present at passport control at the port of St Petersburg together with your passport. Guides of all tour companies are waiting for you in the arrival hall, they have a tour company sign or a piece of paper with your name, so you won’t get lost.
When do I need to get a real Russian visa if I am on a cruise to St Petersburg?
It’s a rare occasion, but you will need a visa to Russia if:
1. You don’t want to book any tours in St Petersburg and you want to see the city on your own
2. You are coming to St Petersburg on a cruise and stay longer than 72 hours ( a rather unlikely situation since the majority of ships have 2, maximum 3 days in the city)
3. If your cruise starts in St Petersburg for you (you take a flight to St Petersburg and then board the ship) or you arrive to St Petersburg on a cruise ship, but are taking a flight or a train from St Petersburg to any other destination. In that case you will ALWAYS need a Russian tourist visa.
How long does it take cruise ship passengers to go through the passport control in St Petersburg?
That depends, but I would reserve at least half an hour on the first day when you arrive to St Peterburg. Of course, the bigger the ship is and the fuller it is, the longer it may take to process your documents because thousands of people are leaving more or less at the same time and sometimes officers at the passport control may be rather slow. Good news is that usually it works out much faster in the morning of the second or the third day and when you come back to the ship after the tour (they don’t want you to be left in Russia :).