Cruise tourists can visit certain Russian port cities, including St Petersburg, without a visa. To be eligible, you must be in possession of a document stating that an authorized tour operator is waiting. Otherwise, you will not be allowed off the ship.
Some cruise lines state or imply that passengers who do not take the tour offered by the line will require a visa. This is not true. If you prefer personal service, dislike large groups, or can simply get a better deal elsewhere, you are free to book a different authorised tour company. But you must do it in advance.
|Conditions for visa-free entry by cruise visitors|
|arrive and leave by ship|
|passport valid for 6 more months|
|stay for less than 72 hours|
|spend the night(s) on the ship|
|remain under the supervision of an authorised guide while ashore|
Passengers on alternative tours are sometimes compelled to wait until all other passengers have disembarked first. These cruise lines should be avoided if you intend to book a tour privately. A search of on-line cruise notice boards, like Cruise Critic or Trip Advisor, will show you who are currently doing this.
In 2011, a few cruise ships were offering tours where group members were let off the leash for a free period of walking around. The guide took them to the drop-off point and picked them up later at an agreed time and place, not far away. Although not for everyone, this is a wonderful escape for visitors with a sense of adventure.
Technically this was in breach of Russia's visa waiver scheme, as the wanderers had no supervisor and no visa papers. However, ferry passengers have been breaking the law in this way (see below) since April 2010, with no repercussions.
If you find yourself on a tour like this, make sure that your guide issues you with a slip of paper, explaining why you are temporarily unaccompanied, that you can show if you are stopped. Most guides do this automatically.
Some guides have even been issuing slips of paper marked "Visa", although they are not visas, of course. The way to get a real visa is to apply to a Russian embassy or consulate before you leave home. But you will need a real visa only if you don't want to use the services of a guide at all.
Beware of googling for information about Russian visas. Most web pages on the subject are not official, despite their appearance. They are trying to sell visa-application services, and rarely make it clear when you do not need them. It is much better to contact your own foreign ministry or your nearest Russian consulate directly.
Tourists arriving by ferry and leaving again by ferry within 72 hours do not need visas. Unlike cruise passengers, visa-less ferry passengers have not been compelled to stay with a guide while ashore.
Russia's visa waiver scheme requires passengers without visas to reserve a sightseeing programme ashore in advance. The ferry company meets this demand by selling tickets for a guided bus shuttle service, which takes passengers from the harbour to the centre of town.
But when they reach the end of the line (or even earlier, if they wish) the ferry passengers get off the bus and are on their own.This is different from the treatment of cruise visitors, who are chaperoned by watchful guides for most if not all of the day.
In fact, Russian visa law makes no distinction between cruise and ferry passengers. However, they are obviously dissimilar because people who arrive by ferry can spend nights ashore in a hotel. Short of locking them in their rooms all night, there is no way they could be kept under constant supervision.
Because the law is absurd, the police in central St Petersburg are turning a blind eye to roaming tourists. It would be unwise to trust in the same kindness from police in other areas, to say nothing of other towns. Ferry passengers should stay in the centre.
There are currently two regular ferries connecting St Petersburg with foreign Baltic cities. The Princess Maria plies to and from Helsinki while the Princess Anastasia sails the longer loop St Petersburg - Helsinki - Åland - Stockholm - Tallinn - St Petersburg.