Visas and Registration
One of the legacies of the Soviet era is the tight control of borders and migration. Discussions have been ongoing for many years with the US, EU and other nations to relax the rather stringent requirements and make it easier for citizens for all countries to travel in and around the country, with reciprocal relaxation of requirements for Russian citizens to travel abroad. So far these negotiations have not returned any significant results, which means for most foreign visitors from Europe and the US, the pre-departure visa application can be a time-consuming and expensive hassle. One exception is if arriving in St Petersburg on a cruise ship, staying on board and visiting the city as part of organized excursions, in which case no visa is required for up to 72 hours.
In several countries the visa application service has been outsourced to a company called VFS Global, and as long as you follow their instructions the process should be relatively straight-forward. Travel and visa agencies can also make all the arrangements to secure visas if preferred. No visas are issued at border points of entry, and most airlines and train companies will deny you boarding for your trip to Russia unless you have a valid visa in your passport.
Visitors from most former Soviet countries and several others do not require visas to travel to Russia for tourist purposes for a limited period of time. In each case requirements are different and are subject to change, so do check the latest requirements while planning your trip. These countries include: Argentina, Bosnia, Brazil, Brunei, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Domincan Republic, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela.
For most other countries, you will be required to secure an invitation letter from an accredited organization in Russia which will then allow you to apply for a visa in your home country prior to departure. This invitation letter (priglasheniye) is issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry (or regional representative) or Russian Federal Migration Service branch at the request of a travel agent, hotel, business, or private individual. Passports should contain at least two empty pages, and be valid for a period of at least 6 months following expiration of the visa. The visa application should also stipulate what towns or cities the holder intends to visit.
Visitors are required to complete a migration form for presentation at immigration. You should be given this on the plane. This has two parts to it, one of which is retained by the immigration authorities and the other which you should present upon departure. Although this is not always collected, keep this form with your passport or in a safe place as you could face problems if you are unable to present it upon request.
Upon arrival, foreign citizens are required to register with the local authorities within seven working days. This is so that the authorities know exactly where you will be staying. If you are travelling around and likely to be staying in several different towns or cities, then you should be prepared to register upon arrival at each new location. If you're staying in a hotel or rental apartment, this step will be taken care of upon arrival by the owners. If you're staying in a private apartment, you will need to accompany the owner (or registered occupant) to the nearest post office and for a small fee complete the relevant forms.
Requirements can change at short notice, so do check for the most up-to-date information with your local Russian embassy or consulate before travelling.