Avoid a pesky - and expensive - tourist visa by traveling from Helsinki to St. Petersburg by ferry.
When you're in Finland, Russia's imperial city seems both right next door and a world away. Russia's strict visa regulations require that US citizens obtain a tourist visa for even a single, short visit. The visa costs a minimum of $160 USD, requires mailing a slew of documents to the consulate, and takes at least six business days.
But there's a loophole! Russia allows passengers traveling from Helsinki or Tallinn via St. Peter Line ferry to stay in Russia for up to 72 hours without a visa. Of course, in true Russian fashion, the rules appear much more overwhelming and confusing than they are in reality. Here are tips and step-by-step booking instructions so you can easily travel from Helsinki to St. Petersburg hassle and visa free:
Know Before You Go
You absolutely must travel via St. Peter Line ferry
You need to arrive and leave by ferry. There is a very fast and convenient train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, but you need a visa to travel on it. You can not, for example, take the ferry to St. Petersburg and the train back.
Cruise vs. Ferry
When booking your ticket, you can choose either a same-day cruise or a ferry trip. Both of them make you eligible for visa-free travel. The same-day cruise means you'll arrive in the morning and leave that same day in the evening (i.e. no overnight accommodation in Russia). The ferry means you're responsible for your own accommodation in Russia. You can book either separate one-way tickets or a roundtrip ferry ticket (which I recommend).
Mandatory City Bus Tour
When purchasing your tickets online, the site will automatically add a mandatory City Bus Tour (25 Euro per person) to your ticket. This is essentially just a shuttle bus from the port to the city, but is necessary to be eligible for visa-free travel. When you're headed back to the ferry, you'll pick up the shuttle at the same place you got dropped off.
In addition to your passport and ferry tickets, you need a letter of invitation/booking confirmation from your hotel. Just let your hotel know when you book that you're traveling visa-free via the ferry and need the documents. They should be able to get it to you within a few days. I stayed at an AirBnB and the host did not charge for this paperwork, but I have heard of others being charged a small fee.
Step-by-Step Booking Instructions
- Choose "cruise" or "ferry trip".
- Select your preferred travel dates. *The site will show dates outside the 72 hour visa-free period. Make sure you select a departure date within 72 hours of your arrival.
- Select your preferred cabin types. Unless you are on a super tight budget, I recommend the A2 cabin because it has windows and is on a higher floor. It's also much less noisy than the lower cabins (which are underneath the car decks).
- The site will automatically add your City Bus Tour (25 Euro per person) on to your ticket.
- St. Peter Line will suggest a ton of meal and drink vouchers, hotel options, and additional tours, but you don't have to purchase any of these. If you're not interested, click "jump to order details."
- The passenger information section requires your passport number and other personal information. Confusingly, it also has a space for a visa number, visa type, and visa expiration date with an asterisk, which makes it look like it's required. It isn't. If you don't have a visa, just leave it blank.
- The ferry leaves from Helsinki's West Terminal, easily accessed by Tram 9 and 6T.
- You must check-in an hour before departure. You will have to go through European passport control before boarding the ship.
- There are several restaurants and bars on the ship. The food isn't anything spectacular, but the drinks are cheaper than they are in Helsinki. You're not allowed to bring food or drinks onboard.
- There is no free WiFi on the ship. Bring a book or download a movie beforehand!
- The information desk on the ship has free maps of St. Petersburg available.
- The announcements when you arrive in St. Petersburg aren't super loud, so set an alarm clock so you don't oversleep!