With its intriguing history and beautiful museums and palaces, Russia is a must-see for fans of cultural tourism. Moscow used to be known as one of the most expensive cities in the world, but things have changed quite a bit, and it’s now possible to pull off a satisfying trip on a reasonable budget.
While Russians often still prefer paying by cash or using the local card payment system (called MIR), card acceptance is quite widespread and you should be perfectly fine with your Visa or Mastercard.
The local currency, the Russian ruble, lost about half of its value between 2014 and 2015 and hasn’t recovered since – which has made the country considerably cheaper for tourists coming from Western Europe.
Cash machines in Russia
Russia has a good network of ATMs, so you shouldn’t have any issues finding one, both in big cities and smaller towns.
Most of them will charge their own fee for cash withdrawals, so it’s better to limit their use to a minimum. On the other hand, if you withdraw a large sum, you should only keep it on you for the time it takes to get back to the hotel and put it away safely.
Some ATMs will ask you if you want to have the bank they belong to handle the currency conversion, and they’ll present you with its exchange rate – which is usually terrible. As a rule of thumb, it’s cheaper to refuse and let your own bank at home do the exchange.
Cash in Russia
While main hotels, restaurants and supermarkets will all be happy to take your credit card, you should still carry some cash if you want to explore local shops and buy souvenirs. Some of them may not accept card payments, especially if you travel out of the main cities.
Also, taxis often won’t take card payments and tipping waiters is common practice, so you’ll still need cash to deal with these situations.
Most British big banks offer a travel money service that allows you to buy rubles before leaving for Russia. However, you may be able to get a better exchange rate if you carry US dollars or euros instead and change them in the country.
Is it safe to use my card in Russia?
As credit cards become more common in Russia, so does credit card fraud, so you should exercise some care when you use yours. Following a series of basic rules will increase your chances of avoiding scams:
Keep your card physically safe. Give some thought as to where you’ll keep your credit card while travelling around. It’s best to avoid backpack pockets that are usually out of your sight, for example.
Don’t keep your card and your PIN in the same place. If you really can’t remember it, fine, you can write it down – but don’t leave it on a post-it note in your wallet.
Choose your ATMs wisely. If you can, get your cash from an ATM located inside a bank. If that’s not possible, pick one on a busy street, preferably during the day.
If in doubt, pay cash. Running around with cash is always a pain, but having your credit card copied is a much worse one, so if you don’t entirely trust the shop or restaurant you’re in, don’t think twice and simply pay cash.
Consider bringing two different cards. If you leave a card at your hotel, you’ll always have a back-up in case something were to happen to your wallet during your trip.
Credit card fees in Russia
Avoiding all fees while using your card abroad is sometimes impossible, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to keep them to a minimum. Here’s what to watch out for while shopping in the streets of Moscow or Saint Petersburg:
Foreign transaction fees. Take a look at the small print for your credit card to find out if it charges a fee for non-sterling transactions. Usually, it will be somewhere between 1% and 3% of the transaction itself, which means that you could pay as much as £15 in fees for every £500 you spend. If you’re planning to use your card quite a lot – for example, to pay for your accommodation – you should really compare credit cards that offer fee-free spending abroad and see if you can secure one.
Currency conversion fees. Just like with ATMs, you may be asked if you want the payment to be carried out in pounds or in rubles. Choose the local currency to avoid extra fees or horrific exchange rates.
Cash advance fees. If you use your credit card to get cash while travelling, you may be charged a cash advance fee as well as interest starting from the first day (interest-free billing cycles usually don’t apply to cash advances) and a foreign transaction fee if your card charges it.
Here’s a fairly typical section from a credit card’s terms and conditions showing non-sterling usage fees that are pretty standard.
Additionally, you can get an idea of costs by using these online currency conversion tools from Mastercard and Visa.
What is a cash advance fee?
A cash advance fee is calculated (and charged) when you withdraw cash from your credit card. It’s usually a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction, whichever is greater. For example, you may be charged “2.5% of the transaction, minimum £3.00”.
Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in Russia
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How to prepare before travelling to Russia
Sorting out your money before travelling to Russia won’t be especially complicated, but there are still some precautions you can take that will make your life easier:
Go with Visa or Mastercard. Amex’s acceptance is decent in Russia, but also carrying a Visa or a Mastercard will boost your chances of being able to use your credit card.
Keep your bank posted. An unexpected transaction in Russia can be a red flag for your bank, which may decide to block it first and ask questions later. If you warn the bank in advance, it’ll save you the hassle.
Keep the emergency number handy. If your card gets stolen or lost, it’s vital that you call your bank and have it blocked asap.
Don’t travel without cash. Expect the unexpected when you travel, and carry some cash in case something goes wrong with your cards.
Russia has a well-developed banking system, and top banks include Sberbank, Alfa Bank, Otkritie Financial Corporation Bank, Russian Agricultural Bank, VTB Bank and Gazprombank (GPB). Italian UniCredit is the international bank with the strongest presence in the country.
Valentina Cipriani is a writer at Finder UK. She writes news, features and guides about banking and credit cards, helping people to improve their financial lives. She holds an MA in International Journalism and loves taking complicated topics apart and giving them back to the readers in a clear and easy fashion.
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