RUSSIA

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Country Description: Russia is a nation undergoing profound political and economic change. Travel to the Republic of Chechnya and the immediate surrounding regions is extremely dangerous due to continued political tension in the area. While tourist facilities exist in Moscow and some other large cities, they are not developed in most of Russia, and many of the goods and services taken for granted in other countries are not yet available. Travelers may need to cross great distances, especially in Siberia and the Far East, to obtain services from Russian government organizations, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow or one of the three consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg or Vladivostok.

Passport and/or Visa Requirements: All Americans traveling to or transiting through Russia by any means of transportation must have a passport and visa. Travelers who arrive without a passport or entry visa may be subject to large fines, days of processing requirements imposed by Russian officials, and/or immediate departure by route of entry (at the traveler's expense).

Visas, other than for transit purposes, are issued based on support from a Russian individual or organization - the sponsor. It is very important to know who your sponsor is and how he or she can be contacted, as Russian law requires that the sponsor apply for replacement, extension or changes to your visa. The U.S. Embassy cannot act as a sponsor. Tourists should contact their tour company or hotel in advance for information on visa sponsorship.

All foreigners must have an exit visa to depart. For short stays, the exit visa is issued along with the entry visa. For longer stays, the exit visa must be obtained by the sponsor after the traveler's arrival. All travelers who spend more than three days in Russia must register their visa through their hotel or sponsor. Visitors who overstay their visa's validity, even for one day, or neglect to register their visa, may be prevented from leaving. Errors in dates or other information on the visa can occur, and it is helpful to have someone who reads Russian check the visa before departing the U.S. Travelers should have all points of entry and all itinerary points in the Russian Federation printed on their visa, in order to avoid potential difficulties in registering their visas and lengthy delays in travel. Due to the possibility of random document checks by police, U.S. citizens should carry their original or photocopies of their passports and registered visas. Failure to provide proper documentation can result in detention and/or heavy fines.

HIV Testing Requirement: Under a 1995 Russian law, any person applying for a visa for a stay of more than three months must present a certificate showing that the individual is HIV negative. The certificate must contain the applicant's passport data, proposed length of stay in Russia, blood test results for HIV infection, including date of the test, signature of the doctor conducting the test, medical examination results, diagnostic series, and seal of the hospital/medical organization. The certificate must be in both Russian and English and valid for three months from the date of medical examination and blood test.

For information concerning entry, exit and HIV requirements, travelers can contact the Russian Embassy Consular Division, 1825 Phelps Place, NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, telephone (202) 939-8918, or the Consulates in New York, San Francisco or Seattle.

Air Travel: Air travel within Russia is often unreliable, with unpredictable schedules and difficult conditions, including deterioration of the quality of service. Russian based airlines certified to operate internationally meet higher standards than domestic-only air carriers, yet they also fly to most domestic destinations.

Travel Warnings, Advisories and Areas of Instability: Travel to the Republic of Chechnya and the immediate surrounding regions is extremely dangerous due to continued political tension in the area. Two U.S. citizens have disappeared in Chechnya and remain unaccounted for. Chechen separatists and those sympathetic to their cause, have taken hostages on several occasions. In addition, public gatherings and demonstrations occur frequently in Russia, particularly in Moscow. Although such demonstrations are usually peaceful, travelers are urged to exercise caution when in areas where large groups are gathered.

Traffic Safety and Road Conditions: Inclement weather and lack of routine maintenance make road conditions throughout Russia highly variable. Drivers and pedestrians should exercise extreme caution to avoid accidents, which are commonplace. Traffic police sometimes stop motorists to extract cash "fines", and bandits occasionally prey on travelers.

Medical Facilities: Medical care is usually far below Western standards, with severe shortages of basic medical supplies. Access to the few quality facilities that exist in major cities usually requires cash, dollar payment at Western rates upon admission. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates maintain lists of such facilities and English-speaking doctors. Many resident Americans travel to the West for virtually all of their medical needs; such travel can be very expensive if undertaken under emergency conditions.

Travelers may therefore wish to check their insurance coverage and consider supplemental coverage for medical evacuation. Elderly travelers and those with existing health problems may be at particular risk. The cost of a medical evacuation from the Russian Far East can be as high as $50,000. Further information on health matters can be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's international traveler's hotline at (404) 332-4559 or via the CDC home page on the Internet at http://www.cdc.gov.

Travel Warnings, Advisories and Areas of Instability: Crime against foreigners is a problem, especially in major cities. Pickpocketings, assaults and robberies occur day and night. The most vulnerable areas include underground walkways and the subway, overnight trains, train stations, airports, markets, tourist attractions, restaurants and hotel rooms and residences, even when locked or occupied. Groups of children are known to assault and rob foreigners on city streets or underground walkways. Foreigners who have been drinking alcohol are especially vulnerable to assault and robbery in or around night clubs or bars, or on their way home. Robberies may occur in taxis shared with strangers. Travelers have found it safer to travel in groups organized by reputable tour agencies, as solo travelers are more vulnerable to crime.

The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. If you receive a replacement for your lost or stolen U.S. passport from the U.S. Embassy or a Consulate in Russia, your exit visa must also be replaced, with assistance from your sponsor, so that the passport number written on the visa matches your new passport. This requires a Russian police report. The Department of State's pamphlet "A Safe Trip Abroad" provides useful information on guarding valuables and protecting personal security while traveling abroad. Additional information on the region can be found in the brochure "Tips for Travelers to Russia and the Newly Independent States." Both publications are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 20402.

Crime Against Foreign Businesses: Extortion and corruption are common in the business environment. Organized criminal groups target foreign businesses in many cities and have been known to demand protection money under threat of serious violence. Many Western firms hire security services which have improved their overall security, although this is no guarantee. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable. Over the past several years, several American business people have been attacked, kidnapped and even killed. U.S. citizens are encouraged to report all extortion attempts to the Russian authorities and to inform consular officials at the U.S. Embassy or nearest consulate.

Currency Exchange: The ruble is the only legal tender. It is illegal to pay for goods and services in U.S. dollars, except at authorized retail establishments. Old or very worn dollar bills are often not accepted at banks and exchange offices, even though this is also a violation of currency laws. Travelers checks and credit cards are not widely accepted; credit cards are only accepted at establishments catering to Westerners. Major hotels or the American Express offices in Moscow or St. Petersburg may be able to suggest locations for cashing travelers checks or obtaining cash advances on credit cards. Western Union has agents in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some other large cities which disburse money wired from the U.S.

Customs Regulations: Russian customs laws and regulations are complicated and highly discretionary. A 30 percent duty is required to export any personal item(s) worth over $10,000. Moreover, export duties may be imposed on any items which are determined by customs officials at the point of departure to be of commercial use. All items which may appear to have historical or cultural value -- icons, art, rugs, antiques, etc. -- may be taken out of Russia only with prior written approval of the Ministry of Culture and payment of 100 percent duty. Certain items, such as caviar, medications, jewelry, precious or semiprecious stones or metals, and fuel may be exported duty-free in limited amounts only. Computers, electronic notebooks and related hardware must be presented to customs officials at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for scanning at least two hours prior to departure. Failure to follow the customs regulations may result in penalties ranging from confiscation of the property in question and/or the imposition of fines to arrest and possible imprisonment.

All travelers must also present a customs declaration upon arrival in which the amount of currency brought into the country is declared and any items of value are listed. Travelers should ensure that this declaration is officially stamped by customs officials at the point of entry in order to prevent possible difficulties in taking currency and valuables back out.

Drug Penalties: U.S. citizens are subject to the laws of the country in which they are traveling. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs are strict and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and fines.

Registration and Embassy Location: All Americans who reside in Russia for three months or longer are encouraged to register at the U.S. Embassy or at one of the U.S. consulates. Americans who will remain for shorter periods may also register and inquire about updated travel and security information. Registration allows for quicker replacement of a lost or stolen passport, as well as contact in case of emergency.

The U.S. Embassy is located in Moscow at Novinskiy Bulvar 19/23; tel. (7)(095) 252-2451; fax (7) (095) 956-4261. After hours emergencies: tel. (7)(095) 252-1898 or 255-5123.

U.S. Consulates are located at:

St. Petersburg: Ulitsa Furshtadskaya 15; tel. (7-812) 275-1701; fax (7-812) 110-7022. After hours emergencies: (7-812) 274-8692.

Vladivostok: 32 Pushkin St; tel. (7-4232) 268-458 or 300-070; fax (7-4232) 300-091.

Yekaterinburg: 15A Ulitsa Gogolya, 4th Floor; tel. (7-3432) 564-619; fax (7-3432) 564-515.

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