The best way to pay for things in Russia is by debit or credit card, though it is important to have some cash for certain expenses. In this article, I will explain what payment methods I use in Russia, to avoid losing money in currency exchange.
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1. The RUBLE as currency
In Russia you have to pay for the products or services in rubles. Neither US dollars nor euros nor any other currency are accepted as a legal payment method. It is absolutely mandatory to pay in rubles.
The ruble, ₽ (in Russian: рубль) is the official currency of the Russian Federation and also means of payment of the partially recognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The ruble was also the name of the official currency of the Soviet Union, the Russian Empire and other states.
The rubles can be found in coins and bills.
As for the coins, the ruble is divided into one hundred kopeks:
- There are coins of 1, 5, 10 and 50 kopeks. The 1 and 5 kopeck coins, since they have virtually no value, are rarely used, and since 2012 the Bank of Russia has stopped minting them (it costs more to coin the coins than their real value). On the kopek coins, Saint George is represented, killing the dragon with a spear.
- There are also coins of 1, 2, 5 and 10 rubles, which represents the emblem of the Bank of Russia, a double-headed eagle.
Regarding the bills, there are seven circulating types with values of 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000 and 5,000 rubles. The 5-ruble bill is less and less in circulation, as it is being replaced by the 5-ruble coin, but though it is not printed, it is still a legal tender. The same is beginning to happen with the 10-ruble bill that is progressively being replaced by the 10-ruble coin.
Each bill is dedicated to a Russian city, so the reasons it represents correspond to that city. For example, on the 100 rubles bill, which is equivalent to approximately $1.50, you can see the Bolshoi theater in Moscow. On Wikipedia you can see the different types of bills.
In addition, in October 2017, two new bills were introduced: one of 200 rubles (dedicated to Sevastopol, Crimea) and another of 2,000 rubles (dedicated to Vladivostok).
What is the value of the ruble compared to other currencies?
The Russian currency has undergone a strong devaluation in recent years. In November 2014, the Central Bank of Russia (BCR) left the ruble in free float, eliminated the exchange rate band and ended its regular interventions in the currency market, to avoid devaluations.
Since October 2014, in which the exchange rate stood at about 65 rubles per pound, the Russian currency has undergone a strong devaluation to reach 110 rubles per pound in early 2016. During the last two years. it has recovered and as I write these lines (August 2019), it is currently at around 80 rubles/pound. The value of the ruble is an element that you should never lose sight of before traveling to Russia to know the real value of things.
2. CASH in Russia: use it as little as possible
The first thing to say is that you can bring up to 10,000 dollars to Russia (or its equivalent in rubles, pounds, euros or other foreign currencies) without having to declare them at customs.
However, it is not usual to carry so much cash to travel to Russia. I don’t like to travel to Russia with a lot of cash. I don’t feel comfortable with it.
How much cash is needed in Russia? It depends on each person, there is no general rule, but when I travel, I calculate about 1,000 rubles per day and person. If my trip lasts 10 days, I take about 10,000 rubles. If I travel 10 days with my family (we are 4 people) I take about 40,000 rubles. However, if you are travelling to rural areas in Russia, it is convenient to take a greater amount of cash since you can’t pay by card in smaller places.
How do I get these rubles in cash? In two ways:
- Sometimes I exchange rubles before going on a trip with Travelex.
- On other occasions, I change the rubles in Russia: in a bank or through an ATM. There are ATMs both at airports and throughout the city, though you have to avoid those ATMs that apply a bad exchange rate (usually those ATMs that don’t belong to any bank and that have the big ATM sign). I recommend taking money from ATMs of banks such as Sberbank, VTB, Gazprombank, Alfa Bank, Rosbank, Promsvyazbank, Raiffeisenbank, etc.
Why do I take this amount in cash? Because it is the money I calculate that I may need for certain expenses that I can’t make on the card. Normally these expenses are the following:
- Small expenses in kiosks (water, coffee, food or small purchases). It must be said that many kiosks also accept card for small purchases.
- To pay for the taxi (though this can be solved using applications such as Uber, Yandex taxi or GetTaxi, or ordering it in advance with Kiwitaxi).
- To leave tips in restaurants or the taxi driver or a tour guide.
- Though it is not usual, in some bars, cafes, restaurants or shops they may not accept a card, especially if the total amount is low.
3. Payment with CARD in Russia: the best way to pay
When I go to Russia, I try to pay everything (or almost everything) with a debit or credit card, since it is a widely accepted method of payment in large Russian cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan or Sochi.
MasterCard and Visa are accepted almost everywhere, but other types of cards such as American Express, Maestro, UnionPay or Amex are not as widely accepted.
Personally, I prefer to pay almost everything by credit card or prepaid card for two reasons:
- First of all, because the exchange rate applied by Visa or Mastercard is better than the one you will find by changing rubles at the airport or exchange houses in the city center.
- Secondly, because it is a much safer payment method than carrying a lot of cash on top.
So, the less rubles pass through your hands, the better.
Before the trip, I recommend that you check with your bank the commissions that will be charged to you, because some banks may charge higher commissions than others in cash withdrawals or card payments in Russia.
Personally, when I travel to Russia I use two cards:
- My bank card, which applies the Mastercard exchange rate.
- The Revolut MasterCard card (linked to a mobile app). It is a prepaid Mastercard that allows you to withdraw money without commissions anywhere in the world, up to £200 (about 16,000 rubles) per month and that offers the best exchange rate of the ruble, very close to the real rates, and better than that of Mastercard. It works very well in Russia. This card is free if you request it through this link, though it also offers a Premium service that I haven’t tried yet.
What can I pay by credit card? Virtually everywhere, you can pay by card:
- Accommodation (hotel or apartment).
- Restaurants, coffee shops or fast food chains.
- Entrance fees to museums and palaces
- Tickets for the opera, theater or circus.
- Stores in shopping centers
- Public transport (recharge points for the troika card). If you are travelling to the outskirts of big cities, and you will board a bus or a marshrutka (mini-bus) then you will need cash.
- Car rental
In Russia, you can also use ApplePay and AndroidPay. In fact, you can link the Revolut card to ApplePay.
In this sense, there are two important aspects that you must consider when using a card in Russia:
- Some banks apply security protocols, in case of suspicion that the card may be fraudulently used. Therefore, before traveling to Russia you must contact your bank and tell them beforehand that you are going to travel to Russia and use the card there. With the Revolut card, this is not necessary since it is designed to travel abroad.
- In Russia, as in many other countries, banks or companies that own some ATMs, they may also charge you a surcharge fee (called surcharge fee) for the use of its ATM. Of course, the normal thing is that before the end of the transaction, the electronic cashier will notify you of the cost of the charge, in case you want to back down and cancel.
4. IN SUMMARY: How do I pay in Russia?
- I use the bank card for all my expenses, except for those in which I cannot pay by card (small expenses in kiosks, tips, etc). The bank card offers a better exchange rate, than if I made the exchange of rubles at the airport or in banks in the city center, and it is a more secure payment method than cash.
- The card I use, since it offers the best exchange rate, is the Revolut card, though I also take my bank card. It is essential to have an alternative, in case either of the two cards fails in a restaurant or shop.
- I try to carry little cash. I calculate around 1,000 rubles per person per day. I change the rubles before going on a trip with Travelex or in Russia through an ATM, or a bank further away from the center.
I hope this article has been useful, so you can know how to pay for things in Russia, and that you find the exchange rates much more economic! Thank you very much for reading me!