Considering travel to Russia but wondering if Russia is safe? Here’s my honest advice, based on logic, reason, and weeks of independent solo female travel throughout Russia in 2019.
I’ll be honest with ya: I never considered Russia dangerous.
It wasn’t until conversations over beers in a Moscow hostel courtyard, as other backpackers told me of how nervous their family and friends were about their Russian travels, that I realized I underestimated Russia’s international reputation.
(To be fair, my perspectives were a bit skewed after adventures in actually dangerous countries like Afghanistan.)
“Isn’t Russia dangerous?!” “Americans can’t travel in Russia, they’ll die.” “Traveling to Russia… are you crazy?!” The other backpackers’ eyes were wide—and not just from drunken enthusiasm—as they relayed their families’ concern.
In the name of shedding a bit of light on the situation and/or reassuring concerned parents, here’s my perspective as an American solo female backpacker on whether Russia is safe to travel.
- Is Russia safe?
- Is Russia safe for Americans?
- Dangerous parts of Russia for travel
- Actual dangers of traveling in Russia
- Is it safe to drink tap water in Russia?
- LGBTQ+ travel in Russia
- Safety tips for Russia travel
- Useful resources for travel in Russia
Is traveling Russia safe?
In short: yeah, I’d say so.
There are so many police and security cameras in city centers popular with tourists that you can rest assured your safety is in stable and practiced hands. Moscow even has its own tourist police force!
How do I know? Let’s be real: I don’t.
Nowhere is 100% safe, just as no country is 100% dangerous. Personally, it drives me nutty when people declare a country safe because “they never felt unsafe”. You can walk through Yemen and come out unscathed, just as you could walk through New York and be violently mugged.
I don’t mean to freak you out, I’m just saying everyone’s experience is different. I believe you should consider what’s logically likely when assessing safety, not what your neighbor from down the road says will happen. I’m here to help you sift through the facts and paint a reasonable picture of whether or not Russia is safe for you to travel.
Crime in Russia
No country is totally crime-free; Russia is no different. Major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg see their fair share of petty crime such as pickpocketing, theft, etc. As in any big city, you should be careful of your belongings when traveling, especially when in crowded places or touristy areas. On the bright side, let it be noted that Moscow saw its lowest crime rates in a decade in 2017.
Homicide rates were high in Russia up into the 1990s, but they have since plummeted. Why? Alcohol once fueled up to two thirds of Russia’s murders and violent crimes, but alcohol consumption in Russia dropped by more than 40% since 2003, and violent crime rates went with it.
Despite notions of Russians downing bottles of vodka as they cross Siberia by bear, according to the WHO Russians actually consume less alcohol than major European countries such as France, Germany, and Switzerland.
TL;DR Russians ain’t crazy drunk all the time, and Russia is safer for it.
Terrorism in Russia
Terrorism is always on the mind when planning travels these days. But are terror attacks common in Russia?
It’s true that Russia has seen a few terrorist attacks in major cities in the last decade. Some of the less-traveled regions along the country’s southern border with Georgia such as Dagestan reportedly see more terrorist activity.
That might sound intimidating, but consider this: plenty of countries considered “safe” such as France and the United Kingdom have also seen terrorist attacks in recent years.
It’s also important to consider the likelihood of a casual tourist being caught in a terrorist attack. Recent terrorist attacks in Russia were not targeted at any specific foreign groups; military and police are often the target. Though nothing is impossible, it’s safe to say it’s highly unlikely you will be hurt in a terrorist attack in Russia.
Is Russia safe for Americans?
Americans are a special breed, I know. I am one. Sometimes.
One of the most common questions I get from people at home is “But how was it to travel as an *AMERICAN* in Country X?”, expecting some kind of horror story involving kidnappings, armed assaults, or something appropriately Homeland-esque.
My answer usually disappoints. Traveling as an American doesn’t make much of a difference… if anything, people are sometimes excited to speak candidly with an actual American!
But I admit, despite having traveled through countries where you’d expect some America bashing like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, I would venture to say Russia is where I encountered the most anti-American sentiment in my travels.
Don’t go cancel your dreams of Russian adventures just yet! It’s true that Russians as a whole don’t think much of Americans or our government; the feeling is, statistically, mutual. Anti-American sentiment stems from the Cold War era when the US and Russia were enemies. Some has continued into the modern era thanks to negative portrayals of the United States in Russian media… not that the US media’s portrayal of Russia is any better.
Does that mean Russians are going to be mean to you or resent you for being American?
No. It’s far more likely they won’t care much at all.
Short of getting into a fight with the wrong drunken Russian nationalist at a bar, being American isn’t an actual threat to your safety. Sure, I encountered some wrinkled noses when I said I had a US passport, and plenty of people I spoke with dislike Trump (yo, same), but it’s one thing to think poorly of a country, and another thing to harm someone because of it.
To summarize: Americans, y’all gonna be fine.
Are parts of Russia dangerous to travel to?
Though I would not advise against visiting any of the following areas, they have more turbulent recent histories than other parts of Russia. Do your research before visiting so you know what you’re getting into; I link to several sources you can get firsthand information from at the end of this blog post.
Along the Ukrainian border and Donestk and Luhansk
An active conflict area for several years, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out on what’s happening here.
Russia technically controls Donestk and Luhansk, but entering those areas means officially leaving Russia. You can travel to the territories, but if you don’t speak Russian and don’t have a double entry visa for Russia it’s not recommended, as you’re technically crossing into Ukraine illegally.
The North Caucasus region including Dagestan and Chechnya
Many view the Caucasus region in the south of Russia as a hotbed of terrorism to be avoided at all costs… but plenty of travelers with a passion for off the beaten track places visit this Muslim-majority area near the Georgian border every year, and many have raved to me about the region.
Though Abkhazia declared independence—and is officially still part of Georgia—Russia still exerts control over the state. You can travel there if you manage to get an Abkhazia visa, but let it be known that it counts as exiting Russia. If you want to enter Abkhazia from Russia then return you’ll need a multi-entry Russian visa. You cannot enter Abkhazia from Russia and exit to Georgia; Georgia considers entering Abkhazia from Russia an illegal border crossing.
Actual dangers of travel in Russia
Getting hacked/having your information stolen over WiFi
Russian hackers are one stereotype with a lot of truth.
Staying secure is important everywhere, but you should be extra careful when connecting to WiFi networks in Russia. Public WiFi networks—wifi networks with no password—are extra risky; there’s a good chance someone is using it as bait. WiFi is easier to hack than phones or computers themselves, and important information like your banking login details can easily be stolen this way. Ain’t nobody likes their bank account getting hacked on their vacation.
To protect your devices and your information, always, always use a VPN when connecting to WiFi networks in Russia. If you don’t know already, VPNs are a kind of program/app that you can run on your phones and computers to protect them when you connect to WiFi. They also prevent people from being able to track your activity; good if you’re concerned about your online privacy.
I personally use and recommend Express VPN for travelers– you can buy Express VPN here.
Still don’t understand what a VPN is? Here’s a post explaining what VPNs are and why all travelers should use them.
Caution is not common on Russian roads. Russian drivers combine driving at high speeds, bold attitudes, and aggressive last-minute maneuvers; a dangerous combination. Add to the mix a large number of drivers from neighboring Central Asian and Caucasian countries with very relaxed road rules, and you can begin to understand why driving in Russia can be a hair-raising experience. I never felt as threatened in Russia as I did driving down the single-lane sans-barrier Chuysky Tract in Altai. Sweaty armpits for days, y’all.
Luckily, most tourists visiting Russia will have all their needs met by Russia’s extensive rail, metro, bus, and marshrutka minibus networks. No need to get behind the wheel unless you’re heading out to more remote areas and/or like living on the edge (… like me!). Just make sure to be careful and expect the unexpected when crossing the street.
Drunk driving in Russia: The Russian government is cracking down on drunk driving in Russia with more strict police checks and breathalyzer tests. Nevertheless, drunk driving still happens, especially in more rural areas where there’s less accountability. Be wary of cars driving strangely, and be careful when driving or walking around roads at night.
Like every major city, Russia has its share of pickpockets roaming about the centers. Watch your belongings, especially in busy touristy areas like Red Square where someone could poke into your pocket while you’re preoccupied with taking pictures.
Acting like a spy
No, I don’t just mean looking really shifty in a trench coat and sunglasses.
When traveling in Russia, avoid taking photos of anything related to the active military, power plants and big industry, or sensitive areas such as borders. Authorities are very concerned about potential spies; an innocent vacation photo could land you in an interrogation room for questioning. It’s best to avoid photographing anything potentially sensitive.
Criticizing the government
Is speaking out against the Russian government going to get you thrown in jail? As a tourist, probably not. Still, people have been jailed for criticizing the current government, and Putin’s followers can be passionate. By all means discuss politics with interested parties, but it’s always prudent to be careful with what you say when.
Is it safe to drink tap water in Russia?
The consensus is that it is not safe to drink tap water in Russia. Most Russians do not drink tap water straight. Those who do boil water from the tap when they use it.
Opinions on whether or not you can officially drink tap water in Russia vary from place to place. St. Petersburg’s water is officially not drinkable, and Moscow’s water is reportedly polluted with metals and other substances. I drank the tap water without filtering for a time because #rebel… and often had stomach cramps. Once locals convinced me I was an idiot, I started filtering my water and the cramps went away.
To stay safe, it’s best to only drink filtered water in Russia. Bottled water is the easiest solution, but single use plastic ain’t cool! I highly recommend bringing a LifeStraw water bottle (or LifeStraw filter with a normal bottle) to Russia; it will filter any and all water so that it’s safe to drink, even if it’s from the tap. Buy a LifeStraw bottle on Amazon now.
Is Russia safe for LGBTQ+ travelers?
It’s best to exercise caution if you’re an LGBTQ traveler. As with everywhere in the world, people in bigger cities will generally be more progressive in their perspectives than people in more rural/remote areas.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t travel to Russia! For more firsthand information on gay travel in Russia, check out this awesome gay travel guide to Russia from Nomadic Boys.
Safety tips for traveling in Russia
USE. A. VPN.
I already explained this earlier in the post, but in case you were spacing, are skimming, or just didn’t give [email protected] earlier on: VPNS ARE EVERYTHING, especially in Russia. If you want to protect your devices and your private information, get a VPN to use in Russia. I use and highly recommend Express VPN to all travelers. Get Express VPN now, unless you really like it when your bank account is hacked on vacation.
Carry your passport with you at all times.
You never know when you’ll be asked for it by officials. I personally use and swear by money belts for carrying your money, cards, and important documents in a secret and secure way. Get a money belt on Amazon now.
Get a local SIM card.
It’s always wise to stay in touch with people and let them know where you’re going and that you’re okay. MTS (МТС on signs using the Cyrillic alphabet) has the best coverage in big cities, while Megafon and BeeLine have the most widespread coverage across the country. I used both MTS and Megafon SIM cards while traveling in Russia.
Call 112 if there’s an emergency.
112 is Russia’s national emergency number. You should be able to call the number at any time of day and speak to someone in Russian or English, even if your phone doesn’t have a working SIM card or you’re out of balance.
Download the offline version of Russian Google Translate.
It’ll help you in a pinch if you need to ask a question or explain something to someone who doesn’t speak English.
Useful resources for planning safe travels in Russia
The following websites are handy for trip planning and getting recent information about how safe Russia is:
- United Kingdom travel advisory for Russia – Official travel information and recommendations
- Russia Trip Advisor forums – Good for basic information, recommendations, and questions
- /r/Russia on Reddit – Discussing anything and everything about life in Russia
- Travel to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former USSR Facebook group – Group of travelers interested in traveling the ex-Soviet countries
- Russia Beyond – A comprehensive website about Russian culture, life, news, and travel
Have more questions about safety and traveling in Russia? Ask them in the comments!
Yay transparency! There are a few affiliate links in this post. If you buy something using one of my links, I’ll make a bit of money at no extra cost to you. Don’t worry, I only recommend things I use myself.