Driving in Russia can be an alternative for adventurous people who want to see the countryside or travel in their own pace around the biggest country in the world. Nevertheless, in much of Russia, driving conditions are remarkably different from western countries.
As Russia spans three regions of the world (that is, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and East Asia), and is the largest country in the world, since 1991 (with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of a modern Russia), different areas of Russia may experience high car ownership rate. Car ownership rate is high in Asian parts of Russia while in European parts of Russia, driving qualities are similar to other European countries. Thus, it is cheaper to get gas in Asian Russia than in European Russia.
If you're not used to local road conditions and driving culture and don't understand Russian, independent car travel can be challenging and even dangerous. Roads may be poorly marked, if marked at all, and poorly maintained, especially outside the cities and towns. Road numbers are not well marked, and direction signs are normally in Russian only (in the western part of Russia, they are sometimes also in Latin script).
The most important roads in Russia are designated federal highways; these include major roads raying out from Moscow (designated with 'М') and roads that are part of the European or Asian international road networks. In addition many roads between administrative centers (designated 'Р', Cyrillic for 'R' ) and other important access roads (designated 'А'). These form the major skeleton of the Russian road network, are the best maintained and usually paved — though particularly in the east of Russia, some (for example the Kolyma Highway) are still gravel roads or include gravel sections. The roads making up the Trans-Siberian Highway were completely paved only in 2015.
Highways in the countryside usually consist of two lanes with no barrier between them, though in major cities highways have more of them — the MKAD beltway of Moscow has ten.
- Blue Highway - connecting the Atlantic coast in Norway with Petrozavodsk
- Kolyma Highway - the easternmost part of the Russian continuous road network
- Golden Ring - famous medieval cities around Moscow, getting around by car can be more efficient than public transport
- Silver Ring - a set of old cities in northwestern Russia, also here getting around by car is an option
- Trans-Siberian Highway - the road equivalent of the Trans-Siberian Railway
- Via Hansaetica - going through many of Hanseatic cities, the easternmost part of it is in Russia
These are things you should bring if driving your own car to Russia:
- driving license
- international driving license isn't mandatory but strongly recommended
- vehicle registration documents, and if you're not marked as the owner the car, you also need a letter of attorney
- "green card" (Russian: Зелёная карта), which is an international vehicle insurance supplement
- passenger customs declaration (Russian: Пассажирская таможенная декларация, which is actually a declaration for both car and other possessions declaration). This form is always available at the border, but it might save you time if you print and fill them beforehand (download customs declaration forms in PDF[dead link] from official Federal customs service website). Usually at the border there are only Russian versions, so this might be helpful to understand what to write there. Also, note that border control almost never speaks English. You will need only first 2 pages of it, if you don't have more than 10000 USD equivalent.
- phone numbers for emergencies
- in the winter, if your car is equipped with studded tires, a warning sticker with a 'ш' in a red triangle warning people driving behind you that you're able to stop quicker than them if the road is slippery. This sticker can be bought for example at some Finnish gas stations near the border.
- reportedly also a separate sticker stating the nationality of your vehicle (the blue mark on the left on number plates from EU countries and most other European countries is sometimes not enough)
- fire extinguisher
- first-aid kit
- warning triangle
Can be useful
- spare tire and tools for changing flat tires. If your wheel is damaged, it's often hard to find a new one; locals usually have them repaired at a wheel shop.
- towing rope
- fuel can
- spare car keys
- jump cables
- for longer trips, spare parts
As with all longer car trips, service your car before the trip to make sure it's in good condition. Also, remove unnecessary stuff that you won't need on the trip.
In addition, see Russia#Get in for visa procedures.
It's recommended having an international driving license; this is a supplement to your regular driving license and usually available from your the automobile club in your home country.
A "green card" is mandatory, this a supplement to your vehicle insurance that you can obtain from your insurance company. Formerly, you had to buy a separate insurance from a Russian insurance company for your car at the border.
If an accident happens, you must inform the traffic police (GIBDD (ГИБДД), former GAI) and get a copy of the police report. The police report is necessary when dealing with your or the other party's insurance company (i.e. both if you caused the traffic accident or if you're a victim).
Customs declaration form
At the border, you need to fill in two pieces of customs declaration forms [formerly dead link] (Таможенная декларация). One you will leave with the customs agents, the other is stamped and given back to you and you will hand it in at the border when leaving Russia. When entering, you will also be given a separate permit for temporary vehicle importation, that you will likewise hand in upon departure. Don't lose these documents!
In built up areas the speed limit is 60 km/h, on highways 90 km/h and controlled-access highways 110 km/h. Cars driving 120 km/h on highways are not an uncommon sight, though road conditions do not always allow for high speeds. Driving on unpaved roads with a normal car is possible, though it's good to have a 4WD.
Traffic behavior in Russia is unpredictable, for the uninitiated outright dangerous. Sometimes Russian drivers respect and take into consideration other drivers and other traffic, yield and know how to drive, but all too often, they don't. Expect to encounter speeding, dangerous overtakings and cars that are in a dangerously bad condition. High speeds are not uncommon in urban areas either. Moreover, highways were built for a much smaller number of cars than there are now, which means busy traffic. Headlights are often used only at dark, and in the worst case not even then, even though the law requires drivers to turn them on even in daytime. Road fatalties per 100,000 inhabitants is 18.9; twice that of the USA, four times of Germany and France and comparable to China, and some Middle Eastern and Latin American countries.
That said, if you have your wits about you and use common sense you'll likely be fine. Especially from neighboring countries it's not uncommon for people driving into Russia without incidents and of course Russians themselves use the roads for getting around.
Drive carefully and pay attention to traffic more than at home. Big temperature differences throughout the year, heavy traffic and many kilometers of road to maintain with limited funds results in cracks, ruts, potholes being common even on major highways, therefore allow for enough time when driving between cities.
When it looks like someone wants to overtake you, move to the right of the road, slow down and blink to the right once to signal that it's OK to proceed. As highways are wide, overtaking when there's oncoming traffic isn't uncommon on two-lane highways. Also, drivers commonly dodge the aforementioned cracks and potholes by crossing over to the other lane — this is why you may see oncoming cars moving into your lane, without any apparent reason. If you can do it safely, you can do so as well. Another danger is logging trucks transporting whole trees (not cut into trailer-length pieces, like in e.g. the Nordic countries) and as such will take up the whole road in curves.
Curves may be tilting towards the outer edge, so if the road is slippery you may want to cross over to the other lane to drive through the curve on the inner side. In the winter roads are in general plowed, sanded and salted, though some road maintenance departments don't have enough equipment.
If you need to ask for directions, and there's little traffic, you can flash your headlights at the oncoming cars and slow down in the middle of the road. Usually the oncoming car will stop. If an oncoming car is flashing their headlights at you but not slowing down, they're usually telling you that the traffic police has set up a speed trap or checkpoint in your driving direction. They mostly do this at entrances to towns and villages. If you're stopped by the traffic police, unless you've been driving too fast or have committed some other traffic offense, they usually only ask to see your driving license and vehicle registration document.
The drink driving limit in Russia is 0.3‰, lower than in most European countries; it used to be 0‰. That said, you might still encounter drivers under influence of alcohol.
Not all highways in Russia are free: on some highways, toll gates block the way, so the traveller may need 20-60 руб per toll (may be paid by a credit card).
Lanes aren't always marked in the cities, though local drivers are used to this and will keep a sideways distance as if there were marked lanes.
In roundabouts the yielding rules are not always respected, and while you (just as in e.g. Europe) should blink to the right to indicate you're exiting the roundabout, in Russia you should also have your blinker on to the left when driving inside the roundabout.
Respect the traffic lights. They usually change very quickly, and the cars in the other direction will get moving instantly when they get a green light, whether or not there are still other cars in the intersection.
Pedestrians often boldly walk across zebra crossings even if there are oncoming cars. On the other hand, cars do not respect pedestrians as much as you would expect, and if you've stopped before a crossing to let a pedestrian cross, don't be surprised to see that the car on the other lane will just drive through the crossing without even slowing down.
Most federal highways (marked as M-1, M-2 and so on) are surveilled by automated systems, but minor roads are patrolled by the traffic police, officially known as the State Auto Inspection (GIBDD). GIBDD roadblocks are inside every federal district border (about every 200 km). It's very useful to have a detector for radar speed traps and a dashcam video recorder. A video record is your ultimate defence in all problem cases with GIBDD. Russian courts accept dashcam videos as evidence.
If you're involved in a collision as the driver, the main rule is not to move your car and don't leave the scene of the accident until a GIBDD inspector draws an accident plan and you sign it. Any violation of this rule may cost you 15 days of freedom. All other questions should be directed to your insurance company.
Traffic police asking for bribes is not as common as it once used to be, but it reportedly still occurs and is more common the further east you travel. You may also encounter fake police officers asking for bribes.
There are 3 kinds of police in Russia: traffic police, patrol police, and security police (вневедомственная охрана). Only traffic police have the right to issue you traffic tickets, and you can distinguish a GIBDD car from a regular one by looking at the lightbar. GIBDD cars have red and blue lightbars, while the rest of the police and the emergency services in general use blue. Traffic police vehicles also have "ДПС" (DPS) written on the hood and trunk of them, which stands for "Дорожно-патрульная служба" (Traffic police service).
Fuel prices are at around €0.60/liter for both gasoline and diesel comparable to the USA, and considerably lower than in Europe in general.
When far out in the countryside, it can be hard to find unleaded fuel, and there the quality may be bad. Hence, try to use branded fuel stations only. Diesel is available everywhere, but it too may be of low quality which means it could clog your fuel filter.
When parking, don't leave valuables visible. When parking overnight, it's good to use guarded parking lots, just to be on the safe side. You can often find those at hotels or near hotels. Another alternative is asking locals if you could park your car on their yard overnight.
There are also official camping areas along the highways, and wilderness camping is allowed pretty much everywhere. If you camp near settlements, you should out of courtesy ask locals if it's OK to camp there. There are no regulations against making campfires, though you should of course exercise common sense and abstain from doing this if the terrain is dry.
You also can pull over into a shoulder as long as the line on your right if there's one is white, and there aren't any signs saying you cannot do so. A yellow line means you cannot stop at all, while a broken yellow line means no parking (that is stopping for more than 5 minutes).
Back into parking spaces wherever possible, because if you pull into it, when you back out, there may be people that fake crashes or scratches from your car and try to get money from you. This is known as an "автоподстава". For this reason, it's recommended you have a dashcam to prove them otherwise. And also backing into parking spaces is safer in general. There are no laws to prohibit this.
Road signs in Russia are pretty much the same as the ones you would see in Europe. There are 8 categories of road signs, which are: Warning signs, priority signs, prohibitory signs, regulation signs, special regulation signs, information signs, service signs, and additional information signs (known as plates).
Warning signs are triangular in shape, and warn the driver of a danger ahead. The most common warning signs you will see are "deer or moose may be crossing ahead", which consists of a deer in a triangle. The other common signs are signs that warn you of dangerous sharp turns or bends.
Priority signs can be of any shape. They are also placed at signalled intersections that go into a "blinking amber" mode at night. The most common priority sign you will see is "Give Way" (Yield in American English). It's a sign that consists of a blank upside down triangle, like the warning sign, but just upside down and blank. The other common sign you may find is the "Priority road" sign. It resembles an American/MUTCD road sign, but is not fully yellow. It consists of a slightly rotated square with a yellow middle and thick white borders. The sign means that the road you're on has priority, and should expect drivers on roads joining your road to give way. Another common sign is the STOP sign. It's used in circumstances when the visibility of the intersection is severely restricted, that you have to come to a complete stop and look both ways. They can also be installed at level crossings, and in that case, you must stop, look both ways, and make sure no train is approaching. If there is one, you should stop at the STOP line, or if there isn't one, in front of the sign..
Don't confuse a STOP sign with a white rectangular "Stop line marker". These are not priority signs, and mark the stop line, for example in areas where snow and ice is prone to damaging the markings.
Prohibitory signs are round with red borders. The most common of them that you will find is the "No Entry/Do Not Enter" sign. It consists of a red circle with a white rectangle in the middle. It prohibits movement in the direction of the sign, and is placed at the end or entrance to a one way road against traffic. The other one is the "No vehicles" sign. It consists of a blank circle with red borders. It prohibits movement in ALL directions, not just one. It's used in pedestrian areas, for example. Bikes can be ridden past the sign. The sign can also be installed at an entrance to a parking lot for staff only. In that case, there will be a plate underneath signifying who can enter it. This sign does not apply to public transport and vehicles marked with a "handicapped" card of the II or I class.
Regulation signs are blue. One of them is the minimum speed limit, which is a blue circle with white numbers in the middle which is the minimum speed limit. You must not go lower than that number, otherwise you will be breaking the law. A regulation sign can also be an arrow sign at a intersection with an one way road. You should NOT go against an arrow of a regulation sign at an intersection.
Special regulation signs are usually blue, except the motorway signs, which are green. The "start of built-up area" is also a special regulation sign. A blue built-up area sign means that you are passing a minor settlement, where the speed restriction of 60 km/h does not apply. However, a white built-up area sign means that it applies, and you should reduce your speed to 60 km/h. Among them is also the "pedestrian crossing" sign. It's a blue square with a white triangle in the middle, which has a pedestrian crossing at a zebra crossing in the middle. It marks a pedestrian crossing which may be signalled or not. At unsignalled pedestrian crossings, pedestrians have the right of way.
Information signs are blue, except for green, which are on motorways. These signs tell you how far are you from a certain settlement.
Service signs are a blue flipped rectangle, with a white top. One of those signs is the "Traffic police station" sign. It consists of the aforementioned shape and design, with the "ДПС" letters in the middle of the white top. This sign tells you that a traffic police station is ahead. You might also find a sign with "полиция" written in the middle. These signs mark a police station, but not all police stations are marked by it.
Driving a car in winter conditions may be a real challenge without proper training and experience. The golden rule for driving on snow, ice and slush: don't rush. Braking distance increases dramatically, increase distance to the car in front of you from the standard 3 seconds to a 5–6 seconds or more. Inexperienced drivers should drive very carefully until they get used to the conditions and the car; experienced drivers always "feel" the contact between tires and road. Powerful acceleration or hard braking quickly tells you how slippery the road is, do a "brake test" frequently to get precise information on the road surface.
Animal collisions with deer, moose and reindeer are a risk factor in Russia, particularly at dawn and dusk.
Be extra careful to wild animals on the roads under these circumstances:
- Springtime (as moose reject last year's calves and give birth to new ones).
- Moose hunting season in early October.
- Edge of forests.
- Bridges across streams.
These animals are mostly moving at dusk and dawn. While driving along lakes be especially observant as animals go for drinks at the lakes.