Due to a certain amount of fraud involving Russia-origin hackers, sometimes a credit card or ATM card that works perfectly well in the U.S. and Europe will be rejected in Russia. Your bank may have a blanket shut-down order on use of cards in Russia. BEFORE leaving for Russia contact you bank or credit card company in a secure manner and tell them the dates you will be in Russia. They will lift the restriction, knowing ahead of time that it is you who will be using it. Major credit cards are accepted in almost all large hotels, stores, restaurants, theaters, etc. But just in case, look for the sign or ask before you select items to buy or enjoy a dinner out: sometimes, surprisingly, credit cards are not accepted.
In St. Petersburg you will probably find yourself carrying more cash with you than you are used to. You should not under any circumstances leave your money anywhere in the Gimnaziia (coat room or classroom or cafeteria, etc.) and when you are traveling you should carry your money on your person in a money belt at all times. Never leave money or any valuables in hotel rooms or train compartments, even if you just leave the room for a few minutes.
Program fees do not cover personal expenses such as laundry, telephone calls, or purchase of gifts and books.
In recent years the exchange rate was approximately 28 rubles to the dollar, but the rates fluctuate. Currency exchange rates are posted everywhere, and can vary substantially. In really busy, central areas of the city they are less advantageous. We recommend that you exchange money in a bank since ‘free-lance’ kiosk tenders are unsupervised and can easily subtract a little for themselves. You will need to put your passport and U.S. cash through the little window; in a bank you will receive a detailed, computer-generated receipt back with your cash. Initially you should change perhaps $30-40 into rubles to handle daily needs, and then after a few days you will know your daily ruble and dollar needs.
Do pay attention to the fact that your families are accustomed to almost instantaneous communication with you and will worry that they cannot just pick up the phone and talk to you. When you arrive in St. Petersburg, call your families immediately to tell them that you have arrived and give them your home telephone number. And as soon as possible after your arrival in St. Petersburg, set up some regular channel of communication with your family at home. For future contacts, it is possible to purchase a cell phone plan in the city at a reasonable price. SIM cards and plans can be purchased in metro stations where they are commonly sold or at cell phone stores. Balance can easily be recharged at these locations as well. Ask a friend or your host family for an old cell phone, in which you can put in your SIM card and use it. Most Russian families do not have Internet access in their homes. You will have access to the Gimnaziia’s computer lab and to the dedicated Colby computer (at the Gimnaziia, for your use only).
Please be very considerate about your families at home during the semester. Do not call home to complain; do not call home if you have had a bad day. Remember that your family is far away and cannot see you or talk to you later that day or the next day when you have recovered your equilibrium. Do, of course, tell you families what is boring and terrible and what is exciting and inspiring, but do not use your families as a shoulder to cry on.
Internet has been set up at the Gimnaziia, and it is available for reasonable student use. You may conduct all your Colby business via e-mail at the Gimnaziia. That includes regular communication with the Russian staff at Colby. There are, of course, internet cafes everywhere in the city.
The easiest and cheapest arrangement with your family is for them to call you through Skype or to your cell phone because a call from the US to Russia costs a fraction of what a call from Russia to the US costs. Students often set a time and a day of the week — every second Saturday at XXX o’clock– and then wait at home in St. Petersburg for their family’s call. Your family can get all information from its phone service about charges and direct dial codes.