So, you’re thinking of visiting Belarus. Some people may be confused as to why you wish to visit this country in eastern Europe that most wouldn’t think of as a destination and other people might not even know where it is… but you are thinking of visiting! (If you’re thinking of visiting because I’ve shown you ten million pictures and shown you how awesome it is, HURRAH! If not, I’m glad you’re thinking of visiting this beautiful country.)
Belarus is considered ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, thanks to their president who has been in power since 1994. Their president has literally been in charge of the country longer than I have been alive. That took a while for me to process but hey, this is how things are. Plus I will speak later on about politics in the country and the attitude towards ‘living in a dictatorship’ since that’s one very interesting aspect of visiting. However, there are a few things you definitely need to know before you visit Belarus!
Over the past few years, Belarus has really been opening up to tourism. Starting on the 12th February 2017, they introduced a 5-day visa-free regime for visitors coming from 80 countries that allowed up to 5 days in Belarus without needing to apply for a visa in advance. In December of the same year, they increased the period to 10 days and then in July 2018 they upped it again to 30 days. The country is still ‘getting used’ to tourism (particularly from non-Russian speaking or non-former-USSR states) so it’s not like heading to France or Spain but it’s leaps and bounds more accessible than it ever used to be.
Read on to find out everything you need to know before you visiting Belarus, from the visa-free regime, visas, registration in the country, language to use, currency, SIM cards, where to stay, how to get around and even things that might get you in trouble…
Disclaimer: I travelled to Belarus in partnership with airBaltic. All opinions are, as always, my own.
Things You Must Know Before You Visit Belarus
I did a lot of research before I went to Belarus but there were still things I ended up discovering ‘in country’ so I will try to debunk any myths and stereotypes you may have as well as giving you the lowdown on all the important information you need to make your trip to Belarus successful and as stress free as possible.
Belarus: The Basics
Let’s start with a brief introduction to Belarus, just in case you felt like a bit of background information. (If you don’t, that’s fine, just scroll on… it won’t hurt my feelings at all. I swear. *cries*)
Language: the official languages of Belarus are Belarusian (also known as Belorussian, but this is considered an older name from Soviet times) and Russian. More about language later!
Currency: Belarusian ruble (and no, not the same as the Russian ruble) – BYN
Airports: Minsk National Airport (also known as Minsk-2), Brest Airport, Hrodna/Grodno Airport, Gomel/Homiel Airport, Vitebsk Vostochny Airport
It is fairly unlikely that you would fly into any airport other than Minsk airport – the others are small regional airports and mostly only offer flights to Kaliningrad and some seasonal flights to tourist destinations such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Bourgas.
Belarus as a country is both very old and very new – the Republic of Belarus has existed only since the 25th August 1991. Prior to this, Belarus was part of the USSR as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1919 – 1991. The region that is now Belarus was settled by Baltic tribes in the 3rd century and taken over by Slavic tribes in the 5th century. In the 9th century, Belarus became part of ‘Kievan Rus’ which covered parts of Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland.
While Belarus itself has technically only been a country since 1991, the history extends much further back. The language also dates from the 17th century and can be found in a lot of documents from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
What language do they speak in Belarus?
This sounds like a pretty basic question but, in reality, it’s anything but. I initially assumed that they would speak Belarusian (seems logical, yes?) and they do indeed have Belarusian as an official language… but learning Belarusian phrases will be of very little practical use when you are in the country.
Their second official language is Russian, which is much more widely spoken than Belarusian. Only around 30% of Belarusians can speak, read and write Belarusian and it’s estimated that only 10-20% actually use it as a language at home. According to my friend in Belarus, everyone learns Belarusian in school and the majority of people can understand it but it’s not a language they would use with friends or at home.
When you travel to Belarus, you will need to know some Russian. Travelling Belarus with no knowledge of Russian will make your life very difficult. English is not incredibly widely spoken (although it is increasing) and the majority of signage, menus and so on will all be written in Cyrillic.
In my personal opinion, being able to read Cyrillic is a must. You don’t necessarily have to be good at reading Cyrillic, but being able to decipher the letters is an extremely handy skill that will make your life much easier when you visit Belarus. Additionally, knowing a few phrases in Russian is highly recommended, particularly since people really appreciate the effort!
Russian Basics for Belarus
Hello – Privyet (informal, but no one will really mind)
Thank you – Spasiba (‘spa-SEE-ba’)
Please – Pozhaluista (‘pa-ZHAL-sta’)
Yes – Da (‘daah’)
No – Nyet (‘nyet’)
Goodbye – Do Svidanya (‘doh svee-DAN-yah’)
Do you speak English? – Vy govorite po-anglyski (‘vee gov-or-EET-eh poh an-GLEE-skee’)
The bill/check, please – Schyot, pozhaluista (‘shyot pa-ZHAL-sta’)
Serious about learning some Russian? The BBC’s Talk Russian book and CD course is an ideal pack for beginners!
Want to learn while on the bus or train? Check out FluentU’s top ten apps for learning Russian on the go.
Learning to read Cyrillic
I won’t go incredibly in-depth here since there are SO many places online for learning to read Cyrillic, as well as offline means such as phrasebooks and guidebooks (which usually will also have a section regarding language). You can also download apps to practice your Cyrillic!
The app ‘Russian Alphabet Mastery – 3 Hour Cyrillic’ is ideal for learning the alphabet quickly and is available on both iOS and Android – they also have the app Russian Accelerator to continue learning Russian.
Getting into Belarus (visas and visa-free travel)
Arriving by plane
As I mentioned earlier, if you fly in then you will probably arrive at Minsk Airport. Minsk Airport is also the only airport where you can arrive at in order to be eligible for visa-free travel. More on that in a bit.
Arriving by bus/train/car
You can also travel to Belarus by bus and train, as well as in your own car/hire car, although this is a slightly different visa situation. There are certain cities in Belarus that are visa-free if you travel there by bus/train/car but you have to meet certain requirements and this is only valid for specific cities.
Who needs a visa for Belarus?
In short, most people need a visa for Belarus. You can find a full list of who does not need a visa here but the main countries who do not need a visa are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Some that have time limitations (e.g. no visa required for up to 30 days or up to 90 days) include citizens of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Qatar, Serbia Turkey, UAE, and Venezuela.
Visa-free travel scheme
Starting on the 12th February 2017, Belarus introduced a 5-day visa-free regime for visitors coming from certain countries that allowed up to 5 days in Belarus without needing to apply for a visa in advance.
In December of the same year, they increased the period to 10 days and then in July 2018 they upped it again to 30 days. Citizens of the 39 European countries are included in this scheme, as well as 40 or so countries from the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Asia.
For example, if you are a citizen of the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia or New Zealand then you are eligible for the visa-free scheme. Find the full list of eligible countries here.
Visa-free scheme requirements
The visa-free period has certain requirements which are the following:
- Visa-free travel is for 29 nights (30 days) – this includes the day you arrive (even if you arrive at 11pm) and the day you fly out
- You must arrive by air to Minsk Airport and leave from Minsk Airport as well
- You must have evidence of medical insurance of at least €10,000 (I recommend printing this off, although they did accept mine as a PDF on my phone) – most travel insurance plans will have medical coverage at a much higher amount than this anyway!
- Financial means: you need to be able to produce evidence of financial means of 50 rubles per day of your stay (although they don’t tend to check if you’re from a ‘developed’ country) – this equates to approximately 22 euro per day of your stay.
- You must be travelling with a valid passport (you can’t travel there with an ID card only)
- Citizens of Vietnam, Haiti, Gambia, India, Lebanon, Namibia, Samoa must also have a valid multi-visa to the EU or the Schengen Area with a stamp confirming their entry to the EU/Schengen area and plane tickets confirming the departure from Minsk National Airport within 30 days after the date of the entry
The main thing to be aware of is that the visa-free scheme is not valid if you are flying to or from a Russian airport. If you are flying to Minsk from any Russian airport (including Kaliningrad) or flying out of Minsk to any Russian airport, you must have a valid Belarusian visa. You will likely also require a visa to travel in Russia as well, so check their requirements before travel.
Visa-free regions of Belarus
In addition to the visa-free scheme when flying in and out of Minsk Airport, there are two cities/regions that offer visa-free travel. Brest and Grodno are visa-free for citizens of around 70 countries for a period of up t0 10 days when arriving across a land border (Lithuania or Poland). I believe it is also valid when you arrive at the regional airports, although since these fly to very few destinations outside of Russia then it is highly unlikely to arrive in this way.
- Tourism and Recreation Zone Brest (including the city of Brest, Brest District, Zhabinka District, Kamenets District and Pruzhany District of Brest Oblast, Svisloch District of Grodno Oblast, Belovezhskaya Pushcha national park)
- The Augustow Canal Park (including the city of Grodno and also Grodno District)
The requirements for these visa-free regions are the following:
- Valid passport or an equivalent identity document
- Travel medical insurance with a minimum coverage of €10,000
- Evidence of financial means of 50 rubles per day of the stay
- Migration card (issued upon arrival)
- A document allowing foreign nationals to visit the Tourism and Recreation Zone Brest and the Augustow Canal Park. It can be obtained while purchasing a tour from a certified tour operator that has the right to organize visa-free travels to Belarus.
To find out more details and choose a travel agency, visit the links below:
One important thing to remember is that if you enter Belarus on the 10-day visa-free scheme to either Brest or Grodno, you cannot travel outside the region. So if you travel overland to Grodno, you are only permitted to travel within the Augustow Canal Park, Grodno city and Grodno District and if you are found to have travelled outside this area then you can be fined and deported. You also cannot travel between Brest and Grodno visa-free regions – you would have to return to Lithuania/Poland and travel to the other relevant border checkpoint and have another tour/trip booked for the other visa-free zone.
Most tour operators require you to send a ‘booking request’, in some cases before you even find out what tours they offer or what the prices are. One that I found in Grodno and Brest that seems to offer an 8 euro ‘tour’ (aka pretty much just visa-free documentation) is Karmel Tour, so that is probably the cheapest option!
Staying more than 5 days in Belarus
Whether you are travelling to one of the two visa-free regions or arriving at Minsk Airport, you must register if you are staying for more than 5 days.
This is pretty simple – the ‘5 days’ is all days excluding Sundays and public holidays and if you are staying at a hotel then they will register you. Citizens of Russia and Ukraine also do not need to register.
It is really only something to be aware of if you stay at an Airbnb/with friends or family. The registration has a fee (25,5 BYN as of July 2019) if done in person at the local Department of Citizenship and Migration. Minors and those who have a valid tourist visa are exempt from the registration fee.
As of January 2019, you can now register online and it is free. Find more details about online registration on BelarusFeed, as well as links and instructions for the online portal.
If you change your place of residence for more than 5 days, you will have to repeat the whole process. For example, if you stay in Minsk for 7 days and then travel to Vitebsk for 3 days, you would not need to re-register. However, if you stay in Minsk for 7 days and then spend 7 days in Vitebsk, you would have to register at the new address.
Getting around Belarus
How to travel around Belarus
Belarus really impressed me with how easy it was to travel around. After fairly terrible public transport in countries like Bulgaria, I didn’t have high expectations. However, Belarus feels much more like the Baltics in terms of public transport and has really impressive train connections throughout the country.
Belarusian Railways is state-operated and tickets are very cheap, so it’s an efficient, affordable and convenient way to explore the country. There are different types of trains (such as ‘economy class’, which are the slower commuter services, and ‘business class’ or ‘deluxe’ which are faster options) as well as different seating options on the train.
The cheapest seats are simply reserved seats or bench seating and more expensive are the compartments or reserved berths. If you travel on a train that operates internationally, you must obtain a printed ticket from the ticket office rather than only having an electronic ticket. You can also travel by bus and minibus, which is sometimes even cheaper.
Train route examples with prices:
- Minsk – Brest: quickest option 3h10, slowest sleeper option 8h45
- Economy class: from 6,24 ruble for a seat, 9,56 ruble for a reserved berth, 13,25 for a compartment seat
- Business class: 12,21 ruble for a reserved seat
- Minsk – Gomel (Homiel): quickest option 2h54, slowest sleeper option 7h58
- Economy class: from 6,24 ruble for a seat, 9,56 ruble for a reserved berth, 13,25 for a compartment seat
- Business class: 11,08 ruble for a reserved seat
- Minsk – Vitebsk (Viciebsk): quickest option 3h40, slowest sleeper option 9h15
- Economy class: from 8,68 ruble for a reserved berth, 12,01 for a compartment seat
- Business class: from 7,21 ruble for a reserved seat, 11,08 ruble for a reserved berth, 15,36 for a compartment seat
- Minsk – Grodno (Hrodna): quickest option 4h08, slowest sleeper option 7h23
- Economy class: from 10,44 ruble for a reserved berth, 13,25 for a compartment seat
- Business class: 12,21 ruble for a reserved seat
- Brest – Vitebsk: quickest option 14h39, slowest option 16h40 (approximately the longest train journey across the country)
- Economy class: from 11,14 ruble for a seat, 17,10 ruble for a reserved berth, 23,70 for a compartment seat
As you can see, train travel in Belarus is extremely cheap! Less than €3 to a ‘pricy’ €11 for one of the most expensive trains, covering more than 600km.
Trains are very punctual so it’s the perfect way to explore the country. It’s also an excellent money-saving option if you’re travelling Belarus on a budget since you can sleep overnight on the slow sleeper train.
Bus travel in Belarus
Buses and minibuses travel throughout Belarus, and can sometimes be quicker or cheaper than the train. However, bus travel is best used when your destination is not located near a train station. There are lots of amazing destinations that are best accessed either by car or by buses, such as Mir Castle Complex or Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve.
Taxis and Uber in Belarus
Another incredibly easy way to travel around Minsk is by taxi. You can’t use Uber in Minsk anymore as you get an error message saying you need to update your app – this is absolutely fine! Uber Belarus merged with Yandex Taxi (Яндекс.Такси) so you will need the Yandex app to be able to book a taxi/Uber.
I used the taxi app to travel to and from the airport as my Airbnb wasn’t located close to the airport drop off point and I didn’t have the energy/motivation to figure out the public transport with all my luggage. My Airport – City and City – Airport fares ranged between 32 rubles (€14) and 37 rubles (€16) so it’s very cheap for a fairly long journey (about 45 minutes).
Most of the drivers will probably not speak English (or at least not very much), but the app has an incredibly useful chat function that translates what you type (in English or your language) to Russian for your driver and vice versa. This came in incredibly handy when my driver was waiting at the wrong side of my building and I needed him to come to another entrance since I had all my luggage. I think Uber needs to get this function…
Getting a local SIM card
When arriving in Belarus at Minsk Airport, it’s very easy to get hold of a local SIM card for your stay. Most international SIM cards will charge a lot of money for international roaming in Belarus and, since a local SIM is pretty cheap, I would highly recommend getting one when you arrive.
Note: your phone must be network UNLOCKED to be able to use a local SIM card. If your phone is registered to one specific network, you must have it unlocked by that network when in your home country.
I did a lot of reading before going and it seems like MTS (‘
If you are staying for longer, there is also the ‘Guest 30’ option which costs 27 BYN (€12) and includes 2GB of data that lasts for 30 days as well as 1000 minutes for calls to other Belarusian numbers.
When purchasing a SIM card, you will need to provide your passport as identification. I also highly, highly recommend staying in the shop when putting the SIM card in your phone – all the texts and SIM messages will come through in Russian so if you don’t speak Russian it can be a little (read: a lot) confusing!
Is Belarus safe?
Simple answer – yes. Compared to many other countries around the world, Belarus is very safe. In fact, Belarus is considered safer than Russia, the USA, Germany and the UK.
I never once felt in danger when I was in Belarus, even when walking by myself at night. Of course, exercise due diligence and don’t take undue risks! I am also a Caucasian female so I can only account for how safe I felt as a white woman.
Belarus is particularly safe due to a few factors, the main one being the high police and military presence. A high presence of law enforcement has been linked with reduced crime in many countries due to the likelihood of being caught/arrested being a deterrent (unlike harsh sentencing).
A quick overview of statistics, in case you still weren’t convinced:
Belarus has a lower rate of robberies than Belgium, the USA, the UK, Germany and Lithuania. Even the USA (a country who tends to overexaggerate risks in other countries) classes Belarus as a ‘level 1’ risk, which is the lowest possible or ‘exercise normal precautions’.
Numbeo lists a safety index for every country in the world and Belarus is the 9th safest in Europe and 17th safest in the world.
Is there any danger from radiation?
When I first saw this question, I was very confused. But why would there be? What I hadn’t realised is that Belarus is – of course – right next to Ukraine and suffered nuclear fallout as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. 23% of the territory of Belarus was contaminated by radiation and 135,000 Belarusians were displaced due to the incident.
There are exclusion zones in two regions of the country, in the south (between the Ukrainian border and Khoyniki) and in the east (between the border with Russia, from Krytchaw to the vicinity of Gomel). Unlike in Ukraine, these exclusion zones are closed to tourism.
However, there is a very low risk from the radiation today. Belarus has very high standards on water, crops, foodstuffs and so on – they are checked for radiation levels before being sold to the public.
Staying safe from the law
Since we’ve discussed general safety, I felt like I should make a brief mention of staying on the right side of law enforcement. Belarus has very similar laws to other European countries, although they are generally much stricter with them.
For example, you can be hit with a fine for jaywalking or drinking alcohol in public places. There is also zero-tolerance on drunk driving so, if you’ve had a drink, get a taxi or public transport. Additionally, don’t try and bribe any officials or law enforcement – unlike Russia and Ukraine, bribes are generally not taken and will usually result in you getting into a lot of trouble.
Belarus also has very strict laws against drugs and you can get jail time for possession of drugs like cannabis. For stronger drugs (or for dealing), you can get more than 20 years of jail time.
Just like in the majority of countries, you should avoid participating in any protests or demonstrations. Like in neighbouring Ukraine, demonstrations can often be dealt with severely by the police or military.
Don’t forget that Belarus is still a dictatorship and there is not major freedom of the press like in the UK or USA – in general, I would recommend avoiding political discussions, although the situation is much more relaxed now than it was a few years ago and I had no problems having light discussions on national politics when on a date in Minsk.
It’s also illegal to take photos of government buildings such as the parliament building or the KGB headquarters, as well as of any member of law enforcement (I definitely would not risk that one). I would recommend not doing it and if you decide to, do so at your own risk. Don’t photograph anything in front of law enforcement or security and definitely don’t use a camera (you can possibly get away with a phone).
What are the people like in Belarus?
When I did a poll on Instagram about what people wanted to know, this was the most popular question! Everyone I met was very friendly and always wanted to be helpful – from the old ladies in the metro kiosks to baristas in cafes.
The biggest thing was that many people didn’t speak much English. The main answer when I said ‘privyet, do you speak English?’ was ‘nyet’ (no). However, they still wanted to help as much as they could!
People in Belarus are often very intrigued… as to why on earth you’re visiting Belarus. It was starting to get pretty amusing as it was basically the most common question I got while I was there. I think this screenshot from a Tinder match sums it all up…
“Instead of, idk, anywhere else” made me chuckle a fair bit.
Where should I stay in Minsk?
I personally stayed in Airbnbs during my time in Minsk rather than hotels but this was mostly due to being there during the European Games and most hotels were very booked up.
BONUS: here for a €15 discount off your next stay on Booking.com – valid for the first 5 people only!
It’s best to stay near a metro station as this is the simplest way of exploring Minsk. Areas near Plošča Pieramohi, Niamiha, and the Railway Station are great options for accommodation.
Studio for up to two guests located near Internacionalnaya – great for good nightlife! £40 a night base price.
Two-room apartment for up to four guests (double bed and sofa bed) located near Victory Square metro and Gorky Park. £22 a night base price.
Studio apartment for up to two guests located near Frunzienskaya metro and Prospekt Pobediteley. £26 a night as base price.
Apartment for up to four guests (king bed and sofa bed) with incredible views of Victory Square and right next to the Plošča Pieramohi metro. £25 a night as base price with a minimum 2-night stay.
Apartment for up to two guests located near Prospekt Nezavisimosti (Independence Avenue) and near two metro stops (Park Čaliuskincau and Akademija Navuk) as well as the botanical gardens. £20 a night base price with a minimum 2-night stay.
And finally, the Airbnb I stayed at when in Minsk! While not near a metro stop, it’s close to buses and trams and also close to Kofemolka (which became my new favourite coffee shop while I was there) as well as a short walk from Victory Park. £26 a night base price and pictured below!
If you would prefer to stay in a hotel rather than an Airbnb, there are some great options in Minsk. While I didn’t personally stay in a hotel (since they were booked out due to the European Games), these are some excellent places to stay.
Hampton by Hilton Minsk City Centre: 3* hotel with a 9.0 rating on Booking.com, rooms from €70pn for singles and doubles. Located close to Minsk Central Station, you can easily explore the city by metro, bus or tram from here.
Willing Hotel: 3* hotel with a 9.2 rating on Booking.com, rooms from €62pn. Willing Hotel is located only steps away from Oktyabrskaya/Kastryčnitskaya so it’s a perfect base for checking out Minsk’s street art scene and the bars and cafes in this area.
Planeta Hotel: 3* hotel with an 8.0 rating on Booking.com, single rooms from €45pn and double rooms from €53pn. Located near Victory Park and a short walk from the Great Patriotic War Museum.
Gubernsky Hotel: 4* hotel with a 9.0 rating on Booking.com, double rooms from €74pn. This elegant hotel is located less than 10 minutes from Nemiga metro as well as from Plošča Svabody for bars and cafes.
Victoria & SPA Minsk: 4* hotel with an 8.7 rating on Booking.com, single rooms from €78pn and double rooms from €93pn. Victoria & SPA has a pool and aqua zone as well as a spa area. The hotel is located near Victory Park and the Palace of Independence.
Europe Hotel: 5* hotel with a 9.0 rating on Booking.com, single rooms from €105pn and double rooms from €136pn. The hotel is located on Internacionalnaya, very close to a hub of nightlife and cafes around Plošča Svabody and near metro stations Kupalauskaya and Kastričnitskaya.
Boutique Hotel Buta: 5* hotel with a 9.3 rating on Booking.com, single rooms from €143pn and double rooms from €165pn. Located near Independence Square and the Church of Saints Simon and Helena.
On a budget or want to meet new people in Minsk? Here are some top hostels in the city for getting the most bang from your buck!
Stary Minsk: 9.3 rated hostel with beds from €9pn. Stary Minsk is located near the junction of Vulica Lienina and Prospekt Nezavisimosti, close to the Kupalauskaja and Kastryčnitskaja metro stations. An incredible location right in the heart of the city and only a short walk to areas like Plošča Svabody and Internacionalnaya.
Minsk City Hostel: 9.3 rated hostel with beds from €8pn. Located on Independence Avenue (Prospekt Nezavisimosti) and only minutes away from Plošča Jakuba Kolasa, this is a very central location.
Hostel Akademicheskaya: 9.4 rated hostel with beds from €9pn. Also located on Independence Avenue a little bit further out between metro stops Akademija Navuk and Park Čaliuskincau.
I hope this guide has given you some awesome tips for your trip to Belarus! While it might seem like there are lots of things to know before you go, these are really just to make your visit as stress-free as possible. Whenever you decide to visit Belarus, I hope you have an awesome time and my tips for your trip come in handy.
If you’ve been to Belarus, do you have any recommendations I might have missed? If not, are you planning your visit soon?
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