Survival Guide to SPbU

By Alexander Gertz

  1. Introduction
  2. Why did I choose the SPBU?
  3. Preparation/first steps
  4. Transportation in St Petersburg
  5. Tips about the University
  6. Free time activities in St Petersburg
  7. Everything about the dorm
  8. Helpful Links


St. Petersburg (historically also known as “Petrograd” and “Leningrad) with its almost 5 Million inhabitants is Russia´s second biggest city and probably the most bipolar one. Built 300 years ago by Peter the Great (in an area which could be best described as a giant swamp) with the vision to provide a “window to Europe”, it is a gem which was realized by the most skilled architectures of 18th centuries Europe and therefore reminds externally of cities like Prague, Vienna or Venice. However, the heart of the city- its inhabitants- is purely Russian and creates hereby a wonderful blend of two cultures. Hence, this city attracts yearly many tourists and provides a deeper insight into the “Russian soul”- which is by far more than Vodka, bears, Kalashnikovs and Balalaikas, as often portrayed by Hollywood.

At the same time, this city hosts Russia’s oldest university, which was founded 1924 and educated leading figures like Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. This review is aimed at providing tips for exchange students who are going to spend one or more semesters studying at this University and helping with the first steps on this great journey.

Why did I choose the SPBU?

My family originated from the former Soviet area and immigrated to Germany shortly before I was born. As I was never in Russia, I set it as a goal which I would like to accomplish as soon as possible and therefore, looked forward to the exchange semester to get this opportunity. Through the talks with my mother -who fell in love with St Petersburg while visiting it in her youth- I got infected by her fascination for this city and wanted to spend my first trip to Russia there. As I talked with other people who visited St Petersburg before, I only got very positive reviews- this only fueled my desire to feel this city first hand. Soon, I found out that my home university maintains a partnership with the SPBU and as I did some research on the SPBU´s faculty of international relations and its high reputation, the choice was clear for me. Now, I can say I am very happy with my decision to come here for my exchange semester and I want to give something back and assist other exchange students with hints which would have helped me in the first weeks of my arrival.

Preparation/ first steps

Before you can apply for the Russian Visa, you need to wait for the official invitation from the SPBU which you will get by mail and need to attach it to your visa registration. When you arrive in Russia, the authorities will hand out a small piece of paper (usually in between the sheets of your passport) which is your migration card. Keep this card in a safe place and move it around as rarely as possible as you need it to leave the country afterward!

After you arrive at St Petersburg, you should visit the international office at the Faculty for International Relations within 2 working days. The staff at the international office will register and matriculate you as well as prepare everything for you visa extension as your first visa is only valid for 90 days. Keep in mind that when you apply for the visa extension, the international office will keep your passport for 4-5 weeks and will give you a paper which states this fact. In that time, you can’t travel far from St Petersburg, neither can you travel abroad.

Besides that, be prepared that the first week(s) of your stay are going to require you to deal with a big amount of bureaucracy and therefore, run many miles, wait many hours and explain many things on that path. A “fresh start” in a new country will always require that kind of stuff.

Also, because of the point stated above, I can deeply recommend having any previous knowledge of the Russian language and if not, at least to buy a crash course book- even if you will study the English-speaking program! Not only will it help you at all administrative matters (don’t worry- your buddy can help your hereby; I will explain the concept later), it will provide you some tools to handle everyday life. Many Russians don’t know English and many signs on the streets, in shops and so on are written in Cyrillic letters. If you speak English, people will assume you are a tourist and will treat you that way- for example with higher prices. If you don’t have any previous knowledge of the Russian language and do start from scratch, visit the provided Russian course and pay close attention as it will be fast-paced and intensive. The needed school material you can buy for example in Дом Зингера on Nevskij Prospekt.

Also, you should take a little bit of time before your journey and learn about the Russian culture to get a feel for it to prevent a feeling of being totally overwhelmed when you are going to arrive there. Hereby, documentaries or movies (with subtitles if desired or needed) are a good choice. My personal recommendations are: “Брат“(!!!) “Иван Васильевич меняет профессию” and “Левиафан”. Additionally, you should read about the history of St Petersburg and its hero-myth based on the events of the second world war- especially, if you are a German citizen.

Another important fact about the winter: If you are not from northern Scandinavia or other cold places of the world, the Russian winter will hit you hard with temperatures around minus 15 degree Celsius in January and February as well as occasional snowfall even till the end of April!  Therefore, take warm clothes with you! As the student dorm for international students (about which I will talk later) is located right next to the sea, be prepared to experience some extra wind and cold every time you leave the dorm! If you want to buy clothes here, don’t buy in western shops like Zara or H&M, but in regional Russian ones as the sanctions let the prices for western goods skyrocket. Also, clean your shoes on a regular basis as the snow and the very aggressive road salt will start damaging even the best leather very fast.

Transportation in St Petersburg

There are many transportation options in St Petersburg: Metro, Bus, Marshrutkas (Minibusses) and Trams. The prices are always the same (44 RU at the time of my exchange period) and need to be paid every time you change the means of transportation.  It is recommended to buy a student card (further information will be provided by the international office) and until that- gather in groups of three and take Uber-taxis instead of the public transport as the price will be the same if shared.

Also, I recommend to take the bus from the international student dorm (Don’t take the 11 though! This one you can take to drive to the main dorm building on Ulitsa Korablestroitelej to pay your rent or washing machine fees.) to the Primorskaya station (which is the last station of the green line) and use the metro from there to get to the center instead of taking the bus the whole way as the traffic in the city is very uncomfortable- especially in the rush hour. If you are going to use the public transport in that time, pay special attention to your belongings as the conditions are going to be cramped. Of course, you can also walk to the Primorskaya station from the dorm (which should take around 15 minutes), but be advised to use the bus from and to the station after nightfall for safety reasons. To get to the main campus, you can estimate around 40 mins- to get to the faculty of International Relations around 1 hour.

Tips about the University

For any questions, the international office can be your first venue. The staff there speaks perfect English and has proven as a great help over the time of my stay in Russia. Additionally, the International Office will provide some excursions and other interesting offers, keep an eye out for this. If your home university has a contract with the SPBU which includes a stipend paid by the SPBU, it’s advisable to speak about this with the international office.

It is a very good idea to use the proposed buddy-program. Hereby you will get assigned a Russian student who will help you to get started in the new city and will be a person you can contact for help or just to hang out together and have a good time. If you apply for the program the buddy should write you before your arrival. If that’s not the case, you should notify the international office about that.

The main building, as well as some faculties, have a cafeteria where you can snack in between the lectures. It is advised to be careful about the food there though. Also, you should check out the merchandise shop at the main campus which should be complete by the time of my departure.

If you require some reading each faculty has a library where you can register even as a former student- keep in mind that in this case you are not allowed to take the literature with you, but can only read it in the reading room provided by the faculty.

Free time activities in St Petersburg

St Petersburg is overflowing with activities you can do in your free time. There are many museums, churches, cafes, restaurants, clubs to feel, so you never will be bored. Always have your student card with you as students often get discounts. Until you get yours you can also use the “International student identity card” (ISIC) which you can issue for free on the website (link will be attached below). In the following, I want to list the activities which I liked especially:

To get used to Russia you should also leave the central places like the Nevskij Prospekt and visit the side roads and suburbs- preferably with your buddy who has the needed orientation. After you get your passport back, you should pay a visit to Moscow and also other smaller, more “authentic” Russian cities. Furthermore, you could take a ferry to Helsinki or to Tallinn. In this cases, ask the international office about the registration procedure as it is required to register you in the city you visit if you stay outside of St Petersburg longer than 5 working days.

You should attend the introduction week, there you are going to meet your fellow students in an unbent manner while exploring the St Petersburg nightlife and its pubs, clubs and karaoke bars. Another fun activity I can recommend is a game of paintball- what is a better way to get to know each other than by shooting color in each other’s face?

Besides that, I can recommend watching Ballet (where, if not in Russia?) and attend the regional festivities- in spring, you should check out the Easter Festival or the military parade on May 9th! In winter, you should make a husky sledding tour around St Petersburg, in Summer tours on the roofs of the city are big fun (also, visit the loft project). If you want to grill in summer, pay attention that it is forbidden to light fires in the city, therefore, do it in an undisturbed place.

Everything about the dorm

As you are an international student, you are going to be located in the student dorm at Kapitanskaya Ulitsa 3. In the following, I want to mention briefly the most important facts about it:

First of all, …

if your Russian language level is at least above A2, I strongly recommend that you search an apartment where you can live with Russians as soon as possible or ask the administration (before the arrival) if they can relocate you to a dorm for Russians. Not because the living conditions are horrible or the like, but because this will give your stay in Russia a big boost in the growth of your Russian language and the experience of the Russian culture. Don’t rent an apartment for yourself- you will unwillingly isolate!


If you are from parts of the world with high living standards and a sense of privacy which at least consists of a room for yourself- you need to make yourself clear, that you will experience a different way of life here. In the dorm, you will live in a flat which consists of 2 or 3 rooms. In each room 2 or 3 people will live. Therefore, you need to modify your understanding of privacy (which isn’t as hard as it sounds as long as you are open and honest with each other. If you and your roommate won’t get along, there is still the opportunity to change rooms).

The condition of the rooms

The conditions of the room you will get is a lottery- some are renovated, some are not (Our room for example was refurbished in the mid of the semester and we got new beds which made us sleep like gods on Mount Olympus after we experienced the ones from before.). If you have problems with light, heat, and so on- or see bugs (be clean in order to prevent that- the cleaning lady comes twice a week and cleans the public areas in your flat. Also, every couple of months there is an anti-bug cleaning) or mold on the ceiling (you don’t want to breathe that in), contact the administration and they will send someone to deal with that.


As mentioned above, you will live right next to the Finnish gulf. Therefore, it will be cold in winter and you are going to need approximately 40 minutes in average to reach the main campus- consider yourself central as other dorms like the one at Peterhof are much further away.

Sanitary matters

The dorm will provide you bed sheets and a towel which you can change every Thursday. As the towels vary in size, you should bring your own one in any case. If you want to wash clothes, there is a washing machine room where a lady will handle your laundry. For every load you wash there you will get a piece of paper- don’t lose it! After every 3 loads of laundry, you need to drive with these papers to the main dorm building on Ulitsa Korablestroitelej and pay your laundry there. Afterward, you are allowed to do laundry again.


In order to get internet access via WIFI, you need to drive to the main campus with a router you bought before, go to the IT-department (ask the guard for directions) and register there. You will get three internet options you can choose from and can pay them every month at the main building (or online if you get yourself a Sperbank account). Afterward, you just need to get back to the dormitory and plug the router into the socket in your room.


There are several supermarkets in very close proximity to the dorm, I recommend the “Perekrjostok” next to the bus station for its moderate prices and the big selection.


There is a fitness center right across the dorm called “planet fitness” which I can recommend (but it is expensive with around 400 Euro for 6 months). Other than that, there is also one behind Perekrjostok which is cheaper, but I haven’t used it.

Other tips

Bring slippers (I forgot mine). Don’t drink the water from the faucet- buy water jugs! If you are lazy and don’t want to carry them all the time, you could buy a water filter at the “Lenta” nearby. If you are there, you should also grab a water boiler as the dorm doesn’t provide them. Keep in mind that you can keep friends over only until 11 PM. Sometimes, a little present for the security guard can extend the visit time (doesn’t work for every guard though). At first, you will get a temporal identification paper to cross the security check at the dorm entrance. As soon as you get your student passport, you should activate the chip to be able to cross the gate more comfortably.

Helpful links


International office:

Diplomatic mission (Germany):

News sites:


International Student Identification Card:

Loft project:


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s