Visa requirements and customs
Tourist visas are no longer required for citizens of the European Union, United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Vatican City, Monaco, Iceland, Norway, San Marino, Mongolia,Serbia, Montenegro, Georgia, Hong Kong, Israel, Paraguay, and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (except Turkmenistan). As of 2014, Ukraine has announced plans to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States and impose visa restrictions for travel from Russia due to that country’s occupation of Crimea.
These visa exemptions apply only for tourist travel lasting less than 90 days. Citizens of Macedonia may visit for 30-60 days visa free depending on the purpose of the trip.
For other countries, visas are obtainable within a few hours of visiting a Ukrainian consulate having received a ‘letter of invitation’ from one’s perspective lodging or business provider.
More information is available at Ukraine’s embassies abroad
Always know how much currency you have with you. Customs officials might inquire about the amount being brought into the country. It is prohibited to bring large amounts of Ukrainian currency (hryvnia) in to Ukraine unless it was declared upon leaving Ukraine.
It is advisable to check in advance the customs regulations (e.g. the Boryspil Airport website, which has an English version) as rules and regulations have the habit of changing at short and unannounced notice.
When entering the country you will no longer be required to complete an immigration form.
After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, Russian immigration and custom agencies started operating in the peninsula’s ports of entries. It was announced by the Russian authorities on April 1, 2014, that foreign citizens would need regular Russian entry visas to visit Crimea. However, Crimea’s authorities plan to petition Russia’s federal government for introducing a simplified visa regime for certain categories of short-term visitors, different from that applied in mainland Russia.
Since Ukraine does not recognize Russian’s annexation of the peninsula, an entry to Crimea not from mainland Ukraine is considered by the Ukrainian authorities as an “illegal entry to the territory of Ukraine”. If the fact of such a visit is discovered by the Ukrainian border authorities when a foreign national later tries to enter the mainland Ukraine, the foreign citizen will be subject to an “administrative punishment” (a fine, or possibly denial of entry to Ukraine). (Перелет Москва – Крым теперь наказуем “Flying from Moscow to Crimea will now be a punishable act”; an interview with an official of the Ukrainian Border Service, in Russian).
The cheapest way to fly into Ukraine is through the Boryspil International Airport near Kyiv. The main international hubs for these flights are Budapest, Frankfurt, Milan, Munich, Prague, London, Rome, Vienna and Warsaw with several flights a day of Austrian AUA, CSA Czech Airlines, LOT, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Air France, British Airways, KLM; also Ukraine International, which code-shares on these routes with the respective carriers, and another Ukrainian carrier, AeroSvit. Special offers on flights come and go, depending on the whim of the carrier.
Low-cost airline Wizzair started operations from other countries and within Ukraine as well. The only other low cost carrier serving Ukraine is AirBaltic, with flights routing through either Riga, Latvia, or Vilnius, Lithuania. AeroSvit could also be considered a somewhat low-cost carrier. From 2011, Aerosvit offers flights between Kyiv Boryspil and London Gatwick. Be advised that if you have a lot of baggage, Wizzair offers 30kg against the others 20kg allowances.
There are several airlines which offer direct flights to cities like Dnipropetrovsk (Lufthansa), Donetsk (Lufthansa, Austrian), Odessa (LOT, Austrian, CSA Czech Airlines), Kharkiv and Lviv (LOT, Austrian Airlines), but they are more expensive.
To fly inside Ukraine, the most common airline is Ukraine International Airlines. It is the unofficial national airline, and its routes cover all of Ukraine’s major destinations. Planes used are newer Boeing 737 aircraft. Aerosvit also introduced flights within the country from its hub in Kyiv, mainly flying newer Boeing 737 and 767 aircraft.
There are daily direct overnight trains from Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Belgrade, Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia to Lviv or Kiev. When coming from Western Europe there will be a 2-3 hour wait at the border while the train’s bogies are changed in order to adapt to a different rail gauge. It’s generally quicker and cheaper to buy a ticket to the border and then change trains, rather than to wait for a through train.
From Kiev there are good international connections with central Europe and Russia. Departures from Belgrade (36h), Budapest (24h), Chişinău (15h), Minsk (12h), Prague (35h), Sofia (37h) via Bucharest (26h) and Warsaw (16h) are nightly. From Moscow there are a multitude of trains with the fastest one being Metropolitan Express taking just 8½ hours. Saint Petersburg is also well served with an overnight train taking 23 hours. Berlin (22h) have nightly connections during summer while departures from Vienna (34h) are nightly M-Th. There is also a connection from Venice (45h) via Ljubljana (41h) once a week, departing Thursdays.
More exotic cities with infrequent departures from Kiev include Astana (73h, Thu), Baku (64h, Wed) and Murmansk (61h, seasonal). And if you are looking for a real journey, hop on train 133E linking Kiev with Vladivostok. It’s one of the longest journeys possible by train, taking eight nights!
Information about trains can be found on the website of the Ukrainian rail-roads in English and Ukrainian. The website is still ‘beta’ and has some issues, particularly with booking online.
There are inexpensive direct bus services to Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk from Poland. They usually offer a budget level of comfort and cost about UAH 90-100.
There are some ferries from Istanbul, Georgia, Varna (Bulgaria) to Odessa. See Ferries in the Mediterranean.
The nearest significant town on the Polish side is Przemyśl, and it’s easy to find by following route #4 (which passes through Przemyśl), also known as the E40 in European terms.
When you arrive, the road is fairly narrow (no motorway/autobahn this) with a queue of trucks and vans parked to the right of the road; a hard-core parking area with cafe/bar to the left. Don’t stop behind the goods vehicles, slip up the side of them and then feed into the customs area when the guy flags you forward (for courteous Europeans, you’re not jumping the queue – commercial traffic goes through a different process).
If you’re in an EU registered car then make for the EU-passports, passport control section. Thence to Ukrainian passport control and then Ukrainian customs and then you’re through. It used to be a nightmare, with apocalyptic tales of 5-6+ hours at the border, but the Ukrainians have made great advances in efficiency and it takes about an hour to make the crossing (2012). Don’t expect the border police to treat you in a friendly or even respectful manner, in fact, expect anything ranging from neutral to extremely obnoxious behaviour.
Once through, just follow the main road towards Lviv on the E40 – this is the route right across Ukraine to Kyiv (and thence on to the east). Stick to this – the main towns on the way are Lviv, Rivne, Zhytomyr.
Watch out about 15-20km inside Ukraine, in Mostyska, as police have gone crazy about traffic calming measures here (speed bumps or “sleeping policemen”). They are like icebergs across the road, and very badly marked. There are about four or five sets of them through the village.
Other than that, take care on the road, which although the main east/west highway, and the main road route into the EU, still remains in a miserable condition (surface-wise). You will soon realise why Ukraine has such poor statistics in relation to driver and pedestrian fatalities and injuries. Drive defensively!
By foot and bike
You can walk across the 200m long bridge from Sighetu Marmaţiei, Romania. Once you get to Solotvino, Ukraine, you can continue your travel in a car or a train. Bicycling is also a possibility in summer. When you have crossed the wonderful old bridge go uphill, at the church turn right. After some 50 metres there is an ATM right-hand! That’s important because train tickets can be bought only in hryvnya and there is neither an exchange point nor an ATM nor the possibility to pay by credit card on the train station! Go ahead and before the rail-road crossing turn left. There is one train a day to Lviv (in the late afternoon). It stops in every village and takes about 13 hours to get to the final destination, the ticket is about €10.
You cannot cross the border at Krościenko (Poland) by foot or by bicycle. You must be in a vehicle. Coming from Poland by bicycle in August 2011 a cyclist only has to wait about 5 minutes to flag down a driver who was willing (and had space) to take him, a bicycle, and a full cycle touring kit. The actually crossing then took about an hour or so. There was no charge by the driver or the immigration officials.
There are two road border crossings between Slovakia and Ukraine (Ubla and Uzhhorod). Ubla is for pedestrians and cyclists only and Uzhorod for cars only. You can, however, get into someone’s car just to cross the border. There is one rail border crossing Chop.
There is a daily bus from Košice (except Sunday and Monday) and Prešov(Slovakia) going to Uzhhorod. There are also few daily buses from Michalovce to Uzhorod. Uzhorod has a night train connection to Lviv and Odessa.
As alternative, you can get by daily local train from Čierna n.Tisou to Chop.
Be aware that all foreigners are subject to higher scrutiny by police when travelling on public transportation, especially intercity forms of it. Be prepared to show your passport and entry papers and keep your embassy/consulate number handy in case you come across a corrupt official. If you are caught outside your base city without your official documents, be prepared for a big fine.
The quickest way to get around big cities is the so-called marshrutka: the minibuses which follow routes much like the regular buses do. You can generally flag them down or ask them to stop at places other than the specified bus stops. The fare is paid as soon as you get in, and is fixed no matter how far you want to go. This is the same for the conventional buses, tram, trolley-buses and the Metro. Tell the driver that you want to get off when you are approaching the destination.
Each city has an intercity bus station from which you can go pretty much anywhere in Ukraine. Fares and quality of service vary widely.
UIA offers cheap flights that can be booked on-line and can be a time-saving alternative. For example, the flight Odesa-Kiev (one way) is USD180 (including tax and fees) and takes 1.5 hours. However, be sure to book early for the cheapest fares.
Trains are operated by state-owned Ukrainian Railways. As in all CIS countries, the train classes, cars and ticket system are quite same as in Russia, see Russian train article.
Ukrainian trains are quite old and slow compared to European standards, but punctual, reliable and very cheap. For example Simferopol to Lviv for €8 on 3rd class sleeping car (platskart) taking you about 10 hours.
Generally, in Ukraine, for long distance the train is preferred over the bus because of their comfort and because often they are even cheaper. The “Lux” sleeping cars have a two-berth cabin. Second class are cabins with four berths. Third class have six berths through which the aisle passes.
Because trains are popular in Ukraine you might have to buy the tickets in advance. This is more often the case for third class. You can check availability and even buy tickets online or at Ukrainian Railways e-shop (website now in English, Russian and Ukrainian). The e-shop offers both domestic and international (CIS only) tickets starting in Ukraine. Note that an online purchase does not provide you with a valid travel document. You have to note the booking code (or simply print out the booking confirmation) and go to any ticket office that will issue the printed ticket. Do it at least 30min prior to departure, because queues at the ticket offices are not uncommon. Large train stations may have dedicated counters for tickets purchased online. Try to identify such a counter and go there directly, instead of waiting in line at a regular counter.
Buying tickets through a ticket office may be more difficult, though. Ladies at the counter are not very friendly and hardly speak any language other than Ukrainian or Russian. The usual strategy of writing your destination and train number on a piece of paper should normally work. However, you may find it more convenient to ask locals to buy tickets for you. Large stations have big screens that show tickets available for the upcoming trains. This may be handy for last-minute ticket purchases.
There are two major bus companies that run buses from all of the major cities to and from Kiev: they are Avtolux, and Gunsel. Prices run about UAH100-120 for service to Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.
The major advantage of the bus service is that it leaves from Boryspil and stops in Kiev, so if your destination is not Kiev, its easier than taking a bus to the Main Passenger Railway Station in Kiev. The buses are standard coach buses, serve cold drinks and tea, show movies, and make a stop about every 3-4 hours. They run every few hours.
Avtolux has a VIP bus to and from Odessa that has nice leather seats and is more less non-stop. It departs once a day, takes four hours or so both to and from Kiev and costs about UAH160-170.
In addition, just as in Russia, there are private minibuses called Marshrutka. These run on fixed routes and may be licensed as either buses or taxis. You can board one at the start of the route or at fixed stops. Some of them will also stop at any point between designated stops, but this largely depends on the region and even on the driver’s mood. Officially, they are not supposed to drop passengers outside designated bus stops, but in reality they do it quite often. At the start of the route and at fixed routes, you may find a queue you will have to stand in. At other places, just wave your hand when you see one. if there are seats available, the minibus will stop for you. To get off, tell the driver when you reach your destination and he will stop. You need to pay the amount of your fare to the driver. You don’t get a ticket, unless you ask for it. Often it’s not easy to figure out which Marshrutka will take you to your destination, as in any city there are literally hundreds of different routes.
Taxi is probably the most safe way to get around the city. You want to ask your hotel or restaurant to call you a taxi. Ukraine is largely a referral based economy, and this is how you get quality, safety and good service. Taxis are always busy. Locals will tell you to call in advance. Trying to hail a cab won’t be productive at best and get you in deep trouble at worst.
It might seem unreasonable to hire a taxi to take you 100km to the next city. If you use your hotels referral, you will get a decent rate. It might be twice as expensive as train, but convenient, less time consuming, and secure. Keep in mind, you need a taxi to take you to the bus or train station. Americans will find the buses for long distance travel crowded and uncomfortable.
It is possible to get around in Ukraine by car, but one must be aware of certain particulars:
The signs are all in Ukrainian (Cyrillic alphabet). Only a few signs (every 200km or so) are written in the Latin alphabet, and indicate main cities. It is recommended you have a good road map (those available are mainly in Ukrainian, but Latin alphabet maps are starting to appear), because place names aren’t well posted on road signs.
You are strongly advised to respect the signs, especially speed limits. Be aware that unlike in Western countries, where limits are repeated several times, in Ukraine, an obligation or a prohibition is often indicated on a single sign, which you must not miss. And even these signs are often far off the road, covered by branches, etc. The police are always there to remind you.
Speed in cities is limited to 60km/h (40mph). However people do drive fast anyway.
Speed in “nationals” (single carriageway countryside roads) is limited to 90km/h (55mph). The poor average quality of the roads already acts as a speed checker.
Speed on highways (motorways) is limited to 110-120km/h (75mph).
Be aware that corruption is widespread among Ukrainian police, and tourists are an especially profitable target. When you are stopped for speeding or other offences, officers might aggressively try and extract ridiculous sums of money from you (€100 and up), offering “reductions” if you pay on the spot (the proposed alternative being some unpleasant and more expensive way, all made up). If you’re asked anything beyond that, demand a written ticket for you to pay later instead. Don’t let them intimidate you. It’s very useful to have an embassy phone number handy for these cases. If you mention that, they’ll let you off the hook quicker than you know it. At any rate, write down the officers’ badge numbers, rank, plate number of the police car, and notify the nearest embassy/consulate in detail, to help fight these corrupt practices.
Fuel is no longer a problem in Ukraine, especially for those who remember travelling to Ukraine during the early 1990s, when petrol was considered precious. Today, there are plenty service stations. There are varying types of fuel, such as diesel, unleaded 95 octane, and (more rarely) unleaded 98 octane; one finds also 80 and 76 octane. Note that if you choose to fill-up in a rural filling station, you will need to pay first, and in cash. Even there many stations do accept credit cards, however.
The state of the roads is a huge subject:
The main roads are OK for all cars, as long as you don’t go too fast. Numerous running repairs have created a patchwork road surface, and it will seriously test your suspension – even on the major dual carriageways.
Secondary roads are passable, but beware: certain zones can be full of potholes and you must treat them with extra care, or avoid them entirely. Roads between villages are often little more than dirt tracks and not metalled.
Road works have been ongoing, but the quality of the roads is shy of Western Europe (with the exception of Kiev).
Be careful when driving in towns or villages. Sometimes animals prefer to walk on the road, and they are a hazard for all drivers. You’re likely to see plenty of animals hit by cars, so be prepared…
Bicycle traffic is not very common, but you will sometimes see an aged man transporting a sack of grass on an old road-bike or a cycling enthusiast in bright clothes riding a semi-professional racing bike. Those are even more likely to be met on well-maintained roads where the pavement is smooth. Also cyclists will use both lanes of the road in both directions equally i.e. you are just as likely to meet a cyclist coming towards you, riding on the verge, as you will travelling in your direction. And almost invariably without lights or bright clothing so be extra careful when driving at night and dawn/dusk.
Also, don’t be surprised to see plenty of horse drawn carts – even on the dual carriageways.
Hitchhiking in Ukraine is average. It’s possible to go by hitchhiking – usually cargo trucks will take you for free – but it’s still worth to try stop personal cars as well. Good people are everywhere; you may be picked up in a Lada or a Lexus. (More usually the former.)
The usual hitchhiking gesture (also used to hail taxis and marshrutkas) is to face oncoming traffic and point at the road with a straight right arm held away from the body. Sometimes, for visibility, you may add a downward waving motion of the open right hand. It’s a good idea to write on a piece of paper your destination’s name.