Eurasia today is generally quite affordable. Students are often surprised how far their dollars will go even in major cities like St. Petersburg and Warsaw – and very surprised at how far they go in places like Bishkek and Irkutsk. However, students can also be surprised at how easy it is to run into troubles like blocked bank cards or overspending while abroad. This general guide will help you plan in advance to avoid these mistakes and make the most of your budget abroad! Our students have also provided several write-ups of their personal experiences abroad on this site.
1. Prepare to be Safe
Call Your Money! Make sure your bank and credit card companies know that you will be abroad. Your accounts should be “flagged” so that your ATM card and/or credit cards do not get blocked for security reasons. A card crossing international borders is considered “at risk” for having been stolen.
Find Your Moderation Point. Due to transaction fees, it is generally preferable to make fewer, larger bank withdrawals. However, at the same time, keeping large amounts of cash in your dorm room, on your person, or anywhere outside a bank can be dangerous. So, you’ll need to find a moderation point of how much money to carry at once and how much to leave in the bank. We do not recommend bringing large amounts of dollars with you. Bringing 200-400 dollars to keep hidden in safe place can come in handy if you, for instance, lose your debit card. Beyond that, ATMs in SRAS locations are plentiful, safe, and, if managed well, affordable. See below for more detail.
Create Backup Plans. Make sure you know the PIN numbers for all your cards – debit and credit. Some shops abroad will make you enter a PIN for a credit card. Also, should your debit card be lost or stolen, knowing your PIN for your credit card can be handy to get cash advances in an emergency. It is not a bad idea to have a backup debit card and/or account just in case one account is blocked or one card lost.
You will be travelling on a dollar budget in a place where dollars are not directly accepted for the vast majority of your expenses. To pay for things, your money will need to be converted to the local currency. This is true whether you exchange dollars at a bank, pay for something with your credit card, or withdraw local currency from an ATM. In all cases, someone or some organization is exchanging your money for you and they will expect to be paid for that service. Banks, cards, and exchanges all have different ways of making money – although they don’t often tell you this outright. A single transaction might be subject to one or more fees
Central Banks and Minimizing Your Expense. Central Banks usually stipulate the official exchange rate for their country. This is true in all SRAS locations. Most banks obtain currency from the Central Bank and calculate the base value of foreign currencies at Central Bank rates. To make a profit, banks and card operators will “bump” that rate. Thus, there is always some expense incurred – it is up to you to figure out how to incur the least expense possible. Official rates are listed (and updated weekdays) on the websites of the Central Bank of Russia, National Bank of Ukraine, or National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic, and the National Bank of Poland.
Visa/Mastercard Fees. Even if you have a bank account that offers no foreign transaction fee, you will still pay Visa and/or Mastercard for the currency conversion. With Visa, you’ll be paying the “Visa Negotiated Rate.” Thanks to Visa’s massive negotiating power, this is usually the best possible rate that one can get at a retail level, only slightly differing from Central Bank rates. Mastercard actually piggy-backs on the “Visa Negotiated Rate” and then applies what it calls an “exchange rate adjustment,” usually cutting about 2-3% for themselves out of every transaction.
Bank Fees. Bank fees are charged on top of Visa/Mastercard fees. Bank fees are generally more common with Visa cards. “Overseas/international/foreign transaction fees” are the most obvious to watch for – and are fairly common. Some banks will charge you fees for using another bank’s ATM. As most American banks are not represented in most SRAS locations, this is another possible expense to you. Debit card purchase fees are another to watch out for if you use your debit card in stores. Call your bank and take stock of all the possible fees you may incur. You may want to open a better account before departing.
Which Card/Account is Best? To put this into perspective, here is data taken from two cards used in Moscow ATMs in April, 2015. One set of data comes from a Wells Fargo card, which uses the Visa system and charges a $5 “Non-Wells Fargo ATM Transaction Fee” (there are no Wells Fargo ATMs in Russia). The other is a Chase Platinum Business Mastercard, which boasts no transaction fees. Here’s how they stacked up:
Chase advertises no fees but the costs of each transaction is very similar to Wells Fargo (which charges a flat $5 fee). This is because MasterCard “adjusts” the exchange rate to make its profit from the Visa rate it shares. As we can see from the Wells Fargo data, the “Visa Negotiated Rate” can actually be better than the Central Bank rate.
Many other cards are similar to these. For example, the Capital One 360 card advertises no fees, but also issues Mastercards, which will apply a significant adjustment.
The best account for international travel is the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account. This charges no fees and gives you a Visa card. To open an account, you must also open a Schwab investment account (but are not required to invest anything). Whenever you log on to your card information, you are presented with the opportunity to invest into online brokerage services from the same interface. Schwab seems to be seeking its profit, then, by assuming that international travelers are likely to be high net worth individuals looking for new places to invest. As a poor student, however, you can still take advantage of this. Schwab not only does not charge a fee, they refund any ATM fees charged by other banks when you use your Schwab card.
3. Additional Program-Related Costs
Some expenses outside of those covered by your tuition (as listed on our program pages) that you may need to consider include:
Airport transfers (one way; two included with each standard SRAS program): $10-30
Home stay supplement ($400-800 per month – varies by location; some meals may be included)
Travel to/from Eurasia (tickets can generally be found for about $500-$1000 from New York to any SRAS study location)
4. Day-to-Day Expenses
Many students ask: “How much money should I budget to live abroad?” The answer, of course, depends on several variables and your habits. For a short answer, as of December, 2017, students are reporting that $100 is a reasonable weekly budget for Moscow for daily expenses. Bishkek and Irkutsk currently run our students about $50 a week. Other SRAS locations are somewhere between these numbers. For an excellent breakdown of cost of living data for most SRAS locations, see Numbeo.com. Our students have also provided several write-ups of their personal experiences abroad on this site. Below we list the most commonly reported expenses that students incur. Looking at these, we hope that you can estimate a budget that will work for you.
CURRENCY VOLITILITY back to top
The dollar amounts used here are based on Moscow prices as of December, 2017. It is based, roughly, on an exchange rate of 60 rubles to the dollar. Although it went through a period of high volatility in 2014-2016, the ruble has now stabilized at just under 60. For all other Russian cities and cities in Ukraine, you may reduce the amount for most expenses by 10-25%. For Bishkek, you can reduce most by 40-50%.
As you will be spending a dollar budget in a non-dollar economy, you should watch prices and exchange rates to know which way things are going. That said, things are currently working in favor of travelers using dollars; relative prices in dollar values are down across the board due to the ruble’s recent loss of value. However, as we’ve seen before, things can change rapidly. Watching your own day-to-day expenses in both dollars and the local currency should be a learning experience for you. Take advantage of it.
EATING back to top
Students who mostly cook for themselves, for instance, report spending about $40/week on groceries. Keep in mind if you plan on doing this, you will also incur some “start-up” expenses for kitchen supplies. At bare minimum (for a plate, fork, knife, spoon, bowl, one storage container, coffee mug, 14 cm stove pot, a fry pan, and a spatula) you can expect to pay about $25 (for very cheap items). If your kitchen skills and palate are more developed, you may end up spending more for things such as spices, oils, different types of cooking dishes, pots, etc. You might also end up spending a bit more time going shopping as many dorms lack refrigerators.
Students who mostly eat in the university cafeteria (stolovaya) report spending about $70/week for food. For a meal consisting of meat and potatoes, a side salad, a drink and dessert, you can expect to pay about $4. Snacks at street food kiosks and fast-food restaurants (including McDonalds) will run $4-6 and perhaps a bit more depending on your appetite and tastes (i.e. a meal with a Big Mac will be a bit more more).
Restaurants can put a hole in your budget very quickly anywhere. A “sit down” dinner without alcohol in Moscow can very easily cost $10-25, depending on the restaurant. Most of our budget-conscious students report going to restaurants only once or twice a week. SRAS has launched a new student-run site that encourages students to write reviews with sample budgets for affordable restaurants in their host cities. If you are interested in contributing (and are an SRAS student), let us know!
Transportation and Travel back to top
This will depend on how frequently you need public transportation. If you live in a dorm and your classes are within walking distance, you’ll likely incur this expense only a few times a week. If you live some distance away from where you study or are serving an internship, you will likely frequently use the service. In Moscow, a one-way ride on a bus or the metro within city limits costs about $0.90. Bulk passes can cut that per-ride cost nearly in half, however. Our city guides have more information about specific locations.
If you plan to travel while on an SRAS program, let SRAS know your plans as soon as you start planning them. You can find more information about domestic air travel in Russia or domestic train travel in Russia from our site.
A day trip on a bus or elektrichka with a packed lunch to a nearby city to visit museums or stroll through parks or villages can cost as little as $15-50. Taking a short weekend trip to a location requiring a regular rail tickets, air tickets, and/or hotel or hostel can run $100-300.
INTERNET back to top
This is an oft-overlooked expense: many people don’t realize how much time they actually spend on the Internet, taking their constant connections for granted. Also, the Internet is usually the easiest way to stay connected to family and friends while abroad, so you may end up online more than you might think.
Dorm Internet: In some cases, you may be able to get a connection where you are living (common costs for this are about $10/month with a small start-up fee).
Mobile Internet: If you bring your own computer, you might consider investing in a 3G or 4G modem. Most cell phone providers now offer these for purchase from most cell phone shops. Popular providers for data connections are Yota and the major mobile carriers MTS, Beeline, and Megafon. In most cases, you will spend between about $13-40 for the modem, and about $6-20 per month depending on your plan and usage. Keep in mind when choosing your plans that most of these companies offer what are called “безлимитный” (unlimited) plans that are actually capped at 3-5 GB per month after which you are expected to pay more or operate at a very low speed. They usually have other “безлимитный” plans with higher caps available.
Free WiFi: You’ll find a lot of business in every SRAS location that offer free WiFi. For those who will use the Internet only rarely and have their own computer, this is a plausible alternative (and the employees rarely actually care if you buy anything or not before logging on). Our city guides usually have information about where to find free hotspots in cities that host SRAS programs.
The Computer-less: If you come without a computer, you will probably need to rely on Internet cafes. These cost around $2-4/hour and are becoming rarer in most cities as more locals can afford their own computers and permanent connections. The closest Internet cafe to MGU, for instance, is three metro stops away. Bishkek is about the only city where the cafes remain common. Again, our city guides usually have information on this.
TELEPHONE back to top
Students on SRAS study abroad programs in select locations (as listed on individual program pages) will be given phones to use as part of their program. The phones have pay-as-you-go plans and are quite inexpensive to use. Use the machines in cell stores rather than those on the streets or in supermarkets to avoid high commissions when you add money to your account.
Students who don’t use their telephones very often (a few short calls and text messages per week) report spending about $5-20/month. Students who frequently use their mobile phones (for example, as a way to use calling cards to call home) have reported spending as much as $130/month. There are good, affordable international plans now through T-Mobile and Verizon. Especially if you plan to talk a lot while abroad, look into activating these before going abroad.
Other students or travelers can obtain a cheap phone for about $10-50 in most cell stores and most international airports now have cell phone kiosks or vending machines where you can buy a cheap phone and local number as you enter the country. If you are really looking to save money, ask around about used phones. These can often be found (though without warranty, etc.) for as little as about $6-20 at kiosks and even some major stores.
LAUNDRY back to top
If you opt to hand-wash your laundry (this is manageable but can be tedious and time-consuming), you will have the start-up expenses of purchasing two buckets, a scrub brush, laundry detergent, and a sushilka (a collapsible contraption for hanging clothes to dry). For this, you can expect to pay about $10-20. Students who use the laundromat at Moscow State University report spending from $6-$20/month there.
ENTERTAINMENT back to top
This is the most difficult expense to estimate. Not only does everyone entertain themselves differently, but we’ve found that people tend to pay the least attention on how much they spend for pleasure. When asked about spending on entertainment, students typically give very tentative estimates ranging from $50-$350/month – and no one ever seems certain.
In Moscow it can be easy to spend $50-100 in one night at an upper-end club (cover charges are common, and clubs often charge $3-9 for beers and cocktails). Those students who follow the Russian tradition of buying drinks from a kiosk and strolling with them through one of the widespread parks, will find that the cost of socializing will run them only a dollar or two for soda, water, or a domestic beer.
A ticket to a movie will run about $5-12. Rock concerts can run from $8-infinity. Theater tickets can run about $3-200. (For more on tickets, see kontramarka.ru or parter.ru – which sell mid-range and higher-end tickets at a small premium.)
INCIDENTALS back to top
More than likely, you will spend a bit more than what you plan! Most students who plan out a spartan existence before they arrive will (rightly in our opinion) decide that there are too many great experiences that shouldn’t be passed up. Just make to sure to priorities and watch your numbers.
Also, note that frequently there will be incidentals that you perhaps didn’t write into your carefully-constructed budget: a new umbrella (it rains a lot in Moscow and St. Pete), band-aids, hand soap, toilet paper, postcards, souvenirs, a snack on the street, a new lens for your glasses, a private taxi ride home at 3 am because you stayed out after public transportation closed… you get the idea. Shoes and clothing can also be an especial issue as they tend to wear out more quickly when you walk more (and you will while abroad). Keep in mind as well that electronics are also about 25% more in Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in comparison with the US. Don’t plan to buy them abroad. Lastly, make sure you didn’t skip the material on transaction fees in the banking section above! Those can really add up!
5. Tips for Students Worried about Budgets
Keep track of how much you spend. Seriously – do the daily (or at least weekly) accounting; it can show you what you can cut out of your budget to make room for what you consider important – and keep how much you are spending fresh in your mind.
Many students report that they tend to spend a lot their first few days or weeks because rubles don’t look or feel like “real money,” so it’s easier to just throw them around. Keep up-to-date on the current exchange rate (see above) and force yourself to do a rough calculation each time you buy something.
- Find rules of thumb by calculating and memorizing the value of the major bills. For instance, a 100-ruble bill is worth a bit more than a $1.50 right now. A 500-ruble bill is about $8. Knowing what you are taking out of your wallet to pay with can help you to limit expenditures.
Try not to carry around too much money at once. Feeling rich can make you act like you’re rich…
6. Forms of Currency
Dollars should be clean, crisp, and unmarked. Yes, US bank employees look at you funny when you request this, but even the smallest mark or tear will mean that you will have problems exchanging the currency abroad. US currency in circulation abroad is not used for daily transactions, but instead for savings and major purchases. Thus, the bills will be crisp and clean.
Checks should not be used. They will likely be looked at strangely and handed back, perhaps with some choice words. Many people in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Kyrgyzstan have never heard of the personal check and they never will as their banking systems have simply jumped to debit cards in the post-Soviet reform.
Traveler’s Checks can be cashed in few locations (such as major banks and some major hotels), but problems are likely and fees are assured.
Credit Cards are now widely accepted. In major cities most larger grocery stores and even fast food chains now take them. However, never assume you can pay with a credit card – always carry at least some cash. Even places that advertise that they accept cards will often have difficulties with their systems. Some places are also not set up to accept dollar-denominated credit cards (although they otherwise accept credit cards), so don’t be surprised if you card is sometimes randomly turned down.
7. Financial Institutions
Exchanges and Banks can exchange cash at locations throughout most cities. Exchange services in banks tend to be more trusted, but will often ask you for a passport as documentation for the transaction. We’ve found that the little kiosks on the street that specialize in exchange tend to also be reliable and honest and are more convenient as they don’t ask for ID. However, always make sure you know how much you should receive in return before you hand money across the counter and never leave the counter if you believe a mistake has been made. Once you leave, no argument can be made. Don’t be embarrassed to count the money in front of the employee who has just completed the transaction for you – it’s completely expected. As should be obvious, don’t trust someone waiting outside the exchange who offers “a better deal.”
ATMs are now common in most cities in Russia and Eurasia. These are now generally as safe to use as ATMs in America (with some exception in Bishkek), but make sure you tell your bank that you will be withdrawing money abroad and the dates of your stay (see the section on banks and credit cards above).
Western Union has outposts in most banks and has a fast, secure wiring service – but it’s not cheap. If you can wait, it is easiest and cheapest to have someone deposit money to your account (or mail your bank a check with your account information and instructions) and then withdraw the money from an ATM.