Mobile phones, networks, coverage and tariffs in Russia

Author: Dimitry Paranyushkin (on 13 Oct 2011)
Mobile phones are very popular in Russia and the coverage exists even in remote areas. You are better stick to the main roads though if you want to make sure to get the signal. GPRS is available everywhere, 3G is only in the big cities.

If you are traveling with your own cellphone and SIM card, you will be able to use it in Russia if your provider has a "roaming" agreement with one of the local mobile operators. Some operators have a "preferred" network in each country, allowing you to save a few cents on your phonecalls. However, even with the discount the roaming charges are usually too high, starting at $1.5 per minute for incoming / outcoming calls and about $0.5 for outgoing SMS.
If you would like to save money and don't need your old number in Russia, you can get a local SIM card. A pay-as-you-go set can be bought for about $10 US (network time included) and you will have a Russian mobile number. You need to make sure your phone is not "locked" by your provider and that you can use it with any operator. If it is locked, some telecom shops can unlock it for a $10-$20 fee or it can also be done online (for some models, especially Nokia and Alkatel).
You can buy a set and find more information about cell phones in any telecom shop, of which there are many throughout Russia.


Russian Mobile Networks & Coverage

There are three major mobile network providers in Russia: MTS, BeeLine, and Megafon. The prices, coverage, and the services offered by these operators are quite similar. Their networks cover most cities and rural areas in European Russia, and some major Siberian cities. There are some "blank" spots, that is, even major networks do not cover some countryside areas and small villages.
There are also several local operators, but they only have local networks and phonecalls outside of their networks are very expensive. For example, BaikalWestCom (Irkutsk) cover Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude cities only. If you use them to phone to Moscow, it might be very expensive.

Mobile Standards in Russia

Russian mobile companies use two standards GSM 900/1800 (European standard) and CDMA (American standard). A single cell phone can’t be used in both standards. So, check your phone instruction to find out which standard it is operationg in.
GSM is far more popular in Russia and all the leading national operators use it in their networks, CDMA is used only by several local providers (in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Irkutsk), so the biggest problem with CDMA is that you won't be able to use the same telephone in several cities.
As most cellular networks in Russia operate in GSM 900/1800 standard,you can use the mobile telephones that support this type of network only. Services such as WAP, GPRS, text messaging, sim card information menu, 24 hour customer support are provided by all major operators.
If you live in the US, it is unlikely that your mobile supports GSM standard, so you will need to rent a phone in Russia. If you live in Europe (UK, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavian counties), your telephone should support GSM, however, you should check if it is "locked" with your operator onlyю

Types of Cellphone Numbers in Russia

Historically, there are two types of mobile numbers in Russia: a "city" one and a "federal" one.
The "city" one is a normal phone number of the city where you are based (for example, 555-5555 in Moscow). It is as if you have a normal city phone and it is almost not recognizable from a standard fixed line number.
The "federal" cannot be accessed directly: you should dial it as if you are calling to another city: 8 wait for a tone, then a code of the network (i.e. 902, 903), and then the 7-digit number. Even if you are in Moscow and you are calling to a "federal" number in Moscow, you should dial the number through "8 tone code" routine.
It is obvious that the "city" numbers are much easier to remember and to access, however, they are more expensive. With a "federal" number you can generally "pay as you go", there are no monthly fees, while with a "city" number you have to pay a certain fixed fee every month on top of your calls (from $20 per month).

How to access a federal number through a Moscow (495) number: As it was mentioned above, the mobile phone numbers in Russia divide into the "federal" and "direct". The direct numbers have a normal code of the city it was registered in (for example, if you bought your phone in Moscow with the direct number, your number will be (495) 555-5555)
The "federal" numbers have a special mobile code, and to dial this number, no matter where you call from, you first need to dial this code. So, any call to a "federal" number will be the same as calling to another city, and you will need to dial it through the "8 tone ..." routine.
Sometimes it's not very convenient, because some pay-phones don't allow it and because some landlines may be blocked from the "8 tone..." access to save money on international phonecalls. Also, if you phone to a mobile from a pay-phone or from abroad you will pay about 3 times more if you dial a "federal" number.
But, there's a solution to all these problems: every major Russian mobile operator has a direct Moscow number, which you can dial and get through to the mobile you want. These numbers are charged as normal Moscow numbers. Here's information for each operator:

MTS - MobileTeleSystems (federal codes 902, 916):

1. Dial (495) 766-0222.
2. When you hear the answering machine switch your phone into the "tone" regime. Usually it's the "*" button.
3. Dial the federal code and the 7-digit number (without the "8" in the beginning) - total 10 digits - and press "*" button.
Example: You have a number given to you, and it's 8 916 666-6666. Dial 766-0222, switch to "tone", dial 916 6666666 and press "*". That's it.

BeeLine - Vympelkom (federal codes 903, 905):
1. Dial (495) 105-5678.
2. When you hear the answering machine switch your phone into the "tone" regime. Usually it's the "*" button.
3. Dial the federal code and the 7-digit number (without the "8" in the beginning) - total 10 digits
Example: you're given a number 8 903 589-7400. For direct Moscow access you should dial 105-5678, switch to "tone", then 903 5897400 and wait for the answer.

Megafon - (federal codes 926):

1. Dial (495) 505-4488
2. When you hear the answering machine switch your phone into the "tone" regime. Usually it's the "*" button.
3. Dial the federal code and the 7-digit number (without the "8" in the beginning) - total 10 digits

1. Dial (495) 787-6767
2. When you hear the answering machine switch your phone into the "tone" regime. Usually it's the "*" button.
3. Dial the last 7 digits of the number and wait for the answer

Russian Mobile Operators Prices & Tariffs

Normally, a minute costs about $0.20, and an outcoming text is about $0.06 (including taxes). WAP costs $0.05-$0.15 per minute depending on the time of the day, GPRS costs about $0.25 per megabyte. Voice mail is priced either at about $0.10 per message, or by the time you take to listen to voice messages (normal tariff $0.20 / minute).
The pricing system in Russia is different from the American or European ones. The main difference is that you should pay for your incoming calls. Some operators provide free incoming calls inside their networks only, and some operators provide no charge for incoming calls after the 1st minute only. But in this case you get other things more expensive usually. You should also pay for all outcoming calls, outcoming text messages, and additional services, such as voice mail, number identification, call diverting etc.
Another big difference is that the price of the phonecall depends on where you are calling from and where you are calling. The tariffs are given usually for local calls (i.e. from Moscow to Moscow), if you are calling to another city (that is not far), expect to add about $0.3-$0.7 per every minute.
Also, if you subscribed for your phone in Moscow, traveled to St. Petersburg and are using it from there to call to St. Petersburg, it will be considered as a call to another city, and you will have to pay more.
So, it is better to subscribe in the city where you will spend the most of your time in Russia. If you are traveling to another city, it is best to subscribe to the operator that is represented in both cities and thus have low tariffs in both cities. If the operator is not represented in the city you are in, the mobile may work still, but the calls will be made through another provider (roaming) and will cost more.
To add funds to your account you can either pay at the operator's office, buy a special top-up card (sold in many shops and through machines), make an instant payment at the cash register in major supermarket and retail chains (in Moscow), or establish a credit account.

Here's a list of the major mobile providers in Russia:

This free independent travel guide to Russia exists thanks to the commission we get when you order these hand-picked trusted third-party services or when you buy our book. Please, support us!


BeeLine GSM
Moscow Office: 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya str., 2 (metro Mayakovskaya – green line), phone: +7 (495) 251-7000
Internet: (In Russian)
Prepaid tarrif: “Prime” Price: 9$. You will have 10$ at your account.
“ Prime” tarrifs per min: within Russia: 0.2, to Europe: 1.4, to USA: 2.2

Moscow office: Sadovaya-Karetnaya str., 2 (metro Mayakovskaya – green line)
Customer support: +7 (495) 766-0166 (24), 766-0177
Internet: (In English)
Prepaid tariff: “Jeans” Price: 7$. You will have 5$ at your account.
“Jeans” tariffs per min: within Russia: 0.2, to Europe: 1.6, to USA: 2.1

Moscow ofice: Myasnickaya str., 48 (metro Krasnie Vorota – red line), phone: +7 (495) 507-7777
Internet: (In English)
Prepaid tarrif: “GSM Light” Price: 3$. You’ll have 3$ at your account.
GSM Light” tarrifs per min: within Russia: 0.2, to Europe: 0.7, to USA: 0.7
Recommended tariff: for about $40 / month you can subscribe to a tariff where you don't need to pay for incoming calls, and 400 minutes of outcoming calls are included in the monthly fee. The best of all is that you'll have to pay only $0.3 per minute if you call to Europe or USA (landlines and mobiles), making it a very attractive option for travelers.

Where to rent and buy

Rent a mobile phone online through Event Planning Russia:
Renting of the cell phones with prepaid tarrifs. Pick-up and leave in most Russian cities
(495) 411-9-401 ext 1232

Svyaznoy - Telecom shops chain.

The wide spread chain of telecom shops and on-line shop.
Moscow: Smolenskiy blvr., 15 (metro Smolenskaya – blue line), phone: +7 (495) 248-6476
St.Petersburg: Nevsky prospekt, 102 (metro Mayakovskaya), phone; +7 (812) 27505766

Popular Russian chain of telecom shops.
Moscow: Tverskaya str, 4 (metro Okhotny Ryad – red line), phone: +7 (495) 771-7325
St.Petersburg: Nevsky prospekt, 98/100 (metro Mayakovskaya), phone: +7 (812) 449-0909
Ekaterinburg: Vainera, str., 9A, phone: +7 (901) 950-5549
Internet: (In English)




Comments, Questions, Feedback?

If you have a question, please, post it in Way to Russia forum or tweet @waytorussia.

For comments and feedback about this article, use the form below.




Most Recent Articles:

Russia International Phone Cards, Russia City Dialing Telephone Codes, "Follow Me" Divert Numbers:

Here you can learn everything about making phonecalls from and to Russia.

Russian Post Service (Pochta)

The Russian postal service is unreliable and poor.