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For many years I've wanted to do some hiking or mountain biking in the mountains of western Ukraine (Zakarpatska Oblast - the safest one at the moment). First, the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench into my plans, then the war. But I'd really like to go there this spring/summer, if possible. Of course, the short answer is "forget about it, don't travel there". That's what governments of just about all countries (incl. mine) advise their citizens. But I'm looking here for a longer, more nuanced answer. Here are several points that I'd like to get clarified:

  1. Will I be admitted into the country? I'm an EU national, fully vaccinated against Covid (last dose in December 2021), and I know I have to buy Ukrainian travel insurance (can be bought very cheaply on VisitUkraine.today). However, entering Ukraine with my mountain bike, I'm afraid I'll stand out of the crowd, because I guess not many leisure travellers enter Ukraine these days. Could I be refused entry?

  2. Are trains in the west of Ukraine reliable? I plan to travel from Chop to Sianky (Uzhok pass) and spend some time in the mountains near the border with Poland and Slovakia. According to the online sources, the trains do operate there. Should I expect disruptions (e.g. due to power shortages) or any other problems? On a side note, can I pay for the train ticket in Chop (a major station) using a foreign credit card?

  3. If stopped by the Ukrainian police (I've read it happens a lot these days), is there a chance of them getting unfriendly if they find out I'm just a tourist wandering around with no business to do in Ukraine? Will I be viewed as a nuisance?

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    Related: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/175521/…
    – JonathanReez
    Jan 9, 2023 at 12:12
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    Regarding #3. You may or may not be regarded a s nuisance, but you also may or may not be regarded as a spy. It is an unusual choice to take a vacation in a country that is in the midst of a war.
    – Peter M
    Jan 9, 2023 at 14:36
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    Jan 10, 2023 at 9:03
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8 Answers 8

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Nobody can say for sure what will happen between now (January 2023) and spring/summer 2023.

Just in case, I would like to add 2 points that one should take into consideration when travelling in western Ukraine.

in the mountains of the western Ukraine (Zakarpatska Oblast - the safest one at the moment).
...
and spend some time in the mountains near the border with Poland and Slovakia.

The area bordering on Poland and Slovakia is being used to transport military equipment into Ukraine.

Slovakia also offers facilities to repair military equipment near their border with Ukraine.

It is therefore possible that, sudden and unexpected, attacks against these transports on any road or railway lines in this area can take place.

But I'd really like to go there this spring/summer, if possible.

Based on statements made by the Russian and Belarus leadership in the last few weeks, the possibly exists that a spring offensive could take place in western Ukraine with the goal of occupying the area between Belarus and Romania (in the south).

The strategic goal would be to cut off the NATO countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania) from the rest of Ukraine and thus prevent any further transport of military equipment into Ukraine.

Although there are doubts as to whether Russia and Belarus have the military capability to achieve this goal, it cannot be ruled out at the present time.

map showing IPSC near Lviv in western Ukraine image source: BBC, 2022-03-12


Update:

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 19, 2023 | Institute for the Study of War
The most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a new Russian attack against Ukraine from Belarus in early 2023 seems less likely given current Russian military activity in Belarus. A new MDCOA of an attack from Belarus in late 2023 seems more likely.

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    Given your note about the transporting/repairing military equipment, a foreigner wandering around the area could also be deemed suspicious.
    – Peter M
    Jan 9, 2023 at 13:56
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    Even though I think a large-scale Russian military operation in western Ukraine seems far-fetched, thanks for pointing out that the extreme west of Ukraine could also be a target (even if not very likely), because of its strategic importance. Fortunately I don't have to buy any tickets in advance, so I can watch the situation closely until the last moment. Jan 9, 2023 at 14:56
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    This isn't a game. You could literally end up dead or worse. Why on earth do you want to cycle in a country that's at war?! Everyone is so helpful, but I think someone has to say it: that idea is madness.
    – DonQuiKong
    Jan 9, 2023 at 21:50
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    @DonQuiKong: To be fair, many trips are dangerous. Why do people travel to the South Pole on foot? Why do people travel through deserts on a bike? For some the danger makes it even more interesting. Personally I’d wait a year or two.
    – Michael
    Jan 10, 2023 at 7:03
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    @DonQuiKong so is climbing Mount Everest, going skydiving, free climbing El Capitan, cycle racing from Canada to Mexico, etc. The idea sounds no more mad than many other extreme activities. In English “living” had two meanings, the latter being “experiencing life”. A life locked away in a padded cell away from all danger is not “living”.
    – Tim
    Jan 10, 2023 at 9:42
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Even though I am not from Zakarpatska Oblast, I can answer your question based on my trip to Ukraine:

Crossing the state border of Ukraine is possible with:

  • A valid passport document (the passport must be valid for the entire stay in the country)

  • Citizens of Turkey and Georgia can enter Ukraine on the basis of an ID card!

  • A residence permit, the term of which expired after February 24, 2022, gives the right to enter Ukraine

  • Availability of an entry visa, if required;

  • Availability of a health insurance policy covering the costs of Covid-19 treatment in Ukraine (required regardless of vaccination status and number of doses received)

  • As well as one of the documents:

    • a negative result of a PCR test or a rapid antigen test (no more than 72 hours before crossing the border)

    • or a COVID-19 certificate proving that the person has been vaccinated against COVID-19 (validity period 270 days) with vaccines approved by WHO

    • or that the person has recovered from COVID-19 (validity period 180 days).

Recommendation! Be prepared to confirm the purpose of your entry and stay in Ukraine.

  1. You will not encounter any issues if you have a visa and a COVID-related document when entering Ukraine, and you should not be denied entry

  2. If you have your own car, the bike or train are not an issue. And I'm not sure about any trains from the EU, but I've heard about them, so I believe in it existence and you can take your bike

  3. In terms of police, there are more of them everywhere. It is not a good idea to ride close to the border as you may have trouble with the Ukrainian police and another country as you may not know where the border is. If you ride further away from the border, you have a much lower chance of having an encounter with the police. I have lived in Ukraine for my entire life (22 years) and have only had two or three encounters with the police, all of which occurred while driving a car. If you ride a bike, you have a very small chance of encountering police. However, you must still be able to communicate with the police or another person present, and you must learn some basic words and answer basic questions such as "Where are you from?", "What is your name?", and "Why do you come to Ukraine?". Knowing English is not very popular here.

  4. Regarding your card, I believe it is functional here because we have access to all Visa and Mastercard services. I watched some videos about banking in Ukraine and heard that they have very large bank services and have digitalized everything; because of this, if a shop has a terminal, there is a high chance it has a paypass. I live in a small village and never carry cash; instead, I use Google Pay for payments and Dia for documents.

Of course, the global war situation is not good, but I believe the situation in Ukraine is improving as we have had more victories and have regained control of some of the refugee lands. The most pressing and open question now is whether Belarus will go to war or not. However, many military personnel from the government have said that Belarus will not come to us with weapons; they will just help Russia with weapons, troops, aircraft, and training facilities, but without sending their army. Regarding the theory that Poland, Hungary, or any other country is holding us hostage, I believe it is just a conspiracy theory, because why would we receive help from the EU, and a large portion of it from Poland, such as weapons, humanitarian aid, cash, political support in the EU parliament, and so on?

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    I've rewritten your post a little bit, please roll it back if you think the edits were not helpful :-)
    – JonathanReez
    Jan 9, 2023 at 21:39
  • I'm pretty sure you don't need any covid-related documents or tests to cross the border (at least if you travel from the EU). You also don't need Ukrainian health insurance; any travel insurance will do - I always buy one from a Polish provider (and, what's funny, never been asked for this on the border). About visas - I don't know of other EU countries, but for Poland is not required - you need only a valid biometric passport.
    – Kiro
    Jan 12, 2023 at 8:46
  • @Kiro they're talking about a mandatory specifically ukrainian Covid insurance. While I don't know whether it's still mandatory, "any travel insurance" will very explicitly NOT do
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 12, 2023 at 10:10
  • @Hobbamok I meant travel insurance that covers health care expenses (I thought it's something you require from that kind of insurance). During covid, every travel insurance (at least in my country, sorry for not being precise) covers covid expenses. I'm sure you don't need any specific Ukrainian insurance, but a insurance that meets the requirements - most do.
    – Kiro
    Jan 12, 2023 at 10:46
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    @Kiro i checked again and it looks like they changed it, my bad. 2 years ago they pretty much only accepted one of the 7-9 ukrainian covid-specific insurances (though the verification at the airport was pretty sloppy), but now any will work (it might have already been that case if you read the fine print and argued with border officials anyway)
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 12, 2023 at 13:06
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Disclaimer: I'm a Polish citizen, I speak Ukrainian and Russian a little bit (not even A1), and I'm traveling by car (Polish numbers) with a Ukrainian woman.

  1. I don't know where you are from, but no special clarences are required for Polish (EU) citizens. No visa, no permit (you're allowed to stay 90 or 180 days without a visa, I don't remember exactly). Also no covid-19-related stuff, like vaccination or tests (however you should double-check that on your .gov site). You need a valid biometric passport. I read that medical insurance is also required, but any travel insurance from your country will do - I've been asked for this only once, at the airport, during covid. For drivers - you need a valid car registration and international insurance (green card).

    I wouldn't worry about crossing the border. No one should ask you about your business in Ukraine. Maybe casually, but then, tell the truth, and it will be fine.

  2. I can't tell you much about trains, only that they operate. But you should be able to pay with any Visa/MC anywhere they accept card payments. And I've seen card terminals even in small shops.

    You've mentioned power outages - be aware that they cyclicly turn off the electricity in many places in Ukraine. Usually, there's a schedule (it's like round-robin load balancing, but with the power :D). Because of that, I highly recommend having some cash with you (UAH) - in case of a power shortage, most shops are open, but terminals and ATMs may not work.

  3. If stopped by the Ukrainian police (I've read it happens a lot these days), is there a chance of them getting unfriendly if they find out I'm just a tourist wandering around with no business to do in Ukraine? Will I be viewed as a nuisance?

    Police won't be unfriendly, but it will probably be a bad experience for you. Ukrainian police are highly corrupt, spoiled, and unhelpful - they may stop you only to extort a bribe.

    An example happened to me last week: a police officer stopped me and explained that the camera on his uniform was off so that we could discuss the issue discreetly (he was super friendly during the whole situation). He said he could smell that I've been drinking, and I could admit that, or we could check on a breathalyzer. After a short discussion and asking for the breathalyzer, he let this go and asked about:

    • why hazard lights are not on (always turn it on when UA Police pulls you over!)
    • why is there a broken bulb on my number plate?

    Both things are valid reasons for issuing a ticket; however, he didn't want to do that - instead, he constantly insisted on tackling this "unofficially" (he even used the phrase "for coffee and donut"). We didn't want to pay; even if we wanted, he wouldn't take anything besides UAH.

    After we insisted on issuing a ticket for a little while, he just let everything go because, as he said, he's a nice person. So the whole situation took about 30min, we didn't pay the bribe, and we didn't get the ticket.

    The same day (we were driving from Moldovian to the Polish border), there were two similar encounters, and the last one ended with a justified ticket (although, before that, the officer politely asked if we wanted to tackle it "unofficially" instead).

    Second thing - It didn't happen to me, but I've seen a couple of times when they check someone's smartphone (not only the Police but also border guards and military). I don't know if they are allowed to do so, but when they ask for your device, there's nothing you can do about this, especially if you don't know the language and the law - another opportunity for a bribe.

    The worst thing is that there is public consent for that behavior so no one will help or sympathize with you.

    If one's traveling by car, one may also encounter a military checkpoint (блок-пост). Typically nothing to worry about here, just passport checks (in non-war zones, they usually hunt for Ukrainian men).

Another important thing to remember!

A curfew is in effect in the whole country (except Zakarpatska Oblast)! You're not allowed to be outside between 11 pm and 5 am (may vary depending on the region). If police or military catch you, you'll be detained for hours, checked, and they will issue a hefty ticket.

BTW: I have never come across someone who knows English there. Border guards, police, and military - speak only Ukrainian and Russian; however, the latter is not really welcome, especially now and in western Ukraine. Some people, especially in Lviv, may speak Polish.

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    Thanks! For all I know, the Zakarpatska Oblast is the only one without a curfew. And fortunately I'm not going to drive my car into Ukraine. I plan to leave it at in EU and cross the border on my bicycle (through a checkpoint where this is allowed). Jan 12, 2023 at 13:27
  • I didn't know that, but it seems to be true! That's even better. Have a safe trip.
    – Kiro
    Jan 12, 2023 at 13:44
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I'd recommend studying the answers to this question on this very site: Tactics to avoid getting harassed by corrupt police?

Living in a neighboring country not too far from the border, and knowing many people who traveled into Ukraine as tourists before the war, the police, especially close to the border, were often preying on tourists for small bribes, in every case I heard from friends or acquaintances traveling there, they were stopped by the police and were not let to go until they payed a small bribe of about 5-10 euro each. One of my friends reported being robbed by uniformed police at gunpoint because they were too stubborn to pay the bribe.

The situation being more chaotic now due to the war could have had a chance of making the police even more prone to take such action without fear of consequences. Especially as now they have the excuse of seeing foreigners as suspicious.

Yes, I know that all I listed was just anecdotal evidence. So here are some references about corruption in Ukraine before the war.

https://www.worldnomads.com/travel-safety/eastern-europe/ukraine/ukraine-driving-is-it-really-that-bad

There were some reforms in recent years, but this doesn't mean such problems no longer persist.

https://www.cmi.no/publications/7312-police-in-ukraine-corruption-versus-reform

You won't find many articles in the topic from after the start of the war, as most Western media supports Ukraine against Russia so they avoid topics which might shed bad light on Ukraine. However, I have a suspicion that corruption problems didn't disappear since the start of the war.

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    I know of two cases where family members of me travelled to Ukraine and neither reported this kind of harassment.
    – Jan
    Jan 11, 2023 at 10:37
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    @Jan I suppose the situation has improved over the years, but when I was in western Ukraine on a school trip in 2004ish, we were repeatedly stopped by the police and asked to pay a fee of $1 per person (times a bus-full of people, quite a bit of money). The year before some of the schoolkids got into a disagreement with the police over something minor and ended up detained until a local "friend" with "contacts" got them out (again for a "fee").
    – TooTea
    Jan 12, 2023 at 8:31
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    @TooTea I think all of the former Soviet bloc has improved a lot over the years. First of those two trips was around 2002 and sounded pretty wild. But guy was travelling with locals, so few problems with local police. Second trip was around 2012 and uneventful, but also quite short. Encountered corruption, but more of the mutually beneficial type: was caught considerably above speed limit, had to pay something but did not get a ticket.
    – Jan
    Jan 12, 2023 at 8:59
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    Having been there in 2019 and 2021 I can't report any such behavior at borders or within the country. The border check was sloppy the second time, but in my favor if anything. I was primarily around Kyiv though, so likely the better area
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 12, 2023 at 13:09
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I live in Western Ukraine including the whole period of the full-scale invasion.

Zakarpatska Oblast - the safest one at the moment ...

Zakarpatska Oblast and neighbor Ivano-Frankivska Oblast both located at the south of Western Ukraine are more "safe" as opposed to for example Rivnenska and Volynska where I'm currently living only in the meaning the last two ones are bordered with Belarus. So, if their belarusso-russian, russo-belarussian or another way mixed troops would dare to invasion of these two northern regions at some day, it's logically you would have much more than enough time to leave Western Ukraine being at its south.

However, when it comes to the missiles, they can reach any settlement at any regions of Ukraine at any day. And then the question would be, where exactly you are since the first targets of the missiles were and may be again power grid, railway stations and military objects which are in Zakarpatska Oblast as well. The far you're from them, the more safety you're in.

If stopped by the Ukrainian police ...

If you mean literally "the police", they are usually present inside cities and towns. But when you enter a settlement including a village or exit it, you may be stopped by the servicemen of a military checkpoint having weapons. And someone of them may be drunk. I would say it's another danger in the still war-free Western Ukraine.

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One year later than planned, I finally managed to visit Ukraine and now I can answer my own question.

Will I be admitted to the country?

I entered Ukraine by bicycle from Slovakia. The whole procedure took only minutes (in both directions). Officials on both sides were completely unsurprised by my presence. No one asked me a single question about the purpose of my trip. They just examined my passport and checked my backpack for alcohol and cigarettes (I carried none). I had a travel insurance from a Ukrainian insurance company, covering also some war-related risks for non-combatants. Anyway, I wasn't asked to show any proof of it. Also no one cared about any proof of Covid insurance.

Are trains in the west of Ukraine reliable?

I took a commuter train ("elektrichka") from Velikyi Bereznyi to Syanki on the northern side of the Uzhok Pass. Apart from the run-down state of the train, all was well, the train arrived and departed on time. However, even though I started my journey at a relatively big station where also long-distance trains stop, they only accepted payments for tickets in UAH. No Euros, no cards. Fortunately, there were several banks and ATMs in that little town, so not a big problem. Ticket for long-distance trains in Ukraine can be bought also online (web or various apps), but for commuter trains it's not possible.

Will I be viewed as a nuisance?

I spent a lot of time in the mountainous area close to the borders with Poland and Slovakia, I'm a military-aged male and I stood out because I wore outdoor clothes and rode a mountain bike (not so typical for the area, where elderly people ride old rusty bicycles). As a result, I got stopped about ten times a day by officers of the police and the DPSU (border guard). For example, when I was waiting for a train on a platform, a man just appeared out of nowhere, flashed his ID and wanted to know who I was. On another occasion, I stopped my bike by the roadside to drink some water and suddenly a car pulled over and another man did the same thing. I also passed through several permanent checkpoints. Some have existed there since the Soviet times (but now the security is tightened), some are newly created. None of the officers was rude to me, all of them were very polite. None of them was trying to extort a bribe. When they saw I was a Westerner (and not a Russian, or a Ukrainian trying to escape being drafted to the army), they just took photographs of my passport's data page and of the entry stamp and let me continue. I once strayed too close to the border (because that's where a hiking trail led me) and they checked my passport, talked with a superior over the phone, and then politely asked me to leave, explaining that now during the war there is a buffer zone of 5 km from the border, in which no one is allowed to be without a special clearance.

On the contrary, in Uzhhorod (a big city), I saw no permanent checkpoints and no one stopped me. Ordinary people were always very friendly and talkative, none of them made me feel like an unwanted intruder.

Few more points:

  • It's now more than two years since the Russian invasion to Ukraine started and the war has unfortunately become a new normal in Ukraine. If I had made the same trip in 2022, the officers could have reacted far more hysterically.
  • I don't speak Ukrainian or Russian, but I speak Slovak language, which is not really mutually intelligible with Ukrainian, but it's close enough to communicate basic things. I also learned a few important Ukrainian words in advance. English won't help at all, as won't any non-Slavic foreign language. Modern technologies can help to bridge the language gap, but I wouldn't like to depend on them.
  • If you lose your passport, you could end up in a big trouble (possibly a few days' detention), because you might not even be able to reach your consulate without being stopped by a law enforcement officer.
  • Even though I can't recommend Ukraine as a safe tourist destination, the Zakarpattia Region is not life-threatening either (as of the time of writing). By far the biggest dangers were reckless drivers, aggressive dogs in little villages and wildlife (brown bears).
  • Finally a pro tip: it helps to break ice if one greets young people with Slava Ukraini! ("Glory to Ukraine!") and elderly people with Slava Isusu Christu ("Glory Be to Jesus Christ"). :-)
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I returned from Ukraine about a week ago, so I'm answering from recent experience. I was there with humanitarian mission, not tourism.

There is a lot of Блокпост - security checkpoints. Especially near the front lines, but also near the routes military equipment is transported, and towns and cities. You will encounter them when near the Polish and Slovakian border. At the checkpoint, soldiers would ask you for your papers, and your story. If it makes sense, you will be weaved thorough in less than a minute. If you have the misfortune to look somewhat like a suspected Russian informant or saboteur, it may take longer, much longer. If your story seems fishy, or if you as much as brake nervously seeing a checkpoint that wasn't there yesterday, you will be detained. If soldiers can't understand you, you will be detained.

Unless you speak fluent Ukrainian, or maybe Polish or Slovakian, you will cause trouble to the crews at checkpoints. They are tired, understandably so. It is possible no one at the checkpoint will be fluent at English, or that they all will be too tired to bother. You appearing there will be a bad day for them, and you may end up detained until someone who can understand you and evaluate you will arrive. And because Ukraine is at war, arriving promptly will not be their priority.

If you want to support Ukrainian tourism, go to Poland, hop on a train to Lviv, go sightseeing there keeping away from the checkpoints at the city borders, and go back the way you came. Wait for the war to end before trying to go with your original plan. Frankly, I don't care for the hardship you may encounter at checkpoints, but I do care for the problems you may cause by stopping traffic at them. Ukrainian people have it hard enough.

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  • Thanks a lot, I really appreciate your answer! May 9, 2023 at 10:15
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Short answer: you can go, but you shouldn't. At least, not without an interpreter.

Longer answer:

I am an American that lived in Ukraine for nearly four years. I was there when Russia invaded in February, and only left for America more than 7 months later in October.

I visited Zakarpattia twice, once in 2019 by myself, and once in 2020 with my Ukrainian fiancée and my relatives from America.

I speak intermediate Ukrainian and fluent English. The second time was fine because my wife could act as interpreter, but the first time I could hardly communicate with anyone at all. In Zakarpattia, many people speak mostly or only Hungarian, which is absolutely not Ukrainian. Many Ukrainians I know complain about having trouble communicating when they visit.

This was a problem in peacetime, but could be a very serious issue in wartime. When the sirens go off, you won't be able to ask anyone what is happening or where you should go. When the procedures have been changed from what the signs say (which are written in Ukrainian anyway), you won't understand the explanation. When you're stopped by a militia member who wants to know where you're going (which happened to me even in peacetime), you won't be able to explain why you're there. You can't ask directions. If there is a sudden, unexpected offensive in Western Ukraine, you will be up the creek with no paddle.

Hopefully this thing gets resolved in the next year or so. Just wait a bit longer.

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