- Visa and Mastercard ceased Russian operations, blocking Russian bank cards abroad.
- Russians in Singapore, the UK and Turkey told Insider they used foreign accounts to access money.
- They are all worried about the value of the ruble, one of the worst performing currencies of the year.
Maria went to buy a green juice on campus one day in late February but her card was declined.
Then she tried to buy groceries. Again, his card was declined.
The 23-year-old Russian student, who did not wish to give her last name, is doing an exchange semester in Singapore and had learned the day before that her Russian bank card would be blocked. She wanted to test it to see if it was true.
“We are worth nothing, basically,” she told Insider, referring to the value of Russian currency.
Since invading Ukraine, Russia has been a pariah state, with many sectors of its economy sanctioned by the international community. Its network of wealthy oligarchs has seen its assets frozen, its overseas properties looted and its yachts seized.
But ordinary Russians are also feeling the impact, with the ruble falling in the early days of the invasion, one of the worst performing currencies of the year so far. Major Russian lenders have been banned from SWIFT, the international payment system used by thousands of banks around the world. And for Russians abroad like Maria, the decision by Mastercard and Visa to suspend their Russian operations has led to money problems since their cards are now negligible abroad.
Maria received a text message on March 11 from her Russian bank, Sberbank – the country’s largest – informing her of the ban, the message saying it would not affect Sberbank cards in Russia.
Maria, who is pursuing a master’s degree at an Italian university, however, feels lucky to be on exchange in Singapore as she has a scholarship to cover all her expenses there. And the money is deposited in his Italian bank account, not his Russian account.
Still, she worries about what she will do when her semester ends in May.
“In Italy I would really struggle,” she said, explaining that there she has a scholarship that only partially covers her living expenses.
She makes ends meet by tutoring, her earnings deposited in her blocked Russian bank account. His mother also occasionally sends him money to this Russian account. But even if she could access funds through it, she said, the exchange rate would leave her with next to nothing.
The exchange rate is what deterred Alena, 25, who asked not to share her surname, from freelancing for Russian clients.
The Russian international student lives in Leeds, UK, and freelances in translation and graphic design when not studying.
“It doesn’t make sense for me to work as a freelancer in Russia anymore because of the exchange rates because it’s just incredibly expensive,” Alena told Insider.
She also couldn’t transfer her rubles from her Russian Alfabank account to her UK Lloyds bank account, even if she chose to work with Russian clients.
Alena had acted early, however, anticipating the financial repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the second day of the dispute, she decided to transfer the funds from her Russian account to her UK account.
“I thought it might lead to penalties and account blocking, and just in case I decide to transfer the money,” she said.
Taras Litvinenko is another Russian abroad who uses a foreign bank card.
Litvinenko, 49, who fled to Istanbul, Turkey in March, has an Estonian bank account he got through Estonia’s e-residency program. The first of its kind, the Eastern European country’s program allows anyone in the world to apply for a digital ID, open a bank account in Estonia, and run a virtual business in the country.
A graphic designer with a computer background, Litvinenko uses his Estonian business debit card, as well as a local prepaid card called Paycell.
His Russian bank cards are just “pieces of plastic,” he told Insider.
“Stay home, be strong, use the local MIR card,” Litvinenko said, was the advice the Russian government gave at the start of its invasion of Ukraine and subsequent economic sanctions against the country, referring to Mir, the Russian domestic payment system.
Of Ukrainian origin, he feared a rise in hate speech against him if he remained in Russia. He left for Turkey, the only option he said he had, with the US and EU no longer having visas for Russians.
He hopes to bring his wife in the coming months from Moscow to Istanbul. In the meantime, he wants to continue developing his virtual business and pursue Estonian citizenship as an option for the future.
The three Russians abroad have no plans – and few options – to return to their home countries anytime soon.