It is recommended not to drink the water out of the tap in Kazakhstan.
Exceptions to this exist, particularly in better hotels, but why chance it. The locals will have acquired immunity/resistance to water-borne diseases that you probably don’t have, so ignore any comments they might make about it being safe. When in doubt, drink bottled water, and use it for brushing your teeth too.
No vaccinations are required prior to visiting Kazakhstan. On the other hand, the CDC and WHO recommend the following vaccinations for Kazakhstan: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, rabies, meningitis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia and influenza. That might seem like a scary long list, but the chances are you’ve had most of those vaccinations already, and while we’re not going to say you can ignore their advice about the other vaccinations, we’ll just observe that probably few travelers get any additional vaccinations prior to visiting, and enjoy good health during their visit.
If you do become unwell, you should arrange to go to an “international” hospital with English speaking doctors, rather than go to a state operated hospital. The former have reasonably high standards of healthcare, the latter are not quite so consistently excellent.
Kazakhstan has two official languages. Its own native language (Kazakh), and Russian.
The Russian language is a holdover from the time when Kazakhstan was part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Many Russian people were resettled in Kazakhstan, and the combination of official policy and the local Russian population cemented Russian as the country’s main language, particularly for business.
After independence from the Soviet Union on 10 December 1991, the Kazakh language and Kazakh culture has enjoyed a renaissance and is becoming more important again, although more people speak Russian than Kazakh, even now. For that reason, if you’re bringing a phrase book or dictionary, or even if you’re using a translation program, you should probably focus on Russian rather than Kazakh.
Many other native/tribal/ethnic languages are also spoken, and slowly but surely, English is becoming an alternate “lingua franca”.
Currently the country is in a fascinating state of transition as it sets about switching from the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet to the Western/Roman style alphabet, albeit with various stress marks and accents added, and not all letters being pronounced the same as in English. This is an ongoing process and will continue into the early/mid 2020’s.
Although the expectation (as even stated by former President Nursultan in his resignation speech in March 2019) is that English will become a third major language, this will not be a convenient reality for travelers for another generation or so. English is spoken only infrequently and uncommonly – more so in the larger cities and in tourism based industries within those cities, much less so elsewhere.
It can be complicated in Kazakhstan. Any particular place might have several different names. It might have a historic name, a Soviet name, a modern name, and a Kazakh name.
And then, in addition to these potentially four different names, there is the added complication of transliterating the name(s) from Cyrillic into the Roman alphabet. There are several different methods of swapping Cyrillic letters into our alphabet, because different western languages use and pronounce the letters differently (“j” and “y”, “v” and “w”, for example) and some Cyrillic letters have no exact equivalent letter/sound (“ы” for example).
The Kazakh currency is called the Tenge. One tenge (symbol ₸ – ie a capital T with a second horizontal bar on top, international currency code KZT) is subdivided further into 100 smaller units, but we’ll not talk about them at all because the tenge itself is not a high value currency. One US dollar will get you about 390 tenge, one Euro will get you 435 tenge, and one Pound will get you 500 tenge. You can see current KZT conversion rates on this website and other similar websites.
So for all practical purposes, no-one bothers with anything less than one tenge, indeed, most of the time, no-one bothers with less than 5 tenge.
There are 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 tenge coins (and also rarely used 1 and 2 tenge coins), and banknotes in values 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 tenge. That might sound like a lot, but remember the exchange rate – 20,000 tenge is only about US$52.50, €47 or £41.70.
While more sophisticated stores will accept western style credit and debit cards, we suggest you also ensure you have plenty of Kazakh cash on hand for other purchases, and you also want to hoard and treasure smaller denomination bills. It can be hard to get change in some establishments, so whenever possible, use larger notes and keep the smaller notes you get back in change for emergencies when you need exact change.
To get Kazakh cash, we suggest either using an ATM or else bringing dollars, Euros or Pounds and converting them to tenge locally at exchange service outlets. Most merchants will be reluctant to accept foreign currency directly.
Power & Phone
Like almost everywhere else in Europe, Kazakhstan has 220V and 50Hz mains power.
Annoyingly, and also like much of Europe, it has two different types of wall sockets that require two slightly different types of plugs. These plugs are referred as either “Type C” (with two 4mm pins) or “Type F” (with two 4.8mm pins and possibly also a ground connection too).
We find we can travel through much of Europe using only the narrower two-pin plus, but plug adapters can be tiny, inexpensive, and easy to pack, so best to have several of each type.
Note that “Type E” plugs (also with 4.8mm pins but a different ground connector) are generally compatible with Type F sockets too. This picture shows a type of E/F combo adapter plug we travel with, readily available at very low price on Amazon and elsewhere. Here’s a link to very small Type C adapters on Amazon – we always have two or three or more of those with us, too.
Kazakhstan has good modern cellular phone and data service and three major providers of service. Tele2 is the least expensive, but its coverage outside the major cities is the most limited.
It seems that generally Beeline is the middle priced service, and KCell is the most expensive.
If you’re traveling with your own phone, check to make sure that Kazakhstan is included in whatever international roaming package you might have (for both voice calls and data). If it is and the rates are reasonable and your stay is short rather than long, maybe you don’t need to get a local SIM.
If you do choose to get a local SIM, there are slightly more complicated phone registration requirements that came into force at the beginning of 2019, but as long as you don’t want to swap lots of SIMs in and out of your phone during your time in Kazakhstan, this should not be an issue.
In general, Kazakhstan is a safe country with no special concerns or issues. The population is stable and peaceful, and while corruption exists, it should not greatly intrude on your visit.
The US Department of State gives Kazakhstan a normal safety rating, citing no specific elevated elements of concern.
The emergency phone number is 102 in Kazakhstan and you can ask for an English speaking operator (just say “English” and that should be enough. If you wanted to be clever, you could say “po Angleeskee, parzharlsta” (По английски пожалуйста).
You are required to carry either your Passport or a certified copy of your passport (we suggest a color copy) with you at all times. The police do sometimes randomly stop people and ask to see their identification, and if you don’t have your passport with you, you’re setting yourself up for an unfortunate experience. At best, an “instant fine”, at worst, a trip to the cells and an unpleasant night or two of detention. As you hopefully know from wherever you live at home, picking a fight with a police officer or other official is something which you’re only going to lose, so comply and conform.
The usual sorts of travel scams and petty theft, including pickpocketing and purse snatching, exist in Kazakhstan, the same as most other countries.
As is always the case, be careful not to draw attention to yourself, and not to make yourself vulnerable by going to unusual places late at night, or drinking in a bar alone, etc.
These days Kazakhstan is split into two time zones. A third zone used to exist but in 2005 the western and central time zones merged.
Now there are simply the Eastern and Western time zones.
The western time zone is five hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT/UTC+5) and the eastern zone is six hours ahead (GMT+6).
The country does not observe daylight saving.
Kazakhstan is largely landlocked, apart from the Caspian Sea in the southwest. It has what is termed a “continental climate” which means cold winters and hot summers.
The winter temperatures get colder the further north-east you go (ie further away from the equator and from the Caspian Sea). Southern Kazakhstan has average January temperatures around the 0° to -5°C (ie 32° – 23°F), and these averages steadily drop such that from about Karaganda (Karagandy) and north, average temperatures are now -15°C (5°F) or lower.
A similar spread occurs in the summer months. In July, northern regions average about 20°C (68°F), going up to 25°/77° in the central southern regions, and almost 30°/86° in the very southern most regions.
In terms of rainfall, the central and southern regions are dry, the northern regions are the rainiest. But in the southeastern mountain areas, rainfall rises compared to the float lands.
In Nur-Sultan, the coldest months are January, February, and December. April through October is a great time to visit, although July, June and August are the rainiest months, although never with a great deal of rain. This is a great weather resource for Nur-Sultan (note it is still using the old name of our capital, Astana).
Almaty has the same coldest months, although daily high temperatures consistently go the other side of freezing, so while cold, the temperatures are not severely cold, and it is a great opportunity for skiing in the world-class skiing areas close to Almaty. July, August and June are also the three hottest months, and we’d suggest a slightly broader visiting season from March through November. Almaty’s rainiest months are May, April and March. This is a great weather resource for Almaty (and many other cities in Kazakhstan too.)