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Notes on entry / visa procedures for visiting Bhutan as a tourist.
Bhutan places some restrictions on the movement of foreign tourists, and doesn’t allow them an unrestricted access to travel in the country. Getting into Bhutan as a tourist can be tricky for people of all nationalities except India. That’s the reason this country is not greatly conducive for backpackers and independent travelers. This post is intended to serve as a guide for those who are seriously interested in Bhutan Tourism.
↑ Bhutan Gate border crossing at Phuentsholing, Bhutan. On the other side is Jaigaon, India.
- Land: Border crossings at Phuentsholing-Jaigaon (West Bengal) and Samdrup Jonkhar (Assam) with India. The Indian border cities are well connected to Silliguri and Guwahati respectively. There is no border crossing with Tibet (which is currently under Chinese occupation).
- Air: Druk Air, the national carrier of Bhutan, operates flights from Delhi (India), Kolkata (India), Kathmandu (Nepal), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Bangkok (Thailand). I am told that the flying the airline is an experience in itself since it coasts through beautiful Himalayas.
- Legends also mention mythological creatures that will fly you straight to monasteries hidden in the Himalayas. I wish I knew more. 🙁
The border cities
Jaigaon (on the Indian side) and Phuentsholing (on Bhutanese side) are separated by the Bhutan gate and a border on paper. People (Bhutanese, Indians, foreigners) can freely cross back and forth until 22:00 (vehicles until 21:00.) After that (unofficially), if you are Indian, they will let you to enter India and if you are Bhutanese, they will let you enter Bhutan but no free wandering is allowed. (PS: If you are sitting in a bar in Bhutan, they will politely ask you to leave by 22:00 unless you have a permit!) Bhutanese nationals can go anywhere in India but Indian nationals need a permit in order to stay in Bhutan. Foreigners obviously need a visa in either countries.
↑ A bridge draped with prayer flags in Phuentsholing
Bhutan has a special relation with India and this is very evident once you enter the country. In order to visit Bhutan, Indian citizens need one of these documents. The procedure may slightly differ.
- Indian Passport makes it easiest to enter Bhutan. Armed with the passport, you may simply board the bus/taxi to either Thimphu or Paro (only these 2 places) from the border. At the border post Rinchending (about 5km from Phuentsholing), you will be asked to fill a form and your passport will be stamped with a 7 or 14 day permit (depends on the guy’s mood.) You can always get this extended in Thimpu. Carry a photograph and a copy of your passport.
- Voter registration card is the second most preferred document. With a copy of your Voter ID (provided by the Election Commission of India) and a photograph, go to the immigration office1 and fill a form2. You will be photographed and asked to return after few hours. You may then collect an entry permit which must be retained at all times.
- Driver’s License: (From secondary research) You will have to go to the Indian Embassy in Phuentsholing with 2 photographs and copy of your driver’s license. The officer who works at his own speed will issue a ‘request for permit.’ This ‘request’ from Indian embassy must then be taken to the immigration office in Bhutan and further steps are same as that for Voter ID. Note: The guy in immigration office said that this process is discouraged (and might be terminated soon.)
- Any other document such as PAN card, Ration card, EXPIRED passport, etc. will not be accepted.
Arranging a permit at the border is the easiest way, although passport holders can go straight to the checkpost as mentioned above. Indian (non commercial) vehicles can enter Bhutan easily. However, an entry permit is required and can be arranged at the immigration office in Phuentsholing.
↑ Buses parked as the sun sets across the bus station at Phuentsholing
Foreign (excluding Indian) nationals have the following rules:
- You must use Druk Air, the official airline of Bhutan, atleast once – either enter or exit (or both.)
- Visas will be issued on arrival (at the airport in Paro or Indian border) and cannot be obtained in advance
- Visa applications must be initiated by authorised tour operators (check the official website.) The tour operator submits the application to the Ministry of Tourism which then issues an approval letter. This approval letter is the basis of final visa application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which takes upto 2 weeks to process it.
- Airline ticket cannot be purchased until you have a visa confirmation number
- For every day you spend in Bhutan, you are charged $200-$250. This includes accommodation, food, transport and a tour guide only.
I can see your eyes popping out as you read this list (conservatively written) to the last bullet. But all this work is efficiently done by tour agents. However, you will have to travel on a pre-defined itinerary which can be customised as per your need. Making last minute changes is a bureaucratic nightmare (as you can imagine.)
Btw, I never saw any foreign national who was under 40 years old. But that’s pretty obvious considering the cost and constraints.
↑ I’m in Bhutan!
Bhutanese bureaucracy is a topic of discussion in itself. Friends had warned me, but I had no idea that I would need so much patience3.
- Entry Permit (described above): This is the document that a tourist will obtain at the border. It is single entry only and will be checked and rechecked along the numerous check posts. Entry permits can be extended in Thimpu (takes about a day.)
- Restricted-Area Permit: To go beyond Paro and Thimphu (Dochu La), you need a special entry permit. This can be obtained at Thimphu. When we asked for it at the border, we were asked to apply for it only in Thimphu. To make this permit, you need a copy of the Entry Permit and one day.
- Temple Permit: Bhutan’s spiritual and cultural wealth is preserved in their monasteries and cultural centers. Therefore, you will need this permit from the National Commission for Cultural Affairs (Ministry of Culture) which is located at a distance from the immigration office in Thimphu. The temple permit is required only for the few notable monasteries and you will need to produce copies of your Entry Permit and Restricted-Area Permit (if applicable.) The application form for Temple permit is completely in Dzonkha language, and requires endorsement from a hotel/tour agent, so be prepared to ask for local assistance!
Good luck negotiating all that, but only Indian nationals need to do this on their own. For other foreigners, the tourist companies will have everything ready!
And if you miss mentioning a destination in one of those forms,…. good luck trying to convince your way through.
↑ I’m in Bhutan!
1. The Bhutanese Immigration office at Phuentsholing is located about fifty meters from the Bhutan gate inside Bhutan. It is the building after the fuel station and also houses customs.
2. The form will ask you to specify all the places you want to visit in Bhutan. However in order to visit any place beyond Thimpu or Paro, you need a ‘restricted-area permit’ as described above.
3. Bhutanese take pride in preserving their traditions. Make sure that you are dressed conservatively and neatly. It is important to be patient and polite with the officials.
Now that you have read this, pack your bags and go have fun! 😛