How to Get a Bhutan Visa and Permit Successfully
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia that sits on the eastern Himalayas. The last great Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan is shrouded in mystery and magic, and is a place where its traditional Buddhist culture carefully embraces the modern world and global development. However, this is no ordinary country.
The Bhutanese philosophy of Gross National Happiness means that only sustainable tourism is permitted, and their environmental protection policies go hand in hand with the cultural preservation of their national heritage. More than 70 percent of the country is covered with natural forests, that must remain above 60 percent at all times for the benefit of future generations, and the whole country has a negative carbon footprint; it actually absorbs more carbon than its industries emit.
Shoot beautiful moments in front of Taktshang Goemba.
For visitors to the kingdom, this means that there are boundless forest hikes and a chain of national parks where you can spend your time trekking below 7,000 meter peaks and strolling across hillsides resplendent in spring rhododendron blooms. Literally speaking, Bhutan is one of the last pristine pockets of natural landscapes in the world, with a picture-book landscape dotted with fortress-like dzongs and monasteries.
Similar to Tibet, Bhutan requires that all tourists have registered guides and private vehicles, and all tours must be arranged through approved tour operators. Traveling independently within the country is not permitted, and there are strict regulations governing entrance to and exit from Bhutan.
Your passport is the most important document you need to carry with you at all times, and before booking Bhutan tour you should make sure that you have more than six months validity left on it. Many countries across Asia will refuse to issue a visa to a passport that is close to expiry, and Bhutan is strict on those rules.
Your passport is the most important document
Your passport should be kept safe at all times, as only Indian nationals can get a replacement passport in Bhutan. For all other nationalities, you will be required to travel “stateless” to a country that will grant you access to have your passport replaced by your own embassy or consulate. It is advisable to carry another form of identification with you, along with a photocopy of your passport, in case of such an event.
How to Obtain a Bhutan Visa
Visas for Bhutan are arranged by the tour operators that also arrange your tour, and are only issued when you arrive in the country, at either Paro Airport or at one of the overland border crossings. You need to apply in advance through your tour operator and receive the visa approval letter from them before you travel.
The visa requirements include a scanned (color) copy of the main page of your passport and an online application form that is filled in and submitted by the tour operator. All applications for entry must be made by a Bhutanese tour operator only, and are sent to the to the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) in Thimphu, after it has checked that you have paid for the trip in full. They then issue an approval letter to the tour operator, who makes the final application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It normally takes three days for them to approve the visa.
Visas for Bhutan are arranged by the tour operators.
The Ministry also sends a notification of the issuance of the visa and a confirmation number to the tour operator, and to both Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines, who will only issue tickets if they have the confirmation number. Once you arrive at the airport or border crossing, the visa endorsement is stamped into your passport, and the visa is only valid for the exact period of your tour in Bhutan.
When you consider the various levels of Bhutanese bureaucracy involved in the issuing of a visa, the system is surprisingly efficient, and you can guarantee that your visa will be waiting for you when you arrive in Bhutan. It is helpful to have a printout of the visa authority your tour operator sent you, to aid the immigration officials in finding your information on the system, though they can easily search by name and passport number, and your visa will be issued on the spot.
Visas for Bhutan Neighbouring Countries
When traveling out of Bhutan to neighboring countries, it is possible to get a visa-on-arrival only in Nepal. When landing at Tribhuvan International Airport, you can apply for your visa at the immigration desk within the airport, and then continue into the rest of the country. You can also obtain a visa for Nepal from majority of its foreign embassies and consulates without problem if you are intending to visit in the near future. If you are entering Nepal on the way to Bhutan, and are going back to Kathmandu after, you can obtain a multiple-entry visa on your first visit, so that you do not need to apply again when you get back. 24 hour transit visas are freely available, and cost just five dollars.
For India, nationals of most countries require a visa to visit, and if you are one of them, you should get your visa in your home country before you leave, as it is very complicated to get it while traveling. Obtaining an Indian Entry Visa from the embassy in your home country is very simple, and takes only a few days. You will be able to get a three-day permit if you have a confirmed flight out of India and can show the tickets. if not, it requires a fee to be paid to your embassy in India for them to fax the Indian embassy in your home country to get the visa. It can take up to three weeks to process this way.
There is no possibility of getting a visa for Tibet on entry, since Bhutan and Tibet do not have overland border crossings or flights that connect the two. In order to get a visa to travel to Tibet, you must exit Bhutan to either China or Nepal.
Bhutan Restricted-Area Permits
Outside the Paro and Thimphu valleys, the rest of Bhutan is restricted to outsiders, and a special permit is needed to travel even with your guides. This “road permit” is obtained by the tour operator, and only includes the places on your tour itinerary. There are strategically placed checkpoints at certain major road junctions, where your permit will be checked and endorsed, and the permit is returned to the government at the end of the tour, where it is scrutinized for deviations from the main itinerary.
The main checkpoints are found at Hongtsho, Chhukha, Rinchending, Wangdue Phodrang, Chazam, Wamrong, and Samdrup Jongkhar. However, the checkpoints only operate from 5:00am to 9:00pm daily.
Permits to Enter Temples
Most temples in Bhutan can be visited when there are no festivals, as long as you are accompanied inside by your guide, and you are permitted to enter the courtyards of these dzongs, as well as the tshokhang (assembly hall) and one designated lhakhang inside each dzong. The allowance of entry is subject to some very strict provisions, and there are set visiting hours and a dress code, as well as some other rules that can vary from district to district.
According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan, there is a small list of places that tourists are not permitted to visit at all, and it is therefore assumed that all other places can be visited. Any private or village-run lhakhang can be visited , and the dzongs are all open during a tsechu, or annual religious festival, but you will be restricted to only the courtyard, and the lhakhangs will be out of bounds. The tour companies always deal with the paperwork for dzong visits beforehand, so if there is a particular place you wish to visit, it is best to let them know well in advance of your trip.
If you are a practicing Buddhist from outside Bhutan, you may get special permission to visit dzongs and religious institutions that are normally off limits. Your application will be scrutinized closely, and it helps to have a letter of reference from a recognized Buddhist institute or organization in your home country.
Bhutan Tour Customs Regulations
When you arrive in Bhutan you will receive a baggage declaration form, which is used for tourists to ensure that you take everything you brought with you out of the country. The form lists all the expensive equipment you are bringing in, such as cameras and laptops, and is required for inspection when you leave the country, so let your guide know if you lose it. A lost form means a lot of complications and delays.
There are no restrictions on personal effects you bring into the country, including any trekking gear you bring with you, and alcohol is limited to one liter of liquor, and only one carton of cigarettes, which has a 200% duty to pay.
On exiting the country, you will need to show the form you filled in on arrival, and show the items on it are still in your possession. There is also a restriction on the export of antiques and wildlife, and souvenirs must be validated as non-antiques by the Division of Cultural Properties at the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs. Normally, your guide can help you with this if the items you bought look old, and the customs officers pay particular attention to religious statues.