All foreigners require a visa to enter Turkmenistan and transit visas are the only visas issued without a letter of invitation (LOI). Prices for visas vary enormously from embassy to embassy. As a general rule, plan on getting a visa at least six weeks ahead of entry to Turkmenistan, as the process (even for transit visas) is lengthy. Another good overall tip is to work through a Turkmen travel agent you trust. On entry every visa holder will need to pay an additional US$10 fee for an entry card that will list your exit point in Turkmenistan.
The only visa that allows unaccompanied travel for tourists is the transit visa. Relatively easy to come by, they are normally valid for three days, although sometimes for five days and in extremely rare cases, seven and even 10 days. Turkmen embassies in Europe (opposed to Central Asia or Iran) are more likely to grant longer visas. Transit visas can be obtained at any Turkmen consulate, although if you apply without an LOI, the application will need to be forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ashgabat, meaning a processing time of around 10 to 14 days.
No transit visa is extendable, save in the case of serious illness. The penalty for overstaying a transit visa is US$200, and you may be taken back to Ashgabat and deported on the next available flight at your expense.
Your route will normally not be indicated on the visa, but your entry and exit point (unchangeable) will be, and you will therefore run into trouble going anywhere not obviously between the two points (eg Nokhur or Kugitang). Transit visas are usually not valid if you are dealing with a Kazakh routing, a double-entry Uzbekistan visa or even an air ticket out of Ashgabat. Turkmen embassies regularly refuse transit visa applications, so don’t count on getting one.
Note that the five day transit visa is not enough time to cycle across the country, (ie from Turkmenbashi to the Farab border point), as you’re likely to lose one day at Turkmenbashi (the boat may be delayed).
Tourist visas are a mixed blessing in Turkmenistan. While they allow the visitor to spend a decent amount of time in the country (up to three weeks as a rule), they require accompaniment by an accredited tour guide, who will meet you at the border and remain with you throughout your trip. This obviously has cost implications, as you will have to pay your guide a daily rate (usually between US$30 and US$50), as well as sometimes pay for their meals and hotels. The latter cost is very small however, as Turkmen citizens pay a local rate, usually equivalent to US$1 or US$2 per night. Travel agents are key to getting you through checkpoints, but they will allow you to roam Ashgabat and the immediate environs unaccompanied. Most tour companies insist on travelling in private transport with the guide. But a few allow you to ride public transport with the guide, which drops the prices.
You can only get a tourist visa by going through a travel agency. Only travel agencies with a licence from the Turkmen government can issue LOIs. Many unaccredited agencies still offer LOI services, however, simply by going through an accredited agency themselves. The LOI will be issued with a list of all towns and regions you are planning to visit. In turn, these are the places that will be listed on your visa, and so therefore it’s essential to decide what you want to see before applying. The LOI is approved by the State Service for the Registration of Foreign Citizens, which will decide whether or not you are an undesirable. The LOI can be processed in as little as 10 days, but usually takes three or four weeks. It is not unusual for it to be rejected for no apparent reason.
Once the LOI is issued (usually faxed or emailed to you by your travel agent), you can take it to any Turkmen embassy to get your visa. The original LOI is not needed, although it may be at consulates in Mashhad (Iran) and Herat (Afghanistan). The issuing of the visa itself is purely a bureaucratic formality, once the LOI has been issued. Normal processing time is three working days, but most Turkmen embassies offer a one-day express service for a surcharge. When you apply for the visa, you will be asked for exact dates of entry and exit, which will be put on the visa. While you may leave before the exit date, you cannot enter earlier or leave any later.
Armed with an LOI there is also the possibility of getting a visa on arrival at Ashgabat airport, Turkmenbashi and Farab by prior arrangement with your travel agent. In the case of Turkmenbashi and Farab the agent needs to arrange for the consul to be present. In any case the original LOI must be taken to the relevant border and the visa will be issued for a maximum of 10 days.
On arrival in Turkmenistan, you must be met by your guide (geed) who will bring you a small green travel document, the Entry Travel Pass. Without this document you will be denied entry to Turkmenistan. You should only exit the country at the point indicated on the travel permit, although if you alter your route there is the possibility of changing this in Ashgabat. To do this you will have to speak to your travel agent or guide and they can see what they can do. It is often possible to extend tourist visas in Ashgabat, again, only with the assistance of your travel agent.
Visas for Onward Travel
The following countries have embassies and consulates in Turkmenistan that can provide information and visas for travel to them.
Afghanistan Can issue one-month visas for US$60, three-month visas for US$90. You need to show a letter from your employer.
Armenia Can issue a tourist visa in five days for US$57. It would be cheaper and faster to get a visa at the border.
Azerbaijan Issues tourist visas (US$40) and transit visas (US$20) in one week. They don’t seem to mind making people wait so patience is required.
China Issues tourist visas in 15 days for US$50. The amount of time means this is not an option for most tourists.
Georgia Visas available for US$30. US citizens won’t need one.
Iran Very friendly and helpful embassy – usually no problem to get transit visas within a week.
Uzbekistan Can issue a visa in 10 days, which is often not enough time for travellers on a short visit in Turkmenistan. LOI required for most Western nationals.
Permits are needed to visit the border regions of Turkmenistan. Given that the centre of the country is largely uninhabited desert and the population lies on the periphery, you need permits for some of the most interesting areas. The cities of Ashgabat, Mary, Merv, Turkmenabat and Balkanabat are not restricted, but anywhere outside these areas should be listed on your visa, thus giving you permission to go there. Travellers on transit visas can usually transit the border zones along the relevant main road, if they correspond to the country they are supposed to exit to.
Nature reserves are likewise restricted to the public unless you have a special permit. If you think you might want to visit one, you’ll need to put in a request to your travel agent well in advance.
The following areas are termed ‘class one’ border zones and entry without documentation is definitely not possible:
Western Turkmenistan Bekdash, Turkmenbashi, Hazar, Dekhistan, Yangykala, Gyzyletrek, Garrygala, Nokhur and surrounding villages.
Eastern Turkmenistan Farab, Atamurat (Kerki) plus adjoining areas, Kugitang Nature Reserve, Tagtabazar, Serkhetabat.