Entry procedures are generally simple because your tour guide will meet you on arrival. Be sure to carry your visa authorisation form from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
You will receive a baggage declaration form to complete when you arrive in Bhutan. For tourists, the main purpose of this form is to ensure that you re-export anything you bring into the country. List any expensive equipment that you are carrying, such as cameras and laptops. Don't lose the form as you must return it when you leave the country.
Duty-free allowances include 1L of liquor. You can bring in only one carton (300) of cigarettes and these attract a 200% duty upon arrival. A packet or two is normally allowed in gratis. There are no restrictions on other personal effects, including trekking gear, brought into the country.
Departure formalities are straightforward, but you'll need to produce the form that you completed on arrival and may need to show all of the items listed on it. A lost form means complications and delays. If you lose the form, let your guide know as soon as possible so that special arrangements can be made to avoid any inconvenience.
The export of antiques and wildlife products is prohibited. If you wish to purchase a souvenir that looks old, have your guide clear it as a nonantique item with the Division of Cultural Properties, part of the Department of Culture inside the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs. Customs authorities pay special attention to religious statues. It would be prudent to have any such statue cleared, old or not.
Visas are arranged by your tour company and issued on arrival only to those on a prepaid all-inclusive tour.
Obtaining a Bhutan Visa
Unlike in most countries, where visas are issued from embassies abroad and stamped into your passport before you travel, visas for Bhutan are issued only when you arrive in the country, either at Paro airport or (if entering by road) at Phuentsholing, Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar. You must apply in advance through a tour operator and receive visa approval before you travel to Bhutan.
All applications for tourist visas must be initialised by a Bhutanese tour operator and are approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu. The operator submits an online visa application with a copy of the photo page of your passport to the Tourism Council of Bhutan in Thimphu. It, in turn, checks that you have completely paid for your trip (including the US$40 visa fee) and then issues an approval letter to the tour operator. With this approval in hand, the tour operator then makes a final application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which takes up to three days to process the visa.
It's not necessary to fill in a special visa application form. Just send a scan of your passport photo and your passport information pages to your tour operator/local travel agent. You may also need to provide your permanent address and occupation.
When the visa clearance is issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it sends a visa confirmation number to the tour operator and to Druk Air/Bhutan Airlines. The airline will not issue your tickets to Paro until it receives this confirmation number and then rechecks the visa information when you check in for the flight.
The actual visa endorsement is stamped in your passport when you arrive at one of the ports of entry for tourists. You will receive a visa for the exact period you have arranged to be in Bhutan. You will normally have already paid the visa fee of US$40 directly to your tour company. If some unusual event requires that you obtain a visa extension, your tour operator will arrange it.
It's surprisingly efficient considering all the time, distance and various levels of bureaucracy involved. When you arrive in Bhutan, the visa officer will invariably be able to produce your approval form from the file and the visa will be issued on the spot. It's very helpful to have a printout of the scanned visa authority to aid the immigration officials and airline to find your information quickly.
Indian Travellers in Bhutan
Indian nationals are allowed to travel on their own in Bhutan, with or without the services of a tour operator. If they choose to liaise with an operator, they are currently charged a minimum daily fee of US$135 per person (US$175 for teams of three people or less).
Indians don't require a visa to enter Bhutan, and are given a seven-day entry-cum-stay permit at the immigration offices upon presentation of a passport or government-issued ID such as a voter's registration card. This permit allows travel only within Phuentsholing, Thimphu and Paro, and can be extended at the Immigration Office in Thimphu for successive periods of three weeks each. Bring at least one passport photo. One can also request a route permit here to travel beyond the three above-mentioned towns. If you are driving yourself, you will need a route permit from the Royal Safety Transport Authority (RSTA) at the bus station at Phuentsholing.
Indians without stay permits can wander freely in Phuentsholing and go five kilometres into Bhutan during the day, but must return to India before 10pm.
Visas for Neighbouring Countries
Nationals of most countries need a visa to visit India. If you are travelling overland to or from Bhutan via the border post in Phuentsholing, Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar, you will need an Indian visa.
The government of India strongly prefers that you obtain your Indian visa in the country that issued your passport. It's usually a simple task to get your Indian visa before you leave home, but it's complicated to get one if overseas. It is possible to obtain a three-day transit visa overseas if you have confirmed flights in and out of India and can produce the appropriate tickets. Otherwise, you must pay a fee to the overseas embassy to send a fax to the Indian embassy in your own country and wait up to a week for a reply.
Tourist visas are generally issued for six months, are multiple entry, and are valid from the date of issue of the visa, not the date you enter India. This means that if you first enter India five months after the visa was issued, it will be valid for one month.
Visas for Nepal are available on arrival at Kathmandu airport or at land border crossings, including Kakarbhitta, the road crossing nearest to Bhutan. You will need one passport photo to fill out a visa form manually. However, if arriving at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport you can insert your electronic passport into a visa registration machine, which will take your photo and fill out your form. If you are making a side trip to Bhutan from Kathmandu, you can get a multiple-entry visa the first time you arrive in Nepal. However, you can also simply get another visa on arrival when you return to Nepal. You can also obtain a visa for Nepal in advance from embassies abroad or from the Nepali embassy or consulate in the gateway cities of Bangkok, Delhi, Dhaka or Kolkata.
If you are simply transiting through Kathmandu, you can get a 24-hour transit visa for US$5.
All of Bhutan outside of the Paro and Thimphu valleys is classified as a restricted area. Tour operators obtain a 'road permit' for the places on your itinerary, and this permit is checked and endorsed by the police at immigration checkpoints strategically located at important road junctions. The tour operator must return the permit to the government at the completion of the tour, and it is scrutinised for major deviations from the authorised program. In general you won't be aware that any of this is going on in the background.
There are immigration checkpoints in Hongtsho (east of Thimphu), Chhukha (between Thimphu and Phuentsholing), Rinchending (above Phuentsholing), Wangdue Phodrang, Chazam (near Trashigang), Wamrong (between Trashigang and Samdrup Jongkhar) and in Samdrup Jongkhar. All are open from 5am to 9pm daily.
Permits to Enter Temples
During times when there aren't festivals, tourists are allowed to visit the courtyards of dzongs and, where feasible, the tshokhang (assembly hall) and one designated lhakhang in each dzong, but only when accompanied by a licensed Bhutanese guide. This provision is subject to certain restrictions, including visiting hours, dress standards and other rules that vary by district.
The TCB has a small list of places tourists cannot visit, with the assumption that all other places can be visited. You can generally visit any lhakhang that is private or village run. Dzongs are open to all during the time of a tsechu, when you may visit the courtyard, but not the lhakhangs. Your tour company will deal with all the necessary paperwork, so let them know in advance if there are specific goembas or chapels you wish to visit.
If you are a practising Buddhist, you may apply for a permit to visit certain dzongs and religious institutions usually off-limits. The credibility of your application will be enhanced if you include a letter of reference from a recognised Buddhist organisation in your home country.
If your passport has less than six months of validity left, get a new one before setting off, because many countries in this region will not issue visas to persons whose passports are about to expire.
Keep your passport safe. No country other than India has the facility for issuing a replacement passport in Bhutan. If you lose your passport, you must travel 'stateless' to another country to get it replaced. You should carry some additional form of identification and a photocopy of your passport to help in such an event.
Indian and Bangladeshi travellers do not need a passport to visit Bhutan, but will need some form of (photographic) identification, such as a voter's registration card.