Entry procedures are generally simple because your tour guide will meet you on arrival. You'll need your visa authorisation form from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to board your flight into Bhutan and you should present it again to get your visa stamped into your passport on arrival.
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 just one carton of 200 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 non-antique 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, whether old or not.
With the exception of SAARC tourists, visitors to Bhutan must arrange a visa through a tour agency as part of a prepaid all-inclusive tour.
Obtaining a Bhutan Visa
Unlike in most countries, 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, as part of a prepaid all-inclusive tour, and receive visa approval before you travel to Bhutan.
Applications for tourist visas must be submitted by a Bhutanese tour operator for approval by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu. The agency will submit an online visa application with a copy of the photo page of your passport to the Tourism Council of Bhutan in Thimphu. They in turn will check that you have completely paid for your trip (including the US$40 visa fee) and then issue 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.
You may be asked to fill out the visa form yourself, but many agencies will do this stage for you. What you will need to do is send a scan of your passport photo and your passport information pages to the agency. You may also need to provide your permanent address and occupation.
Once 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 check-in staff will recheck the visa information before allowing you to board your flight.
The actual visa endorsement is stamped in your passport when you arrive at one of the permitted ports of entry for tourists. You will receive a visa for the exact period you have arranged to be in Bhutan; if some unusual event requires that you obtain a visa extension, your tour operator will arrange it.
The system is surprisingly efficient considering all the time, distance and various levels of bureaucracy involved. While your details will all be on the computers of immigration officials, 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.
Special types of visas are available for people volunteering in Bhutan, and occasionally for journalists, but these require additional paperwork and must be applied for by the organisation bringing you to Bhutan.
Indian Travellers in Bhutan
Indian nationals (and citizens of Bangladesh and Maldives) are allowed to travel independently in Bhutan without a visa, either with or without the services of a Bhutanese tour operator. On arrival at Paro or Bhutan's land border crossing at Phuentsholing, Indian travellers can obtain a seven-day entry-cum-stay permit from the immigration office upon presentation of a passport or government-issued ID such as a voter's registration card.
This permit allows travel only to Phuentsholing, Thimphu and Paro, but it can be extended at the Immigration Office in Thimphu up to a maximum of 30 days. Indian tourists can also request a route permit here to travel beyond the three aforementioned towns. If you are driving yourself, you will need a route permit from the Royal Safety Transport Authority (RSTA; www.rsta.gov.bt), based at the bus station at Phuentsholing.
Indians without stay permits can wander freely in Phuentsholing and go 5km 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 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. Citizens of most countries can apply for an e-visa online at www.indianvisaonline.gov.in. These visas allow two entries and are valid for 60 days, but you must enter India via one of 26 approved airports (you can leave via any immigration checkpoint, including at land border crossings).
If you need a 'regular' six-month tourist visa, you can file an application on the same website and then take the paperwork to your local Indian embassy (or its approved visa application centre) along with your passport, passport photos and supporting documents.
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 and at all of Nepal's land border crossings, including Kakarbhitta, the crossing nearest to Bhutan. The fee for a 15-/30-/90-day visa is US$25/40/100. If you fly into Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport, you can scan your machine-readable passport into a visa registration machine, which will take your photo, and fill out the form digitally. At other crossings, you'll need to fill out the form manually and provide a passport photo.
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.
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
Outside of festivals, tourists are allowed to visit the courtyards of dzongs and usually 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 that are 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.
Ensure that your passport has more than six months of validity remaining as many countries in the region will not issue visas to anyone whose passport is 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, Bangladeshi and Maldivian travellers do not need a passport to visit Bhutan, but will need some form of (photographic) identification, such as a voter's registration card.