Entering the country overland tends to invite more scrutiny than arriving by air. Baggage checks can be very thorough at lonely border posts, while the understaffed airport in Ashgabat seems more interested in processing people quickly rather than pawing through your underwear. You’ll need to pay your arrival tax and collect your Entry Travel Pass if you’re travelling on a tourist or business visa.
In 2017 the government introduced a new tourism tax. Visitors pay US$2 per day for the duration of their stay. Expect to see the charge on your hotel bill.
In Turkmenistan official regulations state that you need permission to export any carpet over 6 sq metres, though trying to export a smaller one without an export licence is also likely to be problematic. In all cases it’s best to take your carpet to the Carpet Museum in Ashgabat, where there is a bureau that will value and tax your purchase, and provide an export licence. This can take up to a few days. There are several fees to pay. One certifies that the carpet is not antique, which usually costs US$10 to US$30, while a second is an export fee that costs around US$50 per sq metre. As with all government taxes on foreigners, these are paid in US dollars. When you buy a carpet at a state shop, these fees will be included in the price, but double-check before handing over your money. Those in a hurry are best advised to buy from one of the many government shops in Ashgabat, where all carpets come complete with an export licence. Despite being more expensive than purchases made at Tolkuchka Bazaar, this still works out as very good value.
Everyone requires a visa for Turkmenistan, and unless you're on a transit visa, you need to be accompanied by a guide throughout your stay.
Visas for Turkmenistan
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, though it is usually cheaper than acquiring the visa on arrival. A full list of Turkmen embassies abroad can be found at www.mfa.gov.tm/en/articles/63?breadcrumbs=no.
Permits are required to visit national parks and visas need to be endorsed to permit travel in various border zones, so it's important to know your itinerary before you begin the visa application process.
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. On entry every visa holder will need to pay an additional US$14 fee for an entry card that will list your exit point in Turkmenistan.
Tourist or business visas on arrival are hassle-free these days, and are processed quickly at Ashgabat airport (around US$100), as well as being available at certain border crossings. You must have an LOI in order to be issued a visa. For people arriving by boat from Azerbaijan the visa is available on arrival in Turkmenbashi (by arrangement with the consul, who needs to be present), but the Azeri authorities will not let a person without a valid Turkmenistan visa board the ferry in Baku.
It is worth noting that approval rates for visas can be higher around the times of certain festivals, including Navrus and the Horse Festival. Approval rates tend to be lower for trips scheduled around Independence Day (October).
The only visa that allows unaccompanied travel for tourists is the transit visa. They are normally valid for three to five days, but are becoming increasingly difficult to acquire, with travellers reporting a rejection rate of over 50%. Allow between two and four weeks for your visa to be processed.
Transit visas can be obtained at any Turkmen consulate, and you do not need an LOI, but you must already have valid visas for the countries you'll be visiting before and after Turkmenistan. Your route must also be a legitimate way to get from one country to the next – a transit visa will not be issued if you can easily travel between countries without passing through Turkmenistan. Acceptable routes are between Iran and Kazakhstan, Iran and Uzbekistan, and Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Theoretically, you can also obtain a transit visa if you're travelling between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, but travellers report that there is a higher rejection rate if travelling to or from Afghanistan.
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 may therefore run into trouble going anywhere not obviously between the two points, though document checks on the roads are few and far between these days. You cannot get a transit visa if you plan to fly out of Ashgabat.
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 pay for their meals and hotels. The latter cost is very low, however, as Turkmen citizens pay a local rate that is at least 60% to 80% less than the foreigner rate. Guides will allow you to roam freely in Ashgabat and the immediate environs unaccompanied, as well as around any other large town – there’s no legal requirement for them to be with you throughout the day, but you’re not legally allowed to travel in Turkmenistan without them. Most tour companies insist you travel in private transport with the guide.
You can only get a tourist visa by going through a travel agency, as 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 restricted border regions you are planning to visit. In turn, these are the places that will be listed on your visa, therefore it’s essential you decide what you want to see before applying so that the appropriate restricted regions can be listed. It takes around three weeks for an LOI to be issued and the earliest you can apply is 90 days before the start of your trip.
Anyone working in the media or human rights fields, or for political organisations had better not state this on their application, as it’s certain to be rejected. Employers are rarely called and asked to verify an applicant’s position, but it can happen, so have a good cover story if you work in one of these fields.
Once the LOI is issued (usually emailed to you by your travel agent), you can take it to any Turkmen embassy to get your visa. The issuing of the visa itself is purely a formality, once the LOI has been issued. Normal processing time is three to seven working days depending on the embassy, but most Turkmen embassies offer an express service for a hefty surcharge, reducing processing time to between 24 hours and three days.
Armed with an LOI there is also the possibility of getting a visa on arrival at Ashgabat airport or the Farab border post by prior arrangement with your travel agent. In the case of 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 then and there.
Visas for Onward Travel
Turkmenistan is generally a poor place to pick up visas, with long processing times and embassies that aren't used to independent travellers. Although embassies do have official opening hours, it's wise to call ahead if you want to apply for an onward visa to ensure that someone will be there to assist.
The Afghan Embassy can issue one-month tourist visas for US$102. You need to show a letter from your embassy supporting your application, which few embassies will provide, so it's better to get an Afghan visa at home. Transit visas are not issued here.
The Azerbaijan Embassy issues single entry (US$50) and double entry (US$100) tourist visas in five working days. You’ll need a copy of your passport, a copy of your birth certificate, two photos and an LOI. Transit visas are not issued.
Transit visas are processed in 10 days (€50) or 24 hours (€75) at Iran's embassy, as well as 15-day tourist visas in 10 days (€100) or 24 hours (€150). You'll need two passport photos and a copy of the certificate from Saderat Bank at Magtymguly sayoli 181A, showing that you've paid the money into the embassy's account.
The Kazakhstan Embassy issues one-month tourist visas (US$40) and five-day transit visas (US$20); both need five working days to be processed. You’ll need a photo, a letter of invitation and a copy of your passport for a tourist visa, and a valid visa for a third country and a plane/train ticket through Kazakhstan to get a transit visa.
The Kyrgyz Embassy issues one-month tourist visas (US$50) in seven to 10 working days. However, most travellers no longer require a visa for Kyrgyzstan.
One-month tourist visas (US$25) are issued at the Tajik Embassy to anyone with a letter of invititation. You'll need a copy of your passport and the visa will be issued on the same day. Transit visas (US$20) require a third country visa and a plane/train ticket of some kind.
The Uzbek Embassy issues one-month tourist visas (US$75) in three working days. You'll need a copy of your passport, a form filled out online (http://evisa.mfa.uz/evisa_en) and a photo. Transit visas cost US$55 and require a third country visa and a plane/train ticket.
Permits are needed to visit the border regions of Turkmenistan. These will be arranged by the tour company helping with your letter of introduction. Given that the centre of the country is largely uninhabited desert and the population lies on the periphery, permits are necessary for some of the most interesting areas. 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. If you get a tourist or business visa on arrival, you'll automatically have your visa endorsed for all areas of the country.
The following areas are termed ‘class one’ border zones and entry without documentation is theoretically not possible, though there’s actually little chance you’ll have your documents checked:
Eastern Turkmenistan Farab, Atamurat (Kerki) plus adjoining areas, Kugitang Nature Reserve, Tagtabazar and Serkhetabat.
Northern Turkmenistan Entire Dashoguz region including Konye-Urgench, Dargan-Ata and Gazachak.
Western Turkmenistan Bekdash, Turkmenbashi, Hazar, Dekhistan, Yangykala, Gyzyletrek, Garrygala, Nokhur and surrounding villages.