A Guide to the Bhutan Visa & Permit Confusion: How to Travel to Bhutan as a Solo Backpacker

While planning for my Bhutan trip, I had done a lot of research about the visa requirements for Indian citizens. I had foolishly assumed that India and Bhutan being neighbours and close allies would mean that I wouldn’t be needing a Bhutan visa. To my great surprise, I learnt that the visa requirements were more complicated than I would have ever expected.

After a brief round of google searches, I found out that solo male travellers were not allowed to enter the country. Being an Indian solo male Indian traveller, I was devastated as I couldn’t make sense of the absurd rule! I continued my frantic research and found a lot of contradicting information. I decided to take a leap of faith and face the visa confusion, once I am in the country.

Post a successful trip to Bhutan, I decided to write a clear and straightforward article about the visa issue for solo male travellers and how to overcome it. I hope that this helps future wanderers as I had a difficult time figuring out the Visa and Permit system online and wouldn’t want the same for other travel enthusiasts.

Bhutan is a beautiful country but when it comes to their visa requirements and permits, they follow quite a convoluted logic. The information and requirements differ based on multiple factors such as, whether you are solo male or female traveller, your Nationality, your mode of transportation for entering the country and if you have a Guide along with you. A combination of these factors put you in a certain category based on which, your specific requirements are to be decided.

Official Website: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/plan/visa

I have come up with a simple way to explain this; I created four categories of travellers, based on their choices. This classification should cover almost everyone who wants visit Bhutan. Before we jump onto those categories, I would like to list some important pointers to be considered.

  1. No matter which of the following categories that one belongs to or what is their mode of entering the country, the Government of Bhutan does not allow a stay of more than 14 days to all tourists.
    Phuentsholing border gate

    Phuentsholing border gate

    When travelling by road, one is granted 7 days of stay and travellers who enter the country by air are allowed to stay for a maximum of 14 days (initially).

  2. The initial visa/permit issued (refer to #1) at the road or airport border will only be valid for two districts, i.e. Paro and Thimpu.
  3. If planning a stay of more than 14 days, one has to apply for a visa/permit extension before the initial visa/permit expires. More details about the extension process have been discussed below.
  4. In order to travel to any of the other district(s) of Bhutan (other than Paro and Thimpu), one has to obtain a special permit the specific district(s). More details about the special permit have been discussed below.
  5. The SAARC Countries include India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Now let us have a look at the visa requirements for the four different categories of Travellers:

  1. SAARC National(s) without Guide (Solo/ Group, Male/Female):

This category is for backpackers and travellers who dislike being a part of organised leisure trips. Being an SAARC country National, it’s really easy for this category to visit Bhutan by both road and air. SAARC Nationals do not need a visa and can obtain their entry permits at the border by showing their passport/any National ID card. You won’t require a Guide just to enter the country.

Let’s break this group into two further sub-categories:

  1. If Travelling by Road: Phuentsholing is the bordering townwandererontheroad.com00007 of Bhutan which touches the border of West Bengal. This is where you will be entering Bhutan while travelling via road. The Immigration officers ask solo travellers (male/female) to sign precautionary forms stating that you will be held responsible if something goes wrong on your trip and other such issues. All travellers are granted an initial 7-day permit, valid in Thimpu and Paro (refer to #2 as stated above). For people travelling in groups, entering the country by road is a comparatively smoother process. You can take a bus or taxi from Phuentsholing to Thimpu/Paro. There will be three checkpoints on the way. The police will check your permit and bags for banned substance (Tabaco)wandererontheroad.com00023 and give you the green signal right away.
  2. If Travelling By Air: The airports in Bhutan are more flexible in terms of giving out the initial permit. Bhutan Airlines and Druk Air are only two airlines that fly to Bhutan across multiple locations. You will be required to show your passport (not ID card) at the airport and the officer-in-charge will ask you about your date of departure. You may also be required to show your departure ticket. Once the obligatory conditions are met, you shall be handed a 14-day permit.
  1. SAARC National(s) with Guide (Solo/ Group, Male/Female):

For those who prefer touring under the guidance of Travel Agents or Guides, this category mentions the steps to acquire a visa/permit to visit Bhutan.

Being an SAARC National, these organised trips cost much less than what it would cost for Non-SAARC Nationals (Category 3). The Travel Agents will be taking care of all the paperwork required for your visit so this is a smooth and easy way to enjoy your trip to Bhutan.

  1. If Travelling By Road: Depending on your arrangements with the travel company, a Travel Guide shall be supposed to meet you at the border of Phuentsholing and make sure that your permit(s) are done smoothly. As mentioned in the above category, the same process as above, travellers will be granted an initial 7-day permit, valid in Thimpu and Paro.
  2. If Travelling By Air: In this case, the Travel Guide shall meet you outside the Paro Airport. (S)He will need a copy of the stamp on your passport to obtain a permit or to extend the permit to more than 14 days.
  1. Non-SAARC National with Guide (Solo/ Group, Male/Female): 

This is when the Bhutanese visa/permit system gets really complicated. Bhutan does not shy away from the fact that they don’t prefer Western tourists in their country (as they think that it might disturb the specific lifestyle as Western tourists may or may not follow the law or even adapt to the local lifestyle). The former King of Bhutan had come up with this policy to restrict the entry of Western tourists in Bhutan.

Non-SAARC Nationals are required to pay 250$ per day (during in-season) and 200$ (during the off-season) to the Tourism Board of Bhutan in order to visit the country. So if Non-SAARC National wishes to travel to Bhutan for 7 days, (s)he will be required to pay 7*250$ = 1,750$ (or 1,400 during the off-season). This is a crazy but effective method from the Government’s point of view. It scares away most Western backpackers because most people wouldn’t want to pay such an unreasonable amount for just a week-long trip. The separate cost of the visa is 40$. This amount is required to be paid in instalments; the first half is paid while booking the trip and the second half of the money is to be paid a month before your trip to Bhutan.

Non-SAARC Nationals are allowed to book a trip to Bhutan only through authorised Travel Agents. Travel Agents offer travel packages that include the costs of transport, accommodation, food, permit and everything other than your personal expenses. The facilities included in these packages are world-class and include living in 4-star hotels, authentic Bhutanese experience and all that 250$ could buy you in a day.

  1. Non-SAARC National without Guide (Solo/ Group, Male/Female):

Allow me to be clear about the meaning of this category: Any Non-SAARC National without a Guide is not allowed in Bhutan. All Non-SAARC Nationals need to book their visit to Bhutan through Travel Agencies and follow the policy as discussed in Category 3.

I hope that these four categories have covered all the information that you will need to know regarding the requirements of getting a visa in Bhutan.

Now let’s talk about the possibility of permit extensions and special permit.

Extending the Permit:wandererontheroad.com00009

As I have already mentioned above, the Government of Bhutan does not allow an initial permit of more than 14 days if you are travelling by air, and 7 days if you are entering the country by road. If you wish to stay in Bhutan for more than 14 days, you’ll need to apply for an extension of the permit. This can only be done at the Thimpu Immigration Office.

wandererontheroad.com00010The extension process is pretty simple. You will need to fill out a form stating the details of your initial permit and submit it to the Immigration office. An officer-in-charge will then ask you the reason for your permit extension and your itinerary for the trip (a rough itinerary should do!). If the officer finds your reasoning satisfactory enough, you will be granted an extension within 30 minutes.

An important point to be noted is that you can apply for only one extension at the Thimpu Immigration Office. If you need a second extension, you will need to visit the Phuentsholing Immigration Office, exit the country by road and receive a new permit to enter the country.

wandererontheroad.com00006Obtaining Special Permit to Visit Other Districts:

As I have already mentioned above, the initial permit issued at the border allows all travellers to visit only the Thimpu and Paro districts of Bhutan. If you wish to travel to other districts such as the HA Valley, Punakha, Wagandu districts, you will need to apply for a special permit.

This process is similar to the permit extension process mentioned above. You won’t be needing separate permits to visit the separate districts in Bhutan. You can mention the names of all the districts that you wish to travel to within the given form and submit it to the officer-in-charge. The officer will then compare your list to the number of days you have left in the country and issue a permit based on that. This process takes up to 15-20 minutes, depending on how busy the office is.

Note that in cases where one wishes to travel to multiple districts over the initial time period of 14 days, one will be required to apply for a permit extension as well as a special permit. This method is way easier than it sounds and would give you enough time to experience the true beauty of Bhutan.

I have tried my best to explain the entire visa/permit process required to all kinds of tourists who wish to travel to Bhutan. In case you have any other queries regarding this system, do feel free to contact me and I will try my best to assist you.


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