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As per Bhutan government’s policy, citizens of all countries, except from India, Bangladesh and Maldives, have to book their tour through a registered travel agent and pay US$250 per person, per day to be able to secure a permit or visa. This is mandatory! Your tour company is responsible for getting all the permits for your trip, and you do not have to do any of this yourself.
Having said that, this post is for individual travel and does not apply to the mandated travel agency’s or tour operator’s costs.
Travelers from India, Bangladesh and Maldives have to get permits to visit different parts of the country. Entering Bhutan from any port of entry (land or air) will grant permits to Paro and Thimphu by default. If you’re entering via the land border with India at Phuentsholing, then the permit will include that municipality as well.
For travel to outside of Paro or Thimphu, you must go to the immigration office in Thimphu and apply for permits to the municipalities you wish to visit – Punakha (Khuruthang & Lobesa are cities in the Punakha municipality), Haa, Gangtey, Bumthang, etc.
Documents that are required for those permits vary and depend on where you are visiting. For example, Punakha, Gangtey and Haa require confirmed hotel bookings (not asked mandatory!), whereas for Bumthang you need the taxi driver’s name and taxi number mentioned in the application form.
The procedure is quite, but not always, straightforward –
- Go to the immigration office when it opens at 9am
- Fill the application form. Mention all the places you will be visiting.
- Stand in line for verification by the officer.
- After submission, wait for about 20-40 minutes.
- Pick up your permit.
That’s the most streamlined process anyone has to go through, except that there are hurdles. Here are some of them from my personal experience, but not exhaustive:
- Process – You will need to fill the application form, keep one copy of your passport front page, and one copy of your visa page. The entire application is free of cost!
There’s always a long line at the office. Everyone is pushing everyone else. The whole process is not streamlined at all! There is only one person at the application acceptance counter, whereas there are about 6 ‘officers’ actually creating the permits. This means you will be standing in line to hand over your application, so make sure everything is in order. Once accepted, the person will write the time you submitted on the top of your application, so make sure that is correct because that is what defines your number in line. The person will ask you to come back after 2 hours, but the permit will be ready within 20-30 minutes tops!
- Destinations – You will receive one permit that will have all the destinations mentioned from the application form. I had asked for permits to Punakha, Gangtey, Haa and Bumthang. Since I mentioned Bumthang, I was asked to fill in the name of my taxi driver & the taxi licence plate number. I insisted that I had not booked a taxi yet and will be doing so when I was in Punakha. The lady at the counter asked me to go see a ranking officer inside, who asked me the same details saying it was required info. But if I remove Bumthang from the list, I don’t need to fill in the taxi details. So I scratched Bumthang from the list & re-submitted. My permit was approved!
After checking with some other travelers, I was told that most areas east of Punakha requires travelers to mention the transport details. If you say public transport, you are bound to have a rejection of your entire application, so always mention ‘taxi’ as means of transportation. The government wants travelers to take taxis instead of public transport, and also have the taxis booked (with an exorbitant price) before heading east. This shows that individual travel to Bhutan comes with its restrictions!!
- Solo travelers – For solo travelers like me, I was asked to sign an “undertaking” on a paper saying that I am responsible for my travel across Bhutan while traveling solo. This was an additional letter I was asked to submit along with my application. A few other solo travelers were asked the same.
Another solo traveler was denied the permits citing his intentions of traveling solo did not match the culture of Bhutan!
Send your feedback and experiences in comments below.