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Central Asia Visas: A Beginner’s Guide
Your bags are packed, your flights are booked, and you’ve been chugging vodka and horse milk for weeks to prepare. (Though, please, not both at the same time.) You’re all set for Central Asia!
But, are you sure? Rules are much more complicated in this region than the visas for Europe and Southeast Asia that most travelers cut their teeth on. Before boarding that flight to Bishkek, read on to make sure you’ve got all your visas in order.
Visas to Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is by far the easiest of the bunch, with at least 60 days of visa-free travel for over 55 nationalities. Most of our readers (especially those from the US, Canada, Australia, and UK) can simply fly into one of Kyrgyzstan’s international airports or walk up to any land border and get a stamp with only the most cursory of questions. If your passport is not from one of the four countries mentioned above, you should see this Kyrgyzstan Embassy webpage to find out what your requirements are.
Because getting into Kyrgyzstan is so easy, quite a few long term travelers use the Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek as a base from which to collect all their other Central Asia visas. Every other country in the region has an embassy in Bishkek as do places like Russia, China, Iran, and Azerbaijan. If you find yourself hanging around waiting on visas, see our 11 Things to Do in Bishkek.
Visas to Kazakhstan
Though not quite so easy as Kyrgyzstan, getting a visa for Kazakhstan is pretty straightforward. Visitors from a list of 47 countries (including the majority of our readers) can apply for a visa without needing a letter of invitation. Essentially you’ll just need to send off your passport with a couple of forms and a bit of cash and within a few weeks you should have a visa. For most countries the fee will be between $30 and $60 depending on the number of entries (1, 2, or Multi) and the length of validity (30-60 days) that you request. For Americans this fee will often be a blanket $160 – but there IS an upside! American passports can be granted a 5-year multi-entry tourist visa, so it may be expensive but at least you can re-use it for a while. Just make sure to register with the OVIR within the first 72 hours of each stay in the country![NOTE: As of July 2015, nationals of a number of countries can enter Kazakhstan visa-free for up to 15 days. See here for details of this pilot program, which is currently scheduled to last until 31 December 2017, but please make sure to consult the Kazakh Embassy’s webpage for up to date details before you arrive to the country.]
You can also get a visa-on-arrival at Kazakhstan’s two major international airports (ALA and TSE) if you’re a citizen of one of those 47 countries mentioned before. However, this requires an additional letter of invitation from a tour agency within the country and the agents that man this desk at the airports are not always working at the same times that flights land. Try to get it taken care of at an Embassy instead.
Visas to Tajikistan
Tajikistan visas are slowly becoming easier to acquire, with requirements for a letter of invitation having been mostly done away with. Applying at a Tajik Consulate before you arrive (the suggested method) can net you a 45-day visa for between $35 and $50. If you want to visit the Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Corridor be sure to apply for the additional GBAO permit at the same time (up to $20 extra… usually). The airport in Dushanbe also offers (in theory) Visa on Arrival facilities, but like in Kazakhstan you’ll need a Letter of Invitation and they aren’t always open. Finally, if you plan to stay in the country for more than 30 days be sure to register with the OVIR to avoid paying fines when you leave the country. The US Embassy in Dushanbe keeps a regularly updated set of visa requirements, or you can look directly with the Tajik Embassy where you plan to apply.
Visas to Uzbekistan
This one gets a bit more complicated. American and UK (and a few others) passports do not need a letter of invitation. Most countries will need the LOI. Regardless of whether or not you need an LOI, having one can speed up the application process from about 10 working days to about 2 hours. The Uzbek visa will cost Americans a hefty $140, but for most nationalities closer to $75. Once again, check with your Embassy of choice to make sure. Also, be aware that you usually need to apply for the visa within about three months of when you plan to travel. Otherwise, they may reject your application outright and tell you to try again later.
Visas to Turkmenistan
This one is a pain. The rules are not complicated, but they are notoriously either expensive or based on the whims of the consulate at which you apply. To be guaranteed a visa (indeed, for ANY tourist visa) you have to book a guided tour through a tour company operating in the country. This means guide, driver, proper hotels, etcetera. Prices are just what you think. On the positive side, if you go this route the visa is just a formality.
The other option is the transit visa. Issued for between 3-5 days, or maybe more or maybe less, depending on whether the consular officer you apply with wants to give it to you or not. When you apply you need to state the exact day you want to enter the country, as well as identifying which border points you plan to enter and exit through. To further complicate things this is essentially unusable if you need to arrive or depart via the ferry from Baku (Azerbaijan), which often runs 2-3 days behind schedule. The other countries that border Turkmenistan are: Afghanistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan. If you’re really set on visiting this way, you’ll have to pick two of those to transit between.
Please bear in mind that these things can and do change without much notice. Use this as a guideline, but always check the most up to date information with their embassies or your own. Additionally, most nations need a visa to enter Afghanistan but given how far that lies off the beaten tourist track we’ve left it off this list. If you’re keen to go, read up on our guide to Getting to Afghanistan.