Most countries issue visas from their embassies abroad and stamp it in your passport, but not Bhutan. Visas are issued only when you arrive in the country, either at Paro airport or (if entering by road) at Phuentsholing. You must apply in advance through a tour operator and receive approval before you travel to Bhutan.
All applications for tourist visas must be initialized by a Bhutanese tour operator and are approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu. The operator submits the visa application to DOT in Thimphu. It, in turn, checks that you have completely paid for your trip and then issues 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 a week to process the visa.
It’s not necessary to fill in a special visa application form. Just provide the following information to the operator in Bhutan: your name, permanent address, occupation, nationality, date and place of birth, passport number and its date and place of issue and date of expiration. If any item is missing the whole process is delayed. Double-check that the information you send is correct; if there are any discrepancies when you arrive in Bhutan, there’ll be further delays and complications in issuing the visa.
When 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. Druk Air will not issue your tickets to Paro until it receives this confirmation number and then rechecks the visa information when you check in for the flight.
The actual visa endorsement is stamped in your passport when you arrive at one of the two 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.
It’s surprisingly efficient considering all the time, distance and various levels of bureaucracy involved. When you arrive in Bhutan, the visa officer will invariably be able to produce your approval form from the file and the visa will be issued on the spot. It’s helpful, however, to have the reference number or even better a faxed/emailed scan copy of the visa authority available to aid the immigration officials and Druk Air to find your information quickly.
A visa extension for a period not exceeding six months costs USD 50. Since tourist visas are issued for the full period you have arranged to stay in Bhutan, it’s unlikely that you would need a visa extension.
Visas for Indian nationals
Upon arrival, Indian visitors are issued a 14-day permit, which may be extended in Thimphu. No passport or visa is required, but some form of identification such as a passport, driving licence or voter’s registration card is necessary. Indians arriving by road at Phuentsholing need five photos: three for the Indian certificate and two for the Bhutanese permit. Those arriving by air need two photos for the arrival permit in Paro.
All of Bhutan outside of the Paro and Thimphu valleys is classified as a restricted area. Tour operators obtain a 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 scrutinized for major deviations from the authorized program.
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
Tourists are allowed to visit the courtyards of dzongs and, where feasible, 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. Permits are issued by the National Commission for Cultural Affairs and all the necessary paperwork will be negotiated by your tour company. If you wish to know which dzongs and goembas are included in your itinerary, or you wish to make specific requests, contact your tour company well in advance. If you are a practicing Buddhist, you may apply for a permit to visit certain dzongs and religious institutions usually off limits. The credibility of your application will be enhanced if you include a letter of reference from a recognized Buddhist organization in your home country.
Dzongs are open to all during the time of a tsechu, when you may visit the courtyard, but not the lhakhangs.