Tagtabazar Turkmenistan

Keywords: Tagtabazar Turkmenistan
Description: Turkmenistan entry and exit formalities - guide to Turkmenistan visas, immigration, customs and border security

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 Turkmenistan official regulations state that you need permission to export any carpet over 6 sq m, 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 square 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 will need to be accompanied by a guide for the entire length of your stay in order to obtain one, which makes a trip here quite expensive by regional standards. 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.

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.

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. Ideally work through a Turkmen travel agent with experience in the field. On entry every visa holder will need to pay an additional US$12 to 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 the Farab border crossings. 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.

The only visa that allows unaccompanied travel for tourists is the transit visa. Relatively easy to come by, they are normally valid for three days, although sometimes for five days and in rare cases, more. Turkmen embassies in Europe (as opposed to those in Central Asia or Iran) are more likely to grant longer visas. Transit visas can be obtained at any Turkmen consulate, although if you apply without an LOI, the application will need to be forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ashgabat, meaning a processing time of around 10 to 14 days.

No transit visa is extendable, save in the case of serious illness. The penalty for over-staying 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. Transit visas are usually not valid if you are dealing with a Kazakh routing, a double-entry Uzbekistan visa or even an air ticket out of Ashgabat. Turkmen embassies regularly refuse transit visa applications, so don’t count on getting one.

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 small, 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. The LOI is approved by the OVIR and takes five days. 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 original LOI is not needed. 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.

On arrival in Turkmenistan, you must be met by your guide (geed in Russian) who will bring you a small green travel document, the Entry Travel Pass (putyovka in Russian). You should only exit the country at the point indicated on the travel permit, although if you alter your route there is the possibility of changing this in Ashgabat. To do this you will have to speak to your travel agent or guide and they can see what they can do. It is often possible to extend tourist visas in Ashgabat, again, only with the assistance of your travel agent.

Turkmenistan is generally a poor place to pick up visas, with long processing times and embassies that aren't used to independent travellers.

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. Given that the centre of the country is largely uninhabited desert and the population lies on the periphery, you need permits 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, Serkhetabat.

Western Turkmenistan Bekdash, Turkmenbashi, Hazar, Dekhistan, Yangykala, Gyzyletrek, Garrygala, Nokhur and surrounding villages.

Anyone entering Turkmenistan on a tourist or business visa must be registered within three working days with the State Service for the Registration of Foreign Citizens (aka OVIR) via the local bureau of the state tourism company. The tour company that invited you will undoubtedly organise this. You will need two passport photos and your entry card, which you’ll need to pick up at the airport or the border post where you enter the country. As well as this initial registration, you will automatically be registered by any hotel you stay at in the country for each night you stay with them – this service is included in the room price, and you won’t have to do anything. However, travellers on tourist visas are therefore only able to stay in hotels with licences to register foreigners, the only exceptions being when you spend the night in a place without such an establishment, making these the only legal opportunities to stay in a homestay. Transit visa holders do not need to be registered, and can sleep wherever they please.

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