Two of the most common questions I get from people are "What permits do I need to travel to Tibet" and "How do I get a Tibet permit"? In this article I hope to clear up all the confusion about permits and travel in Tibet. It sounds complicated with a lot of rules, but it actually isn't too difficult.
Before I begin, it is important to remember that the terms "Tibet" and "Tibet Autonomous Region" (or TAR) are slightly different. When I use the term "Tibet" I am referring to all of the Tibetan Plateau. This area consists of 16 Tibet Autonomous Prefectures found in the TAR, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. All of these areas are considered to be Tibet to the Tibetan people. The Tibetan regions outside of the TAR are nearly all open and do not require any travel permits.
Tibet Travel Permit
Information current as of May 2011...There is no such thing as a "Tibet Visa". All foreigners going to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) need to have a Tibet Travel Permit along with a Chinese visa. Since June 2008, a full tour of Lhasa must be booked in advance before you are allowed to go to Lhasa. The Tibet Travel Permit is not placed in your passport, but is a two page piece of paper that should be given to you. The first page is the actual permit, while the second page is the group travel list. If you are traveling by yourself to Lhasa, then just your name will be listed, but if you are traveling with a group of 2 or more all names will be listed and you will share 1 permit. This is the general permit that you need to enter anywhere in the TAR. There have been many rumors that this permit would be done away with after the start of the train to Lhasa, but as of today it is still needed more than ever. If you fly, train or bus into Lhasa, you will need to have this permit. Technically, this permit costs a little over $7USD (Y50), but nobody actually pays that price. Here is why: The Tibet travel permit can only be issued through the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) which is based in Lhasa. All permits come from the TTB. Most travel agencies in Beijing, Chengdu, Xining, Xi'an, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Lanzhou get this permit through the TTB in Lhasa. Since these cities are all far away from Lhasa, they usually have to have a local travel agency in Lhasa help them. The local travel agency in Lhasa takes a copy of your passport and Chinese visa information and brings them to the TTB to arrange your permit. These copies are sent to the Lhasa office by the local office you are using (ie. in Beijing, Chengdu, Xining, etc). The local agency in Lhasa does not do this for free. They usually charge between Y150 and Y300 per person to do this. The travel agency you use in Chengdu, Beijing, Xining, etc to arrange the permit for you also does not do this for free. They charge an additional Y150 to Y400. So this is why a permit that costs Y50 ends up costing Y400 to Y1000 or more.
The travel agency you use to arrange your permit will give you a copy of the permit. The actual copy is usually kept at the Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa, however some airports are now requiring the actual permit. Make sure the travel agency gives you the original of this permit and make sure that your name and passport information is correct!! Everyone before boarding a flight or train to Lhasa will be checked for their permit. Many travelers will tell you that they had no problems traveling to Lhasa without a Tibet Travel Permit or that they were never checked. Good for them! Since the reopening of Lhasa in June 2008, airports and train stations have become much more strict in checking permits. It will be very difficult (practically impossible) to go to Lhasa without a permit.Just because you weren't checked for a permit doesn't mean they aren't required!! People are almost always checked when flying into Lhasa though you could also be checked taking the train. I travel to Lhasa often on the train and for the past 4 years I have been checked for my permit EVERYTIME! In fact, my permit is usually checked 2 or 3 times. If you are caught trying to sneak into the TAR, you can expect to be detained at the police station, fined and sent back to where ever you were before (ie. Golmud, Derge, Zhongdian, etc).
Once in Lhasa, you will probably be asked to show your permit before checking in to a hotel. If you don't have your permit, then you will have to try and find a hotel in Lhasa that will accept you without having the permit. You will most likely be checked before boarding your train or flight to Lhasa. The days of going to Lhasa without a permit are probably over, at least for a while. Keep your permit with you just in case something unusual happens.
For more information on traveling to Tibet, email me at :
email@example.com in Xining
Alien Travel Permit
An Alien Travel Permit is needed in addition to a Tibet Travel Permit for going to any areas of the TAR outside of the Lhasa municipality. If you want to go to Samye, Chamdo, down the Friendship Highway, Everest, Kailash, Guge, etc. you have to have an Alien Travel Permit. Exceptions to this are Nam Tso, Nagchu, Amdo town, Ganden monastery, Shigatse and a few other smaller places. No additional permits are required to go to these places. Alien Travel Permits are easy and quick to arrange. If you book a 4WD trip in Lhasa, the permit will be included in the price. The travel agency will fill out the necessary paper work for you. This permit is usually around $15 (Y100) per person. There are several checkpoints that check to see if you have an Alien Travel Permit. You can be fined and sent back if you are caught without it. Currently all foreigners planning on taking a trip outside of Lhasa must have a tour guide accompany them. Not all travel agencies may be enforcing this, but it is the current law. If you have to have a guide, try and make sure that he is Tibetan. The guide will usually have all of your necessary permits.
Military permits are needed in addition to the two above mentioned permits to go through some sensitive border areas of the TAR. China and India have had a long standing disagreement on the southern and western boundaries of Tibet causing the areas to have a lot of military personnel. Military permits are needed if going to Mt. Kailash, Guge Kingdom, overland to Kashgar, and for travel in Nyingtri prefecture. Only a travel agency can arrange this permit for you. You cannot get it on your own. Travel through these regions require you to go by 4WD. Independent travel is strictly forbidden. If you are caught traveling through this region without a military permit and without a 4WD, you can expect to pay a stiff fine and to be questioned by the police.
Getting Caught Without a Permit
If you enter the TAR without a Tibet Travel Permit or you are caught in a region which requires you to have an Alien Travel Permit or Military Permit you can expect to be taken to the local police station and fined. Somebody at the police station will speak at least a little bit of English (and I mean little!) and they will explain to you what you have done wrong. They will write you a ticket which you have to sign. Then you will be fined between $40 and $100 (more in some situations). The police will escort you to the nearest bus station and put you on a bus going the opposite direction (ie. if you are caught trying to sneak into the TAR from Derge, they will put you on a bus heading back to Derge). If you are detained, it is usually not for more than an hour or so, but I have heard of some foreigners being under "house arrest" at a hotel for a few days. The chances are minimal that someone will check your permit in Lhasa so if you make it there without one, you will probably be okay. However, if you plan on going to places outside of Lhasa you will have to prove you have this permit. Keep in mind that when Tibet was independent, it was closed to foreigners. Very few people were allowed in, though many tried. So paying $50-$80 or so for a permit isn't so bad when you put things in perspective. It is still a lot cheaper than going to Bhutan. Think of the TAR as a National Park or Theme Park that requires everyone to purchase a ticket before they can enter.
Travel to Tibetan Prefectures Outside the TAR
Travel to the regions of Tibet outside the TAR do not require you to have any permits in most cases. There are a few counties in Golok and Ngawa Prefectures that require foreigners to get a permit from the police, but that's about it. You can travel independently through these prefectures (found in Qinghai, western Sichuan, southwest Gansu and northwest Yunnan provinces) using public transportation. These regions are actually a better place to see authentic Tibetan culture without as much Chinese influence. Many regions in these areas are home to nomad Tibetans who spend their lives on the grasslands herding yaks and sheep. These areas of Tibet are just as much Tibet as the TAR...and maybe even more so. Many past and present Tibetan leaders, including the current 14th Dalai Lama, were born in these areas. Tibetan culture is much more intact here than most regions of the TAR, though few foreigners travel to these areas. Many people are not aware that these places are also Tibet.
Entering the TAR from Nepal
When you enter the TAR from Nepal, you have to go by completely different rules from when entering from the rest of China. When you enter from Nepal, you have to be on a group Chinese visa. Only travel agencies in Kathmandu can arrange a group Chinese visa for you. You can't get it on your own. There is no way around this. Before, you had to be with a group of four or five people, but now you can get a group visa with only two people and in rare cases even one person. DO NOT get a Chinese visa in your passport before you arrive in Nepal. If you do, it will be cancelled and you will have wasted your time and money. You cannot enter the TAR from Nepal on a regular Chinese tourist visa...it MUST be a group visa. The group visa is usually a piece of paper. It is not stamped in your passport like a normal visa. The group Chinese visa is usually valid for only 21 days, though sometimes they will give you 28 days. From Kathmandu, Nepal you have the option of flying or taking a 4WD to Lhasa. You have to arrange all travel through a travel agency. You cannot buy a ticket to Lhasa on your own. You also have to have a Tibet Travel Permit and Alien Travel Permit that a travel agency must arrange for you.
There are now flights year round between Kathmandu and Lhasa. The one-way flight is only an hour, but it is not cheap. Expect to pay over $350 for the flight, visa and permit. Many people take a 5 to 7 day overland trip to Lhasa going through Everest Base Camp, Shigatse, Gyantse and Yamdrok Lake. This overland trip also is not cheap. About the cheapest you will find it is for around $600 per person. There are many, many travel agencies in Kathmandu that can arrange travel to Lhasa. Shop around and feel free to negotiate on the price.
Try and avoid getting a Chinese group visa with a stranger. With a group visa you have to enter and exit China together. So if you get put on a group visa with someone you don't know and he plans to exit China through Mongolia and you plan to exit through Vietnam, you are going to have some problems because your group visa is only on one piece of paper. If you are on a group visa with people you plan to exit China with, then you will be fine. A lot of people try and change their group visa into a standard Chinese visa once they leave the TAR (also known as splitting the visa). It is not possible to change or split your visa in Lhasa or anywhere in the TAR. Places like Golmud and Xining in Qinghai province are known to change people's visa's while places like Chengdu and Kunming sometimes will not. It is very difficult to extend a group Chinese visa beyond the 21 (or sometimes 28) days given to you. That is another reason people try and change the group visa into a regular tourist visa. Regular tourists visa's can easily be extended an additional 30 days at most PSB offices in China. If you plan on entering Tibet with a group and exiting China with the same group within the validity of the group visa (21 to 28 days), you will be fine. It is much easier and cheaper to begin your trip in China and then go to the TAR rather than starting from Nepal. From China, you can travel to Lhasa on your own. From Nepal, you have to go with a group. For more information on entering the TAR from Nepal contact (tell them Losang recommended you):
If you plan on flying from Kathmandu to any city in China outside of the TAR (ie. Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, etc), the rules above DO NOT apply to you. All you need is a regular Chinese tourist visa. There is no need for a group visa or Tibet Travel Permit.
Entering the TAR from Kashgar, Xinjiang province
To do this route legally, you have to go through a travel agency in Kashgar who will arrange a Tibet Travel Permit, Alien Travel Permit and Military Permit for you. Independent travel is not allowed on this route. There are no flights between Kashgar and Lhasa. This trip is not a cheap one to do. There are travel agencies in Kashgar that can arrange the long, overland journey to Lhasa. This route is expensive, but is amazing. For more information on this route contact the helpful people at:
Entering the TAR from Yunnan province
This route also has to be arranged through a travel agency. All of the above mentioned permits are needed to do this trip as well as a 4WD with driver and guide. An overland trip from Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian to Lhasa via eastern Tibet can be arranged. There are also flights from Zhongdian to Lhasa (Tibet Travel Permit is needed).
There have been many reports of the bus station in Zhongdian selling foreigners bus tickets to Lhasa without a permit (Update: there are no reports of the bus station doing this since 2008). According to the PSB in Zhongdian this is illegal. However, the bus station seems to be selling foreigners bus tickets in spite of the law. There have been some reports of foreigners buying a bus ticket from Zhongdian to Lhasa without any problems, but later getting caught and fined while in the eastern TAR (Update: Again, no reports of people being able to do this since 2008). So if you decide to take the bus to Lhasa, be aware that you could be fined and sent back. Keep in mind that if you make it to Lhasa without any problems, it does NOT mean that permits aren't required! It just means you got lucky.
Entering the TAR from India/Sikkim and Bhutan
These routes are currently not possible to do. There are no borders between Tibet/China and India that are open to foreigners. There are also no routes between Tibet and Bhutan that are open to foreigners.