I am frequently asked if there are any differences between entering Tibet from the rest of China and entering from Nepal. In this post, I hope to clear up some misunderstandings about entering Tibet from Nepal and the differences compared to entering from China.
1. Chinese Visa
If you plan to enter Tibet from Nepal, you can usually only get a 15 day group Chinese visa, though if you book a longer tour to places like Kailash you can get a 21 or 28 day visa. This visa is usually not placed in your passport, but is a sheet of paper that lists all of the names of the people in your group along with nationalities, birth dates and passport numbers. This group visa is usually not able to be extended, even though many travel agencies in Kathmandu will tell you that it can be extended. Many travelers find out the hard way when they go to get an extension and find out that instead of getting a visa extension, they have less than 48 hours to leave China. With the group Chinese visa, you have to enter AND EXIT with all of the members of your group at the same time and the same place. It is not possible for you to split from the group (prior to 2008 it was possible) since your group Chinese visa is only on one piece of paper. This can cause huge problems if some people in your group plan to exit China to Hong Kong while others are planning on flying out of Beijing. For most people, 15 days is not enough to travel overland to Lhasa and tour the rest of China.
The group Chinese visa can only be arranged through a travel agency in Nepal. If you arrive in Nepal with a Chinese visa already in your passport, you will NOT be able to use it (I tried this on my own as I have had a Chinese residence visa for over 7 years). The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu will cancel whatever type of Chinese visa you have (there are some small exceptions to this, but for 99% of the people reading this, those exceptions don't apply). Entry from Nepal into Tibet requires you to have the group Chinese visa that is usually only valid for 15 days of travel.
If you plan on going from the rest of China into Tibet, this visa restriction does not apply. From China, there is no need to be on a group visa. You can enter on a standard 30 or 60 day tourist visa. Tourist visa's can be extended for an additional 30 days at any city in China, however, visa's cannot be extended in Lhasa or anywhere in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
2. Tour Prices
Tour prices from Nepal to Tibet are generally higher compared to going from China to Tibet. I contacted dozens of travel agencies across China, Tibet and Nepal for their tour prices and found that 95% of the time the agencies based in Lhasa, Xining and Chengdu were the cheapest. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the agency in Nepal not only has to arrange your permit, but they also have to arrange your Chinese visa for you. More paper work to process means more money.
The second is that most travel agencies in Kathmandu use travel agencies in Lhasa to arrange the tour. Arranging tours to Tibet in Nepal means that 2 or 3 agencies will be used and all of them add to the total price (example: a small backpacker travel agency in Thamel can arrange tours to Lhasa, but first have to contact a larger travel agency in Kathmandu who then contacts the agency in Lhasa. This means that 3 agencies are involved in arranging your tour). The third reason that tours from Nepal into Tibet are more expensive than going from China into Tibet is that most people go to Tibet from either Xining or Chengdu. Not nearly as many people enter Tibet from Nepal so that means that the tour prices are higher since there are fewer customers. Since there is so much competition in Xining and Chengdu, it keeps the tour prices lower. Chengdu has always been (and probably always will be) the traditional gateway to Lhasa, but now that Xining is the starting point of the Tibetan Railway, more and more people are going to Lhasa from Xining.
The last major reason that tour prices form Nepal to Tibet cost more is transportation. The only way to get from Kathmandu to Lhasa is to either go overland in a Land Cruiser for 5 days or fly. Since taking public transportation in Tibet is not possible, foreigners have to use private vehicles which are not cheap. The flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa only takes about 55 minutes, but usually costs around $325USD or so.
Entering Tibet from mainland China is cheaper because you can take the train to Lhasa. The train is a very affordable and comfortable way to get to Lhasa. Also, from China you can either arrange a tour from a travel agency in Lhasa or from a travel agency in Xining, Beijing or Chengdu that is well connected to a travel agency in Lhasa. Because of the high number of tourists who go from mainland China to Lhasa, prices are very competitive and considerably less than in Nepal.
Arranging tours from Nepal to Tibet aren't difficult to do, but they do take some time. The travel permit will take at least 5 days to arrange (average time based on all of the agencies I contacted in Nepal) plus you have to wait for the Chinese group visa to be issued. This means that if you arrive in Kathmandu, don't expect to be on your way to Lhasa the next day. You will most likely have to wait up to a week. Since the travel agency will have to arrange your group Chinese visa, it is difficult to arrange tours from Nepal to Tibet in advance (they can't arrange your tour in advance because they need to have your passport in order to begin the process).
On the China side, travel permits normally take around 3 business days to arrange. Most travel agencies can arrange your tour in advance as long as you email them copies of your passport and Chinese visa 10 days before you plan to depart. It is very common for customers to arrive in Xining or Chengdu and depart for Lhasa the next day (this is only possible if the customers have arranged their tour in advance). Even if you don't arrange your tour in advance, it is possible to be on your way to Lhasa from Xining within 3 or 4 business days.
In general, it is easier, cheaper and you get a longer visa for China if you go from China to Tibet then to Nepal. Doing the tour in the reverse order (Nepal to Tibet to China) means that the tour will cost more, take longer to arrange and you will only have a 15 day group Chinese visa (again, if you book a long Tibet tour such as to Kailash, you can get a longer group visa). I am not writing this to discourage people from going to Nepal. Nepal is a great place to visit and the overland route from Lhasa to Kathmandu is one of the best in Asia. I highly recommend people to go to Nepal. However, it is important to realize that the travel regulations are very different regarding Tibet if you start your tour in Nepal rather than China. Again, it is much easier and cheaper to begin your journey in China and then work your way to Nepal through Tibet rather than beginning in Nepal.
Sometimes people's travel plans are quite rigid and changes cannot be made and they have to go from Nepal into Tibet. If that is the case, there is no need to worry! Please don't let this article discourage you if you have to go from Nepal into Tibet. There are many good and reliable agencies in Kathmandu that can arrange tours to Tibet. The point of this article is to point out the differences between the two and not to discourage people from going from Nepal into Tibet.
For information on how to get from mainland China into Tibet, please read through the following article:
If you have any other questions about travel in Tibet, please send an email to email@example.com