After spending countless hours trying to work out how to get the visas required to cycle from England to New Zealand via Central Asia, we thought it would be worth sharing what we found in case it helps anyone in the future.
We cycle slowly so as most visas tend to expire after 3 months, applying in the UK before we left wasn’t an option. Accepted practice for long distance cyclists is to apply en route by finding a embassies of your target countries one or two countries in advance.
If you need a letter of invitation (LOI) (e.g. Iran) make sure you start the process at least a month in advance, unless you can afford extended breaks in whichever city you want to collect your visa. In general, you always need passport photos, photocopies of your passport, USD, and a lot of patience…
Although the Silk Road visas are notoriously expensive and tricky to obtain, we weren’t refused any of them and the total cost was just over £300 GBP ($500 USD) per person – expensive yes, but for 5 countries (Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbek, Kazakh, China) and nearly 7 months of travelling through an interesting and cheap part of the world I think it’s well worth it. This total could be also be reduced by paying less agency/express processing fees, and by not being British!
This information was accurate for British passport holders in the winter of 2010/2011 – the situation could be significantly different for different nationalities. The Thorntree forum is a good place to start researching, as inevitably someone else has already done it!
If you have any questions please feel free to email us.
As British nationals, no countries pre-Turkey required visas. Turkey was also simple – a €15 euro fee paid at the border bought us a 90 tourist visa. After Turkey things got more interesting.
We used a visa agency (Let’s Go Iran) to provide a letter of invitation (basically a numeric authorisation code from Iran) which we took to the Iranian embassy in Istanbul (if you’re a girl make sure your hair is covered in your passport photos). We were then issued with a 30 day tourist visa overnight for €100. Depending on your nationality and the country in which you wish to apply for your visa, it can be possible to apply successfully without the help of a visa agency. However, it does seem that using an agency improves your chances, and it certainly speeds the process up. As two Brits applying in Istanbul, we thought the agency was a worthwhile investment at $59 each, given how essential Iran was to our route. The agency was organised via email whilst on the road (start the process a month before you want to collect your visa, or be prepared for delays).
Once in Iran it’s easy to extend your visa twice for an additional 30 days up to a total of 90. Apparently it’s easiest in tourist cities such as Shiraz and Esfehan, but takes longer in Tehran. We extended ours for a further 30 days in Shiraz – it took an hour and cost 200,000 Rials (approx $20). The extension can only be applied for within 4/5 days of the original visa ending and our extension started from the day the old one ended.
Iranian Embassy address in Istanbul:
Ankara Caddesi No:1, Cagaloglu, Istanbul
(within walking distance of Sultanhamet, where the Blue Mosque and most of the hostels are)
Tourist visas require joining an expensive tour group (for British nationals at least), so 5 day transit visas are used by most cyclists. Visas for the countries before and after must be obtained before applying for the Turkmen visa (in our case Iran and Uzbekistan). The dates are fixed, so you need to have a pretty accurate idea of when you’ll reach the border given the shortness of the visa. For us, this meant applying in Tehran with just 1,100km left to cycle to the border at Sarakhs. No LOI is required.
We took our passports to the embassy in Tehran where we were told to come back in 4/5 days for an express visa, or 2 weeks for a normal visa. We asked to collect in Mashhad so we didn’t have to wait any longer in Tehran.
In Mashhad the embassy staff only speak Farsi, so unless you can speak the language try to take an Iranian! They were rude and difficult, hadn’t received any information from the Tehran embassy about us, but eventually gave us the visas for an extortionate $85 each (the express fee, possibly bumped up for Brits), despite visiting the Tehran embassy 2 weeks earlier. It was at least issued on the same day.
Turmenistan Embassy address in Tehran:
Barati St, off Vatanpoor St, North of Lavasani St, Tehran
Opening times: Mon to Thurs 9:00 to 11:00am, Sun 9:30am to 11:00am
(note: the old address in Golestan is still listed in many guide books and plastered all over the internet – this is definitely the correct address as of Feb 2011)
Turkmenistan Embassy address in Mashhad:
Beydane Shahidan, Kucheye Konsulgari 34, Mashhad
Opening times: Tues, Wed & Sat 8:30am to 12:00pm
We used another agency (Stan Tours) to provide a letter of invitation and applied for our visa in Tehran. A 30 day tourist visa was issued in 10 minutes for $105, although I think we paid extra for a express service – it wasn’t made clear. In hindsight, we probably didn’t need to use the agency for this visa, although it certainly made it very easy in Tehran – one 10 minute visit to the embassy! If you have a week or two spare, save yourself the money and don’t bother with the agency.
The dates are fixed (although we managed to get the visa issued for different dates than those on our letter of invitation), so you need to be fairly certain when you’ll arrive at the border. Again this meant we waited until Tehran to apply at which point we could have a pretty good guess. The visa is non-extendable.
Uzbekistan Embassy address in Tehran:
4th Park Alley, Movahhed Danesh Street, Boustan Street, Parsdaran Street, Tehran
Opening times: Sun to Thurs 9:00am to 11:00am
We applied for a 30 day tourist visa in Tashkent and collected it 3 days later. No LOI required, cost $30. The 30 days started on the date of issue.
Kazakhstan Embassy address in Tashkent:
Toshkent shahar, Chehov 23 Str., 70015 Tashkent
Opening times: Mon to Fri 9:00am to 12:00pm
We applied for a 90 day visa in Tashkent and collected it on the same day by paying the ‘rush’ fee of $100. Cheaper options for the slower ‘express’ and ‘normal’ processing is available. The 90 days start when we enter China, which we have to do within 3 months of the visa being issued. We included some provisional hotel reservations for the first 6 weeks of our 90 days in China and filled the hotel addresses on the application form, but I’m not sure they even looked at them. Very quick and easy – we’d definitely recommend applying for your Chinese visa in Tashkent over other cities, where we heard other people had problems. We needed no LOI, letter from the British Embassy, flight reservations etc which we’ve heard other people needed in the past. A pleasant surprise!
Chinese Embassy address in Tashkent:
No.79, Akademik Yahyo G’Ulomoy Street, Tashkent 700047
Opening times: Mon, Wed & Fri 9:00am to 12:00pm
Visas on arrival were not available at the Lao Cai border between China and Vietnam, so we applied for a visa in Kunming, China and were issued with a same day 30 day visa for 230 Yuan (about £20).
Visas on arrival were available at the Na Meo border between Vietnam and Laos, but we used a hotel visa service in Hanoi to get Lao visas. Cost was $42 each.
15 day visas on arrival are available for Thailand, but in order to get a 60 day visa (and therefore remove the hassle of extending) it was necessary to apply in advance at a Thai embassy. We applied in Kunming, China.