Known as the most visa-friendly country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan’s visa was a piece of cake – no Letters of Invitation (LOIs), no questioning. Just fill out an application, pay the fee in the morning and return in the afternoon for the visa. We did this in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
If you are flying into Bishkek, don’t bother to get your visa in advance. Visas on arrival are cheaper at the airport.
If you wish to extend your stay in Kyrgyzstan, that’s a different story. Open, friendly Kyrgyzstan can turn into a maddening Soviet cat’s cradle of bureaucracy.
Entering Kyrgyzstan when our visa was already half-expired, and wanting to stay longer than our visa allowed, we decided to extend it in the town of Karakol near Lake Issyk-Kul. We went to Karakol’s OVIR (Office of Visas and Registration) one week prior to the expiration dates on our visas, only to be told by the official that we were two days early. He suggested we return two days later and pay the extension fee; everything would be OK. We felt reassured; we didn’t need to return to Bishkek for the extension and we had time to enjoy a few days on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.
Returning to OVIR several days later, we found a cloud of locals waiting patiently outside the locked door of the OVIR office. Being impatient Americans, we knocked on all the closed doors in search of someone who could help us. The junior secretary told us that the head OVIR official was on a business trip to Bishkek. We explained that the official himself had told us to come back that day. After some shrugs and an explanation that he alone held the keys to the safe that protected the precious visa stamps, the secretary told us to come back the next day. We went out and delivered the bad news to the locals whose misery we shared. Everyone shuffled off, looking dejected but not surprised. “Another wasted day at the OVIR office in Karakol,” was written in the lines of their faces. Apparently, this was the norm.
A similar story played itself out the next day, except that everyone’s anxiety level had risen. It was Friday and our visas were set to expire on Sunday. In her broken Russian, Audrey appealed to another itinerant military official, “What we should do – continue to wait for the official to return or catch a bus immediately for Bishkek?” He advised us to return that afternoon. “Things work differently in your country than in our country. It’s more flexible here. Don’t worry.”
We knew that the “flexibility” he spoke of would evaporate the moment our visas expired; in its place would be fines and bribes. Upon returning to the office that afternoon, we were told the official was driving back and would come into the office on Saturday morning. Saturday, normal working hours for government??
To our surprise and relief, the official did indeed show up on Saturday morning. Everything went remarkably smoothly until it came down to payment. The amount he told us we owed for the extension kept fluctuating, filling us with suspicion. Because it was Saturday, we could not make payment at the bank, as recommended by the folks at Community Based Tourism in Karakol (corruption is rampant, they said). Instead, we asked for handwritten proof of payment. The official refused and quipped with a hint of a threat in his voice that the banks would be open on Monday but he might not be there. He had us. He knew it and he forced our hand. We handed over the money to remain in his country legally and his behavior assured us that he would likely pocket some drinking money on the side.
As we watched him write our new visas by hand, we noticed a CCCP sign above the TV. How appropriate, we thought. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
All the locals with whom we shared this story gave empathic nods. They had all been through the same, if not worse, each time they required a new document or an official stamp. Enduring this once was difficult enough for us, but the dejected faces of the locals queued in that dimly lit hallway indicated that for them there was no end in sight.
Kyrgyzstan Visa: $55/person for 30-day, single-entry tourist visa from an embassy; if purchased on arrival at the airport, $35 for the same visa. Multiple-entry and 60-day visas are also available at the airport for around $55.
Kyrgyzstan Visa Extension: We paid 1560 som/person ($40) for a 20-day extension of our tourist visa. We don’t know if that is the normal price or a price with “special fees” included.