Several people have asked us, “How did you get into Turkmenistan? Isn’t it closed to foreigners?” Turkmenistan is a special bureaucratic animal. But, with a little bit of advanced planning and an expanded daily budget, it really isn’t all that difficult, particularly if you don’t work for a media company or human rights organization. We believe our visit there was well worth the effort and adjustments required.
One option is to apply for a transit visa, which you must do on your own. The advantage: you can travel the country unaccompanied. The disadvantages: you’ll have a short period of time to cover a large country and your visa is far from guaranteed. We met several disappointed travelers whose applications for Turkmenistan transit visas were either rejected or granted with impossibly short periods of time, leaving them to drown their sorrows in bad Tajik wine.
Alternatively, you can apply for a tourist visa. The catch is this: in order to obtain a tourist visa (i.e., more than the maximum five-day transit visa), you need to purchase an organized tour with an authorized tour company. Additionally, your tour guide is required to be with you at all times, except in the capital city of Ashgabat.
We normally run in the opposite direction when we hear the words “organized tour,” but our curiosity got the better of us so we jumped through the necessary hoops to make Turkmenistan happen.
We used and can recommend Stantours for visa support (Letter of Invitation – LOI) and tour. The LOI took about three weeks while the actual visa only took a few days to be issued from the Turkmenistan Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia. The process was painless and delivery quick.
As one of our travel mates discovered, it is also possible to get your Turkmenistan visa on arrival as long as your LOI is in order and you have another few hours to burn while awaiting the arrival of the appropriate official to show up. Airports and sea ports apparently share the same visa official, who shuttles back and forth among the different locations. It is always possible that the Turkmen authorities might reject you at the border, but this is unlikely if your paperwork is in order.
In order to control the cost of your tour, let your tour operator know that you are interested in joining an existing tour or adding travelers to your group. This not only helps financially, but you will likely meet some interesting people.
Your guide is supposed to meet you at your port of entry and escort you through the entry process (Turkmenistan immigration and customs). If he/she doesn’t show up, just make sure you get stamped in, get your foreigner registration card ($10 + $2 administrative fee), and keep a copy of your customs form. We were concerned about our laptops, cameras, mobile phone, and other electronic devices, but the customs officials in Turkmenbashi’s sea port did not seem to care.
Hint: Women, if you wish to speed up the process at customs/goods inspection, put some female garments and toiletries at the top of the bag. The male customs officials will likely want to avoid having to shuffle through “women’s things,” as one male customs official uttered with disgust when Audrey opened her bag.
Turkmenistan Letter of Invitation: Through Stantours, $50/person.
Turkmenistan Visa: We paid $72 per person at the Turkmen Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia for 3-day express service.
Turkmenistan Tour: We were able to share fixed costs – guide and transport – between four people, which reduced costs considerably. It came to $65/person per day for accommodation, breakfast, guide, transport and one flight between Mary and Ashgabat. This was well above our normal daily budget, but it was a pleasant break for us to not have to think constantly of where to spend the night and what time the next bus was leaving.