Visas, they’re a minefield of problems, confusion and tear-your-hair-out bureaucracy. They can make the final few days before starting a volunteer placement a living hell, wondering if it will turn up in time. Finally, visa rules change so often that sometimes even the officials and those in the visa processing centres aren’t really sure of the rules. As such, I thought it might be useful to provide some information on the current visa situation for volunteers in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
As I said, visa rules are constantly changing, so there’s a fairly good chance that by the time you read this it will be out of date. So, don’t take my word for it, check somewhere else too. Most people probably won’t find this post very interesting, but I hope that it will be useful to a few. If I have made any mistakes here, or if there are any additions that you would like to make, please leave me a comment below.
Though it certainly didn’t seem so back when I was applying for my first India visa, the visa application process for India is simple in comparison to Nepal and Bangladesh. Volunteers need to apply for an Employment visa, which will either grant them a 6 month or 1-year stay. Though volunteers will normally get the length of time they requested, sometimes those applying for a 1-year visa will only be given 6 months. British citizens should apply for their visa through VFS. The visa cost of a 1-year visa is around £320 for UK nationals (£300 for 6 months), and around £100 for nationals of most other countries.
Visas can be extended fairly easily around a month before the original expires. This requires a visit to your local FRO/FRRO, the payment of an extension fee (the same as your original visa fee, minus the service charge), and then submitting the completed application in person at the Immigration Office in your state’s capital city, where they will asses your application, and (hopefully) authorise your extension.
The Nepal visa process is much more difficult. Without working for a large and well-established NGO, it is very difficult to arrange an NGO visa, if not impossible. Instead, most volunteers come to Nepal on a tourist visa, which you can get on arrival at Kathmandu International Airport (bring 2 passport photos). These are initially available for up to 90 days for US$100 or the equivalent in another hard currency. It is then possible to extend the visa by up to 30 days at a time (US$2 per day). You can normally get two 30-day extensions, giving a maximum stay of 150 days per calendar year, though sometimes it can be difficult to extend a visa past 120 days. Visas can be extended in both Kathmandu and Pokhara, and advice on this is easily available online. If you want to stay for more than 5 months then the best option is probably to arrive in the second half of the year (July for example) and then leave Nepal over New Year, perhaps by going to India. You can then return to Nepal in January on a new 90-day visa.
A second option available is for volunteers to come to Nepal on a tourist visa and then apply for a student visa once in the country. This is a complex and fairly expensive process, and requires the volunteer to apply for a course at one of the universities or colleges. However, it is a good option for those not able to split their placement across two calendar years. Course fees start at around $100 per month, while a student visa for a non-degree course costs $50 per month. It looks like volunteers can spend 5 months on a tourist visa first, and then top up with a student visa for the remainder of their stay. The KathmanDuo provide an excellent rundown on applying for a student visa here, along with a great summary of their personal experience in trying this. It’s also worth reading the official information at the Department of Immigration.
This is where the process is the most complicated and confusing. Again, Bangladesh has NGO visas available but these are difficult to arrange, though easier than in Nepal. Whether you can get an NGO visa seems to depend on the kind of government contacts each NGO has. Many volunteers come to Bangladesh on a tourist visa, but this only gives 30 or 60 days, and extensions can be complicated. As such, I think that the best advice is to discuss this with the NGO you will be volunteering with.
*Updated on 6th November 2012 to include costs for Nepal student visas