Getting into one of the most isolated countries in the world is far from being easy and the probability that you will have your visa refused is quite high. Until very recently, the refusal rate, particularly for transit visa, was around 50%, but over the last couple of years more and more people had the possibility to get into Turkmenistan. If you want to go there, you will need a visa (unless you are Georgian) and there are two options:
- Tourist visa —> you MUST go through a travel agency to get it and it costs a lot of money (from 120$ to 250$ PER DAY). You will have a guide with you all the time and you won’t be allowed to go around by yourself. Wherever you stop you need to register with OVIR (migration police) but the tour operator will do that for you. It’s not clear how long you can stay in the country for, it’s probably up to one month if you are happy to pay that much. We met some people who had a 9 days tourist visa but they actually spent just 4 days in the country.
- Transit visa—> that’s what we got. it’s valid from 3 to 5 days and it allows you to visit the country independently. It’s much cheaper (75$ in total) and you don’t need to register with OVIR. Note that it’s a transit visa, which means that you can just go from the entry to the exit points that you declared when you submitted the application and these cannot be changed. They are written on your visa and you cannot go back to the country where you come from because, as said, it’s a transit visa. You will have to declare your itinerary inside the country both when you applied and at the border.
Apparently you can get the tourist visa on arrival at Ashgabat airport but we don’t have any information about it, we are sorry!
Our Turkmenistan experience started in Rome, roughly 15 days before our departure. We went to the embassy and we handed all the documents needed, that in order were:
- One application form filled online
- One questioner
- One letter to the president of Turkmenistan in which we kindly asked him to visit his country and where you also need to specify exact days of arrival/departure, entry/exit points, detailed route within the country.
- Colour copies of your passport
- Colour copies of the visas of the neighbouring countries (country where you come from/where you are going)
You can find all the forms online at the Turkmen embassy in Rome website. You don’t need to hand your passport because, at least for transit visas, they will send you a code and you will get your actual visa at the border. In Rome they also accept all the documents via e-mail, a Portuguese friend (the embassy in Rome serves as consular office for different nationalities) did that successfully. Bear in mind that it may take UP TO ONE MONTH to receive a transit visa so better apply well in advance. Once handed the documents, we payed with a bank transfer 10€ each as commission fees and we waited….waited….waited…
After a couple of weeks we tried to call the embassy, no answer. We sent an email, no answer. We then waited again for another week until we received one email from the embassy in Rome where it was written, in Italian, “your application has been accepted, this is your code…. Kind regards”. At that point we didn’t know what to do, they didn’t tell us anything about this code we answered the email asking what we should we do with that code and, of course, no answer. Perfect, we thought, this was the first “taste” of the Turkmenistan bureaucracy. When we were in Baku we decided to go to the Turkmenistan embassy and, after 15 minute of ringing the bell with no answer, a lady opened and confirmed that our visa were issued and we could get the actual visas at the border. On the occasion we also found out that the date of entry and exit are just approximate; in fact, the visa has a validity of three months since the date of issue (we needed to know that since the Caspian ferry doesn’t have a schedule and we didn’t exactly know when we would have arrived in Turkmenistan, have a look at our article!). With that code, we eventually managed to leave Azerbaijan and get into Turkmenistan. Of course, not without difficulties. In fact, since we didn’t have any official document but just an email written in Italian neither the Azeri police nor the Turkmen police were convinced we actually had a visa. Other embassies (for sure the Turkmen embassy in Belarus) release official documents while the one in Italy doesn’t. The code sent by email worked boh for us and for our Portuguese friend, who actually enter Turkmenistan from Iran.
Be patient and good luck if you apply for a Turkmenistan visa!
On this article we decided to also give practical tips for whoever wants to travel in Turkmenistan:
- The official exchange rate is very bad (1$-3 manat) while the one on the black market is much better (1$-18 manat), that was in September 2019. Therefore, it’s much better exchanging money at the bazaar rather than at the official exchanges. Even though everyone does it, IT’S ILLEGAL and you don’t want to fuck up with the Turkmen police so we reccomend you to be really careful when you do that. We took a taxi at Turkmenbashi port and the taxi driver changed the money for us without extra charges. It was actually better because, as a tourist, you will less likely get a good exchange rate.
- Don’t change a lot of money, the Turkmenistan manat are not accepted anywhere else but in Turkmenistan. We changed just 50$ and they were enough for 5 days in two. You can pay all accommodations in US dollars.
- Be careful, you are spied. According to a Turkmen guy we met on a taxi, in Ashgabat there are 3000 police officers in civil uniforms whose only role is to keep a strict control of the population. When we were walking on the street, we could clearly see people communicating one another with walkie talkie indicating where we were going and, possibly, what we were saying. DO NOT TRUST anyone, don’t mention anything that may put you in trouble (for example that you changed the money at the bazaar).
- Ask before taking a picture. Especially in the city centre of Ashgabat, it’s prohibited taking pictures to a lot of buildings. The presidential palace, any government building and some other monuments cannot be photographed (you cannot even walk in the area of the presidential palace). Local people know which ones but you don’t so possibly ask a policeman (there are policemen at every corner in Ashgabat) every time you want to take a picture. The only time we tried to take a picture without permission was in a train station and we were in trouble for that. In fact, people in Turkmenistan don’t like to be photographed and train stations are considered sensitive targets, probably a heritage of the Soviet time.
- Corruption is everywhere. If you drive in Turkmenistan you will be probably at some point stopped at one of the several checkpoints on the roads. We clearly saw that local people don’t even ask which was the problem but they just pay in order to avoid any problem. The tariffs should be 5 manat for policeman out of Ashgabat, 10 manat for soldiers and 15 manat for policemen in Ashgabat…not too much in all true honesty. We don’t exactly know whether they have another treatment for tourists or not.
- Internet? Forget internet! Internet is pretty much blocked in Turkmenistan, hotels (except the fancy ones) don’t have WiFi and most of the international websites are blocked. You will survive without it!
- After 10pm you should be at home. Even though it’s not official, there is a curfew in Turkmenistan. All the shops and malls close at 9pm, clubs close at 10 pm so if you are walking around at 11pm you seem suspicious and you may be stopped by the police and brought to a police station
- Couchsurfing is probably illegal. We don’t know that for sure but we suspect couchsurfing is illegal in Turkmenistan. We used couchsurfing once in Turkmenistan without any problem, it was an amazing experience, a lot of people seem to do the same but we suggest you to be careful with that. When we stayed in a hotel, they gave us a document which demonstrated that we were staying there and they told us to bring it every time with us. Obviously we didn’t have anything like that when we stayed with the locals so you need to invent a credible story as to why you don’t have such a document if you are stopped by the police. However, they won’t ask you any registration when you exit the country.
- Can I hitchhike? The answer is yes, we did it and it’s very common but we cannot guarantee that an annoying policeman may put you in trouble for that. You never know in Turkmenistan!
- They didn’t check our cameras when we exited the country but we read that they did that to some other people. Therefore, make sure you have only “acceptable” pictures to show them just in case.
- Wear a Turkmen hat when you leave the country so policemen will smile at you 😉
- You won’t find a Turkmen dress in a bazaar, you will have to buy the fabrics and then go to a tailor. How long does it take to make it? Maybe one or two days…