Visa Headaches for the Stans

If you’ve traveled around a bit especially in the developing and formerly Soviet world, you have surely run into issues with getting visas. I am exploring the possibility of going to the Stans (Central Asia) this summer. I am starting to look at the option now because of all the beaurocracy you have to deal with to get visas and you need separate visas for each Stan country. Additionally, for certain countries (Uzbekistan) you need a specific number of entry visas or they will deny your re-entry. Meaning you need to plan your exact route before you go-which I hate. You also need to jump through hoops. Most of the Stan countries are not that difficult, except for the waiting and the excessive visa costs, however, Turkmenistan is a total nightmare.

I am sure most of you are thinking why the heck would you want to go to Turkmenistan anyway and where is it? Well, Turkmenistan is a Central Asian nation roughly the size of California. It shares borders with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Turkmenistan gained its independence in 1991 during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Primarily a desert country, it has a population of around six million people. Tourist facilities, especially outside of the capital city of Ashgabat, are not highly developed. Many of the goods and services taken for granted in North American and Western European countries are not yet available. Travel within the country can be difficult due to limited infrastructure and government-imposed internal travel restrictions.
Aside from being far away and the infrastructure being not so great, Turkmenistan also has the most complicated system for getting a tourist visa that I have ever heard of. It is very frustrating and almost enough to make you not want to go there. I realize I could hire a visa agency like It’s Easy but that’s expensive and I hate trusting others with my passport.

Here is the basic description for the requirements from the state website. American citizens must have a valid passport and visa and/or letter of invitation from the Government of Turkmenistan to enter and exit Turkmenistan. To apply for a visa, all U.S. citizens must complete an application and have a letter of invitation approved by the State Service for the Registration of Foreigners (SSRF) in Ashgabat. On the other hand, people wanting to get into the states would have to first esta aanvraag. An individual or organization in Turkmenistan must submit the letter of invitation on behalf of an American citizen to the SSRF accompanied by a copy of the traveler’s passport ID page. Each traveler’s passport must be valid for at least 6 months following the date of the application. The SSRF requires at least 15 working days for approval. The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat does not issue letters of invitation to citizens interested in private travel to Turkmenistan. Applications for a visa can be submitted to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Washington, D.C., or directly to the SSRF in Ashgabat. Under Turkmenistani law, a traveler with a stamped and approved invitation letter may also obtain a visa at the Ashgabat International Airport upon arrival in Turkmenistan; however, some travelers have reported difficulties with airlines not boarding passengers who only have approved invitation letters in lieu of a visa for onward travel to Turkmenistan. Travelers are strongly recommended to obtain a visa before traveling.

The price for the visa will vary according to the intended length of stay. For an additional charge, the SSRF can extend a visa in Ashgabat beyond its initial validity. Any traveler arriving without a visa or without the documents necessary to obtain a visa will be denied entry and may be held at the airport or border until the traveler has secured transportation out of Turkmenistan. The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat is unable to intervene with Turkmenistani authorities regarding the admission of private travelers to Turkmenistan. Travelers departing Turkmenistan must have a current valid visa or they will be denied exit until they have extended the validity of the visa through their departure date. In addition, U.S. citizens traveling in Turkmenistan should be aware that they need special permission from the SSRF to travel to areas of the country that have been restricted by the Government of Turkmenistan, including almost all border areas.

Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? We’ll see what happens, I am not going crazy for this yet and the whole tour around the Stans is very expensive with a lot of issues with visas, borders and the fact that I don’t speak Russian-however, I can read it. But, the silk route remains one of the most beautiful and least traveled tourist routes on Earth and is very tantalizing for me to do. I currently have a travel agency in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan putting together sample itineraries for me based on my specifications of starting in Ashgabat and ending in Almaty. We’ll see what they put together and hopefully it works out, otherwise I will save this trip for another time and go elsewhere.

The moral of the story is that if you are planning to travel to Central Asia-plan ahead and give yourself a lot of time to deal with all the beaurocratic formalities.

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  1. Lee, I have been in Turkmen for one week and it is very friendly people and very nice to see. The other countries in the region are much the same and very pleasant. The cities are very well built up and have everything you could want. the best is the mountain scenery in Krzgyzstan. The Himalayas are fantastic.

  2. I did the same trip as you, but in reverse, last May, and it was relatively straightforward, but I worked with a visa procurement agency and some “fixers” on the ground. While the trip could likely be done unassisted, I could not have made it from end to end in the two-week period over which I traveled. Notwithstanding the inherent obstacles, its one of the most interesting parts of the world I have visited — while each of the five countries holds appeal, Uzbekistan is in a class by itself and I would rank it among the world’s most interesting destinations. I sent you some info, including contact details for a smooth (but a bit pricey) Seattle-based operator with whom I worked (and it was actually less expensive than I initially anticipated).

    PS — I had the same map as my office screensaver for weeks prior to departure.

  3. Hey Michael, I didn’t receive the info you mentioned about the Seattle based tour operator. Would you mind resending it. Also, did you make it down into Afghanistan and Pakistan or did you skip those? I hope to see you Saturday at the TCC meeting. Thanks.

  4. I’ll resend the info to you.

    I’m going to miss the TCC lunch. I flew down to FL last weekend for the Springsteen shows (which were canceled due to a death in the band), so this weekend I am flying down to NC (to see the shows and I was also able to schedule a work meeting). Plus, I’ll visit the Great Smoky Mountains NP (another national park and UNESCO site to scratch off my lists).

  5. geof giles says

    They seem to let a lot of Ukranian hookers in, just check the casinos in Ashgabat. I didn’t find it all that hard to go there, but the land border crossings require you to carry your own bags over broken concrete, so be ware. All the people were friendly, and a US visa is $30 cheaper than a British one, so my traveling companions were pissed at me.

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