Monday, 30 March 2015

Visas: Turkmenistan LOI

Update: I realised I never gave any details about our TVM saga, I will write it up fully soon, but the general jist:
- security breach by releasing passports numbers for everybody (big issue)
- incorrect routes
- a lot of money for no benefit as there are other options

What should you do? Apparently Real Russia can do the LOI for thirty quid, get in touch with them and find out!

Original article:

The on going saga of the Turkmenistan letter of invitation (LOI). At least that's how it feels at the moment. Turkmenistan is a tricky one. A tourist visa requires you to have a guide at all times (far from ideal), but there is a nice little loop hole. The transit visa allows for five days travel within Turkmenistan, all without the need for a guide. Cool, so you might think let's just pop down to the embassy and get that sorted? Well possibly, but then how will you know what dates to put this far in the future, will the embassy be easy to deal with, what if they say no?

This is where The Visa Machine (TVM) step in. Now I've avoided them wherever possible, mainly because I resent paying twice as much for nothing extra in return, but with this one TVM are a necessity. According to the TVM you can get a transit visa (through them) without being date specific. The general process is that you pay TVM some money, they give a list of all the Mongol Ralliers and their entry/exit points to the Turkmenistan embassy, who in return provide a LOI. You take your LOI with you on the rally and when you reach the land border (the one you put on your appication form) there will be all the necessary documentation waiting for you (you will still need to pay for the visa at the border). If you are taking the Caspian Sea ferry then you can collect your visa stamp at the embassy in Baku.

Some quick facts about the LOI:
  • Cost: £51 per person (TVM fee) plus card handling fee (2.3 % + 20 pence)
  • Visa Duration: 5 days
  • Number of Entries: Single
  • LOI Processing Time: still waiting
  • Place of Application and Nationalities: TVM London and UK Citizens

So how did we do it, and what did we need?
  • Passport Photo 35 mm x 45 mm (x1)
  • Printed Application Form (x1)
  • Colour photocopy of passport main page (x1)
  • Digital scan of your passport main page (x1)

Step 1 - The Visa Machine Website

Head on over to the TVM website and buy your Turkmenistan 5 day transit visa. You can only buy this as part of the Mongol Rally, so you need to navigate through to the rally specific page, found here. Select the transit visa and pay your money.

You'll then get directed to a page where you need to input your personal details and trip details. You will also need to upload a scan of your passport main page.

The dates of entry and exit are flexible for the trip details section, so put a rough set of dates in, but bear in mind that the total duration should not exceed five days. You do not need to book the hotel, so choose a random place to stay, a hotel in Ashgabat is always a good shout. The one we chose was the Ak Altyn Hotel, but there are many others.

Step 2 - The Visa Machine Paperwork

Once you have filled in all the online bits, there will be a link to download the paper copy of the application form. Now be careful here. There are two different forms for a Turkmenistan visa, one for a tourist visa, and one for a transit visa. Several ralliers were sent the incorrect form (it was four pages long and requiring lots of details). The correct form is only one sheet of A4, and it is titled 'QUESTIONER', you can download the correct form here.

Above is a copy of my filled out application form (with personal stuff removed). Fix a passport photo to the form with a paper clip, attach a colour photocopy of your passport main page and post it down to the Visa Machine in London. If this is the only visa/LOI that you are doing through TVM then you do not need to post your passport.

Step 3 - Sit Back and Wait

The Visa Machine will keep you updated on the application process by text/email or you can check on the website. Don't expect to receive your copy of the LOI until after the 1st of April deadline. I'll update this post once we receive this.

Step 4 - What Happens at the Border?

We're really not too sure on this one. At least expect to pay money for your visa, internet sleuthing has suggested 55 USD. You will also need to pay a registration fee of 12 USD for a document that you must not lose. Expect beaurocrary, various fees, etc etc, and that's not including the hassle for bringing in your own car! An important point: as you are travelling on a transit visa you do not need to register with the migration police during your stay.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Visas: Tajikistan

Next visa: Tajikistan (plus the hallowed GBAO permit). I'll be honest at the start, I messed this one up. If you're trying to go for the full 45 days then I strongly recommend you lie a fair bit on the itinerary and make it look like you're staying for a good chunk of time. I put our itinerary down as an honest 7 days, and in return I got issued with a 30 day visa that starts two weeks before we plan to get there, go figure! Anyway I digress, it's not the end of the world, just always nice to have significant overlap of various visas. Some quick facts:
  • Cost: £77 per person (including signed for postage and consular fee)
  • Visa Duration: 30 days
  • Number of Entries: Double
  • Visa Processing Time: 1 Week
  • Place of Application and Nationalities: London and UK Citizens
  • Application Date: 6th March 2015 (almost 5 months in advance)

So how did we do it? Firstly here is our little check list of things you will need per person:
  • Passport Photo 35 mm x 45 mm (x1)
  • Printed Application Form (x1)
  • Cover Letter (x1)
  • B&W Photocopy of Main Passport Page (x1)
  • Copy of Mongol Rally Entry Confirmation (x1)
  • Copy of Hostel/Hotel Booking Confirmation (x1)

Step 1 - The Hotel Booking

Having to book a hotel is a pain, especially when you are unsure about dates. Luckily there is a neat little trick that bypasses some of the uncertainty and costs you a mere 2 pounds (far less than a pint nowadays). A few hostel websites allow you to make a booking and only pay a deposit (typically 10-15 percent). Therefore, you need to find the cheapest hostel in the place you wish to stay, and actually book it for at least 1 night (this seemingly is enough to satisfy the visa application). 

We chose the 'Green House Hostel Dushanbe', slapped down our deposit for two people and one night, the added 'flexible deposit protection'. This is the clever bit, for your two pounds you can cancel your booking and get your deposit back (you lose the two pound protection money though). So this only makes sense to do if your deposit costs more than two pounds (particularly important for large group bookings).

So we parted with our £5.55 to get a legitimate hostel booking, then once we had our visa stamp we cancelled it and clawed back £3.55. Got it?

Edit/Update: it's better to use, they allow cancellations for free, without you even putting down a deposit!!! So it's completely free!

Above is a copy of our web booking, simply print it out and place it with all the other application documents.

Step 2 - The Application Form

The first step is to head on over to the Tajikistan Embassy website and download the application form. This gives you a word document that you can fill in. I'm sure you can fill it in digitally, but I hand wrote mine to avoid messing up the formatting.

Above is my completed application form (with all my personal stuff crossed out).

Step 3 - The Cover Letter

Now where do you begin with one of these? Well hopefully you've written a letter before and know the layout, so I won't patronise you with that bit. Remember, I messed this up a little bit, so I would definitely add on lots of dates. However, the main points you need to cover are:
  • Why you are travelling to Tajikistan.
  • Your itinerary for Tajikistan (we did this day-by-day and specifically mentioned the GBAO).
  • The name and address of a hostel or hotel you will stay at (we booked this one).
Again, below is the letter we sent (with various personal stuff removed).

Step 4 - Sundries

Make sure you have a passport sized photo (45x35 mm) available and paper clip this to the application form. Make sure you have photocopied the main page of your passport. For this visa it is recommended that you also send a copy of your Mongol Rally registration.

We used the confirmation email that we received when we signed up. If you are applying for several people at once then it is a good idea to place the application forms and photocopies for each person in a separate plastic wallet.

Step 5 - Payment and Postage

You need to send a special delivery self addressed envelope with the application (so they can send your passports back) and bank transfer the amount needed to pay (in our case, 2x tourist visas at £20  per visa plus 2x GBAO permits at £50 each, ie £140 in total). The embassy fee is paid through a bank transfer, we used our online banking and transferred the money using the following details (these could change, so please check that these are up-to-date here):
  • Name of bank: TSB
  • Account Name: Embassy of Tajikistan
  • Sort Code: 30-99-10
  • Account Number: 17479568
  • Reference: Your Surname
Place all these items in a large envelope and post it off down to the embassy in London (we sent it special delivery). In total, for two visas, it cost us £154.30 (which is half of the cost that a well known visa service would charge you). Below is the full breakdown of costs:
  • £140 transferred to the embassy bank account (for 2 tourist visas and 2 GBAO permits).
  • £7.15 special delivery to send your passports and documents.
  • £7.15 special delivery to have your passports sent back.

Step 6 - Sit Back and Wait

One week later we got our passports back with our shiny new visa sticker and GBAO permit. 

If this guide has been helpful (and saved you many many pounds compared with using a visa service), and you would like to say thank you then feel free to like our Facebook Page and find out what adventures we are currently embarking on.