Every long-term India traveler hits the wall eventually: the expiration date on your current visa. Some travelers simply choose to travel in other countries. Neighboring Sri Lanka and Nepal are interesting places in themselves, and of course Southeast Asia is another popular region. But for people who want to stay in India continuously to work on yoga, study meditation, volunteer or simply hang out in a place that’s meaningful to them – the visa run is a natural solution.
The concept is simple: You cross the border into another country where it’s easy to get a visa on arrival, spend the night, and then cross back into India. You need to have a valid Indian visa to do this, of course, so for many travelers, that means you need to stay long enough to get a new Indian visa in the other country. I have read that you need to apply for an Indian visa in Kathmandu, and I’m sure you can also do it in Colombo, Sri Lanka. For good information about getting an Indian visa in Nepal, see this blog post: https://poropekeadventures.com/travelling-from-nepal-to-india-by-land-everything-you-need-to-know/
As U.S. passport holders, we were able to get 10-year, multiple-entry visas for India before we started traveling in 2017. These allow us to stay in India for six months at a time, and that’s usually a good amount. However, on this visit we had one month between the end of our six-month period and a scheduled flight to England to spend Christmas with family. We could have spent that month in another place, but we were really enjoying our experiences in Uttarakhand, and were eager to see some of Madhya Pradesh. So we decided to do the visa run.
Where to do the India visa run?
There are several places where you can cross from India to Nepal. The most popular seems to be at Gorakhpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1981, we crossed into Nepal at Raxaul (in Bihar), and traveled on to Kathmandu. (That trip wasn’t exactly a visa run – it was something different. I’ll tell that story another day.)
But this time we were in Uttarakhand, a Himalayan state that’s west of Nepal, and we weren’t interested in traveling so far east; the next places we wanted to visit were pretty nearly straight south from Rishikesh, where we stayed for several weeks.
We had read up the various options for crossing from India into Nepal and discovered it’s possible to cross Nepal’s western border with India at Banbasa in the southern part of Uttarakhand. Some friends in Almora also anticipated making a visa run. They told us they were planning to travel to Banbasa, cross over into Nepal and come back in the same day, traveling via private taxi.
This sounded like a good visa run option, quick and easy, especially if you’re returning to the same place you started from. It turns out, however, that you’re not supposed to go and come back in the same day (though our friends did manage it!). Here’s how we did it.
Starting out: Rishikesh to Haridwar
Our Almora friends were already well positioned for Bombasa. First they took a three-hour taxi trip from Almora to Kathgodam, the rail head where we arrived when we first traveled from Delhi to Almora. From Kathgodam to Banbasa, the taxi ride was just over two hours, our friends said.
Rishikesh, where we were staying when our visa was coming to its end, is further west from the border with Nepal. We figured we’d travel first to Haridwar, just about an hour’s drive from Rishikesh, and then take the train from Haridwar to Haldwani (close to Kathgodam). From Haldwani, we figured we’d get a bus or taxi to Banbasa.
We were lucky to get a good, careful driver for the drive from Rishikesh to the Haridwar train station. Once we arrived, we had a few hours to wait for the train – it was the Dehradun-Kathgodam Express – so rather than hanging out in the station with all our luggage, we went to a hotel where we had stayed for a few nights several weeks earlier. The proprietor remembered us, and he kindly allowed us to stash our two larger pieces of luggage in the hotel storeroom for a few hours. We went into the hotel dining room for some food and tea, then headed out for a walk along the Haridwar ghats we enjoyed so much on our previous visit. Then we returned to the hotel and sat in the lobby until about 11:00 PM, as our train was scheduled to leave after midnight. I actually managed to nap on one of the comfortable couches.
It’s just a short rickshaw ride from the hotel to the train station, and we got on the train a few minutes past midnight. We were so tired we went to sleep almost right away. We were lucky on this trip: We’d managed to snag two tickets in the 2AC (two-tier air-conditioned) car. Two-tier AC is a very nice way to travel; you get clean sheets and blankets to spread over your bunk, and I always find it’s very easy to sleep with the rocking motion of the train. By the time we arrived in Haldwani a little after 7:00 AM, we were reasonably fresh and, after a cup of tea, felt ready to find a taxi to Banbasa.
We were able to get a taxi pretty quickly, and were pleased to get one that seemed in good condition. The drive was about two and a half hours, and at the halfway point the driver suggested tea and breakfast. We had a roadside snack of tea with pakora, and shared it with the driver. It was pleasant sitting under some trees, listening to birds as we sipped our tea.
We had talked about asking the driver to meet us and take us back to Haldwani, but we were uncertain whether we’d be able to come back the same day or would have to stay overnight, so we let it go. We figured we’d be able to take the bus from Banbasa back to Haldwani, and as it turned out, we were right.
What actually happens when you cross the border
When you arrive at Banbasa, you can either drive across the blue bridge connecting you to the last bit of India or you can walk through. Our taxi driver said he wasn’t allowed to proceed, but some Indian taxi drivers apparently are. Indian citizens don’t need visas, but they do need to fill out some kind of immigration paperwork.
We walked across the bridge and continued walking along a road until we reached the Indian immigration office. It’s on the right in a fairly substantial concrete building, well marked.
You don’t have to pay anything here, but you do need to show your passport and your visa, and get an exit stamp. The people in the immigration office were very friendly, asking us about our travels in India, and about our family in the United States. The two officers – one man, one woman – were bundled up in sweaters and shawls, and the lady was wearing a woolly hat. I was plenty warm from walking on a rough road, dragging my wheelie.
Once you leave the immigration office, you proceed up a road to an ornamental gate. It’s near here that you stop at a little roadside shelter on your right. I’m not sure why it’s necessary to stop here, but it is; an Indian officer looked at our passports and wrote some details down in a book. He was also quite friendly, and waved us on towards the ornamental gate and, somewhere beyond, the Nepalese border.
We continued walking along the dirt road, admiring the waterway next to us where water birds splashed among the green plants on the bank. It was a beautiful morning, with a bright blue sky, just a few clouds, and the freshness in the air that comes on a clear morning in November.
The road got rougher, with big rocks and ruts, and the going got tougher, especially with my wheelie. We soon reached a part of the road we quickly termed no-man’s-land, because that stretch evidently gets no maintenance whatsoever. Pools of soft loose dirt lay between large unruly granite mini-boulders; both were equally difficult with the wheelie. I wondered what happens to car tires on this stretch, and imagined them exploding or simply getting stuck. At one point there was also a largish herd of goats to negotiate, so I just stopped and let the animals flow around me.
At last, at the top of a small rise, we reached a paved road again, and signs telling us we had reached Gaddachauki in Nepal. There were some public-service health and safety warnings posted on billboards, and then shortly after, a few shops, including a bank on the right side of the road.
We went to the bank to change what we thought should be enough money for our overnight stay – US $20. It turned out to be a little more than we really needed, so we ended up changing a few dollars’ worth of Nepalese rupees back again the next day.
After the bank, we continued walking along the road until we saw the Nepalese immigration office on our left. Here’s where you pay for the privilege of staying overnight in Nepal. We bought the minimum visa: two weeks for US $25 each, or $50 total. Note that you must pay for your visa in US currency at Nepal’s land borders. We filled out a couple of easy forms and gave the immigration officer a passport picture of each of us.
What we did in Mahendranagar
After leaving the immigration office, we found a rickshaw and asked the driver to take us to a hotel. He took us to a road next to a bus stand that had quite a few hotels and casual-looking restaurants.
I know we were tired when we arrived, and when we’re tired, nothing looks attractive. However, even allowing for this state of mind, there really weren’t any nice hotels to choose from. We finally agreed to a room in the fifth hotel we looked at. It had a double bed that didn’t seem actually dirty, but didn’t seem terribly clean, either. There was an attached bathroom with a bucket for bathing, a tap and no sink. No hot water, either. The toilet was a squat, and the room was so narrow that Alan’s knees nearly bumped into the wall when he needed to squat. We both acted cheerful about it at the time, but later confessed to each other it was on the lower end of places we’d stayed in.
By now we were hungry and wanted tea, so after freshening up we went out to walk and search for food. We were a little surprised to realize that the restaurants weren’t vegetarian by default, as we can normally assume in most of India. So finding acceptable food took a little time. I instantly recognized the taste of the dal-baht (dal plus rice) we were served; it took me right back to my time in Nepal in 1982.
Mahendranagar wasn’t the prettiest town. The main street was dusty, with lots of motorcycles and a fair number of bicycles riding up and down. The hotel was opposite a bus stand, so there were plenty of buses cruising in and out, sounding their horns.
Still, it was a chance to see a new place. After our meal, we walked around town for a while. People stared at us curiously, but no more so than in any north Indian town where few foreigners are seen. It was interesting to notice that many restaurants and shops had pictures of Buddhist deities and gurus instead of Hindu ones. We ended up in the market, and bought some fruit for the evening and the next morning, figuring it might be hard to find another meal that day, or a reasonable breakfast.
It’s at times like these that it’s nice to have a good book to read. When there’s nothing else to do, it’s comforting to just stretch out on the bed and immerse yourself, or in our case, read aloud to each other. Our friends who did the visa run from Almora told us a friend of theirs checked into a similarly cheap hotel in Mahendranagar, bought himself some beer, turned on the (working!) TV, and watched the football for the rest of the afternoon and evening. That’s another way to pass the time.
Crossing back to India
The next morning we had an early breakfast and caught a rickshaw back to the border. While walking to the immigration office, we met another foreigner: a German man called Chris. This shouldn’t have surprised us; after all, it’s a border, so of course other travelers would be crossing here. But we had grown accustomed to seeing foreigners only rarely. We instantly fell into conversation.
The three of us went to the same Nepal immigration office that had sold us the Nepalese visas the day before. The men there were friendly, amused to note that Alan and I had stayed only one night. They grinned and said, “Come back!” as they stamped our passports with exit stamps.
We shared a rickshaw with Chris to cross into India. There, we had our passports stamped at the immigration office. It’s important to take note of where this stamp is in your passport, as some hotels will want to photocopy that page. You also need to make sure that when hotels write down your entry date into India, they use the most recent date, so no one ever decides you’re in violation of the terms of your visa.
On the Indian side of the border again
Once we got to Banbasa, we first had to find an ATM so Chris could get some Indian rupees. Then the rickshaw driver drove around, asking people the way to the bus stop. When we finally reached the place, it was not at all obvious. I had expected a big parking lot full of buses, with shops and dhabas around the edges, just like most Indian bus stands. Instead, it was just a spot by the side of the divided highway, in front of a couple of roadside dhabas by the side of the road. We had a hard time believing this was the actual bus stand until we noticed a lot of bags, boxes, bundles and backpacks piled up to one side.
Chris was catching a bus to Haridwar, which we would have done as well if we had known it was possible. We thought it wasn’t, so we had booked a hotel at Haldwani where we would wait for a train to Haridwar the next evening. The bus to Haldwani took just 2 ½ hours, which would give us lots of time to walk around Haldwani, catch up on sleep, and then have a place to relax before the train left around midnight the next day.
Haldwani isn’t a place tourists go to. There are no monuments that garner any fame, and there isn’t really a city center to speak of. As in many Indian cities, the streets are narrow for the amount of traffic they must carry, and there’s a lot of noise and pollution from motorcycles. Still, we were there for more than 24 hours, so it seemed like a good idea to walk around and enjoy whatever there was to see. We walked through what was clearly an older bazaar a bit, people-watching and looking for places to eat (as always). I entertained myself by taking photos and having a couple of fun conversations with people in the bazaar. Our hotel wasn’t bad at all, either, reasonably comfortable and clean. All in all, we made the stop as interesting as we could, but I didn’t regret the shortness of the visit.
Border run costs
The taxi run from Almora to Banbasa and back again was supposed to cost somewhere between Rs. 4,000 and Rs. 5,000. Our friends didn’t actually have to stay overnight; as it turned out, they were simply lucky enough to be allowed to go back to India the same day, something that’s normally permissible only for someone with a business visa. If they’d had to stay in Mahendranagar, they might have spent about 1,000 Nepalese rupees, equivalent to 700 Indian rupees. Their total costs would have been around Rs. 6,000.
Our total costs from Rishikesh to the border and back to Haridwar were Rs. 8400, or about U.S. $170, including the cost of the visas. Rishikesh is further from Nepal than Almora, where our friends started out. While we didn’t use a taxi for the whole trip, saving a bit on transportation, we did stay a night in Haldwani before moving on to Haridwar.
Here are the details for our spending, and remember the bus and train tickets are for two. Taxi costs are the same no matter how many passengers share the ride.
- Taxi from Rishikesh to Haridwar railway station: Rs. 1200
- Train tickets (2) from Haridwar to Haldwani: Rs. 1400 (2-tier AC)
- Taxi from Haldwani to Banbasa: Rs. 1800
- Rickshaw into Mahendranagar and back to the border next morning: Rs. 120 (60 each way)
- Hotel in Mahendranagar: Indian Rs. 700
- Food: Indian Rs. 500
- Rickshaw from border to Banbasa bus station: Rs. 200 (100 each, including some running around for Chris, who needed to find a bank)
- Bus from Banbasa to Haldwani: Rs. 200
- One night’s stay in Haldwani: Rs. 880
- Train from Haldwani back to Haridwar: Rs. 1400 (2-tier AC)
- Two two-week Nepal visas (minimum you can buy is two weeks): U.S. $50
Visa run FYIs
How often you have to leave India depends entirely on the kind of visa you have. Alan and I, both U.S. passport holders, got 10-year, multiple-entry visas before we started our travels in September 2017. This visa allows us to stay for up to 180 days each visit, and we do have to leave the country for at least one night in order to stay longer. (Yes, we know how lucky we are to have these visas; we’ve met Europeans who can stay only three months at a time.)
Our friends who went across the border and back in a single day just happened to be lucky: The person who dealt with them at Indian immigration allowed them to re-enter India the same day. The rule is that you can do this only with a business visa. So my advice is, don’t count on being able to do this unless you have a business visa. In which case, you probably aren’t reading this post.