Paperwork. That’s what you are cycling around the world for, isn’t it? Probably not, but when you are queueing up for the umpteenth time outside an embassy in some strange country just remember that you are very lucky to hold a passport that even allowed you to get that far…
On this page I will list all the visas I had to obtain and how I got hold of them. Please note I hold both a UK and Danish passport. Hopefully that will give you an idea of the effort and money involved. Rules change all the time and different nationalities have varying rights. Don’t take any of this as fact! The traveler’s grapevine is your best resource, The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is often a good place for updated info, as is Wikitravel. For Central Asia the Caravanistan website is your new bible.
In a nutshell: everything before Iran was easy, between Iran and China it was super complicated, everything after China was relatively straightforward.
Borders have tightened since the refugee crisis but I didn’t have to show my passport once until I crossed out of the EU into Croatia. I could enter every country in Europe visa free and Turkey for 3 months with a DK passport (UK citizens now need a visa, I believe). In the Caucuses both Armenia and Georgia allowed me entry for at least half a year visa free.
If you are trying to enter Iran on either a UK or USA passport you will need to be on a approved government tour. Hopefully the rules will change (for us Brits, at least) but at the moment it’s not really possible to travel freely there. I entered on my DK passport having applied for visa in Trabzon, Turkey. Trabzon used to be a rare place where you could get an Iranian visa without a letter of invitation (LOI) but that changed shortly before I arrived in June 2015.
You can apply for a LOI with a travel agent online. Check reviews/forums for which ones are currently reliable and how long they take to process before you buy. I used Key 2 Persia, it took me a week to get sent via email and a few days to process in town. If you are a woman you will need to be wearing a headscarf in your passport photo. Do not say anything about the bicycle! My travel agent only gave me the LOI when I promised (lying) that I wouldn’t try to cross the border on two wheels. Officially it is not allowed to cross the Iranian border by bicycle but I have never heard of anyone having trouble.
UK passport holders can get Uzbek visas without a LOI but not DK nationals. I wanted to apply for my Uzbek visa before entering Iran because without it I wouldn’t be able to get a Turkmenistan transit visa. The Uzbek visa is date specific, so if you want to get it that far in advance you need to be pretty confident about dates. The other alternative is to apply for it in Tehran, Iran. Then you will have to get both Turkmen and Uzbek visas in town which will take a little time. Unless you are very fast you will then need to extend your Iranian visa (relatively easy process).
The embassy staff in Istanbul told me that I could get the Uzbek visa on my DK passport without LOI because I had the UK one. (I didn’t want to switch to UK passport around Iran but I also didn’t want to pay and wait for the LOI). Rather than wait in Istanbul for a week they said I could collect it in Ankara so I cycled over there. When I reached Ankara the embassy refused to process my application without a LOI. I’d either have to wait for more paperwork or get it put on my UK passport. It took a further week to go through but in the end I had my stamp for €80. You had to pay the money in a local bank. The branch wouldn’t accept payment from someone without a Turkish ID so you have to find a local to make the payment in their name.
Once in the country you need to register your stay. Usually once every three days is OK. I had one gap for longer but the slips were never checked on the way out.
I applied for my Turkmen visa in Tehran, Iran. It would be silly to apply for it anywhere else as the transit visa is only 5 days and date specific. You need to be certain what day you will cross the border! You can only get a tourist visa if you enter the country with a government-approved guide. Turkmenistan is the North Korea of Central Asia. Take your transit visa and cycle fast!
Around the time I was in Iran (July/August 2015) the embassy decided they’d stop issuing visas for a while. Many people were rejected but I got lucky in the end (although I had to make 3 visits to the embassy hoping they’d actually open the door). I was even warned by the staff member that I might not get the stamp. (Tip – in these situations try and get a contact number and call them every day. A little pressure never hurts). You can collect the visa in Mashhad. On the road between cities my umpteenth phone call connected and I received good news regarding my visa.
I’d actually asked for 7 days but was only given 5 in Mashhad. It used to be unheard of anyone getting a week to transit but recently a few travellers had gotten lucky – so it is worth asking. If you stay more than 5 days you will need to register with the authorities or you’ll be in trouble leaving the country.
I think the visa cost was about $80 and there was an arrival tax of $9 – making it a very expensive 5 days!
I applied for my Tajik visa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I was unlucky once again. For almost two weeks the embassy was not issuing visas for foreigners. I kept getting turned away with “not today, perhaps in a few days”, I got a phone number and kept on calling. The Tashkent embassy was an absolute scrum. I’d parked my bike in Bukhara and took the night train up twice to the capital. When the visa finally got proceeded it cost $45 and finalised in a couple of days.
To travel the Pamir Highway you need a permit for the GBAO region. You can get this in Dushanbe. If there is unease along the Afghan border they occasionally don’t issue them.
Visa free for UK & DK citizens for 60 days.
Visa free for UK passport holders, not for DK. (I believe it is free for both now).
Here’s where it gets complicated. How to get enough time in China to cross the country? More time = more faff and more money. Many cyclists catch a train from Urumqi to Chengdu and cycle down to SE Asia extending their 1 month visa once along the way. 2 months in the country is easily done but longer is also doable…
In 2015 neither Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan or Almaty, Kazakhstan would let you apply without going through a travel agent. As a result Central Asia is an expensive place to get a Chinese visa. Mine cost $110 in Kyrgyzstan. I applied with a travel agent in Osh and collected it in the capital. You still need to produce a fake itinerary (no need for flights & hotel bookings) and a couple visits to the embassy to answer questions. (As always – don’t mention the bicycle and leave out Tibet and Xinjiang on the itinerary). It was not possible to get more than one month this way.
Tehran, Iran used to be one of only a couple places in the world where you could easily get a 3 month visa (with 3 months to enter) but they stopped that around the time I was there.
If you apply in your home country it’s much easier to get a 2 month visa. Maybe even 3. I met one bloke who blagged 6 months in Australia! Usually you only have 3 months to enter so this may not be an option if you are already on the road. You could always send a passport home. This was an option for me as a dual-citizen. You may even be able to get an extra passport. If you present a good reason (eg. I’m going to Israel but I need a separate passport as it will jeopardise my chances of being allowed into Iran) they sometimes give one. This would be pretty useful for many reasons.
Look online for which places are good to extend a Chinese visa. Some towns won’t do it, others will give you the extra month no questions asked. Have a look and aim for one with a good reputation.
Cycling across China in 2 months is doable but probably not much fun. To get more time I extended my visa in Jiayuguan for $20 (relatively easy but they had some computer problems and it took a few days) and arrived in Chengdu a week before it expired. Then I flew to Hong Kong to try and apply for a second visa. This is where it went a little pear shaped:
I was rejected. I’d chosen not to switch passports (I thought that might look dodgy if picked up on) but I’d produced an itinerary with a fake hotel bookings (if you ever need to do this go on booking.com and just reserve rooms in places with free cancellation). I didn’t make a fake plane ticket out of the country hoping that an explanation of overland travel (and a hotel booking in Hanoi) would be sufficient. It wasn’t. My application was rejected and I was told that I’d spent too long in China. I could reapply in my home country. The only problem was that my bike and luggage was all in Chengdu!
Now that the embassy had rejected me none of the travel agents could help me. They just send the paperwork to the same people I’d just had the ‘no’ from. Luckily there is a man who can help. Should you find yourself stuck in Hong Kong go and visit Mr Fred in Chungking Mansion. I have no idea how he did it, but somehow he got me a new Chinese visa. It came at a price: $120 (four times what it would have been otherwise in HK).
I extended one final time in Shangri-La (very easy, also $20) giving me a grand total of 4 months in China to explore the back roads around the edges of the Tibetan Plateau and Yunnan. Not a cheap 4 months though…
Visa free for a fortnight to both UK and DK passport holders. Officially you need proof of onward travel but I was never asked for this.
I could buy a visa on arrival for $35. Be warned: at the quiet northern crossing from near Pang Hoc they sting you with a few dollars of ‘official’ bribes.
Visa free for one month. Should you wish to stay longer you need to get an extension. It’s an easy job but costs about £20.
I applied for my visa in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Easy peasy for 800THB.
Malaysia & Singapore
You can’t extend the one month visa-free inside the country. If you need more time apply for a visa in advance (I applied in Penang, Malaysia – a good place to apply for the 60 day visa) and then extend that inside. It is a complicated, fiddly and expensive I’m afraid to say! I blitzed it across the country after my attempt at an extension went pear-shaped. 60 days in Penang cost me about $45.
Free entry for DK citizens not UK. The latter need to obtain some paperwork before arriving at the border.
Working Holiday visa (417) cost about £200-250 (easy to make that back in Oz!) Apply online and gets processed pretty quickly. It’s valid for a year and you can work with the same employer up to 6 months. A tourist visa is 3 months.