Arriving in Kathmandu for the first time can be daunting, especially after a long flight. Don’t expect orderly queues or organized procedures. The Arrivals hall can generally be described as chaos most of the time. But don't despair: Getting through and getting out is a rite of passage for travelers flying into Nepal.
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport definitely shows some wear. Stay patient and fight for your place in the queues. When uncertain, ask someone in a uniform where to go. Nepal—an exceptionally exciting, beautiful country—is waiting to be explored just outside!
Standing in Queues
After deplaning, the bumping and jostling begins as you work your way through a series of queues.
Don’t jump into the first long queue you see. Make no assumptions you're in the right place just because everyone else is waiting there. Look for the tiny signboards above desks far to the front, and ask others in the queue for which part of the process are they waiting. Otherwise, you could end up waiting 30 minutes to finally reach the desk then find out you were supposed to go to a different desk first! Much to the dismay of travelers, this scenario happens frequently.
Don’t expect orderly or polite queuing, especially if wait times are long. You’ll probably need to shuffle your feet and even stick out elbows to block attempts to cut line in front of you. People frequently cut in front of each other given the briefest opening.
Entering the Immigrating Hall
Arrive prepared! You should be given a visa form and customs form from your airline. Having these already completed will give you a big advantage once arriving. If you didn’t receive the forms from an attendant, you’ll find English versions among the piles of paper above the tables where people are filling out paperwork. If you don't see English versions available, push to the front of the queues to get forms from the actual immigration counter.
Pro Tip: Keep a pen and your passport handy on your flight. The arrival forms are often given out during landing when you can’t get to your carry-on bag in the overhead. Also, keep your boarding pass with luggage claim code sticker. You’ll need it later in the airport to claim your bags.
You can attempt to complete the Nepal visa-on-arrival form online and print it before arriving in Nepal. Travelers have reported lots of issues with the form, including the fact that the site is still not secured with https. Your personal identity information will be sent across the web unencrypted. No need to bother: You’ll still probably need to pick up an arrival card and complete it in the airport hall.
If you don’t have official passport photos (Nepal wants them trimmed to 1.5 inch x 1.5 inch, not the standard 2 inch x 2 inch) of yourself, you’ll need to first fight for one of the electronic kiosks on the left side of the room. Scan your passport, complete the visa form, and allow the machine to take a head-shot photo. If you already have your own passport photos (it's a good idea to carry some anyway), you can skip the kiosk step.
Tip: Passport photos come in very handy in Nepal; bring several recent ones with you. You’ll need passport photos when getting a SIM card for your phone, applying for a TIMS card (required) to go trekking in the Himalayas, and for other permits.
Getting a Visa on Arrival
Unless you arranged a tourist visa at a Nepalese embassy before entering Nepal, you have to get a visa on arrival for Nepal.
Completing the online visa-on-arrival form for Nepal is an option but not preferred until they implement better electronic security. For now, stick to pen and paper. Regardless of how you fill out the visa-on-arrival form (online, kiosk, or paper), you’ll need to know the exact address of your hotel in Kathmandu. No one really confirms the address; they just want to see the form completed. If needed, simply grab and keep handy a valid hotel address from a booking website or from your guidebook before arriving.
By default, all visas allow for multiple entries. This isn't very common for visa on arrival. You could technically leave Nepal (e.g., go to India) and come back within the valid duration of the visa.
Paying for Your Visa
After completing forms, you’ll approach the first counter to pay the visa fee. The preferred currency for payment is U.S. dollars, however, other currencies such as British pounds and euros are also accepted. Banknotes should be in decent shape, not torn or too crinkled. Damaged bills may be rejected.
If your currency isn’t acceptable as a means of paying the fee, you’ll find a small currency exchange window to the right of the counter. Avoid using this window if you can. If unavoidable, exchange only what you need to pay for the visa. Exchange rates aren’t the most favorable at this counter. Plan to use ATMs or exchange money elsewhere to get additional local currency for your visit.
Nationals of SAARC countries do not have to pay for a visa. Indian nationals do not need a visa to enter Nepal and can move freely between the two countries. Chinese tourists get visa fees waved. Children younger than 10 years old get a free visa.
Keep the colored receipt you receive for paying the fee, then go to the next counter where you’ll turn over all paperwork, photos, and receipts to an immigrating official. At that counter, you'll hopefully be issued your visa on arrival. When finished, exit to the left toward the baggage claim area.
Getting through the visa process will probably take so long that your bag will have been circulating the carousel for a while already. This sounds dangerous, but security patrols watch the luggage area to help prevent bags from disappearing. Keep your luggage claim tag handy. You may be asked to show that it matches the tag on your bag when exiting.
After claiming your luggage, the real "fun" begins! You’ll immediately be approached by pushy porters wanting to carry your bags. Don't let anyone grab your luggage (they'll try) unless you're willing to pay for their services. Porter services are inexpensive. But the problem is that, having just arrived, you probably won't yet have small denominations to pay them. They won't have change and will want to keep the difference.
Other people will approach you to rent a trolley. Technically, the airport trolleys are free—don’t fall for your very first scam in Kathmandu.
Exiting the Airport
After collecting your luggage, you’ll go downstairs to exit the airport. On your left, you’ll pass a currency exchange counter. Again, exchange only enough money to cover the taxi to your hotel. You can then use ATMs for a better rate thereafter. You’ll need to present your passport to exchange money. Keep the receipt; you'll need it if you want to exchange any currency back to your own when you exit the country.
You can book a prepaid taxi from the airport at several official counters, however, they often cost more than just choosing a taxi outside. If the mob of drivers outside vying for attention feels too overwhelming, go ahead and pay at the counter.
Finding an ATM
The single ATM is located outside the airport and may or may not be working. Turn right as you exit and walk a short distance to a small foyer. The ATM room is cramped, but keep your bags with you inside.
Transportation From the Airport
Although the most expensive option, arranging in advance for a transfer to your hotel will save additional stress and hassle. You’ll see your hotel representative standing with a sign as you exit the secure part of the airport. Having a driver also saves waiting in yet another queue to exchange money or use the one ATM. Once at the hotel, you can just ask reception where to find the nearest ATM.
You’ll undoubtedly have many offers for transportation as soon as you exit the airport. Persistent drivers will be waiting for you. Choose one, confirm for sure that he knows your hotel, then agree on a price. Never get inside of a taxi before first agreeing on the fare. Meters are rarely an option in this instance. There is no need to tip the driver extra in addition to your fare.
The ride from the airport to Thamel during off-peak times takes around 30 minutes.
Don’t be surprised if even “official” taxis look as if they survived a crash-up derby or two. The roads of Kathmandu are hectic. If there’s room, keep your luggage on the seat with you rather than putting it in the trunk. On occasion, rogue drivers have demanded more money—especially from passengers who aggressively negotiated a lower fare—before releasing luggage held hostage in the back.
Don’t expect drivers to have much change on hand. You may need to run into your hotel to break that big denomination banknote just received from the ATM.