After months in the works, the Indian visa on arrival system has been extended to citizens from 113 countries, including the United States. While the new process is streamlined, the system has a few disadvantages for long-term travelers.
For tourists who are traveling for 30 days or less, the new ETA system (dubbed the "E-Tourist Visa" in April 2015) will untangle a lot of bureaucratic obstacles.
The Indian subcontinent has a lot to offer, but before the visa reform, India was receiving fewer visitors than Malaysia or Thailand. With India more accessible than ever, now’s the time to plan the trip of a lifetime.
Who can take advantage of the visa on arrival?
As of 2016, over 100 countries were included for E-Tourist Visa eligibility. More will be added to bring the total to 150 countries. If you intend to visit India for less than 30 days, you should certainly look into getting an E-Tourist Visa.
Citizens of approved countries with Pakistani origins (parents or grandparents) are not eligible for an Indian E-Tourist Visa on arrival and will need to follow the old process.
Travelers wishing to visit controlled territories such as Arunachal Pradesh require a special permit and may not be eligible for a visa on arrival.
How the New Visa on Arrival for India Works
You’ll first apply for your ETA via a simple, online form. A scan of your passport photo page and a full-face picture of yourself on a white background will need to be uploaded.
Pay the $60 fee, and you’ll then receive an application ID via email. Within four days, you should receive your ETA via email. Print this document and present it at immigration in one of India’s 16 participating visa-on-arrival airports within 30 days of approval. At the airport, you’ll receive your visa-on-arrival (E-Tourist) stamp and be good to go in India for 30 days.
The Existing Tourist Visa Process
The existing tourist visa application process for India was fraught with pitfalls, some of which screwed up travel plans and claimed many non-refundable application fees. Potential visitors to India were required to complete a lengthy-and-confusing form, then wait to hear back.
If you intend to stay in India for longer than 30 days, want multiple entries, or are from one of the countries not yet included, you’ll still need to apply for a tourist visa via the regular application form.
What the India E-Tourist Visa Means for Backpackers
India is ridiculously big and diverse. Backpackers and long-term travelers wanting to explore several regions of the subcontinent won’t be very happy with the visa-on-arrival’s short duration of only 30 days. To make matters worse, the visa on arrival cannot be extended once you are already in India, and it cannot be converted into another type of visa.
Note: You can only be granted two E-Tourist Visas per calendar year.
For that reason, backpackers wanting more time on the ground will probably be better off using the old Indian visa application form to apply for stays of longer duration. On the other hand, the Indian visa on arrival is perfect for the many visitors who only have time to travel the popular Delhi-Agra-Jaipur triangle. A surprising number of visitors to India come only for the Taj Mahal or a brief foray into Rajasthan.
A possible workaround could be to travel to nearby Nepal or Sri Lanka -- both worthwhile destinations -- then reapply for a second ETA and fly into a different part of India for an additional 30 days. Remember, you can only apply for the ETA twice per year!