Arriving into Kathmandu by plane … (Updated for 2019)
It seems entering into Nepal is more popular than I thought. I received an email from a Nepali person asking if I could tell them what it was really like to step right off the plane at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) and into Nepal.
I’m under pressure for time; so I scribbled all this down in one quick sitting. Raw and unedited. Take it for what it’s worth as someone who’s arrived into Nepal by plane on many occasions – keep calm and carry on!
- This first part is my personal experience on what it’s like to arrive into Kathmandu airport
- Click here to jump further down the page to the full step-by-step guide on arriving at Kathmandu Airport
- At the bottom of this page are links to more free guides on this website about leaving from the airport, first time travel guides and transport etc.
A tourist’s perspective on arriving into Nepal
Having won my heart ten+ years ago for its beauty, people, food, and culture I couldn’t help but want to come back to Nepal. As it was the tail end of 2011 (I’ve since been back many times and in 2019 nothing much changed in regards to arriving at the airport!). That’s nearly no change at Nepal’s shining glory of tourism introductions.
Over the years there’s been vague rumors of Nepal offering free tourist visas or sim cards at the aiport and it’s only just put a smile on my face. They are really trying, I keep thinking to myself. Then, as always there’s a catch, eg. free visas were only applicable to those summiting Everest and in 2016 for Chinese people only, I handed over my crisp one hundred-dollar for a three-month visa with less of a smile as I really wanted a free SIM card – this “promotion” only lasted three days too.
“First time here?” grunted the immigration officer not even looking up at me.
I sighed, not even a traditional Namaste greeting. “I wrote on my visa application that this was not my first time here.”
He looked up, confused. Then, finally shuffling through the papers actually read what I was instructed to painstakingly fill out when approaching Nepal airport. All this before I was then bounced between counters alongside the other tourists queuing up. Each of us equally confused at this initial procedure of different immigration forms and malfunctioning visa ATM style machines to fill out for different counters and payment desks at Nepal’s Tribhuvan international airport.
Do note that in 2019 the little bits of immigration paper is not always handed out … only when the machines in Kathmandu airport are completely broken. If they are not broken then you need to scan your passport into them and then enter in more details than you would if you applied at an embassy.
My advice in 2019? Apply for a tourist visa online to save yourself a lot of time when arriving into Nepal. Read more about how to apply for a Nepali tourist visa online as it’s not that straight forward.
A second security screening
Yes, new in late 2018 and in 2019 is a second security screening after you landed and have gone through immigration. After going through the frustrations of stripping off all metal before leaving for Kathmandu it seems you must now do the same after you arrive.
It turns out the reason for this is not about security but more about gold, silver and gems being brought into Nepal by overseas Nepali workers. The second screening only occurs if you happen to be on a flight that has a lot of Nepali on-board. Bizarre, frustrating and annoying just about sums it up if you do happen to be on a flight selected for a second screening. And just in case you thought you’d taken a wrong turn and were in departures.
Baggage collection at Kathmandu Airport
Fighting for my bags
It was then on to the rugby scrum that is baggage collection. Little men in tattered coats descended first, asking if I wanted a trolley. I remembered the hefty charge once you get outside. “No charge for trolley” signs are irrelevant compared to the “I pushed your bags fee”.
No, I ignored them and then joined the every man or woman for themselves shoulder charge of trying to retrieve ones bags. Twenty minutes later my bag did at least arrive. No thanks to the multitude of Nepali men encircling every bag that comes out onto the conveyor belt. Every man defiantly lifting each one up to see if it’s theirs.
Very disconcerting considering they swarm around the small door blocking any view of your own luggage should it emerge unscathed. You simply have no idea if someone has taken your bag either my mistake, or otherwise. Such a thing happened just before mine arrived. A mild scuffle ensued, along with re-examining of baggage numbers and much shouting. At least it made for some unsettling entertainment for newcomers to Nepal.
Sadly, the security men on duty saw no need to interject in all this. Some pale-faced tourists moved closer together in a defensive posture, surely wondering what they had let themselves in for.
Never mind, as you wheel or more likely drag your bags across to the sometimes working security scanner a 007 like security man will stride out from behind a building column and ask to see your bag tags and tickets.
Where to change money at Kathmandu Airport
Gimme some money!
Now it was time for that FOREX counter. I waited five minutes for a man to appear. My ten dollars was stared at as if an insult.
“Is this all?”
“Yes, I’m just taking a taxi.”
He raised his eyes to heaven, waggled his head and gave the typical bad exchange rate. (in 2019 they are now “insisting” that USD $50 is the minimum you can exchange at the airport)
Get a Nepali SIM card at Kathmandu Airport
Avoid the tourist sim at all costs
There’s no free SIM card. There used to be, not anymore. Past the money exchange inside the airport to the right are a couple of storefronts. Two of these are for NTC (Nepal Telecom) and NCELL. They are the two main mobile networks in Nepal. You can buy a sim card here in most formats – read here about buying a sim card in Nepal.
The person on duty in both stores was refusing to give out just a sim card. Instead they wanted to sell “tourist sim card packages” for around 600 rupees that included a paltry amount of data. All I wanted was a regular local sim card that would allow me to buy a data package. So did the people in front of me who were struggling to find passport photos and photocopies just to buy an over priced sim card you can get in local store for 100 rupees. Let’s move on.
Money and no sim card in hand it was on to the ravenous vultures of taxi men waiting to descend upon me outside. Like them or not they are far cheaper than the “offical” taxi booth beside the sim card stores.
Distantly in the back of my head I wondered if anyone had yet created a tourist airport bus to Thamel yet. A nice gesture considering they are madly promoting visit Nepal in 2020.
Get a taxi from Kathmandu airport to Thamel
The delightful taxi men of Nepal
I’ve heard there is a local micro van outside the main gates, fuel strikes pending. It’s a long walk. There’s also a bus from the airport to Thamel … but unfortunately for the past two years it’s not been operational.
Looking around I saw nothing but a mass of name cards, and a scraggly bunch of taxi men getting ready to pounce on the new arrivals. Calls of “Just one thousand rupees” met my ears as one by one new tourists were plucked off along the pathway.
Of course this could all be mildly settled if I just roamed around to try to locate the second “official” taxi ticket booth for a 1000 rupees – plus random guess charge.
“Only five hundred rupees sir.” A straggler held on and followed me.
“Two hundred fifty,” I quipped back.
He laughs, in that way they do, “No sir, no fuel in Kathmandu this week …”
“There’s never any fuel in Kathmandu in any week,” I reply. “Three hundred last.” (in 2019 the cost is 400 rupees, more below).
He looked back at the dwindling crowds, then back at me before taking his chances and running back to the remaining tourists facing this onslaught.
I look around. Night was descending. There were a few taxi men standing to the side, but none were interested in my three hundred rupees. Had I over shot my mark?
I walked down towards the main exit road dreading the thought of a matchbox Nepali micro van fiasco when finally a taxi stopped. A typical barrage of bartering followed and I got in for three hundred and fifty, plus the promise of another fifty later if we arrived at the right destination.
Welcome to Kathmandu
Twenty minutes later and I am back at my old guesthouse. It’s only a short 20 minute ride from the airport to Thamel. However if you arrive a beween 4pm and 8pm a lot yourself 1 hour due to traffic. Likewise between 8am and 11am.
In my guesthouse I thought about the welcome back to Nepal the airport gives. The last year of tourist was in 2011 and the next is in 2020. Not much has changed. Good thing it’s now 2019 the formers slogan of “was once, actually, really, more than enough!” is being replace with “Naturally Nepal” … If English is one’s native language then the irony holds true.
“The adventure awaits” is more like it.
Never mind the arrival, I’m not a first time visitor. I know tomorrow I will head out and avoid Kathmandu’s Thamel district to meet some real Nepali people. People eager for me to tell them of how things have progressed outside of this tiny little landlocked country over the past few years.
We will share tea more than once. They will wonder why I came back. And I will wonder why I didn’t come back sooner.
Are there other International airports in Nepal?
Not really, Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) remains the only international airport in Nepal for now. In theory there are going to be two more international airports soon, but there’s nothing to get excited about yet. Local media hypes this up to around five more airports …
The first new “International” airport in Nepal to be built is likely to be Gautam Buddha Airport (BWA) which is located in Bhairawa (near Lumbini) in the south of Nepal. It’s a good 5 hours from Kathmandu. There are plans to create a “Fast Track” road linking it to Kathmandu. The airport is still under construction and not scheduled to be finished until the end of 2019 and even then the road is not ready or possible not even started.
Keep in mind 2019 is when it’s “scheduled” to be finished. There is a long history of delays in Nepal. And, the fast track road is not nearly started. The reality is that the airport will likely be a “Regional International Airport” for many years before truly becoming an international airport as it’s largely targeting visitors to Lumbini from India and China.
The second “International Airport” under construction is the long delayed is the new Pokhara International Airport. It’s not scheduled to be finished until 2021 and is also likely to be a “regional international airport” first. Largely catering to regional tourists from China.
So, the reality? Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) will likely remain the only true international airport in Nepal for the next few years despite the claims of many PR types. Moreover, Tribhuvan is also far more convenient to the vast majority of international travelers arriving into Nepal than any of the other airports even when they are completed.
Do note the following if you are arriving in Nepal during 2019. Plans are underway for a Chinese contractor to upgrade the facilities and runways at Tribhuvan over from April onwards. This can mean one of two things. Nothing will happen. Or expect delays. Just remember – it’s an adventure. With that in mind, below are more practical tips on surviving Kathmandu Airport for the first time.
Quick tips on how to survive arriving at Tribhuvan airport (updated 2019)
International arrivals and departures from Tribhuvan airport can often be more convoluted than necessary. While many passengers don’t experience this much annoyance or frustration it can still happen. It’s best to be prepared in either case.
Getting through Kathmandu Airports immigration queues
- Fill out your arrival papers on the plane once they are handed out (some airlines no longer hand these out)
- Upon departure from your plane push and shove like everyone else to get ahead first
- Arriving into the immigration lounge take note of the queues (Nepali passport holders / foreign passports), walk over to the ATM like electronic passport scanners kiosks to the left (try to find a working one first)
- Place your machine readable passport ID page over the scanner on the lower left. Make sure the barcode bit of it is directly over the black part of the scanner. Let it scan … wait a bit … try again. If successful you need to confirm by pressing on the touch screen. You’ll be prompted to enter in your hotel details and length of stay. There’s a very annoying Nepali “Ward” and “District” codes to be filled out. I pressed “0000” for them all and it accepted it (Thamel is Ward 29 & District is Bagmati)
- The machine will then try to take a photo of you. Yes, you’ll probably have to duck and step around a bit. Keep pressing the unresponsive “take photo” button until it finally obeys and your photo is taken. Confirm all your details and collect the bit of paper it spits out
- If it’s a full flight and these passport scanners have long queues (in early 2019 many were broken and the staff did not know how to operate them) then it might be worth it to skip them and just queue at the regular counter.
- You can speed things up by applying online for a Nepal visa (read more about visas in Nepal)
- Walk up to the next counter which is at the end of the arrival hall or to the right of the passport machines. Hand over the slip of paper from the passport machines or from your online application along with your passport and with the required money (USA, RMB, Sterling or Euro – you’re safer with USD) for a two or three colored receipts (there is an ATM in arrivals but it rarely works so don’t count on it)
- Turn to the right and there will be several kiosks for visas. Some are for 15/30 days others are for 90 days. Don’t queue at the wrong counter or you’ll be sent to another one down the row. Check first, then queue. There are little signs above them
- Hand over all your receipts and passport before confirming what type of visa you want. Get your sticker like stamp. Leave to your left
Get your luggage back at the airport
- After immigration you need to go down another escalator and take a right (rarely is it sign posted) and on an odd occasion through yet another security machine! Then finally to the baggage belts.
- You should have a small bar code (baggage code) and number stuck onto your ticket or passport that should match your luggage – don’t lose it!
- If in a group one person should remain back with all hand luggage while everyone else forms a protective circle and gets as close to the luggage conveyor belt exit window as possible
- If alone, make sure all your stuff is zipped up and barge in head first to get a clear view of where your bags should appear
- All the baggage trolleys are free to use. Don’t accept offers to carry luggage from everyone
- Do not be afraid to push back at the heaving mass of men, women and old people elbowing you anywhere they can while waiting for the luggage to appear. Give an inch and you’ll be jostled to the back in an instant!
- Be prepared for some close bodily contact with high odor people of all types
- When the conveyor belt starts to move stand your ground!
- If you see your bag appearing don’t move, it will/should get to you. Don’t panic when you see at least five people pick it up to see if it’s theirs. Even if you are the only person in the world with a bag covered in pink polka dots
- Grab your bag and allow the crowd to slowly push you to the back
- Move out to the main clearing and be prepared for a security man/woman to jump out. He wants to compare that ticket number which should match your bag ticket number
- If there’s electricity or the machine is working have your bag x-rayed on the way out
Changing money at Kathmandu Airport
- There’s a small forex near the first exit doors: wait for a little man to appear – he’s quite grouchy so don’t take crap from him
- Ask him the rates. He will ask you how much you want to change. His minimum change is USD $50 which he will give a bad rate. You’ll some of it for a taxi.
- Leave and try and not feel defeated by his smirk
Get a SIM card at Kathmandu Airport
- There are two mobile company kiosks to the right of the first exit doors. One is NCELL and the other is NTC. Do be wary of the tourist sim card packages. Read more about buying a SIM card in Nepal including the latest prices.
- Both mobile kiosks claim to be open 22 hours a day. However don’t be surprised if they are closed after 7pm. If so, don’t fear as there are plenty of places selling SIM cards in Kathmandu.
Getting from the airport to Thamel or Kathmandu city by taxi
- There is an offical taxi booth both next to the sim card store and outside the arrivals (take a right and walk about 3 mintues) with rather excessive rates. Thamel is about 700 rupees officially but expect 1000 at night.
- The unofficial 2019 rate from the airport to Thamel is 450 rupees. 400 if you are really, really good at bargaining. 500 is if you just don’t want to bargain much. 600-800 will get you less hassle. If you intend to pay anything over this then please just send it to me or buy one of my Nepal guidebooks which explains all this very succinctly. Otherwise you could always use the “official” taxi rank and get charged 1,000+ rupees (there is zero difference in car standards)
- Once outside the main building doors (you can bring your baggage trolley) ignore the mass of taxi men running up to you and turn right, do not say hello or Namaste, just walk
- When the crowds thin out blurt “250 rupees Thamel” to one of them. Keep walking. Repeat until there is only one man left
- Nod your head at the repeated mentions of the cost of fuel. Say you know there is a fuel shortage from when you were here last week. Make sure he understands this. Begin the bargaining process with the repeated walking away tactic
- Eventually the taxi man will agree on a price then disappear. He’s actually gone off to find another taxi man to see if they can squash you in with some other people or a “Friend”. You should never accept a taxi ride with a “Friend” even if they are just going to the exit gate.
- Make sure, and triple confirm the taxi man knows the exact address of your hotel and agrees on the price. Get his name. Repeat the price. Get in the taxi and enjoy the ride – you’re nearly there
- Real fuel shortages do occur regularly, a taxi price usually goes up 100-1000 rupees depending on its duration.
- There is a bus (micro van) going from the airport gate to the city. It’s a pain but will only cost you 10 rupees and will drop you near Swayambhunath.
- During strikes there is a real bus that will take you to/from the airport/Thamel
Leaving Kathmandu Airport
In case you were wondering if it was just as fun leaving as it is arriving I wrote some tips about leaving from Kathmandu Airport.
Meanwhile, if this is your first time here. Welcome! This is the best website in the world for finding out about your travels to and in Nepal. Nothing is “sponsored” everything is paid for by me. So, you’ll always get 100% original content and the truth!
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- Here’s information planning your trip to Nepal
- Here’s information about how to get around in Nepal
- Here’s information about changing money and ATMs in Nepal
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- Here’s the home page of the best online guide to Nepal (hint all the above and a lot more are on the right of this page)
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