The visa system in Burma (Myanmar) is evolving. Due to sudden and unpredictable changes that tend to be put in place with little notice, always double-check current requirements with an embassy. Still, we’ve put together an overview of the current system to help make things a bit simpler.
The eVisa has arrived for tourists! The 28 day single entry eVisa is US$50 (paid via Visa or Master Card), and you can apply online at the official website http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/. Upload a photo, and fill out the information, submit your application and then wait for the approval; processing time is up to three (3) working days and you have 90 days to activate it from the issued date.
Once you receive your approval letter via email, print it out and make sure to bring it with you - you NEED to present this letter upon arrival. Currently Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw airports accept entry with these eVisas.
The choice for pretty much everyone, a tourist visa will give you four weeks (28 days) to travel within Burma, as long as you only stay in guesthouses and hotels. Camping and staying with friends is technically illegal, unless the household registers you with the local authorities which requires official paperwork to be processed.
In November 2013, authorities began allowing people to apply for a tourist visa on arrival (VOA) before arrival in Yangon (Rangoon) through a travel agency. In early 2014, however, the option for obtaining this was suspended, then brought back, then removed again. Some travel agents do still appear to have the ability to set up visas on arrival, but your safest bet is to apply for your visa in person at an embassy. It can take up to five days and usually costs around US$30. If you are going through an agency, the cost can be around US$50.
Your tourist visa can be officially extended for two weeks with all the appropriate paperwork. You can even apply before you arrive, if you know you’ll stay longer than 28 days. Current paperwork required includes a letter of endorsement from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and costs US$50. Make sure to talk to an embassy or a travel agent beforehand for the current list of documents needed.
An overstay fee is only US$3 per day for up to the first 30 days; the fee becomes US$5 per day, for every day after 30 days. The process is simple and is the easy choice for most, IF and only IF, you do not plan on checking into any other hotel or guesthouse after your visa runs out; hotels and guesthouses verify visas during check-in and most will never accept a foreigner after their visa has expired. Plan wisely.
Things to watch out for
In theory, there is no difference between arriving and departing by air or land. Visas acquired beforehand are well accepted, and paying overstay fees at land crossings are as easy as paying them in the international airports.
We have come across a consistency issue with land checkpoint enforcement. Some land checkpoints — especially those with light traffic — tend to produce an odd story or two of an officer not knowing the current rules and regulations of the visa system currently in effect. We assume it is because of the communication issues that normally plague Myanmar in the rural areas. Sometimes it just depends on the person at the window. In this situation it is important to remain polite and request that they confirm the current information.
Types of border crossings
From Thailand, foreign tourists may enter Burma at at selection of overland crossings, including Tachilek, Myawaddy and Kawthaung. The Thai side of the crossings are at Mae Sai, Mae Sot and Ranong respectively.
The former and latter have been open for temporary visits to the immediate vicinity for some time and Thais have been free to enter at Myawaddy, but these crossings are also open for ordinary entry and exit; you can travel onwards into Burma from any of these points, and exit at whichever airport or land crossing takes your fancy. Be warned though that you will need to obtain a full tourist visa in advance. (It isn’t clear whether the old temporary, limited, pass system will still function or not.)
So which crossing might be an option for you?
The Tachilek border crossing into Shan State, from Mae Sai in Chiang Rai, has long been a popular visa-run destination with 500 baht temporary passes allowing overnight stays in Tachilek town or even, if things were quiet, a quick trip up to nearby Kengtung (Kyaingtong). While Tachilek itself has little more than a huge border market to offer, it does have flight links to Mandalay and Heho, while the three-hour drive along a decent road up to Kengtung opens up awesome trekking potential with its myriad surrounding hilltribe villages. Kengtung has several okay hotels and an airport as well.
Air Bagan in theory fly thrice-weekly to Heho (stopping at both Kengtung and Tachilek) while Yangon Airways also claim to have thrice-weekly flights from both destinations to Heho via Mandalay. Indeed if you are planning onward travel from Tachilek, then this is your only option at present since the road west to Taungyii is not currently officially open to foreign visitors due to security concerns (as well as it being a terrible road).
The crossing point into Kayin or Karen State is at Myawaddy, from Mae Sot, so not quite so convenient for travellers, and once across the border your options are again limited. Though some spectacular mountain scenery lies in this eastern part of Karen State, much of the region outside of the main towns is still off limits. Myawaddy, as expected, has a large bustling border market, but not a lot else going for it, though it does have a “road” to the state capital Hpa-An as well as Mawlamyine on the coast, which is also the nearest airport to the border. The road is not in great shape and bus travel will be at the mercy of road and weather conditions.
The crossing to Burma’s southernmost point Kawthaung (formerly Victoria Point) from Ranong has also been a popular visa run route. It’s also been open for limited access for some time, allowing visitors to renew their Thai visa, splash some cash at the border casino or check out some of the spectacular beaches north of town. Though we have heard of travellers making it all the way to Yangon, from here your official options are limited again due to road and security conditions. The Burmese government does not, at the time of writing, allow you to travel north by road to Mergui or Dawei. Furthermore since the local tourism infrastructure is — to say the least — basic, many of the myriad and unspoilt islands are badly served by boat and offer no accommodation. As far as visiting these islands, for now your best option is still to sign up for a liveaboard in Phuket or Khao Lak.
However there is some good news: Kawthaung has an airport! According to schedules (though Burmese domestic schedules are notoriously unreliable and pilots often don’t seem to know where they’re going until shortly before take off), planes do a daily circular route through Yangon, Mawlamyine and/or Dawei, maybe Mergui and with luck Kawthaung. Don’t take our word as gospel for it though, and note that being in possession of a ticket means nothing.
These border crossings are definitely a great step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t yet make all Burmese travel plain sailing. Do bear in mind that these crossings are all in very remote areas, domestic airlines will continue to have commercial considerations to take into account with their scheduling, and the Burmese government doesn’t have the money to construct lengthy road connections on their own — so things will change only slowly. If negotiations with Shan and Karen organisations continue to be fruitful and the demand is there, travel will continue to improve and areas will open up.