Gorgeous views, a sense of spirituality in the air, and mountains that will leave you breathless (sometimes quite literally). Tibet is a land that’s unique in many ways, making it a great destination for travelers. This uniqueness, however, also extends to the documents required to travel there. Even if you visit China, you will still need to take some additional steps to travel to Tibet. This guide seeks to help you easily understand the permits you’ll need to visit Tibet.
When to Travel to Tibet
Tibet can be visited at almost any time of the year, with the exception of the months in which the Chinese government restricts the entry of foreigners. This closure generally occurs mid-February to early April, but these dates do change occasionally. Be sure to contact a local guide before going to confirm available dates for travel. April to October has good weather and landscapes, with August and September being the best months to travel.
Navigating the Confusing Permits
While traveling in China only requires having a Chinese Visa, there are places where additional permits are needed. Tibet is one of those cases. While a “Tibet Visa” does not exist, an additional permit is needed just to visit Llasa, with an additional one required for travel outside this city. That’s a visa and two permits in total if you would like to visit, let’s say, Mount Everest. But don’t worry, they are manageable to obtain and should not stop you from visiting this amazing location.
Chinese Visa (required by foreigners)
This visa is required for all travelers to Tibet who do not have a Chinese ID card, Chinese passport or are not citizens of Macao or Hong Kong. If China is your main destination, it must be obtained before arrival in China. For more details, see our post on how to get a visa for China. Otherwise, if you are only transitting through China, learn how to get a Chinese transit visa. It’s important to mention that you cannot use a transit visa to travel outside the city you received it in. Therefore, you can’t use it to travel to Tibet.
* When applying for your Chinese visa, it is recommended that you don’t mention Tibet in your itinerary, as this may cause delays or even prevent you from receiving it. Don’t worry, you can add destinations to your itinerary later other than those originally mentioned in your application.
Tibet Travel Permit (required to visit Llasa)
After obtaining your Chinese visa, you still need to apply for a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP), also know as the Tibet Tourism Bureau Permit (TTB Permit). This document will be requested before being allowed to board any train or flight to Lhasa. Take note of the fact that this is a permit and not a visa. It must be requested at least 15 days before you depart for Tibet. However, you should apply more than 20 days in advance to ensure enough time for processing and delivery to your hotel before taking a train or flight. Another important thing to remember is that it can only be obtained for you by a local guide and requires being in a tour (private or in a group). This permit is only valid for travel within Lhasa, not outside of it. To go beyond the city, see the permit below.
Aliens’ Travel Permit (required by foreigners for travel outside Llasa)
Tibet is a large region and Lhasa is only a small part of it. With the ATP, you will be able to travel to almost anywhere in Tibet. Thankfully, it can be obtained on the spot by your local guide once you arrive in Lhasa and only takes about 30 minutes to process.
Military Permit (required for travel to specific areas in Tibet)
This permit is needed to travel to certain specific areas of Tibet that are considered “sensitive” by the Chinese military.
Tibet “Group” Visa (for travel from Nepal to Tibet)
Don’t be confused by the word “group” in the name, this visa can be obtained by solo or group travelers. If you plan on traveling to Tibet from Nepal, this is the visa you need to get. It works as a two-in-one permit that both allows you to visit Lhasa, as well as travel to other Chinese destinations afterwards, without having to apply for a separate Chinese visa. You can obtain it by asking your local guide and should be requested at least 7 days before travel to Tibet. Another name for it is the “Public Security Bureau (PSB) permit”. Note that if you already have a Chinese visa, it will get cancelled when you receive this one as you can’t have both at the same time.
Steps to Acquire Tibet Travel Permits
1) Contact a local guide to determine a good itinerary and book a private or group tour with them. This is a necessary step, since all visitors to Tibet must always be accompanied by a guide and only they can apply for travel permits on your behalf.
2) Send the guide a scanned copy of your passport. Include the Chinese visa page, unless you are applying for the Tibet Group Visa from Nepal.
3) Receive the permit. It is usually sent to the hotel you are staying at before departing by train or plane to Tibet. If you need it, the Alien Travel Permit can be obtained by your guide upon your arrival to Llasa. Remember to carry permits with you at all times during your trip.
*The requirements for each visa may change over time. Always check with a local guide when planning your trip.
Preventing Altitude Sickness
One thing to remember when going to Tibet is to take it easy. You’re going to be at around 12,000 ft. above sea level and available oxygen will be reduced. Regardless of how fit you may be, don’t underestimate the possibility that you will get altitude sickness.
So, what happens when it strikes? Common symptoms include:
Headaches, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, nausea and dizziness.
A general suggestion when traveling to Tibet is to take the train to get there, which is specially designed to help you slowly adjust to the decreasing oxygen levels. The train even includes access to oxygen masks in case you need it. On the way back, especially since it takes more than 20+ hours to get to Tibet from the closest city, you can take a plane.
Flights to Tibet
Planes fly out regularly to Lhasa from many major cities in China such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Since there are no direct international flights, chances are you will be boarding or transferring flights in one of these cities.
Trains to Tibet
As with flights, trains toward Tibet depart from many major cities in China. Depending on which city you come from, the duration of your trip can go anywhere from 20 – 40+ hours. Fast-speed or ordinary trains will usually be required to reach a station on the Qinghai–Tibet Railway, after which you will transfer to a special train. As mentioned above, these provide access to oxygen and even have an on-board doctor to assist passengers in getting used to the heights. Be sure to read our post on taking trains in China.
The road to Tibet is a long one and has some challenges along the way. However, once you arrive, the feeling of achievement and amazing vistas will no doubt make it worth the effort. If you’re interested in Tibet, be sure to contact a local guide to learn more and prepare your trip.
Have any additional tips or advice? Let us know in the comments!