If you’re on a backpacking on a budget and can’t afford to fly or if you’re from India and don’t have a passport, crossing overland from Indian to Nepal is an easy option for a getaway into another land.
Although it does take a lot of your time (depending on where you’re heading from), it’s worth the long journey to save some much needed dollar (or rupees should we say :P)!
I crossed from India to Nepal and vice versa on my recent trip in 2017 and although in general the process was meant to be quite simple, it really wasn’t plain sailing! It was long, dreary, dodgy in parts (especially around the border) and a more than a little stressful.
So, hopefully my account of things can give you some tips on what time to go, what to avoid and how to make the process a little simpler for you! Here’s all you need to know about crossing over the Indo-Nepal Sonauli border!
Getting here can be quite a lengthy process from India. Most travellers choose to leave from Varanasi which is around a 10 hour bus journey from the Sonauli border.
When you get through the Nepal border, the main cities of Chitwan, Pokhara and Kathmandu in Nepal are a further 6/7 hours bus journey away (no trains run in Nepal) so it’s quite a long journey to take in one day!
I decided to get the new A/C Indo-Nepali ‘friendship’ bus which was a comfortable semi-sleeper Volvo. It’s a direct bus that heads from Varanasi to Kathmandu via Sonauli and takes around 15 hours (supposedly).
In the end, it actually took around 30 hours which was horrendous, but, was a means to an end. If this is the route you’re planning to take, you can see how to book the bus and more about the journey in my article ‘Varanasi to Kathmandu: there is a direct bus!’
You can also get the train from Varanasi to Gorakhpur which runs daily. From there get a local bus to Sonauli, hop through the Nepal border immigration and then make your way to one of the main cities via the bus stand on the Nepal side (do not book tickets via the Indian side as you could get scammed!)
From Nepal, the easiest place to base yourself if you’re planning to head into India via Sonauli is in Lumbini. You can check out the birthplace of Buddha and then make your way nice and early the following day. It’s around 30 km from the Sonauli border.
Border opening times
The border is open 24 hours a day but only for people walking through. So, if you were heading via local buses to Sonauli, you can walk through the border into Nepal and then catch an onward bus from the bus stand on the Nepal side. I’m not sure what buses will be running at that time at night however. So, best to go during the day time to avoid getting stuck.
Vehicles have to make it to the border by 9.45pm to be allowed through. Otherwise, you will have to wait until the border opens early morning (around 6am). You can see the queue of truckers below who didn’t make it and were waiting until morning.
This was Sonauli when we were walking to the border around 9.30pm at night – super creepy!!
A bit about Sonauli itself
In a word, Sonauli is dodgy. There is really nothing nice about the place at all. It had a weird vibe, especially at night and it felt like everyone was trying to scam you. It literally is just a void of a town that acts as a throughway for people travelling through. So, I would try to spend a little time here as possible here.
Having been here both in the day and at night, the night is definitely the worst! This is where scamming comes out three fold, random guys approach you as you’re making your way through and its just plain creepy *shivers*.
Here’s some tips to help you avoid scams;
- Bus travel: If you’re hoping to catch a bus onward into Nepal, do not book this until you’re passed the Nepali border. The Indian side is notorious for scams and selling ‘fake’ bus tickets.
- Currency Conversions: Be prepared to pay out the nose for your currency to be converted here! You will need US dollars to pay for your Nepali VISA and the exchange rate for these is terrible here. I would try getting some before you reach.
- Don’t accepted any US dollars that are older than 2003, the Nepal border won’t accept them and these guys at the Indian side of the border will give definitely try to give you these.
- Always have an exchange rate app on your phone and negotiate with these guys. I got Nepali rupees as the rate was better, but I did have to beg the border to let me through playing on the fact they made me change it 😉
- Rickshaws: A lot of the rickshaw drivers will tell you that there is flooding ahead and give a wealth of excuses as to why you need to get a rickshaw. It’s all not true and the between the Indian and Nepali immigration counters walk is less than a kilometre. The only reason why I got one on the way back was because the torrential monsoon rains hit and we would be wet through.
- Hotels: Don’t stay overnight in Sonauli if you can avoid it! I read so much information on how the hotels are awful, the food will give you food poisoning and about intimidation on buying bus tickets and changing money. I personally would never stay here after having been here. If you do decide to stay (or have to!) don’t venture out at night.
Visa requirements into Nepal
Always check the Nepal immigration site for requirements for your country. In 2017 the overland VISA costs were 15/30/90 day visas for $25/40/100. You need US dollars to buy the Visa that are newer than 2003. You can pay by Nepali rupees but you will have to beg them as they don’t usually take them. I also had to pay a little extra but I had no choice.
You will also need a passport sized photograph of you for your Visa form. If you don’t have this a photocopy can be arranged on the Indian side.
It’s good to note that if you’re from India or a SAARC country, you do not need to go through immigration and can walk straight through. My boyfriend is Indian and when we went through the border for my immigration into India, they stopped him and told him that his Indian ID card wasn’t proof of his citizenship only his nationality. Personally, I think they were after some money but with a little ‘oh, we didn’t know’ etc. we got through.
My advice would be if you’re all Indian in your group to just head through. Don’t stop.
Visa requirements for India
You cannot get an Indian Visa overland or on arrival into India. You will need to apply for a tourist/business visa in advance of travel.
These can be arranged in Nepal or at home before you go. You will need to get a normal tourist Visa printed in your passport. You can check the Indian immigration website here for requirements.
You cannot get an e-Visa for overland travel into India. Both on my way in and out of Sonauli Indian immigration, tourists were being advised by Kathmandu airport to head to Sonauli with their e-Visa to get into India.
You cannot enter overland into India with an e-Visa. Don’t even try it, it will waste your time and money. You have to enter into the airport that you stated on your e-Visa. The reason for this is that the overland border doesn’t have any technology to take finger prints and so they cannot stamp you into India without your biometrics.
After our immigration into India, the rains started pouring in and I had to walk through THAT! The cows didn’t seem to mind 😛
Once you’re through to Nepal, you can easily catch one of the many buses that are heading to where you want to go. There will be buses headed out to Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini, just ask on the Nepali side how to get there. Do not book bus tickets on the Indian side, these will most likely be fake.
As I was on the direct bus from Varanasi to Kathmandu, when we got through the border (by a hair as we were running late!) we just headed straight out to Kathmandu. That took us an extra 18 hours to reach there. It was a hell of a journey. Next time I would head to Chitwan as it’s not so far.
If you’re heading back into India, you will need to get a local bus to Gorakhpur and then from Gorakhpur to Varanasi.
We were waiting/hoping for an A/C bus into Varanasi and we were told it was going to arrive at any minute. But, we waited two hours then just decided to hop on a local bus. The journey from Sonauli to Varanasi took around 12 hours. It was horrendous but we made it back safe!
This rust bucket took us for 10 hours to Varanasi, I’m surprised it made it
Is it worth it?
In some ways it was as it was cheaper than flying and it was a bit of an adventure, but I’m not sure if I would do it again. From Lumbini, the journey was a lot shorter but we had a local bus which was bumpy, hot, dirty and pretty rough.
At one point our bus driver got into a fist fight with an angry driver with road rage! Totally scary. Luckily, he was okay and seemed to just bounce back from getting punched 4 times in the head! But, I never got a local bus again after that. No way.
If the traffic is quiet, it should only take you 15 hours to get from Varanasi to Kathmandu, which is pretty good. So, it’s all about how much time and budget you have.
But above all else, It was definitely an adventure. Which is why I will treasure it a funny memoir for my books!
Having a laugh with the security guys while waiting for the AC bus which will ‘come at any moment’
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