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Armenia - Travel and visas
Jermuk is a town whose name every visitor to Armenia is likely to learn since it is the source of much of the country’s mineral water © Deirdre Holding
Since 10 January 2013 citizens of EU member states and the Schengen Agreement member states are entitled to enter and stay in Armenia for up to 180 days per year without a visa. Foreigners must have a valid passport. Passport holders of Argentina, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan also do not require a visa. Holders of all other passports require a visa. Tourist visas are easy to obtain and there are three ways of so doing.
The easiest and now the most common way is on arrival in Armenia. At Zvartnots Airport, where most visitors arrive, it is straightforward and quick. Single-entry tourist visas are available for 21 or 120 days. The fee must be paid in Armenian drams (AMD3,000 for a 21-day visa, AMD15,000 for a 120-day visa). It is easy to change money in the airport, but a considerable commission is charged, so only change the minimum required and get a better deal later at one of the many bureaux de change in the city centre. When coming down into the arrivals hall the exchange kiosk is straight ahead. To the left is an area where visa application forms can be completed. The visa issuing desks, usually well staffed, are opposite the form-filling area. Visas can also be obtained at the following border checkpoints with Georgia: Ayrum railway station, Bavra, Bagratashen and Gogavan crossings and at the Agarak land border with Iran near Meghri. The procedure here may be slower, especially for those last off the bus. Border crossing points can only issue single-entry visas (3-day transit, 21-day or 120-day tourist visas).
For any type of visa other than a tourist visa, an invitation is required.
The second method is to apply for a conventional visa through an Armenian embassy. The application form for a conventional visa can be downloaded from the Armenian Foreign Ministry website (www.mfa.am) and applications should be made to the appropriate embassy. Residents of the USA can also apply to the Consulate General in Los Angeles where payment must be by money order. Visas are normally issued in two to three working days. Since 1 January 2010 the fees for a conventional visa are the same as for those obtained on arrival. Visas for children under 18 are issued free of charge. Multiple-entry visas are only available through an embassy.
A third way of obtaining a tourist visa is to obtain an electronic visa over the internet. Simply go to the web page of the Armenia Foreign Ministry, complete the application page and pay the fee by credit card. (The electronic-visa site www.evisa.mfa.am has useful information.) The visa is normally issued within two working days and confirmation that it has been issued is sent electronically. It can then be collected on arrival. A valid e-visa allows entry through Zvartnots Airport, Shirak Airport in Gyumri and the same land border crossing points as opposite. E-visas are currently US$15 for a 21-day visa and US$60 for 120-days (so more expensive than obtaining either a visa on arrival or a conventional visa through an embassy). It has the advantage that no paper is inserted into one’s passport, a consideration if you intend to visit Azerbaijan in the future. Payment must be by credit card.
For any type of visa other than a tourist visa an invitation is required. In the case of business trips it must be certified by the Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or for private trips by the Passport and Visa Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Multiple-entry visitor visas are available and transit visas are required for stops in Armenia en route to other countries.
Tourist visas can be extended at the Passport and Visa Department of Police of Republic of Armenia in Yerevan (13A Mashtots Av; tel: +374 10 530182) for AMD500 per extra day. Failure to extend on time now carries a fine of AMD50,000–100,000 and prohibition of return to Armenia for one year. Previously, due to the inconvenience of the several visits needed to extend a visa, the advice given was to pay, on departure, the US$3 (approx AMD1,000) per day fine for overstaying, now a much less financially attractive option.
Yerevan has two airports, at Zvartnots 10km west of the city and Erebuni (now used only by the military) closer to the centre on the south side. A new terminal has brought Zvartnots fully up to international standards with signage in English as well as Armenian. Trolleys are available; rates are AMD500 for a trolley or AMD2,500 for a trolley and a porter who will carry up to three items of baggage. Additional items of baggage are extra. Porters can be recognised by their distinctive red tops with ‘CART SERVICE’ written in English on the back. Note that on leaving the airport the tag on your luggage will be checked against that on your ticket or boarding pass, so do not discard it. There is a duty-free area in arrivals after passport control and a small tourist information desk (not always staffed in the middle of the night) just before leaving arrivals.
The departure hall has a well-stocked duty-free area where there are typical Armenian specialities such as crafts, dried-fruit sweetmeats, coffee and herbal teas as well as the usual alcohol (including brandy which is cheaper than in central Yerevan), perfume, clothes, luggage, etc. There is a small range of books mostly in Armenian.
It is quite possible to arrive in Armenia by train. Overnight trains operate between Tbilisi in Georgia and Yerevan. In summer (15 Jun–1 Oct) the service is extended to Batumi and runs every day, taking 16 hours. It leaves Yerevan at 15.25 and costs AMD11,000–27,000 depending on class. In winter the service between Yerevan and Tbilisi runs alternate days. From Yerevan it departs 21.30, takes 10½ hours and costs AMD9,000–18,000. Because the alternate days are continuous (so are neither odd nor even dates) it is necessary to check departure days at the station. The train from Tbilisi leaves at 20.20 and arrives in Yerevan at 07.00 but check times as well as days if intending to travel.
(Photo: The Children’s railway in Yerevan was once used to train children how to operate real railways, but now it is an amusement open throughout the summer © Deirdre Holding)
En route the train calls at 12 intermediate stations, including Ayrum, Sanahin, Vanadzor, Gyumri and Armavir, but mostly at inconvenient hours of the night. Trains have four classes: obshi (open seating on wooden benches), plas (reserved seats, possibly on wooden seats, more often on padded ones) and two types of compartments: coupé (compartments with sleeping berths for four), and CB (SV in English) or Luxe, a compartment for two. Toilets on the train are not noted for their cleanliness, and food is not available so bring some with you. The ride is highly scenic but the best bits are hidden in the dark except, to some extent, in midsummer. Tickets, one-way, are bought at the stations and can be purchased up to about ten days in advance; seats can also be booked.
It is easy to travel by bus from either Georgia or Iran. There are also services from Turkey which operate via Georgia, but note that it is currently not possible to travel from Russia to Armenia via Georgia, as was previously the case. It is now illegal under Russian law for foreigners to enter or leave Georgia via land borders with Russia. Citizens of EU countries and USA are among those who do not need visas to visit Georgia so should not need transit visas. In theory, a Georgian transit visa should not be required for holders of Armenian visas spending less than 72 hours in Georgia. If you need a Georgian transit visa they can now be obtained at the border. Tickets should be bought in advance if at all possible. The baggage allowance on buses is 20kg with excess being charged at AMD250 per kilo. Most buses to destinations outside Armenia leave from Kilikia Central Bus Station (6 Isakov Av, just past the brandy factory on the road to Ejmiatsin; tel: +374 10 565370).
From Georgia direct buses leave Tbilisi at 08.00 and 10.00 daily, taking seven hours for the journey to Yerevan via Stepanavan and Ashtarak at a cost of about GEL44 (Georgian lari) (US$25). The return service also operates at 08.00 and 10.00; the cost is about AMD10,000. Minibuses also travel between Tbilisi and Yerevan, approximately two-hourly 10.00–16.00, leaving when full. In both countries tickets are purchased at the bus stations (Ortachala bus station and at the main train station in Tbilisi; Kilikia Central Bus Station in Yerevan) and can be bought a few days in advance. (Note: times can change so check locally if intending to use these routes.)
It is easy to travel to Armenia by bus from either Georgia or Iran, though it is a long and sometimes rough journey.
From Iran the bus leaves from Tehran daily at 13.00 and is scheduled to arrive in Yerevan 26 hours later. The fare is about US$50. The southbound service leaves Yerevan at 10.00 daily; cost AMD17,000. Saberatours-Sevan can arrange transport between Iran and Armenia.
Coming from Turkey, a number of companies operate buses between Yerevan and Istanbul, via Georgia, all apparently leaving Istanbul’s Emniyet Garaji bus terminal on Thursdays between 09.00 and 10.00. From Yerevan buses depart on Saturdays at 10.00 or 11.00 or ‘when it is full’. The journey is scheduled to take 41 hours and the fare is about US$60. The advice is to check details before travelling and to book a ticket three to seven days in advance either personally at the bus station or via a tour operator. See above about Georgian transit visas. Some travellers report being asked for an additional US$10 ‘entry fee’ at the Georgian border at Batumi.
Virtually the whole of Armenia’s rail network is electrified at 3,000V DC. The track has the standard Soviet gauge of 1.524m rather than 1.435m which is the norm in western Europe and North America. Apart from the passenger services round Yerevan, which are operated by multiple units, other trains are hauled by twin-unit locos of class VL10: VL stands for Vladimir Lenin. They were built at Tbilisi, Georgia, and Novocherkassk, Russia, between 1967 and 1977. A timetable, in Russian, is available on request at Yerevan’s main railway station. To reach the main railway station take the metro to Sasuntsi Davit which adjoins the railway station. The station is open 24 hours; the international ticket office is open 09.00–18.00, the local ticket office 07.30–19.30. Some timetable and ticket price information is available at www.UKZHD.am but as this is not exactly the same as the information given to me by the station director, and as timetables change from year to year (and according to season), do check times before travelling.
There are only a handful of internal train services but some of them may be of use to visitors. Travelling by train is cheap with the longest journeys, such as Yerevan to Gyumri, costing AMD1,000. Tickets are bought at stations and are always for a single journey. Trains are, on the whole, efficient although relatively slow. It is possible to book tickets and seats a few days in advance although trains are rarely so busy that seats can’t be found. Trains leaves the main railway station in Yerevan for Gyumri (AMD1,000) at 08.00 and 18.10 daily; journey time three hours. Return departure times are the same.
Travelling by train is cheap with the longest journeys, such as Yerevan to Gyumri, costing AMD1,000.
Another useful route is that from Yerevan to Hrazdan (AMD300), extended in summer (15 Jun–30 Sep) to Sevan (AMD600) and to Shorzha (Sat–Sun only, AMD1,000). Trains run daily. They do not, however, leave from the main railway station but from Kanaker station in Yerevan’s northeast suburb of the same name. The station is hidden down a narrow winding lane which goes eastwards off the northern part of Zakaria Kanakertsi Street. A small sign, in Armenian and Russian and attached to a gas pipe, points the way. (The train actually starts at Almast station in Yerevan’s Zeytoun district but Almast consists simply of a platform whereas Kanaker station is staffed.)
Trains leave Kanaker at 08.30 and 19.25 (ten minutes earlier from Almast) and arrive in Hrazdan 1½ hours later. (The summer morning extension arrives in Sevan at 10.50 and Shorzha at 12.10. The return train leaves Shorzha at 16.30 and Sevan at 18.00.) Trains leave Hrazdan for Kanaker at 07.15 and 18.40. Dates of the extension to Sevan are decided on an annual basis and times can change so check beforehand if intending to use the route.
The daily summer (15 Jun–1 Oct) train from Yerevan to Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, via Tbilisi, leaves Yerevan at 15.25 Intermediate stations include Gyumri, Vanadzor, Sanahin and Ayrum. In winter the train is replaced by an overnight Yerevan to Tbilisi train on alternate days. Unfortunately the timings of these trains means that the spectacularly scenic ride along the Debed Gorge is mostly in the dark. Unless the early morning train from Gyumri to Ayrum is reintroduced, those wishing a scenic ride on public transport will have to rely on minibuses.
Bus services proper have declined and no longer serve all main towns direct from Yerevan. All places are, however, linked by minibus (marshrutka) services. The maximum bus fare from Yerevan by bus is to Tashir (AMD1,500). Generally speaking minibuses cost around 50% more than buses. The maximum minibus fare is to Stepanakert or Meghri, both of which cost AMD6,000. Minibuses are driven more recklessly than buses and are consequently considerably quicker. When travelling between the north and south of the country, it is invariably necessary to change at Yerevan. While it is probably possible to go almost anywhere you might want to go by minibus, the problem for the visitor is finding out where the bus leaves from and at what time.
Timetables, as such, are not available and although many routes leave from the Kilikia Central Bus Station which is about 800m from Victory Bridge in the Zvartnots direction, many leave from other places and there are about 16 bus stations in Yerevan. The Armenians themselves, if they want to find out something such as where a bus goes from, will ask someone who knows or who knows someone else who knows. A visitor may be best to follow their example and ask at their hotel or homestay.
Minibuses are driven more recklessly than buses and are consequently considerably quicker.
The Northern Bus Station in Yerevan and some regional bus stations have a timetable on the door; in many, however, including the Kilikia Central Bus Station in Yerevan (where there was a timetable over the ticket office but staff told me it was wrong!) the expected course of action is to go to the bus station a day or two before you want to travel and say where you want to go. Transport to a single destination can leave from several sites in the city. The Central Bus Station can be reached by many minibus routes including 13, 15, 23, 27, 54, 67, 68, 75, 77, 90, 94 and 99. It is a large A-frame building which functions from 07.00 to 17.00, with left-luggage lockers available 07.00–17.00. There is also a café (open: 09.00–20.00).
Note that bus routes sometimes become minibus routes. Other towns have minibus services to local villages – again, ask locally. Minibuses do not serve tourist sites per se: a taxi is often the best way to reach such sites.
Taxis in Armenia are plentiful and relatively cheap and are often a reasonable alternative to public transport, even for intercity journeys. Bus stations usually have plenty of waiting taxis, they can be flagged down in the street and if you see a taxi stationary at the side of the road then it is probably available. Although there are no designated taxi ranks they do tend to wait in roadside bays. You should have no difficulty in finding a taxi! On the whole taxi firms and drivers do not speak English so if phoning for a taxi it is best to ask your hotel or host to do it for you. After the minimum charge of a few hundred drams, prices are in the order of AMD70–200/km. If you are hiring a private taxi for a long journey, be sure to agree the price before starting. In 2013 a taxi from Vanadzor to Yerevan, for example, cost AMD10,000, as did one from Goris to Tatev. Registered taxis in Yerevan charge AMD100/km. Most journeys within central Yerevan cost less than AMD1,000.
Much improvement in the state of the roads has taken place in recent years but many dirt roads remain and pot-holes continue to be a problem. Drivers will also encounter assorted livestock, either going out to pasture in the morning, returning in the evening or simply grazing on the roadside. The latter are not usually much of a problem being either tethered or looked after by a family member.
Vehicles drive on the right and drivers must give way to the right, even on roundabouts unless the road you are on is signed as the through road by the main-artery yellow-square sign. Drivers must carry their licence and proof of car ownership at all times. You can drive in Armenia on an International Driving Permit.
On dual carriageways it is not permitted to turn left across the carriageways. The procedure is to carry on past the turn-off you want, do a U-turn at the next signed U-turn position, drive back to the junction you want and turn right. The same procedure is followed when turning left after exiting a side road on to a dual carriageway. Turn right until you can make a U-turn on to the desired carriageway. This procedure means that you must be aware that vehicles may be slow or stationary in the outside lane.
Name signs for entering/leaving a village or town relate to the administrative area of the settlement; it may be some way to the actual built-up area. Conversely, if the village is off the main road, the village cancellation sign may be just a few metres after the entry sign.
Speed limits are 60km/h within towns, 90km/h on rural roads and 40km/h in tunnels. Speed cameras have been installed in Yerevan. The traffic police have become very active in stopping drivers who break speed limits. Police are obliged to show a driver photographic proof, which should include the number plate, place and time of the alleged speeding offence. The size of any fine relates to how much over the speed limit the car was travelling, starting at AMD10,000. Seat-belt compliance is also being enforced, with fines for any driver or front-seat passenger not wearing one. Rear seat belts are not compulsory. For infringements the driver is issued with a note of the fine which must be paid at a bank within 30 days.
Petrol is available in three categories: regular (93 octane), premium (95 octane) and super (97 octane). At the time of writing regular cost AMD500 per litre, premium AMD700 and super AMD900. Unleaded fuel is unavailable but diesel is widely sold. Gone are the days when much fuel was dispensed in cans from parked roadside tankers although this can still occasionally be seen in the more remote areas. Many vehicles in Armenia are dual-fuel, petrol and gas (CNG, compressed natural gas), gas being significantly cheaper at AMD200 per cubic metre. When filling up with gas all occupants must leave the vehicle: a waiting area, of varying comfort, is usually provided. Petrol and gas are readily available in towns and on main routes leading out of towns but stations are less frequent when off the main roads. As everywhere, it is sensible to fill up before embarking on a long journey.