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Svalbard - Travel and visas
For getting into Svalbard, neither passports nor visas are required for nationals of the countries that signed the original Spitsbergen Treaty. These countries include all EU and EFTA countries, as well as Japan, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many others. However – important – a passport and maybe visas are needed for travelling through mainland Norway on the way up and down: Norway is a member of the Schengen Agreement, which regulates joint border procedures of the member states, which include most of the EU. Owing to its special status, Svalbard is excluded from that membership.
Therefore, when landing in Norway on the way back from Svalbard, you cross the border of the Schengen Agreement, which automatically requires a valid passport, even from Norwegian citizens: just a valid identity card is not enough there. As for the need for a visa for transiting through mainland Norway, check with your Norwegian consulate or embassy; citizens of EU and EFTA countries and some other nations as well do not need a visa for Norway. The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration has an excellent website at www.udi.no which gives clear information on visa requirements.
For tours in most parts of Svalbard, permission from the Sysselmann has to be obtained. Only the areas close to the settlements – Nordenskiöld Land, Bünsow Land, Dickson Land and a limited area around Ny-Ålesund – are exempted from this restriction. Nevertheless, it may make sense to register voluntarily for tours in these areas, too, for your own safety. Applications for permission have to be sent to the Sysselmann’s office, preferably several months in advance, as it may take quite a lot of time for permission to be granted. The application should include a detailed description of the planned tour, the equipment taken (including safety equipment like firearms, communication, etc) and the previous experience of the participants.
Furthermore, the insurance against search and rescue costs is part of the requirements.
The Scandinavian carrier SAS offers direct flights into Longyearbyen from Tromsø in northern Norway (or from Oslo in southern Norway with a short stopover in Tromsø), while the discount carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle flies direct from Oslo to Longyearbyen (flight time 1hr 40mins from Tromsø; 3hrs (Norwegian) and 4hrs (SAS) from Oslo). Flights are particularly frequent in the summer, although they should be booked in advance during peak periods (ie: Easter). Note that Norwegian only operates their route twice a week and only between March and October.
Norway is well connected with eight international airports around the country, the four biggest of which are amongst the busiest in Europe. As you might expect, Oslo Airport Gardermoen is the country’s main airport. The SAS group has links worldwide; KLM, British Airways and Lufthansa all have routes into the country; and low fare operators with routes into Norway include Norwegian, Ryanair and Wideroe. United fly from the USA into Oslo. This is not an exhaustive list, so you might want to contact your local travel agent for the full range of options.
Despite the frequency of connections, a number of flights are fully booked in summer and for Easter. Some package tours include the flights, others don’t, which gives more options for tailoring your travel arrangements to suit your individual needs. Special tariffs may even allow cheaper travel than if you book your flights as part of a package. Your Svalbard specialist may be able to give you a few tips. A stopover in Tromsø is not necessarily a disadvantage: this bustling town, the largest in northern Norway, is not without reason called both the ‘Gateway to the Arctic’ and the ‘Paris of the North’, with a surprising vegetation and several attractions worth visiting.
As a brief taster and introduction to the Arctic, especially the ‘Polaria’ (with a huge aquarium with species from the Barents Sea and well-presented information about Arctic nature) and the Polar Museum, it’s hard to beat.
The Hurtigruten coastal steamer ceased its summer calls to Svalbard in 1982, presumably due to competition from the (then) recently opened airport at Longyearbyen. A limited-capacity service ran from Bergen up the Norwegian fjords to Longyearbyen for several years until 2012, when MS Nordstjernen, the oldest ship in the fleet, was sold off. As a result it’s no longer possible to reach Svalbard from the Norwegian mainland by regularly scheduled ship. If you are intending to travel in May, then an option is to join one of the cruise ships.
Typically these ships will have spent the November–March period down around the Antarctic peninsula and will then head up to the Arctic for April– September. The cruise market is complex, and you’ll regularly find the same cabin on the same ship for the same cruise listed by several different agencies, sometimes at different prices. You should be aware that these cruises can book out over a year in advance, so planning ahead is strongly recommended.
While it is very easy coming to Longyearbyen just by boarding a normal scheduled flight, it can be a major challenge to explore the remaining 99.9% of this vast Arctic wilderness. Outside the settlements, there is hardly any infrastructure that can be used by the traveller, with few easy-to-use connections between the settlements. Svalbard is truly the last big wilderness of Europe – in all senses: wilderness begins where the roads and paths finish, and this lack of paths is true for almost all of this remote archipelago.
Even between the two main settlements, Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, there is no connection, and your only way to travel between the two is to embark on a tough two-day cross-country hike, take a snowmobile ride in winter, or join one of the day cruises between the two in summer. Except for the few accommodation options in the settlements, you will have to use your tent when exploring the outback as there are no cabins, etc, for tourists to use, with the exception of a few cabins for commercial dog-sledge programmes in winter.
With the exception of Longyearbyen Airport, there are only two private landing strips in the archipelago (Sveagruva, used solely by the mining company, and Ny-Ålesund), plus a few additional landing sites for helicopters in the other settlements and bases. Both private landings and commercial sightseeing flights are forbidden, with special permission required for any landings off the official airstrips – and for purely tourist purposes, such permission will not normally be granted. Unfortunately, non-touristic helicopter use has risen over the years, even though the official stance is that helicopter use should be reduced – and has been forbidden for tourist purposes since 1992.
Within the archipelago, there is no scheduled ferry service. During the summer months, a few smaller boats (up to about 100 passengers) run sightseeing day cruises in Isfjord from Longyearbyen, mostly to Barentsburg but also to a few other destinations. All these tours run only if a minimum number of bookings (usually eight fully paying participants) is reached.
These tours usually depart at the weekend, and can also be used as a one-way passage only, allowing you to stop at the destination (or somewhere along the way) for a night or more. Be warned, though, that not all companies will readily pick up embarking passengers along the way. An alternative, if you are part of a group, is one of the commercial passenger boats that can be chartered by the hour. So far, the season for these cruises lasts from early June (though often limited by ice at this time) into September. Schedules for these cruise offers are published one week in advance and can be found in the tourist information office and various hotel lobbies.
Any motorised traffic is forbidden off the roads, and there are few roads here anyway, other than a few trunk roads around the settlements, with some exceptions for snowmobiles on snow-covered and frozen ground (which, of course, is limited to travel outside of the summer period). There are no connecting roads, not even paths or marked routes, between any of the settlements. Accordingly, it makes no real sense for visitors to bring their car or motorbike to Svalbard. For the limited road network of Longyearbyen (two trunk roads of 11km each leading out of the settlement), both bicycles and cars can be hired.