Malaysian visa: a minefield for an Indian backpacker

Whatever could have gone wrong with our idea to go to Malaysia, did go wrong. We could have never anticipated that Malaysia, so open to tourists in general, does not even consider that a category of an Indian backpacker might exist. Visa regulations and expenses forced the situation, where I had to continue the journey to Malaysia and Singapore on my own.

Author posing in a dress in front of old colonial style buildings with small gardens on a quiet street in Singapore

Malaysia to crown the South East Asia loop

Malaysia wasn’t originally in our plans. We were going to make an anticlockwise loop: Kolkata- south Thailand- Cambodia- Vietnam- Laos- north Thailand- Myanmar- north-east India-Kolkata.

A Google map of our planned route: from Bangkok to Cambodia, Vietnam, north of Laos, north of Thailand, Myanmar, north-east states of India to Kolkata.

However, three factors made us reconsider. First of all, one month wasn’t enough to see Vietnam. As we decided to go to Laos and then back to Vietnam, we knew we’d need to fly from Vietnam rather than carry on by land. Secondly, Sayak really wanted to go home for Durga Puja- the biggest festival in West Bengal state of India -which was coming soon. Thirdly, my best friend was coming to Kuala Lumpur for a conference and we had good friends in Singapore whom we wanted to visit.

Women in saris gathered in front of the paper-mache altar of 10 handed goddess Durga  with her entourage of other deities as part of Durga Puja celebrations

Visa to Malaysia for Indian nationals- an unpleasant surprise

‘eNTRI’ visa for the Indians and the Chinese

After checking all the visa requirements and the flight prices we settled with a far-from-ideal solution of going to Malaysia for just 12 days. That would allow us to arrive to Kolkata a week before Durga Puja to see all the preparations.

A craftman in Kolkata painting statues of gods in preparation for Durga Puja celebrations

I, as a Polish and British passport holder, didn’t need a visa: neither to Malaysia nor to Singapore. Sayak was planning to apply for a special 15 day, evisa called ‘eNTRI’ available for Indian (and Chinese) nationals. Having read it takes only 24 hours to process the visa, we left the application for the last week before the flight.

Nicely renovated and painted old colonial style houses and rising from behind them skyscrapers in Singapore

Small print: conditions for the Indian citizens

We paid dearly for taking the Malaysian visa for granted. As soon as Sayak started filling up the online form, the problem appeared: the field ‘address’ was giving Vietnam as the only option for a country of residence. That raised our suspicions. After reading the fine print and using an online chat option, Sayak realised he couldn’t actually apply for eNTRI. He couldn’t apply for e-visa either, since it wasn’t applicable for Indian and Chinese nationals.

The man on the chat advised him to get a paper visa, which would take 3 working days to process. He claimed that with an official paper from the Indian embassy in Hanoi, Sayak could still obtain that visa. Sayak talked on the phone with the Indian consulate staff who gave him the impression they would be able to help.

The old, grand residences in the old Hanoi

It cost us the futile journey on a night bus to Hanoi and the whole day of running back and forth between Indian consulate and VFS global to realise that getting any kind of tourist visa was NOT possible for Sayak at this point. The paper Sayak would need to get from the Indian consulate would need to state he lived and worked in Vietnam which obviously wasn’t the case.

However bizarre and unlikely it sounds,
Indian nationals can only obtain a Malaysian tourist visa of ANY kind if they are travelling:
1. directly from India
2. or the country of permanent residence
3. or via Malaysian’s neighbouring country
(which requires staying there at least 2 days before trying to cross the border)

Decision time

We had only two options left. Sayak could buy a new flight to Thailand, stay obligatory 2 days there and buy another flight to Malaysia or simply fly directly to Kolkata and skip Malayasia, at least for now.

Since the first option would be very expensive and the time spent in Malaysia very short, we agreed it would be better for Sayak to fly to India. I didn’t want him to miss out on Malaysia so I changed my plans significantly, focusing on meeting friends and visiting just three places: Kuala Lumpur, Melacca and Singapore.

The Kuala Lumpur city centre with the Malaysian flag above the oriental style colonial buildings

I must admit I was very excited with the fact I’d finally have a chance to taste solo travel. I was expecting a smooth and straightforward experience in Malaysia and Singapore.

More mess: Air Asia, Malaysian and Thai visas

Air Asia flight change policy

Sayak’s complications didn’t end there, though. After a chat with a very polite and helpful staff at the Air Asia office in Hanoi, he was offered just to change the time of the flight, not the destination, for a very small fee. He could fly with me to Kuala Lumpur and after just a couple of hours fly again to Kolkata. The only issue was … the visa. Air Asia salesman strongly advised us to check with the embassy if a transit visa would be necessary.

The transit regulations on connecting flights

The VFS Global told us that the visa wouldn’t be necessary in case of a connecting flight, meaning both flights would have the same flight number. Otherwise, a visa would be necessary. Unfortunately, Air Asia office told us the flights to KL and Kolkata would have two different numbers indeed since they would be operated by Air Asia Malaysia and Air Asia Thailand respectively. With that, the last ray of hope extinguished.

Visa on arrival and transit visa for the Indian citizens

What about visa on arrival? It wouldn’t work either, since it bears the same restrictions for the Indian citizens as the regular tourist visa. Just for the record: even if it was possible, we wouldn’t go for it as it costs a whopping $100!

Transit visa, then? Forget it! Indian nationals are only eligible for the free transit pass if they hold a visa or a residence permit issued by Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan or the United States, and are departing to or arriving from these countries.

Thai visa on arrival/ transit visa

Sayak not only lost the flight to Malaysia. Buying a cheapest ticket to Kolkata via Bangkok with Air Asia also required that he bought a visa on arrival in Thailand!

Chao Phraya river in Bangkok and Wat Arun on its far bank

Since the two flights would be operated by Air Asia Thailand and Air Asia Malaysia, their flight numbers would differ and hence wouldn’t be treated as a connecting flight. That’s despite the fact he bought them from the agency as one ticket and the two flights were just one hour apart. How ridiculous is that?

Lessons to learn for backpackers

Without a doubt, it was the single most costly mistake we made during the entire journey. The lesson? For one, read the visa regulations properly. Most of the South East Asian visas are easy to obtain for most of the nationalites. But there is always a possibility of unexpected trouble.

Alternatively, simply stick to land borders. They might be closed and you still might be turned away due to regulations you might not have known about but at least you wouldn’t lose a lot of money because of that.

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