As some of you may know, I recently rode my motorcycle through several parts of Sikkim. Now, on the other side of an eventful ride, I wanted to write about a key aspect of any journey through this fascinating State – permits.
Why are permits needed?
Sikkim is a border-state, meaning that it shares a border with several other countries, namely, Nepal, Bhutan and China. Of these, the areas close to the border with China are particularly sensitive. As a result, the government requires for tourists who wish to travel to such areas to obtain special permits before visiting these places.
The permit system is layered and the requirements vary based on several factors. For example, the permit requirements are very different for Indian nationals as compared to those for people of other nationalities. The process for Indians is generally simpler than that for foreigners and the permits granted to Indians are also a lot more liberal.
In order to keep this post a bit focused, I’m only going to write about the processes applicable to Indian nationals.
What are the places that you need permits for?
As an Indian, you do not require any permits for general travel to West or South Sikkim. So, irrespective of your mode of transport (i.e. motorcycle, car, tourist taxi or anything else) you do not need any permit for visiting places in Southern Sikkim all the way up to Gangtok, or for any of the popular spots in West Sikkim (including places like Jorethang, Soreng, Ravangla, Temi, Pelling, Yuksom, Soreng etc). However, if you intend to trek in any of these parts, you might need specific trekking permits, which is something I am not well versed with and have not covered in this post.
The permit system is really only applicable for travel to North Sikkim (i.e. Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang Valley and Zero Point) and East Sikkim (i.e. Tsomgo (Changu) Lake, Baba Mandir, Nathu La pass and Zuluk).
How does the permit system work?
Broadly, there are two kinds of permits. One for individuals (i.e. people travelling through public transport or using tourist taxis) and the other for people who are travelling to these parts on their own vehicles (i.e. on self-driven motorcycles or cars).
Individuals – Inner Line Permit (ILP)
Permits for individuals (who are NOT taking their own vehicles) are issued by the police department and can be obtained in several places across Sikkim. To the extent of my knowledge, I am aware that these Inner Line Permits (ILP) are issued at Gangtok (Central Sikkim) and Rongli (East Sikkim). These may be issued at other checkposts too.
The application for an ILP for an individual is made on a form printed on the letterhead of a travel agent (you cannot skip the travel agent on this). Normally, the tourism/police office will itself direct you to a travel agent, or a nearby xerox shop which will have such forms – they charge anywhere between INR 50 to INR 200 per form. You need to fill up your basic personal information – name, age, address, etc. – attach a photocopy of identity proof (with address proof) and attach one passport size photo. The filled up document is required to be photocopied and then submitted to the tourism/police office along with a fee of INR 20. A receipt and acknowledgment will then be given to you. Since I didn’t personally use this type of permit (given that I was riding my own motorcycle), this is all that I know about the system applicable in this regard.
Motorcyclists – Protected/Restricted Area Permits
The permit system for motorcyclists is more stringent and requires a two-step process.
The first-level permit for motorcyclists is issued by the Home Department at Manan Bhavan in Gangtok. This office is different from the one that issues permits for individuals. Also, since this is under the Home Department, this permit cannot be obtained anywhere else in Sikkim.
The documents required for obtaining this permit are as follows:
- A duly filled-up application form (this will be provided at the office);
- Two (2) passport-sized photographs;
- Two (2) sets of photocopies of all your motorcycle-related documents:
– Driving License;
– Registration Certificate;
– Valid Pollution Certificate (PUC); and
– Valid Insurance.
– I would recommend keeping your Tax Receipt even though it is not listed in the circular put up at the Home Department office.
4. Two (2) photocopies of your nationality/identification/address proof. As per the notice in the office, Driving License is not accepted for this, they require a Voters ID, Aadhar Card or other document (please see the image above);
5. If the vehicle is registered in the name of someone other than yourself, you will also need to submit an authorisation letter in the prescribed format (they will tell you where you can get one), which would need to be duly signed and notarised). This is the most problematic step in this process. Several people have faced issues with this step, but I do not know the nuances of it as I was using my own bike; and
6. Originals of all of the documents submitted above (these may be checked at the time of accepting your application).
After your application is verified and accepted, it will be processed by the Home Department. They will then (later in the day or the next day) give you your permits. The permits are provided as multiple copies (in separate envelopes) by the office itself. The envelopes will be addressed to the relevant people that they are required to be submitted to (one checkpost in Gangtok itself and others along the route) and the person handing them to you will usually also inform you about what is to be done with them.
The office receives applications between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm on all working days. Applications will not be accepted after 2:00 pm.
Permits are usually handed out between 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm on the same day. You will be informed about when to expect to receive your permit when you submit your application. Generally, it’s better to apply earlier in the day just to be certain.
If you want permits for both North and East Sikkim, you have to specifically mention such requirement in your application. The details should be included in the following manner: North (Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang Valley and Zero Point) and East (Changu Lake, Nathu La and Zuluk).
I was told that permits are usually not granted for a period of more than 6 to 7 days. However, there is no harm in asking for a longer period. Eventually, the office will decide and grant whatever they want as per their discretion.
Since multiple copies of the permits (including a copy for the applicant) are provided by the Home Department, there is no specific requirement to make additional copies of this document.
No fee is payable for this permit. This is entirely free.
If you apply for permits for 2 bikes (or 2 people on 1 bike), usually a single permit is issued, which will mention the name of 1 person along with pillion/co-rider.
No letterhead of a travel agent or any other participation of a travel agent is mandatorily required for this process. However, you can use one for your own convenience (for example, if you want your permit to be obtained on your behalf before you reach Sikkim).
As a part of the documents provided to you by the Home Deparment, you will receive one particularly thick envelope addressed to the 3rd mile checkpost in Gangtok. This is the primary document required for the second step of the motorcyclist permit process.
This envelope is required to be submitted at the Tourism/Police office at M.G. Marg in Gangtok. Interestingly, this can only be done early in the morning the next day. While I was told that the office would only be open for 1 hour between 6:00 am to 7:00 am, on the day that I visited, it opened only at 7:00 am and closed at around 8:00 am.
You need to get to this place nice and early because it is usually a location of complete chaos. This is the same office where ILPs for individual travellers are issued, so it is flooded with travel agents trying to get their work done. Since these agents know all the officers on duty, it is also likely that you will be ignored and made to wait for a considerable while even though the work required to be done for you is considerably less.
You have to pay a fee of INR 20 (Rupees Twenty) per person at this office.
After accepting your document, you will be issued a receipt, which will have your name, vehicle number and details of areas that you are allowed to travel to.
To complicate the process further, the receipt issued here will not be for both, North and East Sikkim. So, if you want permission for both parts, you have to first obtain the receipt for either the North or the East, then go out and photocopy that receipt and come back and submit it to them. They will then include the information for East Sikkim on the photocopied receipt.
This document is the one that is actually checked at most of the checkpoints en route. You need to make and carry at least 7 photocopies (I would recommend carrying 10) of this receipt, as you will be required to leave copies at several checkpoints along the way.
No separate form is required to be filled for this process. You simply have to handover the documents that are in the relevant envelope.
A fee of INR 20 is payable here.
While the office has two counters (one labelled North Sikkim and the other labelled East Sikkim) they actually function out of only one counter in the middle. So, if you are there early, position yourself in a way that you can hand your documents in quickly before the flood of travel agents.
You will need to politely follow-up with the officer and request him to look into your document, otherwise they will make you wait endlessly.
If your permit from the home department is for more than one person, the document provided here will also cover details of all such people (i.e. details of rider + pillion + bike, or details of each rider and each of the bikes, if there is more than one bike).
While the permit from the home department will not include the name and motorcycle details of a co-rider, please ensure that the receipt from the tourism/police office expressly includes these details, because this will be verified at subsequent checkpoints.
I was told that even though Home Department may give you a permit for all parts of North and East Sikkim, there have been times where the 3rd mile checkpost does not allow travel to some parts on grounds of bad weather or road conditions. I’ve personally not experienced this, but I thought it was relevant to mention here nevertheless.
There is a shop where you can get photocopies made across the road from the office (look for a big tree on the opposite side of the road, to the left when you exit the main gate).
The Process Thereafter
Once you have your photocopies, your work in Gangtok is done. You can travel towards the places that you have the permits for, but do make sure to stop at the police checkposts along the way and handover documents/make entries as required by the officials at each of these points. On my ride to the North, the officers at each of the checkposts were very friendly and helpful.
Interestingly, all the checkpoints only wanted to see photocopies and/or the original of the receipt issued by the 3rd mile checkpost. The Home Department permit was not collected at any of the points along my route.
Also, there were some points along the route (for example, at Chungthang, North Sikkim) where no one was present at the checkpost and as a result, I couldn’t handover the documents specifically addressed to officers of this checkpost. As a matter of caution, I checked with some officials at the nearby forest checkpost and they told me that I could ride on towards Lachen anyway. I did not face any issue thereafter. Nevertheless, I would recommend checking with an official of some sort at any point where you come across an unmanned checkpost, just so that in case you face any issue further ahead, you can always clarify to them that you did what you could to try and inform the relevant authorities.
While some checkpoints will simply collect a photocopy of your permit receipt, some others will ask for the original along with a photocopy. At these places, they will keep the photocopy for their records and return the original to you after stamping and signing it.
In the North, the original will be collected and retained at the Toong Picket Post while you are on your way out. If you are only riding past this point temporarily (i.e. you intend to ride back North during the validity of the permit) you need to inform them and they will then note it in their register and allow you to retain the original for subsequent use.
From what I was told, the permit process for self-driven cars is similar to that applicable to motorcyclists. While motorcycles are allowed to travel to all parts of Sikkim (i.e. North, West, East and South) there are certain restrictions for 4-wheelers. So, this is something you should check specifically if you intend to drive through Sikkim.
While I obtained my permits personally, I met some people along the way who had got theirs through a travel agent. They told me that they had paid INR 200 per person for motorcycling permits for North Sikkim and the agent had the permits delivered to them at Mangan (in North Sikkim). So, they were able to completely avoid the need to go to Gangtok at all.
If you want to do this, you will need to reach out to a travel agent and provide them with all the necessary documentation ahead of your trip. This might be a good way to go about it if you are travelling on a tight timeline.
The Sikkim government has created an online portal through which applications for ILPs can be made (i.e. applications for individuals). From what I was told at the Home Department office, this service isn’t usable for permits for motorcycling or driving through Sikkim, as of yet.
That’s the round-up of all that I’ve learnt in the process of obtaining and using permits to travel through Sikkim. If any of you have been through this process before and have contact details to a reliable travel agent, please do leave the information in a comment below so that anyone planning a trip to Sikkim who is reading this could possibly utilise their services too.
Disclaimer: All of this information is based on my personal experience and only intended to be informational. The authorities handling these processes may request additional or reduced compliances or may change the process at any time, and in such cases you would be required to adhere to the requirements set forth by them.