In order to enter Tibet – in fact, even to buy a plane or train ticket to Lhasa – foreign travellers must have a Tibet Travel Permit. Issued by the TAR authorities, this lists a full travel itinerary and provides evidence of having booked a car, driver and guide for every day you are in the region. Available through registered travel agencies only, the permit should be included as part of your travel package by whichever agency you book with. Though the permit officially carries no cost, agencies arranging permits will charge a significant handling fee for the service, covering the huge amount of paperwork and “other costs” involved.
Be aware that until the permit is issued, which often occurs only a day or two before your tour will be due to start, you will not be able to independently book flights or trains into the region. The agency you have booked your tour through, safe in the knowledge of your full itinerary and in possession of a fair-sized deposit, is likely be willing to make reservations on your behalf, or you can wait to book travel yourself at the last minute; either way, don’t expect discounted tickets. While it may be tempting to try to sidestep the regulations, all foreign travellers coming from inside China will have their permits checked at point of purchase, on departure, and on arrival; hotels will not let foreigners stay unless accompanied at check-in by an official tour guide with a valid permit, and they are required to be shown again when visiting the Potala Palace and other tourist sights. Add the regular checkpoints along roads outside Lhasa and it would take a serious, concerted effort, and a massive slice of luck, for a permitless traveller to get very far.
Once in Tibet, further permits are needed for specific areas. Travel along the Friendship Highway to Everest, and to Mount Kailash, requires permits that are most often secured from the Public Security Bureau in Shigatse, costing around ¥150. Getting these permits is the responsibility of your tour guide and costs will have been included in the overall agency fee, so its not something you should have to worry about. That said, it’s best to politely double check that they are being taken care of. Anyone caught without permits or overstaying their alloted time faces fines and deportation from the region. The agency that applies for the permit on your behalf may also face stiff penalties, so your guides will also be anxious for you to stick to the leaving dates set out on the permit. Bear in mind that regulations have shifted fairly regularly in the past, so it’s best to check up on the latest requirements before booking.