VISAS AND PERMITS
Concerted interest in doing business in India has resulted in a continuous flow of foreign nationals traveling to India. The Indian government, since late 2009, has issued multiple guidelines to prevent the misuse of Indian visas. Indian law does not place restrictions on the number of foreign nationals who can work or do business in India. But the entry, stay, movements and departure of foreign nationals are regulated by various Indian laws and rules framed by the Indian Central Government.
Most foreign nationals require an appropriate visa to visit India. Foreign nationals seeking an Indian visa need to have a valid passport, a visa, or another accredited travel document to enter through authorized check posts or at an international airport, and are subject to immigration checks.
Applicants should apply to the appropriate Indian Consular Post depending on the location of their residence. Applications may be submitted personally or mailed to these Posts. In addition, the Posts, periodically, conduct visa “camps” in major cities and information about such camps is available at the Web sites maintained by each individual Post.
Part I of this article provides brief information about Indian visas in general. Part II provides specific information about employment and business visas.
Types of Visas
Indian laws require that a foreign national applies for a visa depending on the category most suited to the purpose of the visit. The purpose of travel cannot be changed once the foreign national arrives in India; hence, it is recommended that the applicant verify the suitability of the visa category. Both multiple- and single-entry visas are available.
Following are the most common categories of visas:
Tourist Visa (T): Tourist visas ordinarily may be granted with a validity from six months to five years; in some instances a visa may be granted with a 10-year validity. Irrespective of the validity of the visa, the maximum period of stay within India is limited to a consecutive stay of 90 days or six months (180 days) during each visit. In addition, tourists are generally permitted to re-enter India on a tourist visa only after a period of two months from the date of the last exit as a tourist.
Transit Visa (TR): Transit visas are granted for the sole purpose of enabling the holder to travel through India while on an onward journey to an ultimate destination. Although a provision exists for the issuance of a Temporary Landing Permit (TLP) at the point of entry, when an individual is traveling in transit through India, it is advisable to obtain a transit visa prior to his or her arrival in India. It is issued for a stay of 72 hours (three days) and is not available to all nationalities. An individual may remain within India for a period of three days on a transit visa, but is not permitted to change the purpose of the visit in India. A transit visa is valid ordinarily for a single or double entry into the country on the condition that both entries should be made within three months of the date of visa issuance. Applicants are required to submit proof of confirmed tickets for onward travel and a valid visa for the final destination.
Entry Visa (X): Entry visas, granted to persons of Indian origin, are valid for six months’ to five years’ stay with multiple entries, and to dependents of family members of an individual employed in India. However, if a qualified dependent wishes to take up any employment in India, he or she must obtain the requisite employment visa before arriving in India.
Business Visa (B): Business visas are generally issued with a validity of six months or longer. A first-time applicant is generally granted a business visa with a validity period of six months and may subsequently apply for a longer-duration visa. Business visas with a validity of 10 years may be issued to U.S. nationals. The period of continuous stay in India for each visit is limited to 180 days. Please see Part II of this article for more information.
Employment Visa (E): Foreign nationals with high levels of professional skill and qualification may be granted visas to take up employment in India. Please see Part II of this article for more information.
Student Visa (S): Student visas are valid for the period of study for a particular course in India. Multiple-entry visas are only issued to bona fide students to pursue regular studies at recognized institutions in India. Visa applicants should submit a letter confirming admission from such an institution along with evidence of financial arrangements for their stay in India. In case of admission to medical and paramedical courses in India, a Letter of Approval or No Objection Certificate from the Ministry of Health, Government of India, is required. For admission to graduate or post-graduate courses in engineering/technical institutions in India, a Letter of Approval or No Objection Certificate from the Ministry of Human Resources Development (Department of Education) is required.
If a foreign national student in India on a tourist visa, or any type of visa other than a student visa, obtains admission to a university or any institution in India, the individual will be required to return to the home country and obtain a student visa.
Research Visa (R): When applying for a visa to undertake research in India, the applicant should provide a detailed synopsis of the research project, countersigned by the sponsoring institution in India. It is also necessary to submit an approval obtained from the Ministry of Human Resources Development (Department of Education), New Delhi. The validity of such visas coincides with the estimated duration of the research project.
Missionaries (M): Prior Government approval is required when applying for a visa to join or work on projects with an organization of missionaries in India. These visas are granted for a single entry, valid for the duration approved by the Government. It may take up to three months to process a visa in this category. The applicant must submit three copies of a letter from the sponsoring organization providing information about the locations in India where the applicant will be working, expected length of stay, and nature of work to be discharged. The sponsoring organization should also provide a letter guaranteeing the applicant’s support for the duration of his or her stay in India.
Journalist Visa (J): A journalist visa is given to professional journalists and photographers for up to three months’ stay in India. The applicant must complete additional processes as stipulated by the Press and Information Wing of the Embassy of India, details of which are available at www.indianembassy.org.
Conference Visa (C): Conference visas are for applicants who want to attend international conferences organized and approved under the aegis of the Indian Government. Once an event is approved by the Ministry that is organizing and controlling the international conference, the Ministry and the organizers send invitation letters to the foreign nationals who wish to participate in the event. The invitation letters should include details of clearance accorded by the nodal ministry and should be submitted at the appropriate Post along with the visa application. If a participant faces problems in obtaining a conference visa, the organizers should immediately obtain and furnish the particulars of the participant, including his or her name, nationality, date of birth, place of birth, passport number, and date and place of issue of the passport to the appropriate Ministry with a specific request for a visa.
Those applying in their country of nationality, and those who provide sufficient proof of long-term stay or lawful permanent residence, usually receive their visas within two to three days and often on the same day, in many locations, provided the application along with all the required information is submitted early in the day. However, it is important to verify this well in advance because any increased demand for Indian visas could result in significant delays. Visa issuance may take longer if the application falls in a category where additional clearances are required from authorities in India or elsewhere. It takes longer to process applications that have been mailed to the Indian Consular Post.
Third-country nationals may apply for an Indian visa in the country where they reside provided they have been resident in that country for two years or more. Applications from individuals who are not citizens of the country in which they apply may be subject to reference checks. Requests for references are made to their home country, which may result in delays. Nationals of certain countries may face additional delays in processing times.
Procedure on Arrival in India
The Indian Bureau of Immigration (BOI) handles the immigration services at the major international airports in India and the registration of foreign nationals in five major cities.
All passengers arriving in India, including both Indians and foreign nationals, are subject to immigration checks upon their arrival and departure. On arrival, passengers are required to complete Card D, the Disembarkation card, and on departure, Card E, the Embarkation card. These cards require the individual to submit personal and travel information.
Registration of Foreign Nationals
The field officers in charge of Bengaluru immigration and registration activities at Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and Amritsar are called Foreigners Regional Registration Officers (FRROs). The designation of the officer in Chennai (Madras) is the Chief Immigration Officer (CHIO). Foreign nationals who do not fall under the jurisdiction of the six major cities are required to register with the concerned Superintendents of Police, who act as Foreigners Registration Officers (FROs) in the other districts within India. These offices are referred to as FROs in this article.
Most foreign nationals, including those of Indian origin, visiting India on a visa that permits a stay of more than 180 days must register within 14 days of arrival with the FROs having jurisdiction over the place where the foreigner intends to stay. In addition, some foreign nationals who may have been issued visas indicating that registration is required, irrespective of the duration of stay, should be sure to register with the appropriate FRO within 14 days. A foreign national is required to appear in person before the appropriate Registration Officer along with relevant documents. Nationals of certain countries are required to register within 24 hours to seven days of their arrival.
Restricted or Protected Areas
Foreign nationals are allowed to travel and/or live in most parts of India, except areas that are designated as restricted or protected areas. These areas are sensitive due to political, ethnic or religious strife and are considered unsafe for foreign nationals. The government of India also wishes to protect these areas from the potential risk of foreign nationals infiltrating these regions with a view to increasing tensions. Foreign nationals may visit restricted or protected areas for a short period of time if they obtain permission from the pertinent FRO. The foreign national should make a request in the form of a letter that should be submitted with the prescribed, completed application form.
Registration of Foreign Nationals Staying at Hotels
All foreign nationals need to be registered on Form C under the Registration of Foreigners Rules when they stay in any hotel or on commercial premises. Even when checking out of the hotel, the foreign national has to provide the date and time of departure and the address to which he or she is proceeding. It is the responsibility of the hotel owner to ensure that the foreign national complies with these requirements. This register must be made available for inspection on demand by designated FRRO officials. Proof of registration on check-in may also be required at the time of FRO registration.
Visa Extensions and Conversions
When the foreign national arrives in India, the Indian Bureau of Immigration (BOI) grants him or her entry to the country for a specific time depending on the purpose of the visit. Thereafter an application is to be made for extensions on the prescribed form along with supporting documents. The final powers of visa conversions and visa extensions to foreign nationals, present in India, vests with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The change of visa status from one category to another is normally not allowed and the MHA considers applications for conversions only in extraordinary circumstances.
If an individual is unable to leave the country as required by the issued visa, the foreign national may approach the appropriate FRO giving valid reasons for the inability to leave and apply for an extension of stay. The FRO examines such applications on a case-by-case basis and may extend the individual’s stay. The FRO decisions are final and are not eligible for appeal.
India does not recognize “portability”; that is, an employee who has been granted a visa to work with a particular employer cannot take up employment with another employer in India. To do so, he or she would need to obtain a new visa.
Persons of Indian Origin (PIO)
A foreign national, who can prove his or her Indian origin up to three prior generations (or the spouse of a citizen of India or person of Indian origin), is eligible for a PIO Card (Card), which is valid for 15 years from the date of issue. Citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries as may be specified by the Central Government are not eligible to receive these Cards.
The Card gives the holder visa-free entry into India for 15 years, the right to take up employment without a visa, and exemption from registration with an FRO if the period of stay in India does not exceed 180 days. In addition, PIO Card holders enjoy parity with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) from time to time in economic, financial and educational fields. PIO Card holders may acquire, hold, transfer or dispose of immovable properties in India (except agricultural/plantation properties), open Indian Rupee (INR) bank accounts, lend INRs to Indian residents and make investments in India. PIO Card holders’ children may also obtain admission in educational institutions in India on parity with NRIs. However, they cannot exercise any political rights, visit restricted/protected areas without permission, or undertake mountaineering, research, or missionary work without additional permission.
The PIO Card is issued to eligible applicants through the Indian Posts in the country of their citizenship. Those staying in India on a long-term visa may apply for the Card from the appropriate FRO.
Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI)
In January 2006, the Indian Government implemented a law regarding registration of eligible foreign nationals as Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs). Eligible foreign nationals include, among a few other categories, certain persons of Indian origin and individuals whose parents or grandparents migrated from India after January 26, 1950, and their minor children. This is subject to the applicant being a citizen of a country that allows dual citizenship in some form. This provision is extended to such citizens of all countries other than those who had ever been citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Registration as an OCI is a one-time process that grants all the benefits that are available to PIO Card holders with some additional benefits. These include a lifelong multi-entry, multi-purpose visa to visit, live or work in India and OCIs are not subject to travel restrictions within the country or employment visa requirements that apply to PIOs. An OCI is not required to register with an FRO for any length of stay in India. An individual registered as an OCI for five years who has lived in India for one year is eligible for full Indian citizenship. To avail of “full” Indian citizenship, a foreign national will have to relinquish his or her foreign nationality.
The OCI registration process is to be initiated online, at the Ministry of Home Affair’s Web site, and completed by sending the supporting documents to the appropriate office. An application fee must be submitted with the hard copy of the application. Individuals holding PIO cards may pay reduced fees.
An OCI certificate is issued to the applicant within a few weeks unless there is a criminal background, which may result in delays. All applications are scrutinized by the Central Government of India. The registration is subject to cancellation if it is found that such registration was made with the aid of fraud, false representation or concealment of any material fact. Individuals wishing to get a PIO Card must apply only in their country of citizenship. However, individuals may register as OCIs at the Indian mission or Post in the country where they reside or in some instances even while they are in India.
Indian nationals who have recently acquired nationality of another country are required to surrender their Indian passport to the Post for cancellation at the time of applying for an Indian visa for the first time with their foreign passport. Certain foreign nationals may acquire citizenship of India by naturalization, if they have resided in India for the prescribed duration. Under the OCI scheme, eligible OCIs may acquire Indian citizenship after staying in India for one year provided they have been registered as an OCI for five years.
Update on Indian Business and Employment Visas
In August 2009, India introduced a stringent visa regime, restricting foreign workers with a view to increasing employment opportunities for Indian nationals. The new measures also sought to stem the rampant misuse of tourist and business visas. In an effort to clarify changing regulations, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India, from time to time issues guidance in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and responses. The MHA issued some clarifications at the end of 2009 addressing employment and business visa issues and later issued a FAQ on tourist visas. Subsequently, in August and October 2010 it published additional clarifications with regard to business and employment visas in FAQs; the most recent FAQs were published in October 2010 (2010 FAQs)..
Below are the latest key guidelines pertaining to business and employment visas.
Enhanced Criteria Checks
According to the 2010 FAQs, Consular Posts considering business and employment visa applications must conduct a stringent check of the documentary proof of company registration or registration with an institute like the State Industries Department or the Export Promotional Council. Importantly, the 2010 FAQs specify that all foreign nationals traveling to India must comply with all local laws, including payment of taxes, if applicable. Further, applicants must file their visa applications in the country of citizenship or the country where they have been resident for two or more years.
The applicant’s financial background and expertise in the field of intended business are checked prior to granting a business visa. In addition, the applicant should not be seeking to visit India to undertake “a business of money lending or for running a petty business or petty trade or for full time employment in India, etc.” The Consular Post considering the application will also check the documentary proof of company registration or registration with an institute like the State Industries Department or the Export Promotional Council.
Employment visas continue to be granted to highly skilled and/or qualified professionals who have been employed by an entity in India. They will not be granted for jobs for which qualified Indians are available or for routine, ordinary, secretarial or clerical jobs. All employment visa applications must be sponsored by an entity in India.
No More Numeric Limitations on Employment Visas
A limit introduced in December 2009 by the Indian Ministry of Labor and Employment that affected employment visas was abolished. While the limit was in effect, the number of foreign nationals who Indian employers could engage was restricted to the lesser of (1) 1% of the total workforce or (2) a total of 20 foreign nationals. This was extended to 40 workers to work in certain infrastructure projects. Applications where the number of foreign nationals exceeded these limits were referred to the Ministry of Labor, which resulted in delays and some rejections.
Minimum Salary Requirement
Earlier this year the Indian government also introduced a new provision that required information technology (IT) employers to pay all foreign national employees a minimum annual salary of US $25,000. This requirement now applies universally to employers in all sectors. If employment visa applications are filed where the employee is to be paid less than US $25,000 per year, the consular officers have the power to reject them without any further government review.
Foreign nationals who seek to work as ethnic cooks, teachers of foreign languages, or staff members of an embassy, high commission or non-governmental organization in India are not subject to the minimum salary requirement.
The 2010 FAQs clarify that business visas may now be issued to nationals of most countries for a total validity period of up to five years. U.S. nationals may be issued business visas with a validity of 10 years. Previously, business visas were generally granted for an initial period of up to one year, except to nationals of certain countries. The fact that business visa holders can remain within India for up to six months per stay remains unchanged.
The maximum allowable stay per visit on a business visa is 180 days. The 2010 FAQs further clarify that business visas may be extended in India for a total period of up to five years from the visa’s initial date of issuance. However, such extensions are granted only if the gross sales or turnover from the foreign national’s activities in India equal or exceed an annual amount of approximately US $213,000 per year.
Subsequent to the 2010 FAQs, foreign nationals who are employed and working in non-IT positions may be issued an employment visa for an initial period of up to two years, which may be extended within India for a total validity period of up to five years from the visa’s initial date of issuance. Employment visas may be granted with a validity of up to three years to take up employment in the IT, software, or ITES sectors. This can be extended for up to 5 years from the date of issue of the initial visa.
Visas to work on specific projects continue to be issued for the duration of the project.
Business Visa Holders
According to the 2010 FAQs, business visas now include endorsements that clearly identify the visa holders’ applicable terms of stay, including whether or not they must register with local authorities upon arrival. Business visas will be endorsed with either “each stay not to exceed 6 months and registration not required” or “registration required within 14 days.”
Employment Visa Holders
The 2010 FAQs clarify that employment visa holders are required to register with their local FRRO/FRO only if their visa is valid for 180 days or more. If registration is required, it must take place within 14 days of the foreign national’s arrival in India. Individuals with employment visas issued for a period of fewer than 180 days are not required to register with local authorities unless their visa contains an endorsement to the contrary.
Restrictions on Certain Nationals
Special procedures and lengthy processing times apply for nationals of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and China. Applications from Pakistani nationals and from persons with a Pakistani background are subject to additional checks and usually result in a delay of at least 30 days. Additionally, such individuals are currently being issued visas permitting a single entry.
The visa issuance guidelines provide a broad framework but are granted on a case-by-case basis resulting in visa applications of individuals with similar profiles ending up with different adjudications. It may be advisable to obtain professional counsel when applying for certain categories of visas. The power to grant Indian visas is largely discretionary and submitting an appropriate and comprehensive application raises the chances of a visa issuance.¹
New Project Visas And Compliance With Minimum Salary Requirements
The Indian Government issues a new Project (P) visa as described in the new FAQs issued in December 2010. This visa currently applies only to foreign nationals seeking to work in the Power or Steel Sectors.
The number of foreign workers who can work on a project visa in any unit in these industries is restricted to numeric caps. The cap varies depending on the unit’s activities and production capacity. The cap in the power sector ranges from 50 to 281 individuals, while in the steel sector it varies from 5% of the work force, or 150 individuals, to 10% of the work force, or 300 individuals, again depending on the capacity of the project and whether it is a green field project or a brown field project. If there are requirements that go beyond these numeric caps, the Indian Consular Posts forward such applications, which are decided on a case-by-case basis, to the Indian Ministry of Labor and Employment.
The total manpower requirement must be determined at the stage of conceptualization of the project. The deployment of foreign nationals to work on ongoing projects is decided on a case-by-case basis by the Indian Ministry of Labor and Employment. The FAQs also include a special visa application form that must be used when applying for Project Visas.
Visas will be granted with specific notations enabling the individual to work only on the project for which the visa was granted. Project visas are valid for one year, or for the duration of the project, whichever is less. Also, these multiple-entry visas cannot be extended without the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs. A person who has been granted a project visa cannot be employed by the company that executed the project for a period of two years from the date of commissioning of the project. During the two-year period, if this individual needs to visit India to attend emergency maintenance or other urgent issues, he or she will be granted a non-extendable business visa.
Compliance With Minimum Salary Requirements
In 2010, the Indian government introduced a new provision that required all employers to pay foreign national employees a minimum annual salary of US $25,000. According to new guidelines issued by the Indian government in December 2010 (the Guidelines), any perquisites like housing, telephone, transport, entertainment, etc., which are received in kind, should not be included when computing the salary of the individual. Persons who are already employed for a salary lower than US $25,000 will be given an opportunity to extend their visa for a period of three months, during which time they must document that they will receive an annual salary of US $25,000 in the future. These Guidelines also describe how foreign nationals in the entertainment industry should comply with the minimum salary requirements.
*This article has been compiled from Internet resources and portals maintained by different departments of the Government of India. The information is general in nature and should not be relied on as conclusive. Individuals should independently verify the information when needed.
¹ In some cases, visa adjudications have resulted in an issuance for one applicant even though another applicant with a very similar profile, who applied at the same time, was denied a visa for the same purpose of travel.
New Indian Immigration Regime for Foreign Nationals in India
By Poorvi Chothani, Correspondent Attorney to Cyrus D. Mehta & Associates