GUIDE TO INDIA
CUSTOMS, MONEY & COST IN INDIA
The usual duty-free regulations apply for India ; that is, 1 L of alcohol and 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco.
You are allowed to bring in expensive items, such as video cameras and laptop computers; they may be entered on a ‘Tourist Baggage Re-export’ form to ensure you take them out with you when you go (although this is not always policed).
Technically you are supposed to declare any amount of cash or travelers cheques over US$10,000 on arrival. Regarding Indian currency, officially you are not supposed to take any into or out of India, however a number of travelers have been told that they can import a maximum of Rs 5000.
If you are entering India from Nepal you are not entitled to import anything free of duty.
There are certain restrictions about what you can take out of India – see Antiques & Wildlife Restrictions under Shopping later in this chapter. The Indian customs website (www.customs.gov.in) is a useful source of information.
The rupee (Rs) is divided into 100 paise (p). There are coins of five, 10, 20, 25 and 50 paise and Rs 1, 2 and 5, and notes of Rs 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500. In 1996 the Reserve Bank of India decided to stop printing Rs 1, 2 and 5 notes, but there is still a sprinkling of these in circulation. There is a Rs 1000 note but this is quite rare.
Whenever you change money, take your time and check each note even if the wad appears to have been stapled together. Some bills look quite similar, so check them very carefully. Don’t accept any filthy, ripped or disintegrating notes, as you’ll have difficulty in getting people to accept these (you can change them at the Reserve Bank of India as a last resort).
It can be difficult to use large denomination notes because of a seemingly perpetual lack of change in shops, taxis etc, so it’s a good idea to maintain a constant stock of smaller currency.
The subwwway section of the LP website ( www.lonelyplanet.com/subwwway/) provides links to currency converters for up-tothe-minute exchange rates.
Cash It’s no problem changing money in capital cities and tourist hotbeds. However, it’s advisable to have some US dollars or UK pounds sterling in cash in case you are unable to change travelers cheques or use a credit card, especially in smaller towns. Many off-the-beaten-track places may not offer any money-changing facilities at all, so take along an adequate stock of rupees.
Travelers Cheques All major brands are accepted in India, with American Express (AmEx) and Thomas Cook being the most widely traded. Pounds sterling and US dollars are the safest bet, especially out of the major cities. Not all places take all brands – which means it pays to carry more than one flavor. Charges for changing travelers cheques vary from place to place and bank to bank.
ATMs Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai, plus a growing number of larger towns, including Jaipur and Ahmedabad, have ATMs (many 24 hour) that accept Cirrus, Maestro, MasterCard and Visa (but not always all cards). However, you should definitely not rely on them as your sole source of cash, especially if you’re planning to travel beyond the big cities. Note that some ATMs in smaller towns don’t accept foreign cards. Check with your local bank before departing to confirm that your card can access international banking networks.
Credit Cards Most major cities and tourist centres accept credit cards, with MasterCard and Visa being the most widely accepted. Cash advances on major credit cards can be made at various banks (although not always in smaller towns). For details about whether you can access home accounts in India, inquire at your home bank before leaving.
Credit cards are accepted at almost all top-end hotels and at many mid-range ones, however only a handful of budget hotels/ restaurants/shops accept them. In the Andaman Islands, credit cards are only accepted at the upmarket hotels; on the outlying islands only cash is accepted.
International Transfers Naturally it is preferable not to run out of money in India, but if you do, you can have money transferred in no time at all (at a charge) via Thomas Cook’s Moneygram service (see regional chapters for Thomas Cook offices) or at Western Union (via Sita World Travels; 011-23311122; 12 F-Block, Connaught Place, Delhi; • DHL agencies). Western Union also has other agencies which have branches in Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad. Some private moneychangers, such as the Travellers’ Express Club in Kolkata, also offer money-transfer facilities (see regional chapters for details). You need to bring along your passport when picking up money.
Moneychangers Usually open for longer hours than the banks, private moneychangers are a convenient option and they are virtually everywhere. However it pays to check the bank rates first, and as with anywhere, check you are given the correct amount.
Re-Exchange Before leaving India you can change any leftover rupees back into foreign currency. To do so, you must produce encashment certificates (see Encashment Certificates, following) that cover the rupee amount and are less than three months old. You’ll also have to show your passport and airline ticket.
You can convert rupees back to major currencies at some city banks and moneychangers and at international airports, although if you want US dollars cash, some places will only permit you to re-exchange up to US$500 worth of rupees, and only within 48 hours of leaving the country.
Note that cash withdrawals from ATMs don’t provide encashment certificates – banks and moneychangers won’t change rupees back into foreign currency for plastic transactions, however international airports will (on presentation of your ATM slip).
The safest place for your money and your passport is next to your skin, either in a moneybelt around your waist or in a pouch under your shirt or T-shirt. Never, ever carry these things in your luggage. You are also asking for trouble if you walk around with your valuables in a shoulder bag. Bum bags are not recommended as they virtually advertise that you have a stash of goodies. Never leave your valuable documents and travelers cheques in your hotel room. If the hotel is a reputable one, you should be able to use the hotel safe. It is wise to peel off at least US$100 and keep it stashed away separately from your main horde, just in case. It’s also wise to keep a photocopy or two of your passport (including the visa page) kept separately from your passport. Some travelers scan copies of important documents to keep on the Internet as back up. Finally, try to separate your big notes from your small ones so you don’t publicly display large wads of cash when paying for minor services such as shoe-polishing and tipping.
Costs generally vary depending on whether or not it’s the tourist season. They can also shoot up during festivals or other special events and it’s not unusual for hotel rates to double (even triple) during these times. Be prepared to pay more in the larger cities (such as Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata), as well as at popular tourist destinations.
It’s usually more economical traveling with one or more people, as you can save money by sharing hotel rooms, taxis, rickshaws, etc.
At absolute rock bottom you can subsist on about US$7 to US$10 per person: around US$15 to US$20 in larger cities and tourist hot spots (note that some regions, such as the Andamans, are more expensive). This means serious scrimping – dormitories, travel on public buses and the cheaper classes on trains, limited sightseeing and basic meals.
If you want to stay in decent rnid-range hotels, eat regularly at restaurants (occasionally treating yourself at a fancy one) and largely travel by autorickshaw or taxi, you’re looking at an average of between USS18 and US$40 a day (including the taxes that mid-range accommodation attracts; the higher figure applies to bigger cities, touristy spots and during festivals). Of course, you may manage to live on a bit under US$ 18 in some smaller towns.
Entry Charges Most tourist sites have an entry fee and most levy a charge for cameras and videos. Indian residents generally pay less than noncitizens. Admission prices for foreigners are often given in USS (payable in the rupee equivalent). If you’re of Indian descent (but not an Indian resident), the ‘foreigners’ rate officially applies.
Tipping , Baksheesh & Bargaining In tourist restaurants or hotels, where a service fee (amounts vary regionally) is usually already added on to your bill, tipping is optional. In smaller places, where there is no service fee, a tip is appreciated (even if it’s just a few rupees). Hotel and train porters expect at least Rs 10 to carry bags, and hotel staff also expect around the same to provide services above and beyond the call of duty. It’s not mandatory to tip taxi or autorickshaw drivers.
Baksheesh can be defined as a ‘tip.’Baksheesh also refers to giving alms to beggars. Many Indians implore tourists not to hand out sweets, pens or money to children, as it’s positive reinforcement to beg. Instead you may like to donate to a school or charitable organisation (see also Volunteer Work later in this chapter).
Apart from in fixed-price shops, bargaining is the norm. The trick is to shop around a bit before settling on a particular vendor. A general rule of thumb is to halve the original asking price (even more at touristy spots) so the shopkeeper knows you’re not going to be taken for a ride. You’ll often find that the price tumbles if you head out of the shop saying you’ll ‘think about it’. But remember, haggling shouldn’t turn ugly. Keep in mind exactly how much a rupee is worth in your home currency, so you don’t lose perspective.
A tax or two (or more) is usually whacked onto accommodation at mid-range and topend hotels, as well as on food and beverages at moderate to upmarket restaurants. The amount differs from state to state (see individual chapters), but generally starts at about 10% and may be more for air-con rooms and top-end hotels. To avoid a nasty surprise when you get your hotel bill, inquire about taxes before checking in.
If you’ve got a visa enabling you to stay in India for more than six months, you must technically get a tax clearance certificate to leave the country. This certificate supposedly proves that your time in India was financed with your own money, not by working in India or by selling things. For details and a tax clearance certificate, contact a Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office (located in the major cities; see regional chapters for contact details). You’ll need to show your passport, visa extension form, any other appropriate paperwork and a bunch of bank encashment certificates.
By law, all foreign currency must be changed at official moneychangers or banks, which will give you an encashment certificate (these money-exchange receipts are valid for three months). Make sure you get them, as they are the only way you can reexchange excess rupees for foreign currency when you are departing India (see ReExchange earlier in this section). Enchashment certificates are also required for tax clearance certificates (see Taxes). Some shipping agents may also request encashment certificates.