Nepal is undermining international goodwill and losing revenue by driving out long-staying foreigners

'Welcome to Nepal' says a promotional poster to visitors at Kathmandu Airport arrivals. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Since Nepal first opened its doors to the outside world in the 1950s, it has steadily gained goodwill and friends around the globe. The Nepal brand has remained strong despite political instability, a ruinous conflict, corruption, poor infrastructure and air pollution. 

First came the high fliers of the sixties to this Shangri La, then the hippies and overlanders seeking Nirvana. Himalayan hikers and development volunteers travelled and worked in the remotest corners of Nepal where even Nepalis had never been. Scientists, academics and experts like Toni Hagen and Götz Hagmüller made Nepal their adopted home, and gave the country a global identity. 

They worked in schools, hospitals, conservation or heritage projects, building lifelong connections with Nepal, immersing themselves so much in the Nepali way of life that they felt alien in their own homeland.

Many wanted to spend their last days here, and some did. But in the past year the state has made it more and more difficult for long-staying foreigners to remain, and many in their seventies and eighties have bid tearful farewells to Nepal. 

Why is Nepal driving away its best friends? Most of those interviewed for this report did not want their names used, and many teared up when they recounted the humiliation and dead-end they encountered while trying to renew their visas. 

Countries like Thailand issue long-term retirement visas to foreigners in return for spending a minimum of $25,000 a year. Nepal had been allowing retired foreigners to stay on long-term residential visas until recently. This has been discontinued, but no one seems to know why. When asked, officials say it is a directive from the Home Ministry. 

The website of the Immigration Department, which falls under the Home Ministry, says that a foreigner aged 60 or above can apply for and get a residential visa in Nepal as long as they have $20,000 in their bank account every year, pay an annual visa fee, obtain a no-objection letter from a related embassy, a health certificate issued by Teaching Hospital.

But the Immigration Department has not granted any new residential visa for over a year, forcing many elderly applicants to leave for good after being given the runaround. Expats can extend their tourist visas but only for up to 5 months during a calendar year.

We asked an official at the Immigration Department why no new residential visas had been approved. His reply: “You will have to ask the Home Ministry about it, they stopped it.” Only 3 long-term residential visas have been renewed in the past year. 

After agreeing to speak anonymously, an official asked a rhetorical question: “It boils down to two alternatives: are we going to make money from long-term visas for foreigners, or is Nepal going to be an old people’s home?” 

Foreigners who have given up knocking on doors at the Immigration Department are used to such cynicism. One 72-year-old applicant who has spent 30 years in Nepal was bluntly told: “Sir, we don’t care if you are here or not.”

An American who has been living in Nepal for over 25 years has been trying to apply for a long-term visa for five years, and has been going in and out on a tourist visa. He was told the only way would be to pay off a broker, or get a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office. 

Earlier this year, British couple Wendy and Robin Marston who have lived in Nepal for over 45 years left the country after they were denied a residential visa. Robin was one of the pioneers of trekking in Nepal since 1978, and Wendy was involved in life-saving charities to help burns victims at hospitals in Kathmandu.  

Austrian architect Götz Hagmüller died earlier this year in Bhaktapur aged 85 after spending more than half his life in Nepal. He made the preservation of Kathmandu Valley’s cultural heritage his life’s work and never left, restored Kuthu Math, Kaiser Mahal’s Garden of Dreams and the Patan Museum. He was refused a residential visa, and only got to stay on in a different visa category. 

Foreigners have two ways to get long-term visas: by enrolling as students or investing in a business. The government is tightening the student loophole, and requires foreigners to invest Rs10 million or more in Nepal. This group is mainly made up of Chinese and South Koreans who have opened restaurants in Kathmandu or Pokhara. 

But there are hassles even in renewing business visas every year, and a hydropower investor says he cannot get his passport stamped without getting his fixer to hand cash under the table. 

“If the Nepal government is serious about foreign investment in the country, it must clean up its act,” he told us on condition of anonymity. What puzzles long-time Nepalophiles is that officials are so intent on undermining the country’s international goodwill by being so nasty to its most devoted brand ambassadors.

There are many theories about the tightening of visas: traditional xenophobia from a time Nepal was a hermit kingdom, geopolitics, suspicions about foreigners engaged in proselytisation, corruption and lack of coordination between the tourism promotion and immigration authorities. It could even be immigration officials doing a tit-for-tat for someone they know being refused a Schengen or American visa.

The Visit Nepal Year 2020 sign is still painted on the sides of Nepal Airlines jets, the country’s tourism promotion has lofty slogans like ‘Guest Is God’ or ‘Visit Nepal: Once Is Not Enough’. On the other hand, visitors whose visa fees could be a lucrative source of income are being told they are not welcome. 

“Nepal has so much goodwill it can capitalise on, it is a wonder that it doesn’t,” says a long-term resident. “There is a larger xenophobia and suspicions at play here, especially with the relations with the United States and the rise of India and China. But Nepal is losing out on other friends and opportunities.”

Indeed, some see pressure from China on the government to control the activities of Westerners who may be sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, and India is also seen to be wary of the presence of third-country foreigners.  

Writing for Nepali Times, researcher George van Driem says xenophobic legislation enforces an ethnic bias that seals off Nepal for long-term residents.

‘Even with the written approval of His Majesty King Birendra, it took Lt. Col. John Philip Cross 32 years, 6 months and 2 days before he was granted citizenship. When his struggle was finally rewarded, the legendary Gurkha figure was already deep into his retirement. Yet he is the lucky exception,’ van Driem wrote. ‘This grudging attitude with respect to Nepali citizenship reflects a mind-set firmly rooted in the racial attitudes of the Mulukī Ain.’

Ironically, while Nepal is pushing away long-staying foreigners, Nepalis themselves are emigrating in droves to their countries. 

Says an American academic who first came to Nepal in the early 1990s: “We are definitely not a drain on the economy, we are happy to pay but it is a real shame that Nepal has made it so hard for us to stay. So many have left and gone to Thailand and elsewhere. They had no other choice.”

Another 72-year-old resident who has lived in Nepal for 30 years is emotional when she says in a soft voice and with a faraway look: “Despite everything, I still wanted to live here for the rest of my days.” 

Her residential visa application was turned down, and she is leaving Nepal for good this week.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.