Make sure you get the proper visa for volunteering in India.
If you land in India for your volunteer trip with the wrong visa, you might get sent home immediately from the airport by Indian Immigration.
This happened recently to 16 students and three staff from Poynton High School in England. They were all denied entry by Indian immigration staff because they had “tourist” visas.
What visa should they have gotten? An Employment Visa.
Yes, for unpaid volunteer work in India, foreigners must obtain an employment visa.
The explanation comes from the company Cox & Kings Global Services:
A ‘EMPLOYMENT VISA’ is available for travelling to India for the purpose of working in India, for an organization registered in India. An Employment Visa is granted to an employee or paid intern of an Indian company and to persons traveling to India for volunteer work with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).
Since 2014 India’s Immigration Department has outsourced the visa process to the private company Cox & Kings Global Services (in Canada it’s BLS International). If you need to obtain a visa for India, you must go through Cox & Kings — no exceptions.
The process for obtaining an employment visa for India is nearly identical to the tourist visa. You submit your passport, visa application form, a passport photo, and the visa fee.
However, with the employment visa for India you must also:
Submit a letter from the organization in India where you will volunteer indicating the nature and the duration of the visit and place of work.
The good news is that the organization you sign-up with back home, say Cosmic Volunteers, will obtain this letter for you (we do it after you sign-up and pay the deposit).
If you follow the process, you should have your passport returned to you in 2-3 weeks with the valid India visa sticker placed inside.
I really feel for the Poynton School:
1. The school had already made three identical trips to India.
2. They went through a reputable charity back home, called India Direct.
3. They have donated $35,000 USD for children’s homes in India.
4. And all of this on tourist visas — which were then rejected on trip number 4.
I can only think that they simply had the bad luck of meeting up with the crankiest Immigration officer ever at the airport in India (and that’s saying something for India! Although US Immigration isn’t always a good experience either).
In defense of India Direct:
For most of my 17 years running volunteer programs India, I also told my volunteers to get the tourist visa.
I even got tourist visas for all of my own trips to India. And every trip I’ve made to India was strictly to run my volunteer programs and to volunteer myself. (I am not big on tourist sites — I still haven’t visited the Taj Mahal!)
Neither myself nor any of my volunteers have ever had a problem entering India with the tourist visa.
The immigration officer in India rarely even looks at you. Just takes the passport and arrival card, stamps your passport and you’re on your way.
It has only been the last few years that I have insisted to volunteers that they get the employment visa for India. (I believe India established the employment visa somewhere around 2010. India changes its visa policies and procedures quite often.)
Reading about the awful experience of the Poynton School, I will continue to do so.