India can be very mentally draining but other than that it is a reasonably safe country. All developing countries are known to have instances of petty crime and theft, as long as you follow the basic precautions below it is very unlikely that you will come to any harm.
However if you like, you can check with your embassy and ask for local advice on travelling India before you leave.
Depending on what you're doing in India you'll need one of the following.
If you don’t have a visa you can get a visa through the ‘tourist-visa-on-arrival’ scheme – available to some nations. Check with your local embassy to find out if that includes you. It can take 1-6 hours, costs US$60, is valid for a single entry and is not extendable.
Top tip for anyone planning on spending their gap year in India: it's a good idea to ask for a multiple entry visa even if you’re not planning on using it – they cost the same, are handed out pretty liberally and come in handy if you decide last minute to dip into one of the neighbouring countries..
If you’re on a Student, Employment, Research or Missionary visa, you need to register within 14 days of arrival with the Foreigners Regional Registration Officewhere you will be staying. If the place you are staying at doesn't have one, you need to register at the local police station. All visitors who intend to stay more than 180 days also need to be registered.
Don’t overstay your visa whatever happens – it’ll cost you a fortune in both time and money to get yourself out of that one.
Violent thefts in India very rarely occur; saying this theft is unfortunately quite common in places visited by tourists. These thieves are more likely to pick your pockets or break into your room rather than try to rob you on the street.
Another example of theft in India is when you are short-changed or ‘ripped-off’. Be sure to count your pennies before handing them over and be insistent on receiving the correct change. This counts for anyone who is handling your money, including police employees at prepaid taxi stands, official ticket sellers at tourist sites and merchants. This problem is particularly evident in Delhi where short-changing is a universal rule adhered to by all who handle a westerner’s money.
If you are feeling adventurous and decide to visit a village or rural area remember to be careful at night. There have been rare occasions where bandits have abducted and robbed tourists as they assume tourists possess large amounts of wealth. This happens in village streets and on night buses – bandits stop buses at fake checkpoints and rob everyone inside. As mentioned this is very rare and only really happens in remote areas; however if you are worried ask your hotel to see if this is an issue in your area.
When travelling around India you will attract the attention of beggars and frauds, especially if you’re a female. Most Indians will not touch you, but beggars might, often tugging on your sleeve and following you. If this happens then stay calm and try to ignore the behaviour whilst looking unconcerned. The worst reaction is to say “NO” loudly, giving them any reactions positive or negative will encourage them to follow you.
Under no circumstances should you give money to a beggar, especially in public as this will result in a horde of beggars coming at you from all directions. The most important thing to remember is not to give money to children as they are being exploited by adults – begging is keeping them out of school. It is understandable if you are affected emotionally by this; if it really upsets you then a good idea is to give the money you would have given to them to a well trusted charity instead.
Try not to get too paranoid, most Indians or Indian families who want you in their pictures are often genuinely curious. Be wary of frauds at tourist attractions, they target tourists by offering assistance or services such as tours. If you do hire a legitimate guide then don’t feel pressured into making ‘donations’ of thousands of rupees. Remember; just walk away if you start to feel uncomfortable.
As mentioned in the getting around India section taxis and tok toks are where you'll be most commonly ripped off as a foreigner - and dealing with them can be incredibly tiring. Here are some simple points to remember:
Travelling around India as a woman is fairly safe, it just requires common sense. Even though India’s conservative image is changing in places like Goa and big cities, you still need to bear in mind that India is a mostly conservative country and some Western habits can be perceived as dishonourable for a woman.
The first thing to think about is the way you dress. Dressing in traditional Indian clothes, such as a comfortable salwaar kameez will often gain you more respect in the eyes of locals. People are fully clothed at the beach except in rare places such as Goa which allow western swim wear, on the beach only. Yet this can cause undesired male attention and is probably more trouble than it is worth
Relating to clothes; it is unsafe for females to walk alone in cities, mainly at night. If you have to walk alone then dress modestly, sex crimes against tourist can occur in tourist spots! Never get into a taxi with provocative clothes on such as mini-skirts. In addition to this, note that women who smoke or drink are associated with loose moral character, so try to avoid this especially in public or when alone.
Outside of the larger cities, it is unusual for people of the opposite sex to touch each other in public. Even couples refrain from public displays of affection. Therefore in many parts of the country, women will not share a seat with a man other than her spouse. If you sit near a man, he may stand up from the seat and give the place to you; this is a sign of respect, NOT rudeness.
Friendly conversation with men you meet is often confused with flirtation. In some scenarios, this can lead to unexpected sexual advances. Note that it's not disrespectful for a woman to tell a man that she doesn't want to talk - so if a man's behaviour makes you uncomfortable, say so firmly. If he doesn't seem to get the hint, quietly excusing yourself is a better answer than confrontation; you will often find that Indian women will stand up for you.
Lastly if you are lucky enough to have your trip coincide with an Indian holiday be wary that the streets are usually filled with crowds of inebriated men. During festivals such as Holi, New Year's Eve, and even Christmas Eve, women can be subjected to groping and sexually aggressive behaviour from these crowds, particularly in the northern and some western parts. It is unsafe for women to attend these festivities alone so only go in a group.
The currency in India is the Indian rupee. Common notes include 5 (green), 10 (orange), 20 (red), 50 (purple), 100 (blue), 500 (yellow) and 1,000 (pink). It is always good to have a number of small notes on hand, as merchants and drivers sometimes have no change. A useful technique is to keep small notes (10-50) in your wallet or in a pocket, and to keep larger notes separate, that way it will not be obvious how much money you have. Be sure to take a look at these travel money tips before you go.
Many merchants will claim that they don't have change for a 100 or 500 note. This is often a lie so that they are not stuck with a large note. It is best not to buy unless you have exact change.
The coins in circulation are 50 paise, 1, 2, 5, and 10. Coins are useful for buying tea, bus fares and for giving exact change for an auto-rickshaw.
The Indian Rupee is not officially convertible, and a few government-run shops will still insist on seeing official exchange receipts if you are visibly a foreigner and attempt to pay in rupees instead of hard currency. Rates for exchanging rupees overseas are often poor and importing rupees is theoretically illegal, although places with significant Indian populations (eg. Dubai, Singapore) can give decent rates. Try to get rid of any spare rupees before you leave the country – It’s always fun to do this in the airport.
Outside airports, you can change your currency at any one of the numerous foreign exchange conversion units including banks.
Be aware of fakes even in shops with the Western Union logo, a friend of mine ended up leaving with a wallet full of fake 500’s. It is pretty simple to test this, the note will feel even more like paper than the real deal and smell of ink, also there should be a hologram of Ghandi’s head on the left hand side of the note (just like the Queens head on sterling notes).
Remember to keep your money safe and beware of pickpockets a good tip is to keep your money spread out on your person and some in your back-pack so if some does get stolen or go missing you won’t be without. Or to keep a pre-paid card.
The monsoon season in India is crazy. There are two particular monsoons that wreak havoc over India when they hit – the Southwest and the Northeast, both named after the directions the winds come from.
The Southwest monsoon comes from June to September on the west coast and is the most important one, as it pours rain over most of the country – a crucial decider in how well the crops will do.
The Northeast monsoon hits the east coast between October and February, mostly in the form of occasional cyclones which cause much devastation every year. The only region that gets rains from both monsoons is North-Eastern India, which consequently experiences the highest rainfall in the world. India experiences at least three seasons a year, Summer, Rainy Season (or "Monsoon") and Winter (temperatures as low as 25C!).
For any Brit going to India on their gap year – November to March would be the best time as the weather is just a hot summer for us and the rains are generally only in the north.