45 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Pakistan

No doubt: Pakistan is one of the best travel destinations in the world right now. It is also one of the quirkier countries I have spent loads of time in. I have compiled this list in my mind for years and it is something I wish I had in my back pocket before I went backpacking in Pakistan the first time. After 10 trips to this amazing country, I feel like it is time to unleash what I learned along the way.

Pakistan ain’t all huge mountains, samosas, and beautiful mosques (though it has all three in great abundance).

Let’s dive right into my ultimate list of my top 45 Pakistan travel tips and things to know.

Getting a Visa is MUCH Easier Than it Use to Be

pakistan visa letter
I am very thankful that these old visas are a thing of the past.

As recently as mid-2019, in order to get your Pakistani tourist visa, one needed to apply through your country of residence. At that time I was an American living in France which meant I had to apply in France since I was a legal resident. The process took a month and cost me about €300 every time I applied as I used a visa service to help me, etc.

Enter the majesty that it is the e-visa system

Nowadays, getting a visa is super easy. I have a friend (American) who got issued an e-visa within 7 hours of applying! The fee depends on your nationality but on average a 30-day tourist visa will cost you about $60 USD.

You still need a Letter of Invitation (LOI) to apply for your visa, but there are many tour companies in Pakistan who will see you one.

Contact my friend Haris Ali Shah if you wish to buy an LOI ($75 USD) and tell him Off the Atlas sent you for a small discount.

Pakistan is An Islamic Republic

badsahai mosque lahore
Visit as many beautiful mosques as possible

Pakistan might be very conservative (and traditionally tribal in some places) in some places, but the country is technically not governed under Sharia law. Pakistan is a democracy and you 100% do not have to be Muslim to travel here (or even visit ancient mosques).

If you are a woman traveling in Pakistan be sure to travel with a simple headscarf which you will need to enter religious sites.

In general, most Pakistani’s are very welcoming to foreigners and tolerant of other cultures and religions.

Getting Around in Pakistan is… Interesting

motorcycle in Pakistan
Get ready to rip on these roads

Plane, trains, buses, and motorcycles – these are just a few of the many transport options in Pakistan. You also have psychedelic trucks decked out with decorations straight out of an acid-tripper’s dream, chicken wagons, and taxi cabs that look like the wheels might fall off at any moment.

Point being – you have options. If you are short on time and want to visit the northern areas, flying to Gilgit, Chitral, or Skardu is definitely the way to go. Public transport is available almost everywhere in some form, though they move at the speed of molasses sometimes – especially when the road is in poor condition.

If you are into driving your own motorcycle in Pakistan, there are some of the most epic roads in the world here.

Pakistan is Home to the Karakoram Highway

The majestic Karakoram Highway near Passu

One of the engineering wonders of the world, Pakistan’s legendary Karakoram Highway stretches 1,300 miles from the green foothills of KPK all the way to the high-altitude China border.

When you start getting into Gilgit Baltistan, simply look out the window of the vehicle you are traveling in to have your mind completely blown. I have driven the Karakoram highway from Punjab to Gilgit Baltistan at least 15 times at this point and I can truly say that the landscapes never get old.

English is Widely Spoken

Though the official language in Pakistan is Urdu – countless other languages are spoken by million of the population. As a foreigner speaking none or very little of these languages, never fear! It is not too difficult to get by with English.

Especially with the younger generation, many Pakistani people are quite fluent in English. In the mountains, people you are likely to encounter will probably at least semi-conversational.

That said, take the time to learn a few words of Urdu if you plan on spending some time in Pakistan!

ATM Machines Almost Never Work

Coming from the USA, the EU, UK, or Australia? Your magic plastic cards that put money in your pocket in every other country you visit probably won’t work in Pakistan. If you try 10 different ATM’s in Islamabad, maybe one will work.

Bring cash with you and use money changers to get rupees instead of embarking on a great struggle to find a functional ATM. In the northern areas, you can pretty much forget about using an ATM to get money. Euros, Dollars, and British Pounds are all easily changed to rupees.

The Roads in The Mountains Can Be Rough

karakoram highway nagar valley
Mountain roads in Hunza

Some parts of the KKH are in great shape. Other sections are plagued by constant landslides, rock falls, and general mayhem bestowed upon it upon them by mother nature. Be prepared for big delays if you are on taking public transit or a private vehicle. Always pack plenty of water, toilet paper, and SNACKS.

Whatever Google Maps tells you is the estimated time to your destination, double it at least.

Major highways connecting big cities are in great condition.

What’s Up With the Internet Situation?

A few years ago when I went to northern Pakistan, wifi and cell signal in most places was non-existent. Now that is slowly changing and there is much better internet access.

Getting a SIM card is a good option for people who want internet access on the road. I recommend Zong for Punjab/Sindh and SCOM for the north (the only one that works up there).

Pakistan Has a Plastic Problem

grayl geopress black
Using the Grayl Geopress in Kalam Valley

Everywhere you go you see plastic bags and plastic bottles being used with reckless abandon. Before you come to Pakistan get a water purifier bottle from Grayl. I have been using these for years in Pakistan and I’d say if there is one piece of gear you NEED for Pakistan – both for health reasons and to cut out single plastic bottle use – it is the Grayl Geopress.

Internal Flights Get Cancelled

There you are, at the airport, bags ready… and what happens? An announcement comes over the PA system that the “next flight to Skardu has been canceled”. Pakistan is still getting its internal airline program dialed in – and sometimes bad weather in the mountains is the true cause of flight cancellations.

When you book an internal flight, be prepared for flight cancellations and have a backup plan in case this happens to you.

Pakistan is a Tea-Addicted Nation

man pouring chai tea
Enjoying a cup of tea on a trek in Hunza.

Chai: the favorite beverage of every Pakistani I have ever met. On-street corners, barbershops, train stations, and shepherd huts – chai is a drink you will encounter literally everywhere in Pakistan.

If you are a coffee drinker like I am, I suggest bringing your own coffee to Pakistan from your home country. I bring roughly 2 kilos with me every time I come! If you like sweet, milky tea, you have found your people.

Pack a Good Sleeping Bag and Down Jacket

A cozy sleeping bag is key to life in the mountains.

If you plan on going to the mountains at all – do not underestimate how useful it is to have a good down jacket and sleeping bag. I have met COUNTLESS travelers – Pakistani and foreign who are grossly unequipped for the cold, unpredictable weather you might encounter whilst doing any form of outdoor activity in the north.

Having a sleeping bag and down jacket also opens up doors of adventure opportunities that would be off-limits completely if you did not have them.

The World’s Second Biggest Mountain is in Pakistan

k2 base camp trek

We have all heard of Everest. The world’s biggest mountain attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. Pakistan is home to #2 – K2 aka The Savage Mountain.

A journey to K2 Base Camp is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list journey if hiking and big adventures are your thing.

Treks in Restricted Areas Require Permits in Advance

Even though 5 of the world’s highest mountains are in Pakistan, 4 of them are located in a restricted area (in Central Karakoram National Park). Pretty much this is because technically these are border areas with India and China and there is a year-round army presence scattered around these areas.

This means to embark on any of the amazing multi-day treks in the area you either have to:

  1. Apply for a NOC permit 4-6 weeks before your trip
  2. Apply for the new Trekking and Mountaineering Visa – which takes a minimum 4 weeks to get.

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The Trucks in Pakistan Are Psychedelic

Everywhere you go in Pakistan one sight is pretty much guaranteed: you will see awesome trucks, tractors, and buses decked out will all sorts of colorful ornaments and woodworking. It seems to be a contest: who can make their truck the most fabulous.

Where Are All the Women?

woman in pakistan

In cities like Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi you will see women out in the streets everywhere. It is not uncommon to see women without head coverings as well in those cities. Outside of the urban centers though, it is difficult to see women out and about in many places.

I refer to Pakistan as the “country of dudes” since in many parts of KPK, Punjab, Gilgit Baltistan, and elsewhere you simply do not see many women in public.

Traveling in Pakistan as a foreign woman is very safe generally speaking though as Pakistan has some pretty backward gender dynamics – traveling as a solo woman is definitely not the same as traveling as a man.

Police Check Points For Foreginers

Pretty much once you enter KPK or Gilgit Baltistan you will need to deal with police checkpoints every few hours. Now the rules seem to change often – but basically, you will need to check in with the police on the roadside checkpoints. This is a way for them to track where you are in the north. That might sound odd or invasive – but it is part of their commitment to keeping foreigners safe. Most of the time you are in and out of these checkpoints within a few minutes.

Drone Use and Pakistan

Contrary to popular belief, drones are not forbidden to bring into Pakistan. That said, you need to be smart about how and where you fly. Avoid flying it in cities unless you are very sneaky. NEVER fly it over military or police checkpoints or near any border areas.

If you are out in the mountains or near a small village flying a drone is usually fine. I advise asking the local people you are with (whether you are Pakistani or a foreign tourist).

It is also possible to get a permit for flying a drone in Gilgit Baltistan, but in my opinion, it is better to use common sense, be selective about where you fly, and don’t take any dumb risks that might get you in trouble with the police or army.

Pakistan is a very photogenic country from the air and I 100% recommend flying your little helicopter when it is safe and appropriate to do so.

Check out my favorite drone photos of Pakistan.

The Food is Amazing

food in pakistan

Generally speaking, Pakistan has amazing food. Bbq tikka, daal, sabzi, chapati, sweets of every shade, mutton karahi... all deliver a huge yum.

Because Pakistan is such a diverse country ethnically, the food varies a lot from region to region. That said, at times the food can feel repetitive. Be prepared to eat lots of fried bread, chicken, and rice.

Being a vegetarian or vegan traveler in Pakistan is not as easy as in India – but options are available pretty much everywhere. Food in Punjab and Karachi can be very spicy – so bland European pallets beware!

The main downside to Pakistani cuisine is the amount of cooking oil they put in everything. Be prepared for consuming a large amount of oil on a daily basis!

Pakistani Selfie Culture is a Thing

khunjerab border pakistan
Everyone of them asked for an individual selfie after this photo.

If you are a foreigner, and especially if you are a woman, Pakistani (mostly men, but sometimes women) will randomly ask you for a selfie. Where do all of these selfies end up?! I have pondered this for years.

Everyone has a different level of personal boundaries, so whatever feels right to you when it comes to posing for a selfie is how you should handle that situation. If you do not feel comfortable taking a photo with a random stranger, you must absolutely say so.

There are Dudes with Guns Everywhere

My friends’ joke that I have Stockholm Syndrome in this photo.

If you are coming from the west, you will not be accustomed to the sight of seeing guns all the time. Security guards, police, army, special forces teams – they are abundant everywhere as are their guns.

Personally, I have never felt threatened or intimidated by anyone ever in Pakistan. Just to say, guns will be around and it is kind of something you just need to get used to. On a few occasions, police officers have handed me their AK-47 machine guns to pose for a photo with. I don’t condone the use of these death machines, but I admit I have taken a photo with a gun or two in my time.

Carry Copies of Your Passport + Visa!

Related to the point above, you will often need to hand over copies of your passport and visa to the police at checkpoints. Before you leave the cities for the north, head to a print shop and get at least a dozen (more like 15-20) copies made of each. You can put your visa and passport image on the same paper to avoid carrying a mountain of paper with you.

Alcohol is Illegal… But…

For Muslims, it is illegal to consume alcohol in Pakistan. That said, MANY Pakistanis like to enjoy a discreet drink or two and it is not hard to find alcohol in a few Pakistani cities if you know where to look. There is a brewery in Rawalpindi called Muree Brewery – they make beer, vodka, whiskey, gin, etc. It is not the best booze and is sure to give you a raging hangover if you overindulge.

Hunza Water: Traditional Booze of the North

Ask any Pakistani who has traveled to Hunza and a wry smile will come over their face the moment Hunza Water is mentioned. Hunza Water is a distilled local spirit usually made from fruits like mulberries or apricots. I must say though that despite the hype, Hunza Water is pretty underwhelming and will also produce a bad hangover if you drink too much. My advice? Try it once and move on with your life.

Can Non-Married Couples Get Hotel Rooms Together?

Traveling with my partner, we never had the marriage question once.

Short answer: yes! Unlike in Iran, you do not have to be married to your partner to stay in the same hotel room as them. On one occasion I have been asked this by a hotel receptionist and I just said “yes”. No proof was required. When in doubt, you can just tell the white lie that you are married if asked – but 99% of the time, foreign or Pakistani couples should not have a hard time getting a room together.

Can I Visit the Place Where Osama Bin Laden Was Killed?

No you can not. The Pakistani government destroyed the entire compound months after Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals back in 2011 to avoid it turning into a dark tourism site or shrine. In any case, if you are coming to Pakistan to see something like that, you should probably reevaluate your sightseeing priorities.

Traveling During Ramadan is Hard

mutton karhai
Breaking fast with a delicious mutton karahi

I have now spent 3 full Ramadan (Ramzan) cycles in Pakistan and I must say: travel in Pakistan is challenging in the best of times – during Ramadan it is that much harder.

Finding food can be tricky as very few places are open during the day. People understandably move slower and are working reduced hours. The entire pace of life slows down during the day. At night though the entire country seems to come to life and there are people out and about at all hours of the night.

Especially if you are en route from a city to the north, nothing will be open during the day for a proper meal. Pack accordingly and be respectful when eating in public (don’t do it) if you are not observing the Ramadan fast.

Uber and Food Deliver Apps Work in Pakistan

In big cities, the easiest way to get around is either by moto rickshaw or by using a ride app like Uber. While Uber does work, the ride app Carem is the local version of Uber and it works better and is cheaper.

For food delivery, use Food Panda! Food Panda also offers a grocery delivery service. Note that Food Panda only works in big cities. You can not use either Uber or Food Panda in the North. Out there you are on your own when it comes to finding rides and getting meals.

Pakistanis are Crazy for Cricket

Professional cricket players in Pakistan are like rock stars. From huge stadiums to vacant city lots to dirt fields in small villages – you can see Pakistani people playing cricket anywhere they can find the ground.

If Covid ever finishes, try to catch a professional game at one of the stadiums if you have an interest in sports.

Some Places Are Straight Up Off Limits

Despite my best efforts, I am yet to make it into a few places that are off-limits to foreign tourists almost without exception. There are a few places in Pakistan (and the whole province of Kashmir) that are off-limits due to security concerns. Even if you get your hands on a NOC (No Objection Certificate) permit – the army has the final say on whether you get in or not – and that final say is usually “no”.

If you are considering going somewhere like Kashmir – be sure to ask a local tour operator or traveler what the current situation is before attempting to go anywhere that might have the reputation for being out of bounds for foreigners. You lucky Pakistani travelers, enjoy Kashmir for me!

Sufi Shrines and Dance Parties

Sufis are traditionally wandering mystics. They often have dreadlocks, huge beards, and a fondness for smoking large quantities of hash, and a penchant for rhythmic music. There are a number of famous Sufi shrines scattered across Pakistan. On some nights of the week, people gather at the shrines for Kavali music and dancing. One of my favorite cultural experiences in Pakistan has been attending a Sufi dance party. Highly recommend it!

Prices are Different For Foreigners (Sometimes)

At restaurants and hotels – usually, the prices are the same across the board (though hotels can usually be negotiated depending on the situation).

Other things like national park entrance fees, fees to enter historical sites, and trekking permits are much more expensive for foreigners vs locals. This can be quite annoying. I just tell myself that the money is going into the national park or the preservation of a historic mosque (but I seriously doubt that as well).

Officially – Dating is Not Really a Thing

Being a conservative Islamic society, there are two life status options: single or married. Casual dating is widespread among the middle-upper class of the modern generation, but not openly. Romantic relationships are kept closed behind doors unless the couple is officially married.

If you are a foreign woman traveling alone, the first two questions you might get asked are “how many kids do you have?” and “where is your husband?”.

It is Difficult to Find Good Gear in Pakistan

Pack what you need before you come!

There are a handful of outdoor equipment shops scattered across Pakistan. The ones I have visited are in Karimabad, Skardu, Lahore, and Islamabad. What you find in those places is pretty hit or miss. While you might be able to find what you need in a pinch. Pakistan is not Nepal in terms of easily being able to rock up to the country and find western-quality trekking and camping gear.

Buy what you need BEFORE coming to Pakistan and don’t count on local shops having that Patagonia Down Hoodie you have been swooning over.

It is also worth noting that if you have big feet, it is almost guaranteed that the trekking shops won’t have your size boot.

Changing Money

changing money in pakistan
Carrying cash to change is very important in Pakistan

Most major currencies are accepted at money changers but here is a fat tip: don’t change your money at the airport and don’t change your money at banks. To be honest, the best way to get a favorable exchange rate is to find a small money changer to does not your ID and blah blah blah to change the money. The best exchange rates I have gotten have been through money exchange places where you just walk in, give them the cash you want to change, and you are on your way in 5 minutes. No paperwork. No BS.

Note that the bills you bring into Pakistan from abroad should be in excellent condition.

Trash and Tourism

Let’s be real here: Pakistan does not have the same funding as western countries to be able to deal with the trash produced in the country. That is a fact. That said, as tourism grows in the northern areas, so do the piles of trash tourists leave behind. There is kind of a culture of just chucking garbage out the window anywhere in the country and not thinking twice (not everyone of course, but generally speaking).

Do your part to always pack out your trash and if you see someone littering or blatantly abusing the environment (foreigner or local) call them out on that shit. If Pakistan wants to be a serious contender in the tourism sector – the government needs to invest in a big way in sanitation management and education – like in a big way.

Youtubers and Famous Instagram Stars Only Show the Bright Side of Pakistan (most of the time)

Pakistan has a lot of bright spots. This country is home to truly jaw-dropping landscapes and some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever met in a decade of traveling. That said, Pakistan is human too. What does this mean? It ain’t perfect.

Often I see videos or photos from famous western influencer types who only show the beauty and don’t really talk about the inherent dark sides any country has.

Take it from me: Pakistan is amazing and my favorite country on earth. That said, there are a ton of issues that need to be addressed: the millions in severe poverty, gross government mismanagement in some sectors, poor education, unequal rights for women and the LGTB community, freedom of expression is not really a thing, etc, etc. Expect to come to Pakistan to experience its beauty, kind people, and its flaws all at once.

The Wagah Border Ceremony

wagah border ceremony
This weirdly feels like a sporting event. Only the two teams have nuclear weapons.

Before Covid times, every day around the same time, the two nuclear-armed rivals of India and Pakistan never missed a date: both sides performed their duty at the very strange, but very entertaining Wagah Border ceremony. If you are in Lahore (or coming from India) this exhibition of the ultra-nationalist, absurd, and macho is one that can’t be missed (watching it once is more than enough).

Pakistan and India (Governments) Hate Each Other

If you are not familiar with the India – Pakistan dynamic – I’ll break it down real quick: these two countries share an equal amount of disdain and mistrust for each other at the best of times.

That said, the average Pakistani you might talk to doesn’t really wish ill will against the average Indian citizen. Pakistanis and Indians actually have a ton in common – if only the governments could learn to work better together.

The Taliban Is No Longer Powerful in Pakistan

Despite what your mother may hear on the western news, Pakistan is not rife with terrorists and Taliban fighters. For sure Pakistan is home to small pockets of ultra-extremist violent elements in remote corners of the country – but the Taliban does not weld much power or influence these days.

The Pakistani government and army have severely weakened or eliminated altogether the former strongholds of Taliban or like-minded groups throughout the country. Pakistan is a safe place where you don’t need to fear that terrorists are lurking around every corner.

In fact, I have felt a lot less safe in places in South America than I ever have in Pakistan.

Hotel Rooms Are Always Negotiable

guesthouse in charpursan valley
A room in a simple guesthouse in Charpursan valley.

Accommodation prices vary wildly in Pakistan. It is possible to find a cheap, mildly clean room for nearly nothing, while it is also possible to find luxury accommodation for a few hundred bucks a night.

Prices for hotels are generally higher in the high season – this is especially true in the mountain areas. Strike a balance between not getting ripped off and not paying so little that it is clearly not fair. Ask a local person what the price should be and base your haggling strategy on that.

People On The Street Don’t Hassle You to Buy Stuff

man in lahore
People on the street are just… doing their thang.

If you have ever been to a touristy part of India, you might agree that the hassle one receives on the street as a foreigner (or even a local person) is utterly exhausting.

Pakistan is not like that. You will almost never get people trying aggressively to usher you into their restaurant or buy some tourist souvenir.

Especially if you are out of a city in Pakistan, everyone kind of just minds their own business and they don’t see you as a walking cash box that needs to be taped.

I fully understand the people working in economies that depend on tourism need to hustle. That hustle does not take the same form in Pakistan as it does elsewhere, and I am very thankful for that fact.

That said, taxi drivers at the airport will all hassle you.

Balochistan Has Awesome Beaches

The least visited part of Pakistan is Balochistan. This immense southern province has nearly 770 of coastline! Pakistan ain’t all mountains and crazy cities – there are some truly hidden desert/coastal gems to be explored in Balochistan.

Time to Get Packing

Good on ya, you made it through my entire list. You are now way more equipped for the ins and outs of traveling in Pakistan than I ever was when I first stepped foot in the country.

Check out my full Pakistan packing list to get in the know about what sort of gear you need before traveling here.

Have a bit of Pakistan travel knowledge to share with the Off The Atlas community? Post a comment below and maybe I will add it to the list!

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