World ? Asia ? India

India: Fast Facts

American Express -- Report lost or stolen cards by calling tel. 0124/28-1800 from anywhere in India; or call tel. 98109-00800 (Delhi) or tel. 98926-00800 (Mumbai).

Area Codes -- The international telephone access code for India is 91. All numbers listed in this guide include the local area code (which you would dial from another Indian town or city); this is separated from the actual telephone number by a forward slash (/).

Business Hours -- Banks are usually open weekdays from 10am to 2pm and Saturday from 10am to noon, though banks in larger cities have much longer hours. Most museums are closed Monday; the Taj Mahal is closed on Friday. Hours of retail outlets vary, but many close on Sunday.

Customs -- What You Can Bring into India -- You can bring as much foreign currency into India as you like; if you have over $10,000 in cash or traveler's checks, however, you should complete a declaration form. You may not import Indian currency into India. In addition to your personal effects, you are allowed 2 liters of alcohol, and 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars. (Know that foreign liquors and imported cigarettes are very heavily taxed and in some areas difficult to come by.) You may carry a cellphone, camera, and pair of binoculars, but officially you may have only five rolls of film. You must complete a special Tourist Baggage Re-Export Form if you are carrying valuables such as a laptop computer, major video equipment, special camera gear, or high-value jewelry. Although there is a strong possibility that you may encounter difficulties upon leaving if these forms are not completed, you'll discover a general malaise among Customs officials, who seldom hassle foreign visitors on international flights. Also, much of the bureaucratic heavy-handedness has eased in recent years, and there is less suspicion of foreign travelers.

What You Can Take Home from India -- You may not export Indian currency. Exchange all notes at the airport before you depart. Note that airport money-changers frequently run out of certain currencies, so you might want to complete any exchange before you go to the airport. There is a restriction on the exportation of anything over 100 years old, particularly works of art and items of cultural significance. It is illegal to export animal or snake skins, ivory, shatoosh wool, or anything that has been produced using these materials. Generally, jewelry valued under Rs 10,000 ($244/ţ123) may be exported, while gold jewelry valued up to Rs 2,000 ($49/ţ25) is allowed.

U.S. Citizens: For specifics on what you can bring back and the corresponding fees, download the invaluable free pamphlet Know Before You Go online at www.cbp.gov. (Click on "Travel," and then click on "Know Before You Go.") Or contact the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20229 (tel. 877/287-8667) and request the pamphlet.

Canadian Citizens: For a clear summary of Canadian rules, write for the booklet I Declare, issued by the Canada Border Services Agency (tel. 800/461-9999 in Canada, or 204/983-3500; www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca).

U.K. Citizens: For information, contact HM Customs & Excise at tel. 0845/010-9000 (from outside the U.K., 020/8929-0152), or consult their website at www.hmce.gov.uk.

Australian Citizens: A helpful brochure available from Australian consulates or Customs offices is Know Before You Go. For more information, call the Australian Customs Service at tel. 1300/363-263, or log on to www.customs.gov.au.

New Zealand Citizens: Most questions are answered in a free pamphlet available at New Zealand consulates and Customs offices: New Zealand Customs Guide for Travellers, Notice no. 4. For more information, contact New Zealand Customs, The Customhouse, 17-21 Whitmore St., Box 2218, Wellington (tel. 04/473-6099 or 0800/428-786; www.customs.govt.nz).

Electricity -- 220-240 volts AC.

Embassies & Consulates -- For quick reference, here are some embassy numbers: Australia tel. 011/4139-9900; Canada tel. 011/4178-2000; New Zealand tel. 011/2688-3170; and the U.K. tel. 011/2687-2161. The U.S. State Department encourages American citizens visiting India to register at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi (Shantipath, Chanakyapuri; tel. 011/2419-8000; fax 011/2419-0017; http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov) or at one of the U.S. consulates in India. The U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai is located at Lincoln House, 78 Bhulabhai Desai Rd., 400 026 (tel. 022/2363-3611; fax 022/2363-0350; http://mumbai.usconsulate.gov). The U.S. Consulate General in Kolkata is at 5/1 Ho Chi Minh Sarani, 700 071 (tel. 033/2282-3611; fax 033/2282-2335; http://kolkata.usconsulate.gov). The U.S. Consulate General in Chennai is at 220 Anna Salai, Gemini Circle, 600 006 (tel. 044/2857-4000; fax 044/2857-4024; http://chennai.usconsulate.gov).

Internet Access -- Although they're not always fantastic in terms of connection speed (or cleanliness), cybercafes are a roaring trade and usually cheap, albeit frustratingly slow. Keep an eye out for Sify iway (www.iway.com) and Reliance Webworld (www.relianceinfo.com) Internet centers, both offering much faster broadband connections than average stand-alone establishments. Sify, for instance, has some 2,500 Internet browsing centers around the country, half of which also offer Internet telephone services. Log on to their website to find a list of centers in a particular city. Today even small towns have decent Internet connectivity. Tip: Business centers at luxury hotels often charge exorbitant rates; there's often Internet connection for 10% of the cost just around the corner.

Language -- You shouldn't have to battle too much if you speak English with a clear accent. Don't assume, however, that everyone in India understands or speaks English. Also don't feel affronted when you run into locals who seem to smile in acknowledgement, only to reveal much later that they haven't the foggiest notion what you're talking about; they are simply trying to make you feel more at home. Hindi is widely spoken throughout North India, while all the states are divided linguistically. For example, Tamil is spoken in Tamil Nadu, Kannada in Karnataka, Telugu in Andhra Pradesh, Malayalam in Kerala, Gujarati in Gujarat, and Konkani in Goa; and there are literally hundreds of local dialects. You'll also come across a lot of what is often called Hinglish, where local terms (in Hindi) are mixed with English phrases. This usage is becoming increasingly widespread. You'll notice it immediately in advertising billboards and on television shows, but also in general conversation.

Liquor Laws -- Attitudes toward alcohol vary considerably. In Gujarat, prohibition is in force and liquor can only be obtained from the permit rooms of luxury hotels, a concession made principally for foreigners and out-of-state businesspeople. In most other non-Muslim areas, alcohol is freely available and exceedingly popular. In top hotels, you'll find a full range of imported liquor, available to those who can afford the extravagance. In most cities you will encounter "country liquor" bars and insalubrious liquor "dens"; and somewhere on your travels you may be offered local bootlegged stuff -- all of which you're advised to stay clear of.

Lost & Found -- Be sure to contact your credit card companies the minute you discover that your wallet has been lost or stolen. Also file a report at the nearest police precinct, because your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number. Most credit card companies have an emergency number to call if your card is lost or stolen. They may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two. Visa's U.S. emergency number is tel. 866/670-0955. American Express cardholders and traveler's check holders should call tel. 905/474-0870. MasterCard holders should call tel. 636/722-7111. If you need emergency cash over the weekend, when all banks and American Express offices are closed, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (in India call tel. 1-800/44-1851 or 1-800/111-911, or go to www.moneyintime.com; in the U.S. call tel. 800/435-2226; www.westernunion.com). You can call all these numbers collect by using the access code 000-117.

Mail -- Buy stamps for letters and postcards from your hotel, and have your concierge post them for you. International postage is extremely affordable (letter, Rs 15/35Ţ/20p first 20 grams), and the Indian postal service is generally efficient. However, sending a package or parcel abroad involves a tedious process of wrapping it in cloth and sealing it with string and wax (again, ask your concierge); you'll also have to complete a Customs declaration form. All this may cost you a great deal of time at the post office (9am-5pm). Also, bear in mind that surface mail runs the risk of spending months in the system, or of never arriving at all. You can spare yourself a great deal of torment by having a local or international courier company deliver important packages or by using registered mail.

Newspapers & Magazines -- Major English dailies include The Hindu (www.thehinduonnet.com), The Indian Express (www.expressindia.com), The Times of India (www.timesofindia.com), and Hindustan Times (www.hindustantimes.com), as well as Kolkata's The Statesman (www.thestatesman.net) and The Telegraph (www.telegraphindia.com). These make for interesting reading and will keep you up-to-date on local and international events. You may find that much of the writing assumes a great deal on your part, however. If you haven't been following certain stories for some time, the latest update may be impossible to fathom. The Economic Times and Mint provide the most detailed business news. Each week you can pick up fresh issues of The Week, India Today, Outlook, and Frontline (which provide quite venomous analyses of the nation's social, political, and economic situations). These are available at newsstands and railway stations and not only help you pass travel time but add immensely to your understanding of India. If you're looking for general travel features, the monthly Outlook Traveller (www.outlooktraveller.com) features colorful articles from an Indian perspective. In Delhi, the twice-monthly Time Out is indispensable if you're looking for what's hot and happening.

Passports -- For residents of the United States: Whether you're applying in person or by mail, you can download passport applications from the U.S. State Department website at http://travel.state.gov. For general information, call the National Passport Agency (tel. 202/647-0518). To find your regional passport office, either check the U.S. State Department website or call the National Passport Information Center (tel. 900/225-5674); the fee is 55Ţ per minute for automated information and $1.50 per minute for operator-assisted calls.

For residents of Canada: Passport applications are available at travel agencies throughout Canada or from the central Passport Office, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, ON K1A 0G3 (tel. 800/567-6868; www.ppt.gc.ca).

For residents of the United Kingdom: To pick up an application for a standard 10-year passport (5-year passport for children under 16), visit your nearest passport office, major post office, or travel agency; or contact the United Kingdom Passport Service at tel. 0870/521-0410; www.ukpa.gov.uk.

For residents of Ireland: You can apply for a 10-year passport at the Passport Office, Setanta Centre, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2 (tel. 01/671-1633; www.irlgov.ie/iveagh). Those under age 18 and over 65 must apply for a 3-year passport. You can also apply at 1A South Mall, Cork (tel. 021/272-525) or at most main post offices.

For residents of Australia: You can pick up an application at your local post office or any branch of Passports Australia, but you must schedule an interview at the passport office to present your application materials. Call the Australian Passport Information Service at tel. 131-232, or visit the government website at www.passports.gov.au.

For residents of New Zealand: You can pick up a passport application at any New Zealand Passports Office or download it from their website. Contact the Passports Office at tel. 0800/225-050 in New Zealand or 04/474-8100; or log on to www.passports.govt.nz.

Restrooms -- Avoid public restrooms in India. Always carry toilet paper or tissues with you, since they're not always provided. Walk into five-star hotels to use their facilities even if you are not staying there.

Smoking -- Whatever curbs the government has tried to place on cigarette usage, there are no signs of society giving in to concerns about the hazards of smoking. Nearly every male in India seems to smoke something. An exception is Trivandrum City, where smoking in restaurants and public places is banned (and enforced). Smoking is also forbidden on all trains, so if someone is smoking on your train, you are well within your rights to ask them to stop. Most luxury hotels have introduced nonsmoking rooms; if you don't smoke, request one when you book your reservation.

Taxes -- The tax on hotel accommodations varies from state to state, and sometimes by city; it may be anywhere between 5% and 12.5%, and may differ within the same hotel according to the level of luxury and comfort you're experiencing. Additional taxes on restaurant food and alcohol vary from state to state. Imported liquors attract a similarly disagreeable sin tax, making local brands far more attractive than their quality might suggest. In Tamil Nadu, for example, a whopping 73.5% tax is levied on imported liquor. Restaurant bills often include additional charges (such as a service tax) that usually account for between 10% and 15% of the total cost of your meal.

Time Zone -- Despite India's vastness, the entire country operates according to the same time zone, 5 1/2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. That's 9 1/2 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (New York) or 10 1/2 when daylight saving time comes into effect in the U.S. Note: You may find your sense of time threatened while you're in India; the rule of thumb is don't panic. Remember that there's no point in getting worked up about delayed trains and such. In fact, when you arrive on time or ahead of schedule, be thankful. Use "wasted time" to chat with locals.

Tipping -- Tipping in India is an industry unto itself, and it's a relief to find yourself in an environment like the Oberoi, where individual tipping is not encouraged, for this very reason. Money certainly speeds up most processes, and you're treated with a certain degree of dignity and respect the moment you produce a wad of cash -- don't tip and you'll more than likely have to deal with a disgruntled and/or depressed porter/driver/guide. Bear in mind that many of the people who serve you are possibly living on the bread line, and your monetary contribution will be greatly appreciated; handing over an Rs 10 (25Ţ/10p) or Rs 20 (45Ţ/20p) note will hardly dent your pocket. Obviously it's not worthwhile to tip someone who hasn't eased your journey, but do reward those drivers, guides, and hotel staff who go out of their way to make your stay an enjoyable one. A driver or guide who's been with you an entire day will be most grateful for an extra Rs 150 to Rs 250 ($4-$5/ţ2-ţ3).

Tipping is but one strain of India's all-pervasive baksheesh system, which is apparently an accepted means of distributing wealth to the lower echelons of society. As a foreigner, you will be regarded as wealthy, and your endless charity is almost expected by those who are less fortunate. It's therefore an excellent idea to always keep a stash of Rs 10 notes in an easy-to-access pocket, so that you can hand cash to the person who has just carried your bags or given you an unsolicited tour or looked after your shoes (the list is endless), and is now hanging around hopefully. Occasionally, someone will bluntly demand baksheesh, which is the same term that may be used by beggars, religious mendicants, and barefoot children looking for a handout. You are not obliged to pay anything, of course, but your conscience and irritation level will probably sway you either way. Tip: In Hindu temples, priests will happily encourage you to hand over huge sums of cash, often insisting that the money is for the poor. Be wary of such scams, and bear in mind that many temple officials have grown wealthy on charity intended for the poor.

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