The Regular Visa, sometimes called the traditional visa, requires that you fill out paper forms and either take them in person to a processing company or use a courier service to have the documents and your current US passport delivered to the company. The location of the company that you need to use is determined by which US state you live in. You will not have access to your US passport until the company returns it to you, hopefully with a new visa stamp inside.
You apply for a Regular Visa in the US well before your travel date. You do not need to already have airline tickets to India at the time you apply, but the application forms do ask for your travel dates and places you plan to visit. If you do not already have tickets, you should at least know your rough travel dates and have a general sense of your next trip, such as which airport you plan to arrive and depart from. This said, the exact travel details provided do not seem to have much impact on the actual visa granting process, and the visa you receive is not in any way limited to the destinations you listed on the application.
In the past you had to choose how long you wanted the visa to be valid as well as the number of entries into India, and the cost would vary with these decisions. The Indian Government recently simplified and improved the Regular Visa, eliminating the need to choose the length and number of entries. With the current rules, a Regular Visa can be valid for up to 10 years and allow multiple entries across the border into India. We say “can be valid for up to 10 years” because the Embassy or Consulate issuing you the visa reserves the right to grant you any length they want up to the 10-year maximum. It is not unheard of to apply for a 10-year visa and receive a 5-year visa instead with no explanation. This said, there is a high likelihood that you will get a full 10-years when you apply for a Regular Visa. In addition to the potential to remain valid for 10 years, the Regular Visa allows multiple entries across the Indian border. This is worth noting because the other type of visa, the e-Tourist Visa, is valid for a much shorter duration and only for a single entry into India.
Once you have a 10-year Regular Visa sticker in your US passport, you can visit India as often as you like for 10-years without any further applications, paperwork or visa-related expenses. If you follow our advice and pay for your Regular Visa with a credit card and use FedEx instead of visiting the processing company in person, the total cost for one Regular Visa, including all the fees, should be about $155, which works out to less than $16 per year over a 10-year period. (We are making the assumption that FedEx shipping fees are similar for most US locations.)
We will admit that we have a bias and prefer the Regular Visa over the e-Tourist Visa. The Regular Visa makes more sense for our family because we visit India regularly, often for longer than 30 days at a time, and sometimes cross into nearby countries, such as Bhutan, and then come back to India on the same trip (a “multiple entry”). We also like the certainty and convenience that the Regular Visa offers at the time of travel, since visa stickers are issued and already in our passports before we even leave the US. The e-Tourist Visa, which we describe below, requires waiting in line at the airport in India to have the visa sticker issued. The Regular Visa is less convenient at time of application, but more convenient at the time of travel—and we strongly prefer convenient travel.
Here is a scan of Michael’s most recent Regular Visa with numbers obscured for privacy.