Overnight train 37 runs daily from Tbilisi to Baku, departing at 5.50pm from Station Square and crossing the border into Azerbaijan at around 8pm before pulling into Baku station at 7.20am the next morning. It’s an affordable, safe and convenient way to travel between the two countries – locals prefer it, and you might even meet a few people on the journey.
We travelled from Tbilisi to Baku by overnight train in the first week of April 2017. This complete guide covers the following steps:
- Applying for an Azerbaijan tourist visa online
- Buying train tickets at the station in Tbilisi
- Boarding the train/the journey
- Crossing the border
- Arrival in Baku/police registration
Step 1: Applying for an Azerbaijan tourist visa online
Important: The overnight train from Tbilisi crosses the Azerbaijan border BEFORE midnight. Therefore, you need to put down your date of departure from Georgia as your visa start date.
Azerbaijan’s new 30-day tourist e-visa makes it easier (and cheaper) than ever to visit the country. Lucky for us, the e-visa came into effect in early 2017, just in time for our trip to the Caucasus.
We applied online while we were in Tbilisi using the link and instructions provided here. The process was quick and straightforward. All you need is a photo of your passport ID page and an address in Azerbaijan (i.e. a hotel booking). We reserved a room on Agoda which we cancelled once the visas had been approved (because we wanted to stay at an Airbnb). One visa costs 26 USD and the site accepts both MasterCard and Visa.
Note that 30 days is the default period and you don’t have to stipulate the exact duration of your stay. You will, however, have to register with Azeri police on arrival if you plan to travel in the country for more than 10 days (see Step 5 below).
We filed our applications late on a Wednesday afternoon and our visas came through via email overnight, less than 12 hours later. It’s recommended to give it at least three days – and make sure you take notice of Azeri public holidays, of which there are a few, as there’s no visa processing on these dates.
You will definitely need a hard copy of your visa for immigration. We printed the single-page, A4 visas at a Xerox shop close to Rustaveli metro station in Tbilisi.
Step 2: Buying train tickets at the station in Tbilisi
It might be possible to buy train tickets online but the system wasn’t working for us. Two days before we were set to depart Tbilisi, we caught the metro to Station Square and bought our train tickets in person.
Important: Bring your passport and cash (credit card is not accepted but there are plenty of ATMs at the station).
Arriving at Station Square by metro, exit towards the escalators. The train station is located inside a separate building with shops and cafes on the first two floors. Follow the signs for the ticket counters, which are located on the top level on the right. Take a coupon if it’s busy or just head straight to the first free counter.
Our cashier spoke perfect English. First she asked us the day/date we wanted to travel. There is only one service to Baku – overnight train number 37 – so you don’t need to specify a time. She then outlined the ticket options: first class (a private two-person berth), second class (four-person berth ‘hard’ sleeper) or third class (open berth without doors).
We chose two second-class tickets and handed over our passports. The cashier didn’t make a copy but used them to enter details onto our tickets, so it might be possible to show a photocopy instead. She double checked our names a couple of times before spelling them out in phonetic Cyrillic characters on the tickets. We had our printed e-visas on us, but she didn’t ask to see them.
The second-class tickets cost 46.09 GEL per person. We paid in cash and she handed them over, double checking the important details one last time.
Step 3: Boarding the train/the journey
The train to Baku leaves at 5.50pm from the same place where you buy the tickets. There are plenty of shops and cafes around, so it’s recommended to arrive early and stock up on snacks and bottled water (and alcohol if you so wish). There is no dining cart on the train and apart from brief stops at the border, no real opportunity to buy food.
Near the ticket counter you’ll see an electronic departures board. Train 37 was already up when we arrived at 4pm but the platform changed at the last minute. Down on the platform, there are kids waiting to help you find your carriage and carry your bags. Be aware that they will ask you for money if you take them up on either offer. We gathered with the other passengers at the carriage door and were permitted to board at 5.20pm.
Carriage and seat numbers are marked out in English. The berth was bigger than we expected and much nicer than most trains in Southeast Asia. When you arrive, the bottom seats will be propped up so you can store your big luggage items underneath in secure bins. The train was very quiet and we ended up having the four-person berth to ourselves.
Our train left right on time and the friendly stewardess bought us chai and sweets. Later she dropped off a plastic bag containing clean linens and a hand towel. Contrary to other reports, this doesn’t incur any extra charge. Mattress-sized pillows are stored on the top bunk, so we could make our beds ourselves whenever we wanted. The door locked securely, and there were plenty of lights and a power outlet inside the cabin. The toilet started off pretty gross and got worse as the evening wore on; but this is an overnight train we’re talking about.
The train stopped at various points in the early evening to collect more passengers from both sides of the border. The scenery was pleasant, especially in Kakheti, but not all that spectacular.
Step 4: Crossing the border
Georgian immigration lies a few kilometres before the actual land border. We arrived there at around 7pm. There’s no disembarking the train for immigration – everything is done on board. Georgian officials entered the train and collected our passports. They also checked our Azeri visas but let us hold onto them. About an hour later, the passports were returned to us with exit stamps inside. Easy.
I was a little apprehensive about immigration formalities on the Azeri side of the border. Safe to say the procedure was a little more thorough.
First off, there were a lot more guards and officials involved. The question on all their lips was this: ‘Have you ever been to Armenia?’ I haven’t read anything that suggests an Armenian stamp in your passport will prevent you from entering Azerbaijan – but I could be wrong. Relations between the two countries are tense, and it was certainly a preoccupation for the border guards. It was a huge relief to be able to answer honestly, ‘No’.
One official took our passports and visas and the declaration forms we filled our shortly after boarding. Another official entered our berth wielding what looked like an oversized selfie stick, using the mirror on the end to inspect the high-up nooks and crannies of our compartment. (By coincidence, we had boarded the train just a few hours after the metro bombing in Moscow. We think security may have been amped up in response.) The official gave us instructions to open our luggage, but we misinterpreted his flailing of the stick as a direction to move our bags to the top storage area.
A female official then came in and after we had pulled our bags down again, performed a perfunctory search of all our luggage. She asked us whether we were bringing in anything from Georgia, so we showed her our souvenirs. She didn’t seem that impressed.
When that was over, the train stewardess summoned us to another berth where they had set up a DIY immigration desk. We passed yet more guards and a gnarly looking German Shepherd in the corridor. One by one, we sat in front of the immigration official’s laptop. We were photographed and asked a range of questions, including if we had ever been to Armenia (still no), and if we could name the capital city of Australia (?). Nothing about our plans or itinerary or even our intended length of stay. The whole process lasted no more than 15 minutes, and we were soon back in our berth and on our way to Baku.
Step 5: Arrival in Baku/police registration
Important: Any tourist planning to stay more than 10 days in Azerbaijan must register with Azeri police within three days of arrival. Failure to do so many result in a hefty fine (up to 400 AZN by some accounts) when you exit the country.
We were woken by the stewardess at about 6.30am and instructed to gather up our bed sheets. At 7.20am on the dot we pulled into Baku’s ultra-modern main railway station – a rather impressive introduction to the city.
From here you can easily connect to the metro by heading down the escalators to 28 May station, or alternatively pick up a bus/taxi from out front. There is a 24-hour cafe inside the arrivals hall that has free WIFI.
This is where we met our Airbnb host. She took us to our apartment and offered to complete our police registration for us. She needed a photo of our passport ID page, a photo of our visa and a timeline for our stay (we told her 30 days). Hotels can also do the registration for you, or you can try to make sense of it yourself online here.
Are you planning to take the overnight train from Tbilisi to Baku (or vice versa)?
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below!