Afghanistan has a population of roughly 33 million (as of 2015), making it the 40th most populous country in global terms. However, this includes a count of the 2.7 million Afghan diaspora living in Pakistan and Iran. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic society of many languages, a reflection of its crossroads location in Central Asia. It is aligned with trade and invasion routes for not just Central Asia but also Southern and Western Asia. Afghanistan is a majority Pashtun society. The other major ethnic groups are Tajiks and Hazaras, as well as Aimaks Uzbeks, Turkmen and Baloch. Multilingualism is common, with individuals speaking more than one Afghan language. This is a particularly prevalent trend in the country’s urban areas.
Islam is the religion of the overwhelming majority, with 99% holding this faith. Most (80-89%) are adherents of Sunni Islam under the Hanafi Islamic law school. Around 10-19% practice Shia Islami. The other 1% follow religions including Hinduism and Sikhism. Outside of the cities, Afghans are divided into tribes and kinship-based collectives.
In terms of size, Afghanistan is the 41st largest country in the world, spanning 652,864 square kilometers (251,827 square miles). About a quarter of Afghans live in urban areas, according to a 2008 survey. The rate of urbanization is around five percent a year. Urbanization is currently boosted by the influx and return of expats. Afghanistan has only one city with over a million residents, however, which is its capital, Kabul.
All foreigners traveling or moving to Afghanistan require a visa. However, depending on the purpose of their journey, different visa categories apply. In general, visas are required for everyone not born in in the country. As such, even Afghan children need a visa if they were born abroad and hold a non-Afghan citizenship.
If you are applying for a tourist visa then this can be obtained at your home embassy. A tourist visa typically lasts for one month up to a maximum of 60 days and requires you to provide your passport, passport photos, a completed visa application form as well as an invitation letter. Depending on your country of origin, further documents (e.g. a personal statement detailing your travel plans) may be necessary. Visa processing times naturally vary from embassy to embassy but typically take around two weeks. Fast track visas can take around three working days and are more expensive.
Work visas require a letter of introduction from an employer or sponsor detailing the purpose and length of your trip, as well as a financial guarantee that your sponsor will cover all of your expenses in Afghanistan. The processing time is similar to the tourist visa. All foreigners and expats working in Afghanistan need to get a work permit. This can be obtained from the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled in Kabul.
Journalists must obtain a special media visa, which normally takes substantially longer to be processed than work or tourist visas. They must then go to the Office of the Spokesman & Director General of Communications to obtain a journalist card. This card is crucial, as journalists are forbidden from carrying out their work without this card.
There are limited choices in terms of traveling to Afghanistan. Often, the only option available is to fly into Kabul and then find a connection from there if your destination is outside of the capital. Direct flights to Afghanistan from Western countries are limited, although Ariana Afghan Airlines, a regional carrier, runs some flights from places including Frankfurt and Moscow. Sometimes, it is possible to find a connecting flight from neighboring Pakistan, as there are flights several times a week from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. There are also direct flights to Kabul from Peshawar. It is possible to travel direct to Afghanistan from Dubai.
In contrast, reaching Afghanistan overland is often fraught with complications, difficulties, and added expenses. Afghanistan has borders with not only Pakistan but also China, Tajikistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. If you are crossing a border it is important to come early and with plenty of patience. This is not the quick way to travel! It can also get very hot at border crossings, so make sure to take this into account. You may also be expected to pay several bribes.