June 18, 2018

9 Tips for Foreigners Visiting India On Work

Are you going to India for work? I am an American who has lived in India for a total of about 10 years. The longest period of time I lived in India was when I lived in Kochi between 2011-2017. Kochi is in the state of Kerala in Southwestern India. I have also traveled between the US and India probably 20 times between 1998-2018. The tips in this article are based on my most recent trip to India in May 2018. 

Though I lived in India for more than 7 years at a stretch, I found there were a few things that surprised me on my recent short stay back in India for about 2.5 weeks. Though my visit was predominately family related (as I am married to someone from there), this visit was also business related as I did participate in client visits and a training program in Infopark, Kochi. 

If you are traveling to India from the U.S. for work OR are an Indian company hosting Americans in India, keep these pointers in mind (this list is not comprehensive): 

1. Always Carry a Work ID and/or Passport With You
Carry your US passport everywhere you go in India.Whether visiting an office park or checking into a new hotel, always have your passport with you. Most of the time, one will not forget their passport, but if there is a chance where you may be staying at someone's house then going to a hotel for a few days in between, you will need your passport while checking into a hotel. Even if, like me, you happen to be married to an Indian citizen and have an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India card), like I do, they will still check your passport at every hotel and if you do not have it, you may not be able to enter the hotel (we were denied entry to a hotel once as I had left my passport at home).


2. Know the Sign-in Process when entering IT and Office Parks in India
When visiting IT and office parks in India, there are a series of check posts that may need to be passed through. Depending on what is needed, you may need to give yourself 10-30 minutes extra time to go through all the check points. As I have worked for over 30 companies in several parts of India, I have experienced express check ins to long, drawn-out check-ins. Be warned! 

Check Point 1: The IT Office Park Gate
Once you sign in the book (most likely you will need to get out of the car, walk to a booth and sign into a book), you may be given a slip and/or a lanyard. If given a slip (such as the one below), this may need to be stamped and/or signed by the company receptionist and handed back to the guard on the way out.


Entry Gate at an IT Park in Calcutta.
Entry Gate at an IT Park in Calcutta.

Check Point 2: The Building Grounds or Building First Floor of the Building You Are Visiting

Check point on the ground floor of the building you are visiting.
You may or may not be given another slip or lanyard here.


Entry slip to an IT office building.
Entry slip to a building to visit a client. This can be given outside the building or on the ground floor of the building.
Note: Just as we Americans may not be able to understand everyone's names, not everyone will know or hear our names correctly either. Jennifer is a name in India, but could be pronounced different in the local accent.
Sign in at the company's entrance.
Sign in at the company's entrance. This was in the hallway outside the office, but in many cases, this sign in area will be inside the office door, in the reception area.

A visitor lanyard from a once well known company.
A visitor lanyard from a once well known company.
The office you are visiting (if it is part of a building with many other companies.
You may get a lanyard here with the company information with the word ‘visitor’ on it (as pictured above). In rare occasions a lanyard may be given at all three checkpoints! This actually happened to me once! I had to sign in at three different locations. I remember this distinctly as once I finished a training program, I asked the audience if they had any questions. One person raised their hand and said to me, “This is not about the training, but why are you wearing three badges?” At this office and complex, at every location you signed in they gave you a lanyard with a badge on it! So, by the time I signed in everywhere, I had three badges around my neck! (The picture below is the group photo from that particular program, where you can see three badges around my neck!)


Group photo from a US Culture Training Program.
I am wearing three lanyards in this photo!
Note: If you will be visiting the same office many times in a year, and or many locations in India over the course of a year, it may be wise to ask to get a permanent badge for India office visits. This will also help you to get through the main gate faster and may not require you to sign in at all the locations.

A US Passport with an Indian "Permanent Resident Card" known as an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card.
You will need the following details ready:

  • Your passport (the actual ID). Even if you have an Overseas Citizen of India card (OCI) and a PAN card, most places will still want to see your passport.
  • The company name, contact person and contact phone number.
  • Your contact phone number.
  • If you are arranging your own transport, provide the car details (especially if the car that’s brining you is to be parked in the complex)- make, model, and number plate. (If the driver is waiting for you during your meetings, it may be necessary to inform the office a day in advance to reserve your driver a parking spot.)

A note on bringing in devices, laptops, phones, etc.
Typically, most offices will let you know if you can bring in "outside" devices, and it will take a few days to a week to get your specific devices cleared depending on the company. Possibly before leaving for India, you may need to ask about the device policy, and get yours registered. Even if you are visiting an affiliate office in India, this may be needed. Also, if you are visiting an office that does projects dealing with sensitive client details, phones, laptops, thumb drives and other devices (and even pens and pencils and paper) may need to be put in a locker in the reception area before you enter. In other cases you may not be able to use your own laptop, but use one the company provides for you. This happened to me many times due to delivering training programs. In these cases, the company had to organize a laptop for me a week in advance, I'd have to email or share the materials by email, and they would download it onto their device that I would be able to use. 

Shailendra Tech Park, Bengaluru, India
As a funny side note, us Americans will have a hard time pronouncing some names. It may be ideal to have the building name written down in English on a piece of paper in case the guards do not understand what you are trying to say. Most people will be able to read English. Of course, if you know a local person who can write the building name in the local script, having that along with English is very useful. Once, I had to visit the building pictured to the right. I was visiting on a casual note and was very overconfident in my abilities. Since I was able to guide the driver there (and this location was not so straight forward), I made the horrible assumption my pronunciation skill would have been up to the mark, as well. I was reminded how much more practice I need at the gate, because no one could understand my accent. It was funny in hindsight, but frustrating in the moment. 



3. Water
Though I lived in India for more than 7 years, on our visit back we had been out of India for more than a year. Though I am a US Citizen by birth, my husband grew up in India and is a Non-Resident Indian (NRI), both of us were concerned if we could handle the water. Also, when we had lived in India, we heard many stories of foreigners who visited India for leisure and for business who stayed only in 5 star hotels who would get sick from water- even brushing their teeth with the water from the tap in the hotel. Once a friend of mine put it best, “A bug is a bug. It is small. It will be in a drop of water whether on a toothbrush or in a gulp. Best brush your teeth with bottled water.” 

Though, we actually did not brush our teeth with bottled water, some who are concerned do, and I do recommend that for first timers to India or those who have very delicate constitutions. The last thing anyone wants to do is fall sick from water poisoning. I know all too well that this is NO fun and will ruin up to weeks at a time if you do fall sick from water poisoning. It is ideal to keep these tips in mind:

  • Brush your teeth and rinse your mouth with bottled water. Listerine and mouthwashes in India do not typically have alcohol in them like the same ones sold in the U.S., so don’t count on the mouthwash killing the germs.
  • Always drink bottled water. Ask in hotels if they make your juice from bottled water. If you think you can handle it, filtered is also acceptable for some people. Five star hotels most likely use bottled and/or filtered water, but small roadside shops probably would not. It’s best not to buy juice from the roadside stalls. Never buy “filtered” water from pouches at train stations, and ALWAYS check the seal on any bottled water to assure it has not been reopened or resealed (if buying at a small shop or stall, especially).
  • Juices and yogurt or buttermilk drinks can have water added. Keep this in mind. Especially in Kerala, many places that sell juice sell fresh fruit juice, not canned. In most places (hotel buffets), if there is canned juice there will be a notice that it is canned.
  • If you visit someone’s house and they offer drinks, always opt for hot drinks like hot tea or hot coffee. Though you will feel hot in India (most of the time), these drinks will be safe as the water and milk are boiled before drinking.
  • If you are worried about water, always carry your own water bottle with you. But be warned that if you visit a company, client site, or someone’s home not accepting a drink and/or food is often offensive to most people.

4. Food allergies
Not all restaurants or chefs are aware of food allergies. This, of course, is not specific to India. Many Indian foods will have nuts or some kind of nuts in them like cashews. As I recently found out I have a nut allergy (I avoid all ground and tree nuts), I found out in India if I say ‘no nuts’ some think I mean only peanuts and cashews are fine (which is not the case). Nuts are often ground into curry pastes or put into dishes in restaurants as this makes them richer. Some dishes in India that have nuts can include (not exhaustive):

  • Badam milk (badam means almond in Hindi). Badam milk is more common in North India, but can be found in the South as well.
  • Stew (the stew that comes with Appams, a puffy pancake eaten for breakfast), has pieces of cashews in it in some hotels and restaurants. This is typically a Kerala dish.

Appams, to the bottom left, served with dhal, veggie curry, and fish stew.
Appams, to the bottom left, served with dhal, veggie curry, and fish stew.
  • Payasam/Kheer (rice pudding in Malayalam/Hindi). May also have cashews. Rice pudding has variations all over India.
  • Pongal (A rice porridge, eaten for breakfast in South India. Most commonly found in Tamil Nadu.), often has cashews.

    Pongal, made without cashews, served with sambar.
    Pongal, made without cashews, served with sambar.
  • Malai Kofta (a North Indian dish; vegetarian meatballs in a cashew gravy). Note there are other North Indian curries that can have cashews in the gravy. Ask your server about it. Also, note you will not see cashew pieces typically as these dishes have the cashews ground in the curry paste. Often these curries may have a white tinge to the paste due to the cashews.
  • Poha (a breakfast dish made with flattened rice). This may have peanuts in it. It’s often eaten with chutney. This is common in Maharashtra.
  • Upma (a breakfast dish made with broken wheat or vermicelli). This dish is common in South India and can have cashews in it.
  • Peanut or Groundnut Chutney (eaten along with dosa or idli or upma). By the name, you can usually tell this is made with peanuts, unless they tell you the name in the local Indian language. Note that this chutney does tend to be ground into a paste, and is typically the color of peanuts (brown) or a little red if more chili is added. If you order dosa or idli or upma in restaurant and see chutneys on the side, ask what each of them are.
A note on spices. I did not talk much about spices here because almost everyone knows that Indian food can be spicy. Types of spices used and heat level varies from area to area of India. Typically if you stay at 5 star hotels, they can adjust the spice level accordingly. But, local hotels may not have that option. Always keep that in mind if you have a delicate constitution when it comes to spicy cuisine. What Indians find mild, some foreigners who aren’t used to spicy food will find extremely spicy.

5. Bumpy Car Rides
The driving style in India is not the same as the U.S. Driving in India is a hot topic and everyone likes to talk about how driving in the U.S. and India differ. That being said, most expats that come to India for short term business visits do not drive their own cars around in India, so you will be relying on a driver. Drivers may speed up, then slow down, jerk the wheel, or take speed bumps at fast speeds. As most passengers are in the back seat, this can set you up for a very bumpy ride. I tend to get car sickness sitting in the back seat even in the US where driving styles tend to be more fluid and not so bumpy or jerky, so for me even when living in India I had to avoid texting, reading or doing much anything while sitting in the back seat as I’d feel woozy. Newcomers to India, or those who visit after a long gap (like me or other NRIs), couple the car movements with humidity (if the car A/C doesn’t work, or you are in an auto), possible dust or pollution from other cars (especially if you are in an auto or in a car with the windows down), or other factors, the car ride in itself can be quite an experience. After my year gap being out of India and returning, it took me a few days to get reacclimatized to this as after a ride, I’d feel woozy and not feel like eating for a few hours.

6. Transportation 
Use of the hotel cab is always an option. Uber or Ola are other automobile options. Taking an auto is also an option for shorter trips. Here are some of our experiences that may be helpful to you.

Uber/Ola: 
If you are in a rush or want to leave at a particular time, I wouldn't rely on Uber or Ola. Why? When you open the app, it may show lots of cars near you and say it will take 10 minutes. The problem is that though that car may be 10 minutes from you, it may be on the way to dropping another person off, and then coming to get you. We waited anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes for an Uber when the app said the car was 10 minutes away! 

Good Points with Uber: 
I rarely had any problems with any Uber driver in Kochi or Pune. They like to make small talk in English (many who do know English) or the local language. Don't worry about cash, as you can route the Uber app to use your USD credit card or ATM/Debit Card. Do ask your bank in advance about any international conversion fees. My US bank does not charge fees for paying someone in INR (Indian Rupees), so this worked very well for me and I did not have to carry much cash around to use Uber. 

There is no need to tip Uber or Ola or any cab or auto drivers in India. 

Uber's Downsides:
The Uber app we were using was on an old Windows Phone (we had India SIMs from when we lived there, hence did not use our US phone in India), and due to having an older app, not all locations were found on the Uber app. So, as we knew Kochi well, we could move the destination point pin to whereever we wanted to go.

Ola's Downsides: 
We used Ola only once in Pune and while the driver did get us to our final destination safely, he was more interested in talking on the phone rather than paying attention to his customers. 

Autos:
Autos are convenient for shorter trips. In most cases you will need actual cash to pay the auto driver. While the Uber app seems to have an option for autos, we did not use it. Keep in mind that in some areas, autos will not pick you up at any point. They may require you to go to an auto stand. If you go to an auto stand, you may need an extra one rupee coin to pay for the slip they give you to hand to the auto driver. This is how it worked at the auto stand near Infopark in Kochi in the past. While the video below isn't the best, it may give you a little taste of what it is like to sit in the back seat of an auto. This video was taken near Mattancherry, Kerala (closer to Fort Kochi). 

Special note on transportation for women in India
Coming from the U.S., you may be shocked, surprised or even 'offended' that people are so worried about your comings and goings, especially after 6:30pm (when it gets dark). If you are going to an offshore affiliate office, it may be good to find out what the typical regulations are for female employees. In many companies in India, women may be required to leave between 6 and 8pm. In some cases, the company provides transportation for the women to go home, in other cases, women may need be required by HR policy to leave by a particular time. Once, this happened to me without my knowledge. I was delivering a training program that was to end at 6:30pm. Suddenly at 5:55 half of the room (women), got up and left. I was surprised as I hadn't learned about the culture of that company and area fully at that time. I was later told the company requires women to leave at 6 and offers them transport home. If they miss the bus or cab, then they have to find their own way home, which is not recommended. 

In some cases, your host may ask you to call them when you reach your hotel. This is just to make sure you are safe in your room, not to 'spy on you' or 'keep tabs on you.' In some cases, I was even able to negotiate accommodation with companies based on the safety of the area because of the fact I was a woman and they would not want a woman to be in an unsafe area (in this case, unsafe was defined as a narrow, dimly lit alley way). In some cases, your Indian colleagues may offer you a ride home to assure you get home safely.

7. Knowing Each State in India has a Different Language and Script
If you are traveling to more than one state in India, keep in mind the local language will change. The language and the script are most likely to change. Also, in many big cities in India, you may see signs in Hindi and the local language, or English and the local language or Hindi, English and the local language.

Because each area of India has a different language (and/or dialect), the use of English will vary slightly from area to area, as well.


A multilingual sign in India. Barber shop (English) with the Indian English translation (saloon) in Tamil and Hindi.
A multilingual sign in India. Barber shop (English) with the Indian English translation (saloon) in Tamil and Hindi.
Meals Ready in English and Hindi (Bhojan Thaiyaar).
Meals Ready in English and Hindi (Bhojan Thaiyaar).
Gas pumps in Malayalam and English.
Gas pumps in Malayalam and English.
8. Getting Used to Indian English
I actually missed listening to Indian English and particularly Malayalam English accents. I am quite fluent in understanding and following the sound patterns and the word choices. It’s another sweet language to me. But for a newcomer, you may likely have some trouble tuning your ear to these new sounds and different uses of the English language. Keep in mind that while you may be struggling to understand your hosts, they may also be struggling to understand you! Try your best to use plain English (no idioms or jargon), and speak a little slower (but not like a computer) if you feel the other person is not quite catching you. Here are some more tips for globalizing English as well as some words that may have different meanings between Indian and American English.

Note, that while I have used the term ‘Indian English,’ this term is used mostly for convenience as the language varies so widely from area to area based on their Mother Tongue Influence and how the language is used locally.

9. Laundry
Luckily we bought enough clothes with us to avoid using hotel laundry services, which are quite costly, even when converting INR to USD. Unlike the U.S. where you can find coin operated laundry, this is a rare find in India. I do not actually have any tips for how to handle laundry as we were able to avoid having to wash clothes in the hotel, and we could ask for an iron to iron ourselves. For those of you who have traveled to India on business and stayed only in hotels, did you use the hotel laundry service? What was your experience? I understand some companies offer such low per diems now a days that it comes to the choice of eating or doing laundry! What a place to be in.

10. Dress Code
While adapting to a new dress code may not always be needed for a short term visit, it may be a nice touch to ask if the India office has a different dress code than the US office if you are visiting an offshore location. I delivered over 100 training programs to about 40 companies in India, and while most companies had a 'casual Friday' dress code, a few had stricter dress codes of Indian dress or more Western formal work clothes (button up shirt and trousers with closed toed shoes). I'd imagine one area you may be wondering more about the dress code is if there is a formal function, a high profile meeting, a cultural program, an annual day or a holiday party to attend. In such cases, you may want to attempt to wear the local, traditional dress, as I did for some Onam celebrations in Kerala

A special note for women. In most parts of India avoid wearing low cut tops or skirts above the knee. Where I worked in Kerala, skirts were rarely seen in offices, but in Bangalore, they were a little more common. Typically high heels were not worn to work in Kerala, but more commonly seen in Bangalore. It is not necessary to wear Indian clothes to work, but if you want a good idea of how people dress on a daily basis, maybe take a look at the company's Facebook page to see if there are candid team photos, or simply ask what the dress code is. People will be happy that you are taking the effort to adapt to and respect their culture. 

Author, Jennifer Kumar is an American who has lived in Kochi, India for 7 years and Chennai, India for 2.5 years as a professional and a student (respectively). Check out our programs on Hosting US Clients in India or Individual Coaching or contact us today to start your personalized coaching program.

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