Visit Libya, North Africa's destination-in-waiting

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Libya just became a whole lot easier to visit, at least if you’re a US citizen. Four years after the Libyan government began to refuse visa applications for Americans, that policy has been reversed.

Libya first opened up to tourism in around 2000 following decades of international isolation. By the end of that year, Libya had banned independent travel, requiring all foreign travellers to obtain visas through recognised Libyan tour companies or their international affiliates - and spend their entire time in Libya under the care and supervision of these operators. According to the Libyan government, these rules were introduced after a number of foreign visitors were caught trying leave Libya with priceless historical artefacts and samples of prehistoric rock art. Whatever the reasons, these visa requirements remain in force.

In the years since, visa regulations have shifted with the political winds and are a reliable barometer for Libya’s relations with foreign countries. US citizens are not alone in having encountered difficulties. In early 2010, Libya refused to issue visas to citizens of all EU countries for over a month as part of a widening diplomatic row with the Swiss government. And in 2007, Libya suddenly announced that all foreign passports had to be translated into Arabic, even going so far as to refuse entry to those whose planes were in the air when the edict was announced.

Reasons to see Libya

The combination of diplomatic intrigue and unpredictable changes in visa regulations has concealed Libya’s promise as North Africa’s exciting destination-in-waiting.

Libya’s five Unesco World Heritage-listed sites include three ruined cities – Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Cyrene – which rank among the most spectacular Roman and/or Greek sites anywhere around the Mediterranean rim. The astonishingly well-preserved oasis town of Ghadames is one of Africa’s most intact and spectacular caravan towns.

And then there’s the Sahara, which occupies 95% of Libyan territory. Vast sand seas the size of small European countries, a series of palm-fringed lakes surrounded by sand dunes, and the Jebel Acacus massif, the fifth Unesco site with its expansive collection of Neolithic rock art – these are what have earned Libya fame as one of the most accessible and most rewarding of Saharan destinations.

Elsewhere, Tripoli is a cosmopolitan capital city with a lovely whitewashed medina, world-class museum and wonderful food, while the troglodyte homes of the Jebel Nafusa seem to spring both from a child’s imagination and a Star Wars set.

Practicalities - how to get a visa

Obtaining a Libyan visa can seem complicated, but don’t let that put you off. The process for getting a Libyan visa should start six weeks, at the very least, before you plan to travel and involves contacting a tour company accredited with offering tours to Libya.

International companies offering tours (and hence visas which you pick up on arrival in Libya) are easy enough to find. Libyan companies – whose tours generally cost a little less and often provide more flexibility in choosing your itinerary – are listed in Lonely Planet’s Libya guidebook, while it can also be useful to check out the Libya section of Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum, or other forums such as Sahara Overland.

Once you’ve selected your tour, the Libyan or international company should then handle the visa application process and can advise further on the latest regulations. While some Libyan companies will arrange visas and tours for individual travellers or small groups, it is invariably easier if you join an existing group. And, of course, it’s always worth keeping an eye on the latest news.

Anthony Ham authored Lonely Planet's Libya guide and is currently in Norway conducting research for another guide book.