Entry requirements vary from country to country. Most border crossings are generally hassle-free, though wait times can be long.
Customs regulations vary from country to country, but in most cases they aren’t that different from what you’d expect in the West – a couple of hundred cigarettes and a couple of bottles of booze.
There was a time when electronics used to arouse interest when entering or leaving Egypt, but it’s becoming increasingly rare. If they do pull you up, items such as laptop computers and especially video cameras may be written into your passport to ensure that they leave the country with you and are not sold. If you’re carrying printed material that could be interpreted as being critical of the government, be discreet, although customs officials at major entry/departure points rarely search the bags of tourists.
Iran is a notable exception to some of these rules – alcohol is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and any publications showing (even modestly exposed) female flesh will be confiscated if found.
Note that neither Israeli citizens nor anyone who has an Israeli stamp in their passport will be allowed to enter Iran or Lebanon (or Iraq or Syria when they're considered safe to visit). Israel no longer stamps tourists' passports (though it retains the right to do so). Instead, visitors are given a small loose-leaf entry card.
Most visas available on arrival; an Israeli stamp will mean no entry to Iran or Lebanon.
If you do one piece of research before setting out on your trip, it should be to familiarise yourself with the requirements for obtaining visas for the countries that you intend to visit. For the unwary, it can be a minefield. For the well informed, it shouldn’t pose too many difficulties.
The major issue arises if you plan to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories. If you do, then you may need to think carefully about the order you visit the countries of the Middle East, or prepare for a little sleight of hand to ensure there is no trace of you having visited Israel and therefore avoid limiting the other countries that you’re able visit.
Visas at a Glance
- Visas in Advance
Egypt If entering overland from Israel
Jordan If you need a multiple-entry visa
Turkey Purchase online before travel
Iran Safest option is to obtain in advance
- Visas Available on Arrival
Egypt Except if crossing from Israel
Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Jordan Single-entry visas except if first entry on King Hussein/Allenby Bridge
Iran Possibly available at Iranian international airports but there's a risk of rejection – it's best to obtain in advance
- Israeli Passport Stamps
OK for entry to: Egypt, Jordan, Turkey
Will be denied entry to: Iran and Lebanon (also Iraq and Syria when they're considered safe to visit)
Banned: Israeli Passport Stamps
Arab countries have widely varying policies on admitting travellers whose passports show evidence of a visit to Israel. Jordan and Egypt, with which Israel has peace treaties, have no problem at all, and the same goes for Tunisia, Morocco and many of the Gulf emirates (but not Saudi Arabia).
If there’s any chance you’ll be heading to Arab or Muslim countries during the life of your passport, your best bet is to make sure that it shows no indication that you’ve been to Israel. Fortunately, Israeli passport inspectors no longer stamp tourists' passports and instead issue a small loose-leaf entry card to serve as proof of lawful entry. Keep this with you at all times until you leave Israel.
Unfortunately, Egyptian and Jordanian officials are not so obliging about their own stamps, even though having a stamp from one of those countries’ land crossings to Israel or the West Bank can be no less ‘incriminating’ than having an Israeli one. This is especially true of Lebanon and Iran, which have been known to put travellers on the next plane out if they find even the slightest evidence of travel to Israel. Such evidence can include a longer stay in Jordan or Egypt than is allowed under that country's visa rules with no evidence of a visa extension.
Some countries, including the United States, allow their citizens to carry more than one passport, but it can still be difficult to make this work without leaving unexplained gaps in the entry/exit paper trail.
Most Egyptian tourist visas can be obtained on arrival. It couldn’t be easier if you’re arriving by air, while those travelling from Jordan can obtain a visa at the port in Aqaba before boarding the ferry. Visa fees vary by nationality and can usually be paid in Egyptian pounds, US dollars, UK pounds or euros. Visas granted on arrival allow you to stay in Egypt for one month.
The only exception to these general rules is if you plan to enter Egypt from Israel via the Taba border crossing. In this case, we recommend that you apply for your Egyptian visa in advance in Tel Aviv or Eilat. If you just turn up at this border crossing without a visa in your passport, your visa must be guaranteed by an Egyptian travel agency – more trouble than it’s worth.
Iranian visas can be a pain to organise. The process is slow (start at least two months before you plan to travel) and somewhat unpredictable, and rules can change without warning. But the vast majority of people do get a visa within two or three weeks. Note that all applications stall over the No Ruz holiday period; submit before 8 March to be sure.
There are three kinds of visas:
- Tourist visa Issued for up to 30 days and extendable. Must be obtained before coming to Iran from Iranian embassy or consulate and valid to enter for 90 days from the issue date. The surest option. American and UK citizens are required to be part of a tour group or have an Iranian 'sponsor' in order to obtain a visa.
- Tourist visa on arrival (VOA) Issued for 30 days on arrival at any Iranian international airport. Convenient but risky, as you may be denied entry.
- Transit visa Issued for five to seven days, this is a last resort. You must enter and exit via different countries, and have a visa or a ticket to an onward country. Not available to US passport holders.
Iraq is not considered safe at the time of writing.
Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Tourist visas are issued to nationals of most Western countries at airports and land border crossings. Although most visas are for three-month periods, travellers arriving overland from Egypt or Jordan are sometimes given two-week or one-month visas. Some visas may also come with restrictions relating to travel inside the Palestinian Territories.
Visas, required by all visitors, are available on arrival (JD40 for most nationalities) at international airports and most of Jordan’s land borders. It makes sense for most travellers to buy a Jordan Pass (www.jordanpass.jo) online before entering the country: this waives the cost of a visa in addition to giving free access to many sites in Jordan, including Petra.
It's not possible to get a visa on arrival at King Hussein Bridge or at Wadi Araba. Check the latest status of Jordan's border crossings on the Jordan Tourism Board website (www.international.visitjordan.com/GeneralInformation/EntryintoJordan.aspx).
Free one-month single-entry tourist visas are available at Beirut's airport for many nationalities.
It is currently not safe to visit Syria.
If you come from Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, you don't need a Turkish visa for stays of up to 90 days.
For most other nationalities, three-month, multiple-entry tourist visas must be purchased online at www.evisa.gov.tr/en prior to arrival. Payment can be made by credit card and fees range from US$15 to US$80 depending on nationality. You then print out the visa and present it on arrival in Turkey. Apply at least two days before you plan to travel.
Many Western nationals can obtain a visa on arrival in Turkey, but this is not recommended as travellers have reported extra charges and bad experiences with the customs officials. Cash cannot be used.