Immigration is much quicker than it used to be (except during hajj and Ramadan, when you can expect long queues). All bags, including hand luggage, are X-rayed but are usually only opened when further investigation is warranted.
Note that departure security is vigorous and time consuming. You’re advised to arrive early – three hours before international flights.
If you’re arriving by land, procedures are similar, although expect long delays if you’re bringing your own car into the Kingdom.
Despite all warnings, some travellers continue to try to enter Saudi with alcohol. If you are caught with any amount, you will be returned home on the next flight. If you’re deemed to be in possession of a quantity that exceeds ‘personal consumption’, punishments are severe (they include flogging and even the death penalty if you're convicted of smuggling).
DVDs, videos or suspect-looking books are passed to Ministry of Information officials for inspection. Unfamiliar or suspect-looking items may be confiscated for further inspection for up to 48 hours. Receipts are issued for later collection once items have been inspected and passed. Laptops and computer media are not checked unless officials are suspicious.
Alongside business and pilgrim visas, at the time of research, visitor visas were being issued for those attending festivals and events in the Kingdom (these had to be arranged via the festival organisers), though it was unclear if this was going to become a permanent method of entry to the country.
Hajj & Umrah Visas
For hajj visas, there’s a quota system of one visa for every 1000 Muslims in a country’s population. The system of administration varies from country to country but typically involves an application processed by a Saudi-authorised hajj and umrah travel agency. Every Saudi embassy has a list of authorised hajj and umrah travel agencies for that particular country (see www.haj.gov.sa).
Umrah (any pilgrimage to Mecca that is not hajj) visas are granted to any Muslim requesting one (in theory), although if you are not from a Muslim-majority country or don’t have an obviously Muslim name, you’ll be asked to provide an official document that lists Islam as your religion. Converts to Islam must provide a certificate from the mosque where they underwent their conversion ceremony.
Umrah and hajj visas are free but are valid only for travel to Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and the connecting roads.
There has been a recent crackdown on hajj and umrah visa holders illegally staying on to work in the Kingdom, and security roadblocks for checking visa permits are common throughout the Hejaz region.
The closest thing to a tourist visa being issued at the time of research were visit visas attached to specific festivals and events. These visas are being arranged through the organising body for the event. These visit visas suggest tourist visas for Saudi Arabia are not too far behind.
If you're planning to enter the country for a specific event or festival, it's best to allow the event organisers to arrange your visas. For a full list of possible visa types, see www.saudiembassy.net/visa-application.
Business visas are arranged via an employer and a sponsoring Saudi partner for a specific business purpose. Depending on the Saudi embassy where you are applying (always phone ahead to double-check requirements), typically a visa application will require a letter from your employer or company outlining the nature of your business in Saudi Arabia, and a letter of support from your local chamber of commerce.
The Saudi sponsor (the individual or company) then applies to the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and Industry for approval. If this is granted, an invitation letter will be sent to you, or directly to the Saudi embassy in your home country. Note that you must make your visa application in your country of nationality or permanent residency.
Residence (Work) Visas
Residence (work) visas are arranged via a Saudi employer who is also an individual’s visa sponsor.
Visa categories can and do provide a major source of headaches for expat workers in Saudi Arabia, especially in relation to the nature of the stay offered to accompanying family members. The visa restrictions and length of stay in Saudi Arabia granted to each family member will often differ depending on gender and age. These details should not be assumed to be the same for younger children, teenagers or spouses and should be carefully checked before arrival in the Kingdom.
Anyone who is transiting through Saudi Arabia and will spend more than 12 hours in the country may require a transit visa. Check with your travel agent or airline if you are doing so: these companies should be able to apply for one on your behalf.
When planning your Saudi visa, keep the following in mind:
- A Saudi sponsor is necessary for any visit to the Kingdom, and they are legally responsible for the conduct and behaviour of visitors while in the Kingdom.
- Passports must be valid for a minimum of six months.
- Check what methods of entry and exit are allowed on your visa, as some do not allow entry or exit by land.
- When applying for a visa, women under 25 years old must be accompanied by either their brother or their husband, who must also arrive in and leave Saudi Arabia at the same time.
- Women over 25 can travel without a male guardian, but only as part of a licensed tour group.
- Men and women are only allowed to travel together and granted a visa to do so if they are married (with an official marriage licence) or form part of a group.
- It’s not permitted for an unmarried couple to travel alone together in Saudi Arabia and doing so runs the risk of arrest.
Israeli Passports & Stamps
At the top of the restricted list of travellers to Saudi Arabia remain citizens of Israel, but people of Jewish faith from other countries can also have trouble getting in. All visitors to Saudi Arabia must declare their religion – those declaring ‘Jewish’ or ‘none’ have been known to be refused a visa, though the changes sweeping the country suggest this will no longer be the case.
Any evidence of travel to and from Israel will result in refusal of entry into Saudi Arabia. If you have any evidence of travel to Israel in your passport and intend to travel to Saudi Arabia in the future, use a brand-new passport for your Saudi visa application.