21 April 2016

The Ersatz Guide To Saudi Customs Rules!

There are a lot of misconceptions about life in KSA.  Everyone knows that things like Alcohol and Christmas trees are banned but what else can’t you bring?

Lets face it most countries have a list of things that you are not allowed to import.  When moving to the UK, for example, you are not allowed to bring weapons.  I remember a long discussion with a Venezuelan friend of the family who was looking to study in Southampton.  He was very upset at not being allowed to bring his pistol and knives as he was concerned about how he would defend himself in case of attack.  Given that he was not the type to consort with criminal gangs or go to nightclubs looking for fights we assured him that the police would have him covered (and would take a dim view of him carrying weapons on the streets).  He ended up studying in the US instead as he could just not cope with the idea of being undefended. 

Importing Dogs and Christmas Trees?
The important one is allowed!
Anyway, I digress.  As mentioned most countries will have a restricted list and you would do well to study this carefully before an international move if you do not want your goods held up in customs.  Your beautiful ivory wares (what on earth are you doing with that in this day and age!!!) will be unwelcome in most places and weapons, animals, certain electrical goods etc are often subject to restrictions.  Nevertheless the restricted list for KSA is somewhat longer than most other countries. 
We received guidance from our moving company and I have summarised it below.

Banned from shipment:
  • Religious items that are contrary to Muslim beliefs and morality codes such as: religious decorations, Christmas trees, ornaments, statues, figurines, wood carvings  etc;
  • any sculptures or metal works  depicting human or animal forms;
  • any games of chance;
  • real or ornamental weapons or firearms and/or antique handguns; military uniforms or equipment;
  • any alcoholic beverages or any foodstuffs containing alcohol and any literature pertaining to preparation of alcoholic beverages;
  • all pork products;
  • narcotic drugs or medicines without prescription;
  • radio transmitters or communication equipment;
  • any pornographic and/or lewd pictures, videos  or materials.   

We were also advised that 110 volt equipment was banned from import which surprised us on arrival as our home as both 220 and 110v sockets and the light rings are on 110v.  If you are coming from the Americas I would advise that you check this with your shipping agent.

What does this mean in practice?

Most of the list is fairly standard but we did have a few things that might have caused problems so we sent a small portion, about 1 cubic meter in total, of our personal effects back to the UK.  This included all our religious books (although a single copy ie a family bible is permitted for personal use), figurines we had collected on our travels such as decorative scales weights from Cambodia depicting Ganesha, Buddha, Garuda etc, framed shadow puppets of Apsara dancers and Garuda, an antique parang we had bought in Borneo, our Christmas Tree, Nativity Crib etc.  Colleagues advised us that the pictures and figurines might or might not be ok so on balance we decided not to bring them as we would be upset to lose them as all had been gifts, had they not had any emotional significance we might well have packed them.  We also sent some books and films we were not sure would pass the censorship test.  In case you think the worst of us this comprised videos and books with a religious aspect.  Funnily enough we saw many of these same books on sale in the English language book store in the Jeddah Red Sea Mall so we were possibly a little over cautious. 

These did not make the import cut...
If you are on prescription medication you should carry a copy of the prescription with you to prove that it is for your personal use.  Again KSA is not unique in restricting import of medicines I know several people who have had codeine headache tablets removed in the UAE and my Father told me he was once told off for bringing strepsils (lightly medicated throat sweets) into Norway in the 1980s.

Pork and Alcohol

Many Muslim countries allow the sale of (or personal import of) pork and alcohol products for non-Muslims.  KSA is not one of these countries.  All such products are banned and their use or possession carries a heavy penalty.  Now personally I love pork but can do without it for a while, I will just enjoy many sausage and bacon based meals when we are out of the country.  Mr EE and I are not teetotal but we are not huge drinkers either often preferring a soft drink so the alcohol restrictions do not really bother us or have any real impact on our personal habits.  

Other people who enjoy a more regular drink may feel the impact of being in a ‘dry’ country.  Many such expats brew their own in the privacy of their own homes and even transport it between compounds.  As the news reports of the punishment of an elderly expat caught with alcohol in his possession out of the compound show, you do this at your own risk. 

With regard to importing alcohol be aware that it is relatively easy to do this inadvertently.  Check boxes of chocolates to ensure that none are liqueur based, ensure that your mouthwash is alcohol free and keen bakers should leave the vanilla extract at home. 

Surprising Things To Be Careful Of

Chess is, somewhat strangely, deemed a game of chance and is theoretically banned.  Nevertheless it is a popular game and there are chess clubs around the country.   I would caution against bringing any valuable or antique sets with you.  If you are a keen player consider using an app or packing a cheap set in your bags so that you do not delay clearance of your main shipment. 

The biggest wrench for us was to not be allowed to bring our Christmas tree.  Christmas is an important celebration for us as a family and we have a beautiful small tree that we cart around the world with some really special decorations including ones that the children have chosen each year, ones they have made and decorations we have collected on holidays.  We also have a beautiful olive wood nativity scene, an advent calendar etc.  Putting out the decorations is as much part of the build-up as enjoying seasonal food.  At the end of the day, however, what is more important is that we are together, a tree is nothing more than a symbol and something we can come back to in the future.  I understand that some trees are available for sale here at certain times of the year so if the children ask we might get something small.  We are likely to be abroad on holiday over the latter weeks of December in any event so while it is a shame it is not really important. 

Things You Can Bring

Contrary to many rumours that fly around the internet you can bring in children’s cuddly toys and you can bring your dogs.

For more posts on expat life in Saudi click on the picture below

Ersatz Expat


  1. The thing that crossed my mind, looking at your list, is whether or not you are allowed to take games like Monopoly or Snakes & Ladders? Presumably 'communications equipment' such as mobile phones and laptops are not banned. How about perfumes and toiletries? Many of those contain alcohol, too. How do the Saudis deal with that, particularly as I know perfume is part of their tradition. Do they have special non-alcoholic perfumes?

    1. I know! Perfume seems to be ok, it was not on the restricted list and is widely sold here. Personal 'phones etc are fine but I think they might balk at a CB radio etc. I should think children's games are fine to go through customs, I have seen loads of them on sale here including monopoly!

  2. I'd be stumped with the no statues of animals and also my lovely Christmas tree baubles!

    1. We had to send quite a lot home. It would probably have been fine brought in in luggage but the shipment is not worth holding up.