12 May 2016

The Ersatz Guide To Entering and Leaving Saudi Arabia

Every expat knows that travel is going to form a large part of their life and experience in country.  Given that KSA is the most difficult in the world to enter (visas regimes are very restrictive) it comes as no surprise that the airport can be a challenging experience. 

Saudia the national airline tends to be significantly cheaper than other carriers and we have found their flights to be excellent.  Good legroom, genuinely helpful flight attendants and excellent food.  It also flies to a wide range of destinations so Jeddah, our host city, makes an excellent hub.  Jeddah is the closest port of entry for Hajj and Umrah pilgrims and as such the flights tend to be pretty full.  Nevertheless every flight we have been on (Mr EE has done this a lot) has boarded and deplaned to the busses very quickly and easily.

Entering Saudi

When leaving the plane women should make sure that they are wearing an abaya or, if they have not been able to purchase one, long, loose clothing.  They should have a scarf to cover their head if asked.  All flights landing in Jeddah (and I believe, Riyadh) park on the tarmac some way from the terminal requiring a bus transfer.  If you are travelling with young children you will not receive your pushchair until after passport control so make sure that you have a sling or other carrier in your hand luggage.

A passport is not enough, you need reams of paperwork to get into KSA
In Jeddah, on entering the terminal building we have always been met by a fantastically unhelpful member of terminal staff.  The immigration hall is set up with the Umrah and other visas on the left and resident visas on the right.  Without fail the initial man directs all non Saudi’s to the entrance on the left.  There is no point trying to argue with him or insist that you need to go to the right, walk past the visa queues and into the main hall and ask another man if you can join the resident queue (there is usually someone there scratching his head trying to work out why all residents are walking into the wrong entrance).  Travellers with children will often be sent to the front of the queue, particularly during busy periods.  Some companies will also have representatives ‘air side’ to help their employees to the front of the queue.

On your first arrival in Saudi you will be required to scan the fingers and thumbs of both hands, thereafter you will only be asked to scan the fingers of your right hand.  Your visa will be checked, if you are a first time entrant.  Subsequently you will need to show your iqama and exit/re-entry permit to receive your entry stamp.  Once you are through passports you must show your entry stamp to a guard before you are permitted into the baggage hall.

Baggage is a nightmare because the belts are very short.  The combination of a very generous baggage allowance (two suitcases per person) and long waiting times in passports means that the cases pile up on the belt.  If you are dealing with your own luggage you will need long arms to reach a heavy case that is towards the back and if you are wearing an abaya you will also need to watch out not to get it caught in the belt.  Alternatively you can hire a porter for a very modest fee and he will sort the luggage out for you.  Once you have your bags you can go through the final security check, all bags are scanned whether or not you have something to declare,  and find your driver.

It is almost impossible to predict how long it will take to get through passports.  The fastest we have got through is 27 minutes (when Miss EE and I returned from a short trip home) but our driver tells us that he has waited up to 6 hours before.  If you are travelling with young children you may want to make sure that you have some drinks or snacks set aside to help you through the tedium that is the passports queue.

Leaving Saudi

You will have made your first arrival in Saudi on a 90 day resident visa which will have been replaced by your Iqama.  In order to be able to leave the country you will need to apply for an entry/re-exit visa.  This can be done relatively easily online and they are available as single or multiple visas.  They are not cheap, costing several hundred Riyals a visa. We are using single exits at the moment because we are getting close to the end of the school year, thereafter we will use annual multi exit visas.  I will feel better not having to apply online for something in the event that I need to travel last minute for a family emergency or similar.

On arriving at the airport you will be presented with a confusing array of check in desks.  Very few of these will have a destination flight highlighted.  Self-check-in is available but we have never yet managed to get this to work, we get all the way to the end and are told to go to a counter anyway.  It is best to check which counter to queue at although queue is a relative concept.  Once in a queue it is helpful to make eye contact with someone at a desk nearby, any desk, and shout your destination and they will make sure that you check in on time as some of the people might be queuing for flights due to leave much later than yours. 
There is no rhyme or reason to the queuing system
At the passport check you must present your passport, iqama and exit/re-entry visa.  You will receive an exit stamp and it is a good idea to remember which page it is on as this will be checked again before you board the plane.

Security checks are segregated with one line for women and one for men so be prepared for your party to be split, young children travelling with one parent will be allowed to stay with them but older ones will be asked to queue separately.  Once through you can shop in the duty free or get a bite to eat.  Don't bank on being able to find a seat to relax on, the hall always seems to be bursting.  Travellers to the US and the UK have to go through extra security screening before going down to the gate.  Finally there is an extra exit visa check before boarding the aircraft and you are finally on your way.

For more posts on life in Saudi Arabia please click on the picture below

Ersatz Expat

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