Tips and how to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2019

can you visit Saudi Arabia

In December 2018, I was one of the first very few tourists to ever travel to Saudi Arabia on a tourist visa.

Before, the only way to travel to Saudi was on a business visa, via a strong local connection who could sponsor your visit or by getting a pilgrimage visa to visit Mecca and Medina (only for Muslims).

Therefore, the fact that, all of a sudden, Western tourists can visit Saudi Arabia on their own, with a backpack, both men and women, is a very radical change.

This incredibly big change, however, didn’t come alone. 

During the last couple of years, a lot of their super strict Islamic laws have been softened or, at least, they have become more flexible. For example, allowing women and men to hang out together in public spaces was one of the most significant changes.

All these small changes will make things easier for future international visitors.

Moreover, you should also know that, despite everything that you may have read in the media, Saudi Arabia is an incredible country which is filled with loads of stunning sites, both natural and archaeological, hugely contrasting landscapes and some extremely hospitable people that could easily rival my beloved friends from Pakistan and Iran.

Personally, this country has been the most surprising country I have ever been to, especially because nobody had ever told me the good things about it.

That being said, after visiting all around the country for a little bit more than two weeks, I have compiled this comprehensive guide that contains plenty of tips and everything you need to know to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2019, one of the least visited destinations in the world.

By the way, if you want to keep track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @againstthecompass on Instagram

This guide contains all the practical information. For places to visit read my Saudi Arabia itinerary

 

travel to Saudi Arabia

 

Tips and how to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2019

Here you will find:

Visa
Travel Insurance
Getting to Saudi
Tourism in Saudi Arabia
Is it ethical?

How to behave in Saudi Arabia
The people – The Saudis
The food
Solo female travel in Saudi

Safety in Saudi
Money
Moving around Saudi
Internet and SIM Card

Accommodation
More information

Hey, have you ever wondered how I make a full living from blogging? Learn here how I started monetizing my blog and get over 200,000 monthly page views in less than 3 years

 

Check this introductory video from my friend Brian from The World Hiker! (I am also in the video!)

 

Visa for traveling to Saudi Arabia

Amazing News October 2019 E-visa finally available through visitsaudi.comContinue reading to know more about it

In December 2018, the only way of traveling to Saudi Arabia on a tourist visa was by purchasing a ticket for a Formula-E event that would take place in Riyadh.

You could book your tickets through the website sharek.sa and, immediately after purchasing them, they would issue a legit and valid e-visa to travel to Saudi Arabia.

I paid 395SR (105USD) for the Formula-E ticket and 640SR (170USD) for the e-visa. In total, it was 1,035SR (275USD).

With my Spanish passport, the visa was valid for 30 days and it allowed me to travel anywhere but Medina and Mecca. 

visiting saudi arabia visa
My e-visa for Saudi Arabia

This was just a one-time event and, after that, they celebrated one or two more, the last one being in July 2019. 

The truth is that there were some rumors saying that the Saudi Government would introduce a regular e-visa system somewhere in 2019, so those events were just a test aimed at seeing how would the country handle independent Western tourists for the first time in their history. 

Apparently, their results and experience were rather satisfactory and, along with the fact that Saudi is trying to find alternative ways of not being so dependant on oil revenue, they finally announced the introduction of an e-visa system, starting from September 2019.

How to apply for Saudi tourist e-visa 

Applying for the e-visa is pretty straightforward and you can do it through this portal.

Which countries are eligible to get a Saudi tourist visa?

All EU countries within Schengen zone + Andorra, Monaco, United Kingdom and Ukraine, Brunei, China, Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, United States

How long is the Saudi visa for?

With this visa, you can travel in Saudi Arabia for 90 days.

How much does the Saudi e-visa cost?

It costs 117USD + VAT. 

Can single women apply for the same Saudi e-visa?

Yes, you can, as long as you are 25 years old or more.

Don’t forget to read my 2-week itinerary in Saudi Arabia.

Visiting Saudi Arabia
Outside of Riyadh, on the way to the Edge of the World – Tourism in Saudi Arabia

 

Travel Insurance for Saudi Arabia

Remember to always travel with the proper travel insurance, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia where, for foreigners, the Health Care System is crazy expensive.

I strongly recommend World Nomads for the following reasons:

  • It is the only company that offers an unlimited budget policy, very useful for Saudi Arabia
  • It provides coverage for pretty much any nationality
  • It covers a wide range of adventure activities

 

Getting to Saudi Arabia

By air – The easiest way to travel to Saudi Arabia is by flying in. There are loads of international flights, especially to Jeddah and Riyadh. Saudia Airlines has many direct flights from Europe and other destinations.

By land – Right before visiting Saudi Arabia, I was traveling in Oman, so my initial idea was to overland via UAE. However, in the visa application, I had to specify my port of entry and they didn’t give you the choice of selecting a land border entry point, so I preferred to just book a flight because, in any case, going from Muscat to Riyadh was a very long way and I didn’t even know about public transportation options.

The border between Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait should be open to anyone with a valid visa. The rest of the borders, however, are currently closed: Yemen, due to the ongoing conflict; Qatar, due to their current diplomatic issues; and Oman, due to it being under construction. I am not sure about the Iraqi border but, most likely, you won’t be crossing from there.

Read: Ultimate 7-day itinerary to Dubai and the UAE 

Another very cool canyon outside of Riyadh – Can you travel to Saudi Arabia

 

Tourism in Saudi Arabia

As you may imagine, tourism in Saudi Arabia is in a very embryonic stage.

Random Saudi: Where are you from?
Me: Spain
Random Saudi: Where do you live, in Jeddah or Riyadh?
Me: Nowhere, I am just visiting 🙂
Random Saudi: No, I mean where in Saudi are you working?

I had this conversation over and over. They still don’t know that foreigners can now travel to Saudi Arabia.

When I was exploring the southern part of the country and was walking around the souk with my big backpack, people were asking me if I was carrying a parachute and one even said if it was an inflatable boat.

Read: Places to visit in Saudi Arabia – Complete itinerary

Saudi Arabia travel tips
Rajal Almaa, a beautiful village in southern Saudi Arabia – Travel guide to Saudi Arabia

So yeah, the idea of having international visitors who are not expats or workers is still a concept they aren’t familiar with.

However, there is a relatively developed domestic tourism infrastructure, so you can find hotels pretty much everywhere, even though they tend to be expensive.

Moreover, as per things to do, you should know that there are loads, loads of things to do in this country. I mean, just check its size and you will see that it is bigger than any European country. I will publish a travel guide to Saudi with itinerary included very, very soon.

travel guide to Saudi Arabia
The beautiful Old City of Jeddah – This photo was chosen the 2nd best photo in Instagram by Lonely Planet in January 2019

 

Is it ethical to travel to Saudi Arabia?

When I came back from Saudi Arabia, I received many, many messages from very upset people who claimed that traveling to Saudi Arabia implicated collaborating with a regime that doesn’t respect the basic human rights. 

Some messages were from friendly, skeptical people who wanted a response, while others were from really extreme haters who I blocked right away.  

Well, let me tell you something: like in any place around the world, you find good and bad people and, when I travel, I don’t meet with Prime Ministers but I visit places and hang out with humble locals. 

This a very long and controversial topic, so I recommend you read my article:

Is it ethical to travel to Saudi Arabia as a tourist?

Hanging out with local friends in Abha

 

Saudi Arabia travel guide – Tips on how to behave

Heads-up.

Saudi Arabia is the most religious country I have ever been to.

In fact, this is the most religious Muslim country in the world. Everybody knows that. 

Most Saudis follow a branch of Islam named Wahhabism, which is characterized for having the most conservative interpretation of Islam and the law of Saudi Arabia strictly follows it.

This means that their penal code includes some very hardcore punishments such as public beheading or getting flogged. This is their country and we are not here to judge and unless you plan to kill someone, smuggle drugs or have sex in public, you shouldn’t be afraid of traveling to Saudi Arabia as a tourist.

Seriously, it is not even close to what you may think.

Note – Saudis prefer to be called Salafis, instead of Wahabis. In their eyes, Wahabism is a few steps ahead than Salafism when it comes to conservatism, meaning that it is really extreme, a term usually used to designate Islamic terrorists. Whereas Salafists are really, really conservative in nature, it is more socially accepted.  Thank you, Graham, from Inside Other Places for the clarification

can you travel to Saudi Arabia
A man reading the Quran is Jawtha Mosque, the second mosque the prophet Mohammed ever prayed at, in Hofuf, east of Saudi Arabia – Can you visit Saudi Arabia?

Some rules you need to follow when you travel to Saudi Arabia

Women need to wear an abaya – The abaya is a local dress that covers your body (not your head).

Some public spaces are segregated by sex – You will figure it out by yourself but some restaurants or cafés are still composed of two areas: men and family section. Women or men that go with women need to sit in the family section. This kind of segregation is slowly disappearing, especially in Jeddah and Riyadh.

Depending on where you are, during prayer time, you can’t be inside shops or restaurants – To be honest, this rule has become more flexible but, outside of Riyadh and Jeddah, they kicked me out from shops during the prayers and I could not even stand in front but I had to walk away. A very weird rule.

Don’t drink alcohol – Drinking alcohol in Saudi Arabia is not legal, not even in 5-star hotels.

Seriously, stay away from drugs – Drugs may lead to death sentence, so don’t play with them.

No public shows of affection – Same as when you travel to Dubai or Qatar.

Don’t say you are an atheist – Even if you were, say you are a Christian or any major religion in your home country. Being an atheist can be considered as blasphemy and this is a very serious crime in Saudi. Moreover, you came to Saudi to meet people and make local friends, so saying you are an atheist won’t help you at all.

Tourism in Saudi Arabia
The Old City of Riyadh – Saudi Arabia travel tips

Misconceptions about Saudi Arabia – Things you can actually do

Like I said before, in the last couple of years, the laws of Saudi Arabia have become more flexible. Well, this is not entirely right. According to my local Saudi friends, some laws haven’t been changed but the religious Islamic police (mutaween) has lost power, so they aren’t controlling what people do anymore.

Men and women who aren’t family related can hang out together, in public – Some years ago, you couldn’t go to a restaurant or a café with a friend from the opposite sex but now you can do it normally, like in any other country.

Foreign women can travel around the country independently, and alone – I have already lost count of all the women who asked me if they can go there by themselves. Yes, you can travel to Saudi Arabia as a woman, by yourself. Would it be challenging? It would be different from being a man, indeed, but it is definitely legal.

Single foreign women can also visit Saudi on a tourist visa – You can travel to Saudi with your unmarried boyfriend and even if you are single, no problem.

Women don’t need to wear hijab – You don’t need to cover your head but, like I just said, you must cover your body with an abaya. If you travel to Iran, you will see that the clothing rules are even more strict.

Women can drive, including renting a car – From June 2018, women can finally drive and, as a female tourist, you can also rent it.

Men can wear shorts – Nobody will say anything to you.

These are the things I could come up with so far. Do you have any more questions about the law in Saudi? Please, post it in the comments section.

with @nadaalnahdi and @esraarayes – Can I visit Saudi Arabia

 

The people and the culture – The Saudis

Like in many Middle Eastern countries, in Saudi, you find loads of particularly kind people.

Typically, Saudis are so easy to recognize because they wear the thawb, which is the white traditional dress. They also cover their heads with the ghutrah, which can be of different colors but red & white seems to be the most commonly used.

Saudi people
A Saudi man – Can tourists visit Saudi Arabia?

Language – Arabic is the official language. English can be a sometimes problem when you travel in Saudi Arabia, as most people don’t speak it but you will always find someone who does.

Religion – According to the Saudi Government, 100% of the Saudis are Muslim, the large majority being Sunni Wahabbis. There is a large Shia population, as well. Remember that Saudis are very conservative, so try to be respectful and sensitive.

Saudis are extremely hospitable

Before traveling to Saudi Arabia, I knew a lot of people who had been there on a business visa and the truth is that I am extremely disappointed with all of them because they had told me:

  • Saudis are arrogant
  • Saudis are racist to anyone who is not from the Gulf
  • There is nothing to do in Saudi

Seriously, I don’t know where they have been but, from the moment I met the immigration officer who stamped my passport with a big smile while he tried to improve his Spanish, I have just had positive experiences with Saudi people.

Saudi people are extremely hospitable. From endless coffee and meal invitations to random people who insisted on showing me around the city, I seriously met some incredible locals, some of whom I can call now friends.

Honestly, the experience was no different from the blessings of hospitality in Pakistan, Oman or Iran, no kidding. I shared many short moments with so many locals but there were two Saudis in particular who really changed the perspective of my trip.

First, I met Abdullah, an English teacher from Kharj. He picked me up when I was hitchhiking and drove me to a city which was 80km away (and it was not his way). There, we met with one of his friends, we had lunch at his house and then we visited his camel farm. Abdullah taught me many interesting things about Saudi culture, especially their interpretation of Islam.

Do you like extreme destinations? Read: How to travel to Syria

With Abdullah – Can I travel to Saudi Arabia

A few days after, I met Ibrahim, a real Saudi from Abha. We met at the souk of Abha and, after having a chat, he invited me to his famous village named Rajal Alma. We had dinner, stayed at his friend’s house and showed me around on the day after. Ibrahim comes from a very traditional Saudi family (his father was actually a famous Imam from the region) but he married a Filipina girl, something quite unheard of from Saudis with a similar background.

Seriously, don’t trust anyone who has just been to Jeddah or Riyadh for business. First of all, you can’t judge a country by the inhabitants of a several-million people city. And second of all, don’t trust the judgment from someone who has traveled to Saudi Arabia for business because he hasn’t seen much beyond the office, the fancy restaurant, and the hotel.

Saudis are not happy about how the Western media portraits them

Our media doesn’t really do justice to Saudi people, as they portray them as religious fanatics who force women to submit to their Sharia rules.

The reality is miles away from this stereotype.

Like in any country, there are loads of awesome people and, like in any off the beaten track Muslim country, most of them are extra-nice with foreigners.

Saudi women

Most women in Saudi wear the black niqab, which covers the whole face except the eyes.

The reason they wear it is that, according to their interpretation of the Quran, women can’t show their face to any man who isn’t their dad, uncles, grandfathers, sons, and husband, of course.

For years, many pro-feminist groups in Europe have been claiming that the use of niqab is sexist, against the women’s rights and they wear it against their will.

Whereas I fully understand their point, I think that their argument is quite simplistic and it just lets you see one tiny side of the whole picture.

Please note that I am not trying to justify the use of the niqab but I just wanted you to know that many Saudi women actually choose to wear it. Really. They choose to wear it because they think that this is the right thing to do because the Quran says so. They believe they need to wear it as much as men believe it.

Obviously, there will be many cases of liberal Saudi women who will tell you a different story but I am just talking in generic terms.

My point is that this topic is way more complicated than we think and, as tourists, we shouldn’t be talking or trying to change it because you are traveling to Saudi Arabia to learn about their culture and visit beautiful places.

How to deal with women in Saudi – Now that every day you see more and more women working in public spaces, you are likely to talk to quite a few Saudi women who wear the niqab.

If you are a man, don’t try to shake hands and keep a reasonable distance with them but you can talk to them freely and you will see that they are as lovely women like any other. If you are a foreign woman, they will definitely be extra nice to you and, if you are on the countryside, expect them to invite you to their house.

When I visited Al-Jawf, 1,000km north of Riyadh, I went there to work on an assignment for a local company and I was very lucky to be received by two super nice ladies wearing niqab. I spent the whole day with them. They showed me around their province, we went to have some coffee and I even went to their house where they fed me until I exploded. They were as hospitable as any Muslim man I had met before and the only difference is that I didn’t see their faces. It was an enriching experience.

Chilling with a Saudi woman in Al-Jawf – How to travel to Saudi Arabia?

 

Saudis are multi-ethnic

For centuries, Muslims from all over the world came to Saudi on their journey to Mecca and, at some point, decided to settle there.

Over time, they became Saudi citizens and that is why, today, you find Saudis from all types of ethnicities. From Bedouin to East-African-looking people and even the cultural-Yemeni-like people from the south of the country, in Jizan, Saudi is the most multi-ethnic Arab country.

For me, this was one of the most surprising things about the country.

how to visit Saudi Arabia
A Yemeni-like Saudi man from Jizan – Traveling to Saudi Arabia what to know

 

Food when visiting Saudi Arabia

The food was another extremely surprising thing about traveling in Saudi.

Before visiting Saudi, I was traveling in Oman for 1 month. In Oman, I felt that, after day 2, I had already tasted all the local food, which was always simplified to different variations of rice with meat, chicken or fish. Then, I tasted one or two different local dishes in some houses and the rest was all Indian food.

Saudi, however, is a different story. Since it borders with so many Arabic countries, its huge dimensions with many different geographical areas and its multi-ethnic population, the food in Saudi Arabia is a real blend of all the Arabic food you can think of.

From the Yemeni food-like dishes from the south to the olive oil-rich food from the north of the country, Levantine Arabic dishes such as vine leaves and makluba, foul and hummus for breakfast and, of course, the classic Gulf food that includes all sorts of rice with meat, the cuisine of Saudi Arabia also shows the cultural richness of the country.

By the way, traditionally, Saudis eat on the floor and use their right hand to eat. Eating like them is a sign of respect but if you are struggling, you can always help yourself with a spoon.

food in Saudi Arabia
 – This is mandi, which is originally from Yemen – Travel tips for Saudi Arabia

 

Solo female travel in Saudi

Since I left Saudi Arabia, I have been bombed with tens of questions from many women who are skeptical about traveling to Saudi.

Sure, Saudi is an extremely patriarchal country, so this kind of reaction is perfectly understandable. However, let me tell you that, as a woman, Saudi Arabia is much safer than you could ever think.

I am perfectly aware that, since I am not a woman, my opinion doesn’t really count here but, luckily, during my journey, I met Nada al Nahdi, a Yemeni / Indonesian girl who was born in Saudi, so she knows the people and culture very well and has traveled around the country extensively.

Nada wrote an article about this topic on my site, so if you want to know more, read:

9 misconceptions about traveling to Saudi Arabia as a woman.

Nada trekking in Saudi Arabia

 

Is it safe to travel to Saudi Arabia?

From a crime perspective, Saudi Arabia is just another very safe place to visit in the Middle East. I mean, you should always be aware of your belongings but pickpocketing or being robbed is quite unheard of.

As per terrorism threat, I will not deny the fact that there have been some one-off terrorist attacks but even UK travel advice says that, except for the areas close to the Yemeni border, all Saudi Arabia is safe to visit. 

However, I also went to Jizan, the region bordering Yemen and everything was extra peaceful. The war is happening on the other side of the border, not in Saudi.

In my opinion, the only actual threat when traveling in Saudi Arabia are the extremely crazy drivers. Seriously, after all my years of travels, I can now confirm that Saudi people are the most insane people on wheels.

For a more detailed analysis, read this article from Joao Leitao: Is Saudi Arabia a safe country to travel?

Hanging out with some Saudis – Photo by @joaoleitaoviagens – Travel tips to Saudi Arabia

 

Money in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Rial is the official currency – And, in January 2019, 1USD = 3,75SR

Exchanging money – Euros, United States dollars or British Pounds are widely accepted. You can even exchange Indian and Pakistani rupees and other Asian currencies, as there is a large Asian population living in Saudi. Of course, the currencies from other Gulf countries, such as Omani Rials or UAE Dirhams are also accepted.

ATM and credit cards – ATMs are available pretty much everywhere and credit cards are accepted in most modern cafés, restaurants, and hotels. However, bring always some extra cash, as the Indian-run cafés and other more local places don’t accept cards.

Cost of travel to Saudi Arabia – These are the prices of the most typical things:

  • Budget Hotel – Double room from 100 to 150SR (26 to 40USD)
  • Breakfast in Indian-run café – 5 to 10SR (1.30 to 2.60USD)
  • Breakfast in local Saudi eatery – 10 to 15SR (2.60 to 4USD)
  • Lunch in Indian-run restaurant – 10 to 15SR (2.60 to 4USD)
  • Lunch in local Saudi eatery – 15 to 20SR (4USD to 5.30USD)
  • Lunch in mid-range restaurant – From 30-35SR (8-9USD)
  • Short taxi ride in Riyadh – 15 to 25SR (4 to 6.60USD)

 

Moving around when traveling in Saudi Arabia

Something you need to know: Saudi Arabia is the least walking-friendly place I have ever been to. That being said, here is what you need to know regarding moving around the Kingdom:

Moving inside cities – Public transportation in Saudi cities is awful and, except in some parts of Jeddah, you must drive with your own car or by taxi. You can’t seriously walk. If you aren’t self-driving, I recommend you download Uber or Careem, so you won’t have to deal with negotiating a price with a taxi.

Domestic flights – Another problem of Saudi Arabia is that distances are ridiculously huge and the nice places to visit in Saudi are scattered all around the country. For example, Al-Ula is nearly 1,000km north of Jeddah and Jizan is another 1,000 south of Jeddah. If you are short of time, a very good alternative is taking domestic flights.

I recommend you check on Saudia Airlines, as they have the largest number of domestic connections in the country. Actually, the most effective way to travel in Saudi Arabia would be taking a domestic flight and then renting a car in the destination itself.

Rent a car – In order to enjoy the country, renting a car is crucial. Gas is cheap, so are the daily rental rates. However, all companies offer limited daily mileage, around 250-300km a day I think, so if you drive to faraway places like Al-Ula or Jizan, you may end up paying quite a lot. By the way, most rental companies won’t rent you a car if you don’t have an international driving license, so remember to convert it before leaving your country.

I strongly recommend you look for the best deals on Rental Car, a search engine that shows you the best available options in each country and city.

CLICK HERE TO FIND THE BEST CAR RENTAL DEALS IN SAUDI ARABIA

Buses – You can also move by bus between cities. They are very cheap but the problem is that you will have to rely on taxis once you get to any destination. There is not a single city in Saudi which is walking friendly.

You check all bus schedules and buy tickets on this website.

Hitchhiking – As crazy as it may sound, I hitchhiked across Saudi Arabia. I actually hitchhiked from Riyadh to Jizan, 1,300km. I had some really good experiences but, at the same time, I had not so good experiences. On the one hand, it is relatively easy to get a ride and, normally, Saudis will be extremely helpful and, if you are lucky, they will invite you to their house.

On the other hand, most places in Saudi are connected with highways where people drive extremely fast and, sometimes, they overtake cars by the shoulder of the road, which is extremely dangerous if you are waiting there. Moreover, many Saudis are crazy drivers, more than in any other country I have been to. On one occasion, I refused to continue with a man because I was seriously afraid of dying. When I finally reached Jizan, I decided not to hitchhike anymore. It was too intense.

Hitchhiking in Saudi Arabia
We had some issues when hitchhiking with these guys – Can I travel to Saudi Arabia alone

 

Internet and SIM Card

Wi-Fi – It works pretty well all across the country, including in the budget hotels. You won’t find Wi-Fi in the cheap cafés but most malls or Western-Style cafés have public Wi-Fi.

SIM Card and 3G – I got ZAIN which, according to locals, has the worst network but it was the only company I found which you could buy just 1 or 2GB. Mobily is the most popular one but they asked me to buy 10GB, at least, which was around 150SR (40USD). With ZAIN, I think I just paid around 30SR for the SIM Card plus 1GB worth of data.

 

Accommodation

In Saudi Arabia, accommodation is quite expensive, especially for solo travelers.

Airbnb – The cheapest option would be finding a room on Airbnb and remember that, if you create an account through my link, you will get up to 35€ of FREE credit on your next booking. 

SIGN UP THROUGH THIS LINK TO GET YOUR 35€ OF FREE CREDIT

Hotels – Prices start at 25-30USD but, on the bright side, budget hotels are usually apartment-hotels with a kitchen and, for just a few more USD, you could have a 3 or 4-bedroom apartment, so if you are a family or travel with more people they are a great value for money.

You can find hotels all over the country. If you have a larger budget, all cities are filled with good accommodation options, especially in Jeddah and Riyadh, where you can find the most luxurious hotels.

If you are self-driving for long distances, most small towns you pass by will also have budget apartment-hotels which are always clean, at least in my experience.

You can find plenty of hotels in Booking.com

CLICK HERE TO FIND THE BEST HOTELS DEALS ON BOOKING.COM

can tourists visit Saudi Arabia
Falconry is also a very big deal in Saudi – Travel Guide to Saud Arabia

 

More information for traveling to Saudi

When to travel to Saudi – Winter is, definitely, the best time. Avoid summer, late spring and early autumn, as during day time, temperatures average 40-45ºC.

Weekend falls on Friday and Saturday – This is not different than many Muslim countries.

On Friday, everything is closed until Asr prayer, which is around 4 or 5pm – Not everything will be closed but some restaurants may open in the morning. However, at noon, during Dhuhr prayer, absolutely everything is closed.

Eat with your right hand, always – This is a generic Muslim rule but in Saudi is particularly strict. If you are sharing a meal with more traditional people, try to always eat with your right hand. I am actually left-handed and sometimes I forget about it and Saudi has been the only place where the locals got a bit upset when they saw me eating with my left hand.

Don’t travel to Saudi during the holy month of Ramadan – During Ramadan, the law is really extreme in Saudi, so all business will be closed during day time.

All my travel guides to Saudi Arabia

Places to visit in Saudi Arabia – 2-week itinerary
9 Misconceptions about solo female travel in Saudi
How to visit Riyadh in 3 days
Is it ethical to visit Saudi as a tourist?

And here you can find all my articles and guides to the Middle East

 

Traveling to Saudi Arabia

 

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51 comments

  1. Very nice article. I love the way you describe everything to know before going to saudi arabia. It was a pleasure to meet you again and hang out with you for a couple of days. After Iran we met in Saudi… Morocco next meeting. I’m also going to publish an article about Saudi Arabia soon. Big hug all the way from Ouarzazate.

  2. Great introduction thanks, hope I can go in the not too distant future.
    You should appreciate that no Muslim would refer to themselves as a Wahabi as it is an insulting term, albeit deserving for some more extreme believers. Saudis who follow the state approved version of Islam will probably call themselves Salafis, although this term can have a broader meaning elsewhere it is always conservative in nature.

    1. Hey Graham, for some reason I had missed this comment. Thank you for the clarification. I have added a note in the respective section with a link to your blog

  3. Saudi is up for big change. And it is going to be a positive change. It is slowly opening its door for the outside world for them to know more about saudi arabia and its rich cultural heritage and religion. The vision 2030 will have the world see a modern, welcoming, more hospitable and economically stronger Saudi Arabia. I have been living in this country for well over 10 years and I can attest with certainty that this is one of the most family friendly countries in the world. Everything in moderation and the laid back lifestyle will have you a lot of time to contemplate what really matters to you. You will always have a lot of “me time” since there aren’t too much of distraction around. The country is quiet, slow paced, and friendly. Recently, women are able to drive, cafes can have live performances in the form of bands or theatre. Men and women can now congregate in public. Cross my finger, in a few years time we will be seeing hundreds of thousands of tourists to experience Saudi Arabia…and we will be glad to welcome you all. By the way I am a filipino expat in this country.

  4. Hola,
    Me ha encantado tu artículo, explicas muchísimos detalles interesantes y creo que es un sitio grandioso para visitar. Me encantaría si pudiese ser que nos pongamos en contacto ya que quisiera preguntarte alguna cosa más vía mail.

  5. Thank you so much for this … look forward to visit8ng next year after Mada’in Saleh opens up to visitors.

  6. One of my biggest issues as a female living for two years now in Saudi Arabia is that it is practically impossible as a western woman to go outside alone. Men will come up to you and see you as a free ticket to sex. It even happened that a complete stranger started kissing me. Saudi Arabia is not as bad as the media is saying, but please if you’re a woman still be on your guard and do not go outside alone. If you’re accompanied by a male nobody will come talk to you, at most you’ll have people stating at you for being different.

  7. Hi Joan. You’re really giving us the useful info. Thanks a lot.
    I just wondering if you’re still keeping updated about that e-visa. Is it still available? And does this visa have limit country? Thank you.

    1. Hi Jina, yes, the post contains the latest traveling information. Unfortunately, they stopped issuing visas… Perhaps, they will renew the process in winter

  8. Thank you for the tips. You may need to update the part of the post about men wearing shorts, because that’s now illegal in public (unless you’re at a pool or a gym) pursuant to a new public decency law and you could get fined for it. You might have some leeway if you’re a white foreigner, though.

    So it’s mostly walking the streets and malls and shops and stuff where you’re not allowed ot wear shorts. But it may target Saudi men more than anyone else.

      1. On this particular issue they are going backwards unfortunately. I thought I included a link to the news, but I don’t know if it got posted with my previous post and I’ll try it again. If it doesn’t work, you can just Google “Saudi Arabia shorts stepfeed” and check the news on Stepfeed’s website. Either way, I’d hate for a would-be tourist to read your post and think it’s all right to wear shorts only to go there and get fined the equivalent of $1,500.

        1. It’s disappointing to read people from other cultures with other worldviews speak of different dress codes as “going backwards.” Even if it’s a Western value that more dress code freedom is “moving forward,” speaking about this kind of value as if it were a moral fact others are obliged to recognize is very often counterproductive. Different countries, different perspectives, different rules.

          Thanks to Joan for an otherwise fun, informative article.

          1. thanks for your comment. However, going backwards refers to the fact that they force you wearing certain clothes. If they forced you wearing a bikini at the office, it would also be going backwards. Not being free to choose whether wether shorts or not is dictatorial

          2. Joan, thanks for being polite in your reply. I respectfully disagree. There are all sorts of opportunity costs to apparently free choices. That a culture considers some effects of freedom acceptable is no reliable litmus for what is “forward,” only what’s acceptable to most in the culture. Every government forces citizens to do many things. It’s an arbitrary decision that some freedoms (like the freedom to verbally bully people online or to operate grisly slaughterhouses) are “forward” while the prohibition of others (like wearing shorts in schools or in public) is “backwards.”

            I respect you have your own perspective. We’ll just have to respectfully disagree. Cheers.

          3. Joan, I appreciate a fair exchange. 🙂 The comparison between the prerogative to wear shorts and the prerogative to bully people online is valid because both the judgment of either as right or wrong is rooted in changing cultural values. In the US, the cultural perception of freedom of speech takes priority over the documented harms of verbal (and online) bullying. Other countries limit harmful speech freedoms, something many US citizens find unforgivable. Very different Western cultural responses to the question of permissible freedom.

            While many Westerners don’t see any problem with people wearing whatever they want, other cultures don’t agree. All that says is that a majority of people in a culture feel some way. There’s nothing objective to validate claims of moving forward or backward. I’m not trying to be argumentative. I agree with what you wrote above in your blog, “This is their country and we are not here to judge.” So I was disappointed to read the judgment of the Saudi culture as (moving) “backwards” because it has different dress code rules than our cultures do.

            Thanks for the polite exchange and the fun read on Saudi Arabia.

          4. Courtney Russell

            I completely agree with what you said — we should not refer to this change as moving backwards, and the point you made about online bullying was spot-on! Saudi Arabia has a different culture than the Western world and it sounds like they’ve been changing a lot of their rules to make it more liberal lately. Asking people to cover up is not harming anyone, it is just asking that people remain respectful of their culture and the prevailing religion there. I think that as Westerners, we should understand that they want to protect their culture as they begin allowing tourists into their country, and this is a very reasonable law in the grand scheme of things.

  9. can i go to Saudi Arabia with a business visa in july? i was told i may not be allowed in during the period of hajj. i need answer to make some business decisions. thanks

  10. It’s disappointing to read people from other cultures with other worldviews speak of different dress codes as “going backwards.” Even if it’s a Western value that more dress code freedom is “moving forward,” speaking about this kind of value as if it were a moral fact others are obliged to recognize is very often counterproductive. Different countries, different perspectives, different rules.

    Thanks to Joan for an otherwise fun, informative article.

  11. Emebet Tesgera

    I know Saudi arabia is very nice cantry I was there for about 5 years. in Riyadh. but the problem is I can not go back to Saudi. I ask the Embassy of Saudi arabia here in Addis Ababa but the Answer is No They say to me if you have family only you can visit they say to me.

  12. Hopefully this doesn’t sound like a silly question, but it is a concern for me. I have travelled to the UAE and to Lebanon, with no issues, other than lots of stares, but I pretty covered in tattoos. Full sleeves on both arms, chest is completely covered and am working on both legs. I have the utmost respect for the culture and faith of Muslim people. I’m assuming that I’d be expected to be covered while there? I would happily wear a thawb or kandoora but I hope it would not be seen as mockery. I’ve worn a kandoora when visiting mosques. Help!!!

    1. Hey Todd, are you asking whether wearing tattoos are illegal or not in KSA? From a legal point of view, I doubt you need to be covered but yeah, if you do, you will definitely avoid continuous stares.

  13. Hola Joan! Thank you for this amazing post. I am planning a trip to Delhi and I found many well-priced tickets with a loooong layover in either Jeddah or Riyadh. Any comments or suggestions about the airports? Same dress code applies inside the airport or covering my head would suffice? Thanks a lot 🙂

  14. There are still no tourist visas available for non-religious travel. There were temporary visas issued corresponding to specific events for which they wanted to attract foreigners. Good luck traveling with an unrelated member of the opposite sex!

    The issue here is that Vision 2030 and all of their current projects are taking place while there is a law that allows the government to declare just about anything a threat to its existence and allows them to whisk you off the street and keep for as long as they want.

    Do not be fooled by the work of countless foreign consulting firms. Women are in jail being sexually abused. Other people have simply disappeared since 2015. Saudi Arabia has not just suddenly transformed, no matter what the under-informed believe.

  15. Good news: e-visa for Saudi Arabia is finally available. The system still has a few bugs and I was not able to apply, but they just launched a few days ago, so we will have to wait.

    I have updated the article accordingly. Your experiences are very welcome 🙂

  16. Hi.
    Do you know if it’s OK to travel with your own car?
    If so, can you go in from one country and then out to another country?

  17. Backpackerfolife

    Do you know whether you’ll be denied entry if, like Lebanon, one has an Israeli stamp/visa in your passport? I’m an American but live in Israel.

    1. In the past for sure (even though they could be kind of flexible with resident expats). Now, with the tourism boom that the country will suffer, let’s see how it goes

    2. In the past for sure (even though they were be kind of flexible with resident expats). Now, with the tourism boom that the country will suffer, let’s see how it goes. I am not certainly sure

  18. Juan.. Greetings. Travellinandi from Sudan and Iraq.

    So I got my visa….yeah…note to appliers that when you load your foto, it doesn’t show up til the end!! And when you do your bday, after clicking a few hundred times, hold the status bar and a decade year range will show up..

    Question.. How much time does one need I. SAYDI.. Jeddah, AL ulra, abha and mountains.. .. As a budget backpacker, seems a bit expensive to hang around.. I have researched internal flights and C-Surfing is possible…. Any sites for 4*4 rental….cheaper to book in country r out of country.. Is a 4*4 needed to go into AL ulra…

    1. Hey Andi!

      Yeah, Saudi is expensive indeed, but there are ways to get around. Couchsurfing in Jeddah and Riyadh is really easy, and I assume in other big cities as well but I couldn’t find a couch in Jizan and Abha.

      Distances are huge. For example, Jeddah to Jizan via Abha is around 900km and if you want to go to Al-Ula, then you have to go back to Jeddah and Al-Ula is another 670km (one way). I hitchhiked from Riyadh to Jizan. Hitchhiking to get out of Riyadh was tough but then it was so easy. It took me 3 days to get to Jizan (1100km)

      Also bear in mind that cities in Saudi are like in Dubai or Oman. Not walking friendly at all, meaning that once you reach the city, you will have to hitchhike again, or take a taxi, but the locals are generally helpful.

      A 4×4 is not needed but the problem with car rental is that you are only allowed to drive X km a day, and then they charge you per km, so doing a loop around the country can turn expensive. I think it would be cheaper if you take a flight to Abha and you rent the car at the airport and explore the Abha & Jizan for a few days. Same with Al Ula.

      How many days you need, maybe 3 days in Jeddah, 3 days Abha & Jizan, 2 days in Al Ula + traveling time. Did you check my itinerary? https://againstthecompass.com/en/places-visit-saudi-arabia-itinerary/

      Anything you need, let me know!

  19. Hi! Thanks for all this. When we apply for the VISA, do we have to tell them where we are going to sleep or can we couchsurf ior choose a place as soon as we arrive? Thanks!

  20. Hi, we are Belgian citizens and got our visa very easy online through http://www.visitsaudi.com
    We fly return with Pegasus from Brussels, Istanbul to Kuwait for 250 euro. For Kuwait we got a single visa only, I called their embassy in Brussels and they told us that we can cross land border in either direction and we can apply our second Kuwait visa at the border coming back from KSA. Hope this was useful. We fly soon.

  21. I was totally unaware that Saudi Arabia has so much To offer the adventure crazy traveler. However for acquiring a visa, the procedure seems fairly easy. Hope to visit in 2020.

  22. Hola Joan. He leído que obtuviste una sim Card en KSA. Yo estoy ahora por aquí y se niegan a servirmela porque dicen que necesitan mi huella dactilar, la cual no figura en el pasaporte. Me pregunto como la obtuviste

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