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Once one of the most difficult countries to visit, Saudi Arabia is finally issuing visas for tourism purposes and independent travel.
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.
Despite everything that you may have read in the media, Saudi Arabia is an incredible country. There is just so much to do and see, a country 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 Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
I strongly believe that this is the most underrated country on this planet, and here I have compiled a comprehensive travel guide to Saudi Arabia packed with tips and everything you need to know to travel to the Kingdom.
Table of Contents
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COVID-19 travel requirements for visiting Saudi Arabia were lifted.
For visiting Saudi, you can either apply for an e-visa or get a visa on arrival.
All EU countries + Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Montenegro, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Ukraine and the United States,
You can easily apply for it through visitsaudi.com
This is what the tourist visa for Saudi looks like.
Just follow the steps, and you will be on the way.
The total visa price is 535 Saudi Rials, which is around 142 US Dollars.
From that amount, 180 Saudi Rials refer to the Saudi travel insurance, a COVID-related requirement.
The visa allows you to stay in Saudi for 90 days, and it has a 1-year validity from the issuance date.
It’s also valid for multiple entries.
This means that, within a year, you travel to Saudi as many times as you want with the same visa, as long as your stay doesn’t exceed more than 90 days.
In 2023, they also introduced a VOA regime, valid for any entry port into Saudi Arabia.
The VOA on arrival costs 300 Saudi Rials, but they also make you buy travel insurance, which costs an additional 180 Saudi Rials.
The total cost is 480 SR, cheaper than the e-visa.
As of today, nobody understands why should someone go through the hassle of applying for an e-visa, when the VOA costs 55 SR less.
Yes, they certainly can, no restrictions for being a female.
Actually, yes, they can.
A fellow traveler with an Argentinian passport told me that she applied at the embassy in Buenos Aires and managed to get her visa in only 1 week.
She had to present things like a payslip, vaccines, return flight ticket, and things like that.
Also, travelers with valid US and Schengen visas – and that includes Indian and Pakistani citizens – can also get a visa for Saudi on arrival.
Don’t forget to read my 2-week itinerary in Saudi Arabia.
My friends Sian & Bob have recently published a full guidebook to Saudi Arabia, containing loads of actionable advice and a great overview of each one of their regions. A great introduction to the country, this must be the only available travel guide to Saudi Arabia!
In Saudi Arabia the Health Care System is private and crazy expensive, so do get proper travel insurance. I strongly recommend IATI Insurance because:
The best time to visit Saudi Arabia is during the cooler months, from November to February.
March, April and October could be bearable but outside this ”winter season”, the country could be too hot to enjoy.
By the way, note that the north of Saudi Arabia can be extremely cold in winter, with temperatures below 0ºC in transited regions such as Al-Ula and Tabouk.
Mada’in Saleh is an archaeological complex composed of hundreds of tombs carved out from rocks and scattered across the desert. Mada’in Saleh was founded by the Nabateans, the same civilization that built Petra.
The city of Medina had remained off-limits to non-Muslims for decades but from 2022, Western tourists are allowed to visit the city, as long as you stay just at the entrance of the Holy Mosque, the place where Prophet Mohammed is buried.
Fayfa is a southern region bordering Yemen that historically, had been part of Yemen, so several aspects of their culture – including the way they dress and their cuisine – have remained.
Tabouk is a northern region bordering Jordan home to incredible wadis, rock formations, deserts and Bedouins.
Everybody knows about the beauty of the Red Sea, the reason why Egypt has become a prime diving destination. However, few people know that the same coral reefs can also be found along the Saudi Arabia coast, and I particularly like the area between Yanbu and Umluj.
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, while other airlines like Pegasus or Emirates fly there via Istanbul and Dubai, respectively,
As long as you have a valid visa for traveling to Saudi, getting in to the country by land is totally doable.
Saudi Arabia shares a border with:
As you may imagine, tourism in Saudi Arabia is in a very embryonic stage.
Random Saudi: Where are you from?
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.
This was back in 2019, when I visited the southern part of the country. When I came back in 2022, the country had massively changed, so I didn’t really experience any of the above conversations, but that’s partly because I explored the northern part, which is far more developed and receives more international visitors.
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. Here you can check my complete Saudi itinerary.
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 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 is a very long and controversial topic, so I recommend you read my article:
Something you should know is that, in Saudi, the internet is censored.
This means that some websites might be blocked and inaccessible for regular internet users.
Moreover, because of this censorship and, since there is no freedom of speech, the Government reserves the right to monitor your internet activity.
Therefore, if you want to access blocked sites and navigate anonymously, you will need something called a VPN (Virtual Private Network).
There are several VPNs in the market but the one I personally use and recommend is ExpressVPN, the fastest and the one that works best for Saudi.
If you have no clue about VPNs, read my tutorial: What is it and how to find the right VPN for Saudi Arabia
Get unrestricted access with the fastest VPN for Saudi Arabia country.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Like in many countries in the Middle East, 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.
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.
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.
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:
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 that 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since I left Saudi Arabia, I have been bombed with tons 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:
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?
The Saudi Rial is the official currency and:
1 USD = 3.75 SAR
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.
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.
These are the prices of the most typical things:
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:
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.
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.
For cheaper flights, check Flyadeal.
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.
Road tripping around Saudi Arabia is the best way to enjoy the country, and I strongly recommend you do that.
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, it can get expensive for solo travelers.
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.
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.
As crazy as it may sound, I hitchhiked all 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.
Basically, an eSIM is a regular SIM card with a digital format that works like a normal physical SIM card, with the added benefit that you can buy it from home before the beginning of your trip, hence avoiding the hassle of buying it at your destination.
Moreover, you can benefit from a 5% discount with the following code: AGAINSTTHECOMPASS
Saudi is a modern country, with pretty good Wi-Fi in most places.
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.
Remember that, in Saudi, the internet is censored and, if you want to access blocked sites, you will need a VPN.
Read: How to find the right VPN for Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, there is plenty of accommodation options.
Typically, budget hotels will be apartment-style hotels, which tend to be a very good value-for-money option when you are two people or more.
In Jeddah and Riyadh, good but basic apartment-style hotel will start at 50-60USD a night, approximately, while in smaller towns, you can find for 30USD.
Like in any Gulf country, luxury hotels abound in Saudi, especially in big cities.
📢 In my Travel Resources Page you can find the list of all the sites and services I use to book hotels, tours, travel insurance and more.