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 visit 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.
Tips and how to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2019
Here you will find:
Getting to Saudi
Tourism in Saudi Arabia
How to behave in Saudi Arabia
The people – The Saudis
Solo female travel in Saudi
Safety in Saudi
Moving around Saudi
Internet and SIM Card
Visa for visiting Saudi Arabia
(By the way, solo female travelers can also apply for the same type of visa)
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.
This was just a one-time event, but other events will come soon.
The problem is that there is no specific website to check when these events will take place, plus visa rules and prices can change drastically, depending on who is organizing it.
So far, these are the current official websites from where you can get a visa for traveling to Saudi:
Sharek – It held the Formula-E event and now they are organizing an Italian Football Cup which will take place on Jan 16th. This event is under the General Sports Authority and, typically, all the visas they issue should be electronic and have 30 days validity. For more information and buying the tickets, visit their website.
Winter at Tantora – From December 20th till February 9th, there is a cultural event taking place in Al-Ula, one of the top touristic attractions in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the tickets are much more expensive than the Formula-E or the Italian Football Cup plus they don’t issue e-visas but you will have to get it through the embassy. This is organized by the Saudi Arabia Tourism Board and the visa you need to pick up at the Embassy or Consulate takes 3 working days to process and it is valid for only 1 week. Yes, compared to Sharek visas, this process seems very inconvenient but the problem is that Al-Ula and Madinah Saleh, which is like a replica of Petra, are currently closed to regular visitors, so if you want to visit the most impressive site of Saudi Arabia, you will have to buy this ticket.
Saudi International – You can also get a valid visa for visiting Saudi Arabia by purchasing a ticket for a Golf Tournament that will take place from January 31st to February 3rd. Nevertheless, you can’t buy the tickets yet and the website keeps on saying that More information is coming soon.
On the other hand, there is the rumor that the Government will start issuing actual e-visas sometime in 2019. Apparently, the event-related visas are just to test the introduction of this new visa system. But again, these are just rumors.
As you can see, the visa rules are, somehow, very chaotic but, thanks to my local contacts, I will try to keep this article updated as soon as I get more news.
Travel Insurance for Saudi Arabia
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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.
Tourism in Saudi Arabia
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.
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.
Saudi Arabia travel guide – Tips on how to behave
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
Food when traveling in 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.
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: 8 misconceptions about traveling to Saudi Arabia as a woman.
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?
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.
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.
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.
In Saudi Arabia, accommodation is quite expensive, especially for solo travelers.
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
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.