Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Expats Guide: Flying To Saudi

Many expats find themselves worrying about their arrival to the Kingdom. The first flight into Saudi-Arabia and the initial shock experienced at the airports can be eased a bit by this simple guide!

When boarding the plane at the country of origin, the passenger should have his/her entry visa at hand. The dates on the visa are in Arabic letters and they've used the Hijri calendar. Sometimes the airport personnel will not be familiar with either Arabic letters or Hijri calender. To avoid frustration among yourself and other passengers, it's a good idea to find out beforehand where the dates are located and what it correlates to in the Gregorian calender.

Remember not to check in any of the forbidden items. A complete list of prohibited items here: http://saudi-arabia.shipping-international.com/customs/
The list seems very strict but with common sense and making sure you don't have anything offensive (who would bring firearms to Saudi anyways) you will be fine.
Most importantly and what the National Guard officers on arrival will be searching foreigners for are alcohol and products containing alcohol (watch out for liquor in chocolates and vanilla extract), alcohol manufacturing devices, porn of any kind, (bare in mind the Saudi officer's idea of porn might be Puss in Boots or your collection of Entourage DVDs which he might confiscate) pork products, gambling stuff and some religious items.

Contrary to common beliefs, it's perfectly fine for first time arrivals to bring in a Bible for their private use but it's not allowed to bring in many copies. They will suspect you are going to start proselytizing. People do bring in small Christmas trees and other such items but don't attempt to do it the first time you arrive. All personal medications that fall under the narcotics category should have a doctor's prescription to go with them.

A strange question I often get: Am I allowed to bring in stuffed animals (as in teddy bears and bunnies) to Saudi-Arabia? Answer pure and simple is: OF COURSE! They are not banned in KSA and I have no clue where the rumor has started that KSA has banned stuffed animals! Stores like Toys R Us are full of them so you might not want to bring other than your child's favorite ones.

If you're a diver I would recommend packing your diving equipment all in one bag and easily reachable because most likely this will catch the eye of the customs officers (apparently it looks like alcohol manufacturing equipment to them). It would also be a good idea to pack your CD's, DVD's and computer in the same place, these will most likely be searched if you're a male expat. Any items deemed unsuitable will be confiscated, to be ahem checked out and then of course destroyed by the officers!

Arrival Dress Code
This concerns mainly expat women. For the guys modest dress as in long trousers and no sleeveless T-shirts is fine, shorts would not be recommended on arrival, although you can use them once in the country.
Women often worry about the abaya and head scarves. There is actually no need to worry too much about it. There is no problem arriving at the airport without abaya as long as the woman is dressed modestly in long sleeved pants or a skirt teamed with a loose fitting shirt and maybe a coat on top if arriving in the winter. I've seen plenty of female expats arrive at Riyadh International without abaya and some were even dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Whatever you dress in be prepared to be stared at by men of all nationalities upon arrival, especially if you're a western female because you stand out and will always attract attention.
Boarding the plane for the last length of the flight to Saudi always takes a bit longer because they recheck for the entry visas and passports when entering the flight. The staff want to make sure nobody gets on the flight without a valid visa because they will be fined if they slip. Personally I've had problems with my multiple exit re-entry visas at this stage again for the same reasons that personnel are not trained to check the dates.

You might get your first taste of gender segregation and queue jumping culture while boarding the aircraft. If you're a guy a Saudi woman most likely will want to change her seat next to a female. No need to get insulted by this, she will just feel more comfortable next to a woman. More rarely it works the other way around. Seat allocation just might take longer until everyone is comfortable.

 Don't fret if you see the pilots praying next to the plane. They're not praying out of fear the plane will crash, just doing their daily prayers.
On Board
If you're flying Saudia there will be some extra interesting things going on. Kind of like watching an action movie! Check here to read more about them: http://imagesofsaudi.blogspot.com/2012/01/only-on-saudia.html

None of the flights coming into Saudi serve alcohol or pork. Some of the airlines will have a travel prayer announced before the flight takes off.
At some point the stewardess will give you an entry card which looks like this:

The first time they handed me this I was confused should I fill it in or not. I did and nobody ever asked for it. I insisted giving it to the passport officer as well as the customs officer but they just gave me a blank stare and threw it in the trash. None of my relatives or friends who were given this were ever asked for it either so its purpose remains a mystery.

If you were sitting next to a Saudi woman on the plane at some point don't be surprised when she comes back from her toilet trip fully transformed into Saudi gear meaning abaya and niqab. When exiting the plane you will wonder where all the women's faces suddenly disappeared!

When the plane lands be prepared for a scene from the Amazing Race:
Many of us have been on a plane and seen how strongly the flight attendants (especially the Europeans) react to people even daring to open their seat belts before the plane has come to complete stop, let alone standing up or God forbid opening the holy overhead compartments! The flight attendants would go berserk! That  person might even get arrested for such an offense of aviation rules and regulations.
But check out how the Saudis get away with it in this clip taken about 5 seconds after the plane has landed on Saudi soil while it's still moving along quite swiftly:

So in other words, get used to it. Some Saudis are so very important people and have such important things to do, they really DO need to get up the SECOND the plane lands to scramble to get their overhead luggage and be the first ones to stand in the aisles ready to barge out of the plane like it's the amazing race. You might see the poor flight attendants desperately trying to talk/shout/threaten them to no avail. It's of utmost importance to be able to be the first one out of the aircraft because this might save the person about 15-30 seconds of their precious time. And if anyone wants to take this as an insult instead of a sarcastic joke, be my guest :)

Arrival and Passport control
This might be the most daunting part of your trip. When you arrive at the Riyadh King Khaled International (KKIA) airport and make your way downstairs to the passport check lines you will encounter a taste of the Saudi way of doing things. If you're lucky there will not be long queues as can be seen here:
 There will be much confusion at this point. The only people who will seem to have a clue where to go are the Saudis that have all already rushed to their own queue on the far right labelled GCC. The signs seen above stating "first time arrivals" and "arrivals with multiple exit re- entry visa" have no significance whatsoever. Choose any line, preferably the shortest one. If it's the wrong one they will change you to the correct line. In general people will be directed in the lines according to nationality. As can be seen here:
All Afghanis in one line, Pakistanis in another. Looks like they've been waiting for few days. Might even be the case. If you're a western woman, they will all stare at you which might be very intimidating for first time arrivals. Better get used to this. Another common sight is to see a line full of Indonesian or Filipino women coming in as maids. They will also be sitting on the floors and be dressed in normal clothing, often looking rather fearful. It's a sad fact that your nationality determines how long you will wait and also how you will be treated at the airport.

Saudis naturally get out the fastest. They don't have visa issues and the process is fast but some use tactics such as jumping the queue in front of all the other lines. If this happens to you despite the hour long wait there's nothing you can do about it. Second luckiest are westerners. Especially women travelling alone. 90% of the time they will be picked out from the back of the lines by the Saudi officers and showed directly to the front. Men are not that lucky usually.
Next come the other Arab nationalities, sometimes families are allowed to cut in front of all those hundreds of immigrant workers. Basically anyone can cut in front of them with absolutely no consequences.

This is the law of the land. Immigrant workers always come last. The passport lines are an indication of the unfortunate discrimination of certain nationalities that can be found in Saudi-Arabia.

In general the passport dudes are rude, indifferent and NEVER smile. No need for concern though, it seems to be part of their job description and has nothing to do with you. This is also not an indication of how you will be treated by all Saudi people! You will be fingerprinted here as well.

For the females arriving alone you might be asked where your sponsor is. Usually the company sends a rep that will be standing right after the passport control booths picking up single female employees who are supposed to sign a paper that they've arrived. Sometimes they will not let the woman pass beyond this point if she does not have a male sponsor to receive her.

I once waited over an hour in the middle of the night here to be "claimed" by the hospital sponsor who did not have the decency to show up on time. After that experience I stopped informing the hospital of my whereabouts and the ridiculous claiming of the single woman-rumba ended. I would just brush it off by telling them my sponsor is waiting outside and move along.
Luggage and Customs
Once you've managed to pass through to the luggage belts you will be approached by men dressed in green overalls. They are the airport staff who you can hire (but you don't HAVE to even though they insist) to help to lift your luggage on the cart and push the cart around for 20SAR. The carts only are free of charge. Expect the luggage to arrive a pace befitting the Kingdom, taking their sweeeeet time!

This is a good moment to start adjusting to SMT.

After this you will proceed to the x-ray machines to have your luggage x-rayed for the above mentioned prohibited items. If you're lucky the officer will be too fascinated by the Youtube video he is openly laughing at on his iPhone or too busy chatting on his Blackberry to even glance at the screen.
With bad luck you will get one of the anal searchers that seem to want to open every foreigners luggage with suspicious items in them.
If the officer wants to check don't panic. Be co-operative and show him everything he wants. He will soon let you move along. I've never heard of anything else being confiscated from people I know than plastic "money" chips meant for Black Jack, few DVD's and CD's. and that's it. They really don't care too much about other stuff mentioned on the list such as books or magazines for example.

Once I had about 6 bottles of various juice concentrates packed with me from Finland. Good stuff like unsweetened lingonberry juice (a brain-burstingly sour juice) blueberry, strawberry, cloudberry and other Finnish wild berry juices. Admittedly, it might have looked suspicious.

The officer was convinced I had smuggled in alcohol, shook the bottles and with a beaming face said "AHA! Alcohol! Look, bubbles! Alcohol, too much bubbles!" I laughed and told him to go ahead and taste it (it was the lingonberry bottle so I secretly wished he did). He took me to the back office with the boss, they turned the bottles around for a while, laughed and looked at me like I was a lunatic (maybe they were right) for bringing that stuff in and told me to move along. Got to keep all my goodies though.
After the x-ray you will be out of the luggage area and be met by a row of men, mainly people's drivers and taxi drivers. It's best to move on to the exit and get a taxi from the official taxi line outside. A cab to Riyadh city center should not cost you more than 70SAR. A single female can also hire a taxi alone from here without any problems.

Welcome to the Magic Kingdom!

As someone with a total of 56 Saudi exit re-entry stamps from the past four years on their passport I think I can say, been there, done that and hope my experiences can help someone out there!


Anonymous said...

ASA LAyla masha allah i have been following yur blog for a while now. It is interesting and funny. I am a nurse and would love to work in riyadh in the future. keep up the good work. when i came for hajj in ksa the wait at airpot was ridiculous.

M.Kaitaniemi said...

Wow just speechless.
One thing is sure. To me visiting in there would be the most stressful thing.

One thing I would like ask you something.
Ihan privaatisti, asia on sellainen jota olen miettinyt pidemmän aikaa sillä ajatuksella että jos matkustaisi sinne sinun suunta joku onnekas kerta. Ja ei kannata alkaa vetämään liian hätäisiä johtopäätöksiä kenenkään joka tätä lukee.

Layla said...

M.K Just drop me an email :)

Seryph said...

Laylah, that was awesome! I've been following your blog for about a year now and you always make my day with your posts.

One quick question though, you said stuffed animals are okay to bring in, but on the customs website, it says no stuffed animals and no objects in the form of humans or animals (which most kids toys are), I'm just a touch confused?

Anonymous said...

i love your way of writing :) and you're so hilarious too. interesting article
by the way , what is SMT?

Jael said...

Tulin vastavierailulle.Olen täällä ennenkin joskus vieraillut,sillä blogisi on mielenkiintoinen,mutten ole tainnut kommentoida.Viime vierailusta on blogisi ulkonäkö muuttunut;se on nyt ihan mahtavan upean näköinen!

Layla said...

Seryph-thank you!
I know it's confusing but really they are not banned I have no clue why they would put it on that list..I found a news article from 2003 saying female dolls and stuffed animals had been banned in Riyadh by muttawa. that might be the source. But I even asked the customs dudes once and they just laughed!
That list should be updated I see other things in it too that are ridiculous..

OR option number two, they mean stuffed animals as in the once live, now stuffed kind!

Layla said...

SMT +0300= Saudi Man's Time, approx. 3 hours more than normal time.

Layla said...


David said...

Great post and very accurate ... my advice for passport control is keep as far to the right as possible, then go through the GCC-only gate as soon as the GCC nationals have finished. Normally works, but it's a pretty random process!

JoHanna said...

Heippa Laylah! I don't know if I would be able to make it to the Magic Kingdom. Sounds so restricted... Though I don't enjoy coming back to the US from Finland or at times from Mexico when we have to go thru the passport/customs. Long lines, angry people, poker-faced security etc. Though it depends which airport you use.
I guess "racial profiling" is not a term in the Saudi vocabulary...
But you know your stuff... good and clever advice whoever needs it.
Hyvää kevättä sateisesta Teksasista!

Farooq said...

great post laylah, do I notice a pattern here? a blog post that rouses people's emotions followed by a general one? lol

The one thing i would like to add is: never ever accept any sealed parcels from anyone who asks u to pass it on to his friend here in saudi. could land u into a lot of trouble if something wrong comes out from the parcel. happens in a lot of cases with people coming from south asia. khashkhash (or poppy seeds) are a very common spice in cooking there but as you can imagine are banned in saudi.

Layla said...

David-excellent advice, I should even add that to the original post because that is the best way to try do it!

Layla said...

JoHanna-Racial profiling..hmm, nope I don't think so :) at least not the way they do it in the U.S
kiitos kommentista ja mukavaa kesan odotusta Texasiin, vai joko siella on kesa kunnolla alkanu :)

Layla said...

Farooq-haha good one! Maybe I'm bipolar :)
Thanks for the additional advice, POPPY seeds? As in ummm..heroine?
So if you cook with them you get high or what?

Layla said...

thanks, I can't even imagine what the airports become like durng Hajj and the MILLIONS of people coming in just a few days time! How do they even do it without the whole building collapsing.

Anonymous said...

I so love the SMT..LOL!!! love your humor laylah.

Affinity for Modesty said...

Hi Laylah, great post yet again mashallah :) kashkash is also a common spice in Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Iv'e been to many airports in my life and iv'e gotta say, I have yet to witness any an airport with a slower getting-your-luggage process than in Ryiadh. It is seriously THE WORST ugh.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about that

Melissa said...

Interesting! I hate waiting in line, I can't imagine how long some of those people are forced to wait with people cutting to the front...that's so sad.

Farooq said...

not really, its used in very small quantities not enough to get anyone high. Its not heroin. The difference is in when you harvest it. Poppy seeds are harvested when the seed pod has dried up while Opium is harvested when its still green. Not much of a difference I know I guess it still makes a difference in the "high" quotient.

Not entirely sure what it does to the taste, but any exotic hyderabadi dish requires a small amount of khashkhash. Maybe for that extra zing. lol

Affinity for Modesty said...

Actually,poppy seed isn't uncommon in Western dishes. Poppy seed bread,poppy seed muffin and my fave,poppy seed dressing. Try sprinkling popy seed i your salad dressing, Laylah. It reaoly is delicious.no high effect hehe.

ava said...

Props on this post, Laylah :)
Regarding queuing according to nationality, do the officials check the expat's visa category first before assigning the expat to a line? Im Filipino, to hold a market specialist visa, I was wondering if that would save me from the sad line/queu (a bubble popper/pooper btw) in Dammam. Maybe dressing up extra nice would help? Also, will my packed daisy dukes be perceived as immoral, hence, confiscated? Lols. Sorry if the question seems daft haha but when going to (and i say this with fondness) a parallel universe...girl has to ask ; ) Anyhoo, thanksheaps and cheers!

Finding My Way said...

ahahahahahaha SMT :):):):):)

Layla said...

ava-sorry for late reply!From my experiences they never checked my visa category when they directed me to the front of the queue. Just to show the passport or they had already spotted it in my hand.
I think dressing up nice but modest will help you, inshallah :)Don't go stand in the line where the maids are!
Don't worry the customs officer will not know what they are,if in the unlikely event he would ask, say they are underwear haha

Layla said...

Umm Gamar-will do! Now that I think of it, I've had it many times,just didn't make the connection to heroin before haha

ava said...

Coolbeans, I get the queueing now, I though there was an automatic designation of certain nationalities to a line despite their professions. So I was slightly freaked out by that. Thanks for the reply, Laylah, really appreciate it :) The underwear idea is brilliant!!! Lolz.. And yes, modesty will be my new schtick. Modestly is how we should roll in KSA ;)

chewie said...

Your blog is great! Thank you for taking the time to chronicle your experiences.

Reet said...

I agree with previous comment 100%

Many thanks!

J said...

Hi there,

I will be travelling from Mumbai to Cairo in October. There is a layover in Saudi Arabia for 3 hour 40 min. Would I need a visa of any sort?

Thanks so much for posting this article.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the valuable info, I have a question:
Do the custom officers actually turn laptops on and go the hard disk contents?
same for usb sticks, external drives, etc?

I'm about to leave for Riyadh for a mid to long term position this coming week (end of Aug '12) and I'm carefully
going through my suitcase and laptop contents to avoid any hassles.

what about medicines? natural extracts like ginseng for example?



Layla said...

Hi there John! You asked about the laptops, I've never heard of anyone having to actually turn them on and go through the contents BUT I can't guarantee you this wouldn't happen. And you know Murphy's law..I would just make sure there is no porn (not saying you would have any) because that's what they would be looking for.

Medicines are fine as long as they aren't categorized under narcotics, in which case it's best you have the dr's prescription with you.

Have a safe flight!

Layla said...

No you don't need a visa for such a short time period!

Layla said...


Layla said...

thank you reet!

Anonymous said...

Also take note that if you are travelling with a baby/infant without her/his own seat, Saudia does not provide the seat belt attachment that is usually been given when travelling with kids. It happened to me more than a few times - both domestic and international - never happened in other flights/country only here.

Gemma said...


I love your blog!! I'm a single woman coming to Riyadh in October and was dreading the airport experience. Everyone passes round the horror stories, good to actually hear about what to expect from a seasoned traveller! Thank you!!

Layla said...

Hi Gemma! thank you, don't worry you will be fine, just take along with you an additional dose of patience!

Layla said...

Hi, I always got the infant seat belt on Saudia, but only after asking for it. They don't take child safety seriously here when it comes to travelling in any sort of transportation it seems..but they DO have them, just ask they should give it to you!

Arun said...

Hi layla. this is great stuff to read for a first timer like me. I read about the cd's and dvd's u were talking about. but what if i get a hard disk with alot of movies (All clean). Will the authorities have a problem with the normal hollywood movies? as they might get confused it with porn?

Anonymous said...

Hi layla! Your blog is very helpful for a would be expat in saudi like me. I just have a question though. Part of my beauty ritual is nightly use of toners and creams. The character of Samantha from Sex and the City movie was denied entry of her anti aging creams and stuff. Mine has the same white small plastic containers. Will this apply to Saudi? Thanks for the response!

Layla said...

Hi there! I think that was just a joke on the show :) there is no problem bringing your in beauty products in fact there is a very large market for them in Saudi and you can find all sort of anti aging creams here!

Anonymous said...

Im planning to bring tons, like bulk that would last for my 2-yr contract. Will that be fine? =)

Layla said...

Why wouldn't you just buy it from here?

Anonymous said...

I get the products on a local store where they have their own formulas for toners, creams, it's not branded. Im afraid if i use a new brand my face will break out. =)

Amy said...

Hi Laylah,

Thank you for your helpful, well-written blog. I especially enjoy the photos.

In regard to the assertion that "None of the flights coming into Saudi serve alcohol or pork.": I traveled to Jeddah summer of 2011 on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, and alcohol was served--with many Saudi men imbibing. Scotch whisky seemed to be the beverage of choice. I abstained--I thought it unwise to show up for my teaching gig half-tipsy. Maybe it's only the Saudi and GCC flag carriers that don't serve alcohol on inbound flights to KSA? Or perhaps the policy has changed since my journey.

Many thanks again for your blog. I really appreciate the glimpse of Saudi life you offer.

Enjoy your new little one. :-)


Layla said...

Hi Amy! Apologies for the ridiculously late reply, but well what can I say, been quite a busy momma!Thanks for the comment and now that you mention it, I recall some Lufthansa flight I was on had alcohol served and I remember wondering how the western men consuming so much alcohol during the flight weren't concerned on where they were flying to!

Anonymous said...

very true... I waited on Riyadh Airport for 12 hours in queue when i came 1st time here..

Anonymous said...

Hi Laylah,Awsome post for grls traveling for the first time.Have few queries though.1)Is it necessary for someone to come and pick up female traveler incase coming for attending conference?2)As you mentioned about the maid line/queue..how to make out that is maids line?3)Is Abaya compulsory to be carried for a female if one doesnt have it.Thanks!!!

Layla said...

It is better that you have someone come and pick you up when you're arriving for the first time.
Trust me you will know what is the maid line..first off, they aren't wearing abayas but something typical to where they coming from, second, there are MANY of them all of same nationality looking bewildered and confused, third, they might have been waiting so long they have started sitting on floors..you will know immediately.
No need for abaya when first arriving to Saudi, you can buy one when here!

Anonymous said...

Hello, i will be going to saudi this month and i've heard about the prohibited things/items in KSA. Some of my questions have been answered by your blog and comments but i think you missed some? Is any camera phones not allowed also to bring? Will the officials/guards confiscate them? Thanks :)

Layla said...

Hi there! no worries camera phones are allowed, sold everywhere and used by everyone :)

Anonymous said...


I'm currently in my final year of PhD -IT and I am intersted to work in Saudi as a lecturer.

I am a single female. Is there any issues with applying a job in Saudi?



Anonymous said...

Tack för den fina informationen. MNY TKS :)

Anonymous said...

Hi! I will be having my vacation this July. My flight is taif - Riyadh - Manila. I have 10 hrs waiting time before my Riyadh - Manila flight. Can I get out from the airport to explore Riyadh first while waiting for my flight. I have relatives who can fetch me from and to the airport. Thanks!