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 calendar. 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 calendar.
Remember not to check in any of the forbidden items.
Check the customs regulations for import here
A complete list of prohibited items here
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 whom arrival to the Kingdom for the first time can be very daunting. 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.
If you’re flying Saudia there will be some extra interesting things going on. Kind of like watching an action movie!
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!