a tourist visa to saudi arabia? not so fast


saudi flagSaudi Arabia is currently one of the most difficult countries to enter and/or be a tourist in.  That’s why it was peculiar news that hit the wire about a week ago that the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities [SCTA] would begin issuing tourist visas in June 2015.

To give a little background history on this, in May 2008, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to issue five-year multiple-entry visas to U.S. visitors and students.  Visas were issued for business and work, to visit close relatives, and for transit and religious visits by Muslims.  At the time and currently all visas required a sponsor, could take several months to process, and must be obtained prior to arrival.  Visas were and are still not available at airports, land borders, or seaports.

All Saudi embassies have the authority to issue five year visas, but for U.S. citizens only the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. and Saudi consulates in the United States appear to do so with some consistency for business visas.  Because of these restrictions, many travelers used transit visas to see the country while in transit.  However, in November 2013, Saudi Arabia stopped issuing transit visas in the United States, and currently it is near to impossible to enter as a tourist outside of the narrow exceptions for Hajj or Umrah travelers.

So one can now get a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia?  Not so fast.  As quickly as the news hit the wire that tourist visas would be issued, news followed that this was in fact not the case.

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) quickly denied that it would issue tourist visas starting in June 2015. Instead, its focus will remain on local tourists and the citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia.

Currently, the following types of visas are available:

Work Visa [permanent or temporary] – This is issued with the purpose of recruiting for Saudi Arabian jobs in both the public and private sector.

The Business Visa – this is issued to business owners and investors who are interested in making deals and establishing investment projects in Saudi Arabia.

The Hajj and Umrah Visa – Issued to those who wish to perform Hajj or Umrah.

The Visitor Visa, which is divided into two types:

  • The Family Visit Visa is issued to legal residents living in Saudi Arabia to enable their immediate family members to visit for up two-months. This visa can be renewed pending re-application, and can be obtained at any time during the year, except during Hajj season.
  • The Business Visit Visa is granted to those who wish to do business in the country and enter into contracts and agreements with Saudi entities. This is a multiple-entry visa valid for 12 months

There is also the Accompanied Visa for spouses and children. This is issued to those who wish to bring their families into Saudi Arabia.

The Diplomatic Visa is issued to those who work in the approved consulates and their family members who reside with them.

As the Saudi economy necessarily moves away from an oil-based economy, tourist visas may yet materialize, but my suggestion would be not to hold your breath on this one.

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jt is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy and has a Masters in International Relations. He has traveled to all seven continents and one hundred nine countries and is quite fond of a good cappuccino.