Saudi Arabia just starting issuing tourist visas for the first time ever! Naturally, I jumped on this opportunity as a chance to see a country that has been explored by very few travelers.
Saudi Arabia is probably the most conservative country on Earth, and the Kingdom’s rigid interpretation of Islam is strictly enforced throughout the country. Of course, non-Muslims are exempted from many of the religious requirements like praying 5 times a day, etc, but are still subject to cultural laws like no intermingling between men and women who are not related or married.
At the same time, however, the country has very modern infastructure due to oil money. Some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world are in Saudi Arabia as well as the fastest high speed trains in the Middle East. For me, the culture of this very closed-off country will be fascinating to observe as it opens up to the world.
The process for applying for a tourist visa is not completely ironed out yet, but I managed to get one after many hours of work. My purpose in writing this is so that others applying for the tourist visa do not have to go through the same hoops and failures that I did. After reading this, hopefully the process will only take you half an hour at most.
At the moment, single-entry tourist visas are issued for 30 days to people attending “international sporting events” in the country. As of writing, there is only one sporting event with tickets available, the Formula E Championship in Riyadh on December 15th. The visa start date is limited to any day between December 1 and December 15, and the end date is 30 days later. I chose December 4.
The ticket purchasing and visa process is combined into one transaction on the website www.sharek.sa. Unfortunately the visa does not come cheap. Assuming you buy the cheapest tickets for the event (395 Riyals), the visa+ticket+fees price comes out to 1035 Riyals, or about $275. It also includes mandatory insurance while you are in the Kingdom.
The first step involves creating an account on the website. It is relatively straightforward, but the email address and phone number on the account need to be verified. Unfortunately, the phone verification process does not work for US phone numbers. It also did not work for an Uzbek number when I tried. However, using a friend’s Norwegian number, I was able to register an account. (The process involves sending a text message to a phone and entering the code on the Sharek website.) I believe phone numbers from some other European countries work as well. The problem is that phone verification is the last step for creating an account, and the phone number is not changeable, so if the number does not work you will need to start again and create an account all over.
After registering an account, you will need to fill in details for the visa, all of which are relatively straightforward (the “Place of Issue” for all US passports should be put in as “US Dept of State”). The only interesting question was that I was asked for my port of entry into Saudi Arabia and only the cities of Dammam, Dhahran, Riyadh, Medina, and Jeddah were given. However, this field is not printed on the visa itself, so I am assuming I can enter through any port of entry. I plan to enter overland from Jordan.
The second part where I had problems with the visa was payment. I recommend using a VISA card to pay, as when I paid with my Mastercard, not only was the charge rejected, but they also immediately chose to cancel my card and issue a new one, claiming fraud (despite my protests). When I paid with my VISA, a screen came up saying I needed to call a number to have the charge approved, which I did. After speaking on the phone to a representative and verifying my info, she was able to let the payment proceed. Immediately aftewards, my Saudi visa and event tickets were issued and emailed to me.
This visa is valid for independent travel anywhere in the country, with the exception of the centers of Mecca and Medina which are only open to Muslims since they are holy cities.
Hope this helps anyone applying for the new Saudi tourist visa! To help others, leave a comment below with your experiences applying and which phone numbers worked for you.