His and Hers Saudi Arabia Transit Visas

Saudi Arabia had been high on my curiosity list yet I had set it aside due to the few, expensive options to go as a tourist, requiring booking through authorized agents to join tours typically of a week or more with hefty price tags.

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Not so easy to be a guest

I wanted a quick, economical visit. UPRGD Matthew’s How to Obtain a Saudi Arabian Transit Visa, was the means and inspiration I needed.

Matthew lays the process out wonderfully so I will not replicate, only note where my experience was a little different, because I applied in New York, wanted to bring my wife and wanted two entries.

Later while I was waiting in immigration at Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport (RUH), a Saudi-American with a passport full of stamps said that typically the embassy in Washington is easier to work with than the consulate in New York. Indeed.

I put together a trip for two days to Dubai, the outbound JFK – Riyadh (overnight in Riyadh) – Dubai, the return, Dubai – Jeddah (overnight in Jeddah) – JFK. The return was easier to justify since JED-JFK is at 5:30 am and no option but to connect overnight. The outbound was a harder case to support since there were several same-day Dubai connections. Delta award availability in business and economy on Saudia is wide open.

I filled out the visa applications online and on a Monday headed to the consulate according to the hours posted on the website. I had tried to call to verify but the recording only said that they would not answer any questions that can be found on their website and gave no option to connect to an operator. Many consulates don’t answer the phone. I showed up that Mon with a half-hour to spare, only to find that under the current hours the visa office was already closed. No exceptions, come back tomorrow said the lady at the office building reception.

Tuesday I returned. I explained my situation to some incredulous questioning and was told I would have to speak to the Vice Counsel for his approval. They had me wait for some time before they decided he would not be back that day. Maybe it was the suit and tie, maybe my hangdog expression, but they gave me a number to call on Wednesday.

On Wednesday the gentleman who had received me the prior day did indeed answer the phone and gave me the Vice Counsel’s line to try an hour later. The Vice Counsel picked up with the incredulous questioning about our need to transit Saudi Arabia to get to Dubai. “Why are you not flying Emirates?” “Is it not convenient for you to transit overnight?” etc. Eventually he gained enough comfort with me to invite me to meet in person. This was all about building a relationship, the regulations were secondary. I rushed over to the consulate and was able to meet the Vice Counsel. For my wife I had to show our marriage certificate. They took my application package but he only would say, “I will see what I can do.”

But wait, I hadn’t paid for my visa. All visas require application fee in the online system, which I had already paid. Matthew had applied for a single-entry transit visa for which the visa then is free, and he lucked out by being given two entries anyway. I did not realize that a double-entry, as with many other visa types, requires an additional visa fee. The gentleman at the consulate said I needed to return to the same payment screen in the online system and my fee would be there. Try doing that on a mobile phone. Error. Error. Transaction failed. I finally got both paid.

Thursday I came back. Time was tight. Friday they work a partial day and Saturday my wife had a business trip to Europe. The visas were there but the Vice Counsel needs to stamp and they were not sure if he would be back that day. So far I was somewhat amused with the daily shuttle up near the UN and sampling the different 99 cent pizza slices en route. Now I was nervous. After about half an hour some calls were made, some discussions were conducted in the back room, and out came our passports with our Saudi Arabia visas.

It is crucial to reemphasize that this was almost entirely about relationship building. Bringing my wife. Needing two entries. These all raised eyebrows and it was only by dressing formally and acting with utmost respect and patience that I was granted the visas. 2 entries, 1 day each. It seemed from the discussion that it may have been possible to get 2 or even 3 days. It is imperative to have a legitimate trip for this, not trying to get someplace like Dubai for a few hour and zip back. I only had 2 nights in Dubai and felt that was already pushing it.

I would be reluctant to attempt this without the luxury of in-person access to a consulate. For those living in other cities trying to find an agent willing to take on the case is probably better than relying on mail, especially if travel arrangements must be made or passports needed soon.

Flashing forward to that immigration line in Riyadh, there is an extensive process, about 10 minutes of photo, fingerprinting and questioning for all first-time entrants to Saudi Arabia. Ours was taking especially long, we were directed to different lines, eventually one officer who spoke some English said, “Where is baby?” My visa, in Arabic, said I was bringing a baby. This is most likely due to the item on the online form, “Companions’ data according to the visa applicant’s passport,” where I wasn’t sure but decided to list my wife because we had to prove our marriage to travel together. Hmm…a baby, this trip is just full or surprises for my wife. It was eventually sorted out and we were free to explore Riyadh.

The most fun of the visas was the number of people, such as airline agents, staring in disbelief that we actually had visas. The lady at Dubai check-in snapped, “You cannot enter.” “Ah, but I have visa.” She went page by page through my bulging passport and alighting upon the visa, did a disbelieving squint.

A couple days later, entering Jeddah from Dubai, the reception was totally different. The officer quickly processed the passport with a smile and a “welcome,” and we were in the Kingdom once more.

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  • Joey

    Really awesome! Though I know most of my friends would think visiting KSA would be one of the last items on their list, I actually would love to visit it someday (in similar fashion to yours.) I look forward reading your trip review if you plan on writing a more detailed one. Or better yet, perhaps present this topic at FTU in Tampa (similar to your trip to DPRK in FTU DC.)
    Did you meet other Americans in the Kingdom during you ‘transit’? If so, were they mostly businessmen or tourists (or both?)

  • Wondeful that you got yours. After 2 interviews & 6 trips to the Seoul embassy, I was denied my transit visa. Thankfully it was an award ticket, so I could change it, but I still really wanted to go!

  • Tom

    These people really have issues. All this for a transit visa???

  • I’ve looked into flying on Saudia to use up my Skypepos, but every routing I was interested in required a several days in SA. From what I understand, it’s not even possible to get a transit visa as a single woman. It’s interesting to read about your experience, but it just confirms that it’s not a smart way to for me to use my Skypesos.

  • @Joey – posts to follow, I did see some Americans at the hotels as we had Marriott category 1-4 certs to use up and stayed at them in both cities, not the best locations or hotels, by the way.

  • @Kay – I did get the impression that the only way my wife was getting in was because we were together, and it took some explaining since her family name is different than mine.

  • Lively

    Loved your post! Great detail.

  • Geoff

    Having lived in Saudi Arabia for 6 years this doesn’t surprise me at all. Everything like this is done on a whim. A visa might take 10 minutes if the right person is in the right mood on the right day.
    Other times, well you saw it.
    BTW, there is very little to see besides hot, dirty cities.
    Mecca is a no-no for non-Muslims and you can see a desert in Palm Springs:)

  • Dan

    This is the reason I read your blog. No one else is writing about their adventures at the Saudi Consulate.

  • @Geoff – the highlight of my visit was Jeddah’s old town with it’s distinctive, towering houses, otherwise, yes I was glad the trip was short.

  • Jaguar

    Reminds me of getting a visa to another country called, wait for it…. USA! Yeah, you heard that right – for most folks who aren’t from the “developed” countries, the experience of getting an US visa is equally difficult or worse… It’s worse because in most instances, there isn’t an opportunity to “get to know” the consulate officer – your application can be rejected for any arbitrary reason, and rejection is the norm rather than an exception.

  • @Jaguar – I agree, I have commented at other times that the Us process is the worst, from my experience with family.

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  • Sahib

    After your experience this country is out of my list to travel!

  • Dan

    @kay @ travelbug.

    Yes, you cannot enter KSA alone. there has to be a male companion.A husband,brother,father,uncle or male relative. when the consulate issues the visas, they place a note on the female passports with info about the male companion.

  • I need to feature this to my readers to stop them going down this route:-)

  • @TravelBloggerBuzz – all part of the fun, the harder to get, the more satisfying when that passport comes back.

  • Yes, I know you really get into it. Enjoy the trip and looking forward to the write up.
    I would not have the patience to jump through all these hoops to bless SA with my presence:-)

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  • Roddre

    I have been living here for ten years now and each time enter back into Riyadh, the immigration area is always full with long and exhausting lines even when flying business class. The customs officers are more interested in their cell phones than processing your visas. There are a few flights that actually depart Dubai and transit via Riyadh or Jeddah enroute to Europe. I’m glad you were able to visit and see how us expats live in the sandbox. If you decide to come again, drop me a line and my family would be happy to show you around Riyadh. God bless

  • @Roddre – thank you so much, I am not sure when I will have the opportunity to visit again but would be honored of your hospitality should I have the chance.

  • Sice

    Thanks for the write-up, I’m trying hard to get my wife to return to KSA. She lived there as a teenager, about 6 years of time, in Jeddah. She speaks fondly of their foreigner compound on the Red Sea but she has little interest in returning. Knowing now how to secure a transit visa we might just have to swing there for a day or two. I’d like to see more around there but I’d be more than satisfied with Jeddah.

  • @Sice – I have seen reports of getting up to 72 hours on transit visas. Some of the most appealing places like Maiden Saleh do require additional permits that look to take additional time to organize some of which may need to happen in-country, so keep that in mind. I hope you get a chance to go, and Jeddah is much better than Riyadh.

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