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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.
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.