Saudi Arabia is notoriously difficult to get a visa for. Here’s my experience and some information and tips on how to secure a visa to visit the reclusive country.
Firstly you may think, I’ll apply for a tourist visa. Good luck. They don’t exist (at least anymore). I remember approaching an embassy in Cameroon and the well spoken gentleman behind the counter apologized for not having tourist visas at all and hoping they would start to issue them one day soon.
If you are Muslim you can apply for a Hajj or Umrah visa. This visa allows you to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. I’ve heard that these visas must be organized by a tour company and can be very expensive (with Hajj tours costing $20,000 and up?). Entering with this visa also limits you to where you can travel within Saudi Arabia, so it’s not ideal for tourism.
If you happen to have family living in Saudi, you may be eligible for a visa to visit family. There are also visas for employment, residence, or studying but those are too complicated for the purpose of a visit.
So the Business/Commercial visa is the best route for most travelers. In order to get a business visa you will need a sponsor. Finding one is the tricky part as the sponsor is “responsible” for you. Ideally you will have someone that knows you personally to vouch for you. Check with friends and colleagues with associations or business dealings with Saudi Arabian companies or locations.
Another option I’ve heard does work is to apply to visit a conference of a relevant field to your business. Contact the conference organizers and explain that you are interested in participating. You may need to pay for the related fees and purchase a ticket to the conference, but often they can organize your invitation letter. Note, your visa and travel may be restricted with this method. I just missed a hospitality conference which seemed promising as the organizers were willing to process the visa.
Fortunately I have a friend with a business that spans into Saudi and was able to secure an invitation letter through their company.
Once you have obtained an invitation letter you can go to your embassy or consulate to apply for the visa. Note, the invitation letter is addressed to a specific embassy or consulate, so you will have to apply to that location in order for your application to be accepted.
Each embassy/consulate may have different requirements and forms. My experience with the New York consulate was time-consuming and somewhat annoying.
During my first visit, I was told they were closed in the afternoon for new applications and open to only pick ups. I managed to convince the doorman to let me up to at least get the forms which he agreed.
Their office near the United Nations building has a single row of windows and a few seats. Mobile phones and tablets are checked into a lockbox in the lobby before you are allowed upstairs.
Entering the consulate, the first thing I noticed was that there wasn’t much organization. Several people were sitting and waiting while others were standing in no apparent order. None of the counters had any signs. I waited at one window before being told to go to another for visas.
Eventually a man asked me what I wanted. I handed over the paperwork I had hoping it was enough to submit my application but was way off. The man handed over a new application sheet, an instructional form (on which he circled a web address where I must pay for my application and insurance before I can submit my application) and a list of companies that are registered to process visas on my behalf. He suggested several times that I use these companies but that I could do it myself.
The application was straight forward except for some entries about the invitation letter. Not being able to read arabic, I could not understand my invitation letter and had to use some guesswork, backwards google translate, and trial and error to fill in the application. I could see how useful an agency is because making a mistake on the application will get me a rejection on the visa.
Not expecting the online process to be difficult I filled in the necessary information trying to understand the broken english for some entries. After managing to get by the first page, I was stuck on the page that went to payments. The website simply said “Error try again later”. I obviously thought I made a mistake so I kept trying with different combinations of information on the page before. After spending hours researching the issue and testing different inputs, I was defeated and called the travel agent. I asked if they could rush and process the visa the next day to which I received a positive reply. “But what nationality?” Then I found out that certain nationalities could not be processed because they were updating the mandatory travel insurance rates. THAT is why I was receiving an error and unable to get to the next page!
“How long until the website will work again?”
“A day or two” the lady replied. I thanked her for the information.
Now I had to wait until the website worked. It took about two days, but then I managed to get to the next page and select an insurance provider. I just randomly picked one (I don’t think it matters). Then I was on the payment page which was a bit annoying because if you pay with credit card, you’ll have to call your card company to authorize the transaction. Visa told me they automatically reject it because the merchant requests authorization.
Once you complete the online process, you can head to the consulate to submit your application which they will check against the system and if it is all correct and paid for, you should get your visa the same day.
I went and the representative at the consulate even took my phone number and called me around 2 pm for an early pick up (instead of 4 pm the regular pick up time)!
So that’s my story of how I got my visa to Saudi Arabia. Good things don’t come easy, though I heard that visas and invitations have been more relaxed in the last few years. Who knows maybe the kingdom will open up to tourists soon!
Have any tips or experiences to share? Leave a comment below!