Things have vastly changed in the era of Covid and travel. This is especially the case of flying to Saudi Arabia. After launching the Saudi tourist e-visa last year in September. It was only six months later in March when Saudi announced a complete ban on international flights due to Coronavirus. For six months only Saudi citizens and dependants were allowed to return to the Kingdom. Then in September 2020, the Kingdom finally announced they would allow residents and other certain visa holders to enter back into the kingdom. This is how I personally completed the process and my advice on how to do the same.
The tourist e-visas are currently still not valid however business visas, those on residency visas and visit visas are now allowed to enter Saudi Arabia. Saudi has announced there will be updates soon in regards to the tourist visa and the potential resuming of Umrah but with reduced numbers. I will try to keep this article up to date as possible as and when there are announcements.
*Please note, all entry requirements and Saudi laws are subject to change. This article is purely for guidance purposes only and all information should be verified with your local embassy, airline and relevant government websites.
When will Saudi resume international flights?
Saudi has already started international flights again after a six-month ban on international flights. However, these are at a much-reduced level compared with before Coronavirus. Only select visas are currently allowed and there is typically only one or two direct flights per week.
What visa can currently enter the kingdom of Saudi?
Saudi currently have listed, Saudi citizens, residency permits and visit visas. Residents also must have valid exit and reentry visas.
Please note the visit visas are not the same as the tourist visas, a visit visa needs to be applied for by a resident or citizen in the Kingdom. They cover things like visiting a relative in Saudi and trips to Saudi for business purposes. It involves dealing with you local Saudi embassy, fulfilling their requirements and a physical visa put in your passports.
This is how Saudi used to be before the easy online tourist e-visa existed.
Can I use a tourist visa?
Currently, the answer is no. They have said they will make announcements shortly (early December 2020) in regards to the tourist e-visas. I will try to keep you up to date when they do!
How do I prepare for the flight?
Currently, most direct flights are only available with Saudia Airlines who require a PCR test that is less than 72 hours from the time you took the test to when you arrive in the kingdom.
For more information regarding Saudia and what they require here for flying to Saudi Arabia.
For travel what is the Covid test and what is it like?
Saudia Arabia requires a PCR test that was done in a medical facility. Also due to the tight time frame. The majority of home kits will not arrive at the laboratory in time.
The PCR test involves having a swab taken of the back of your throat and nasal. The test has a bit of a weird sensation but is not awful. The covid test for travel is certainly unique in that sense!
When do I need to do the Covid test?
Personally, I would advise getting a test which has next day turn around or 24-hour turnaround. So for instance, you get tested on the first day, 24 hours later you get your result. Then the next day you fly. So ideally you board the plane around the 48-hour mark.
You need to make sure your test result doesn’t go over 72 hours while flying as there have been reports of people being denied entry into Saudi due to going over 72 hours at the time of landing.
Also, some countries allow you from the test result date but for Saudi Arabia, it is from the time you take the test, not from the date you get the result. So you may need to pay for a more expensive test which gives quicker results.
How much does a PCR test cost?
Each laboratory has different prices, I personally used Midland Health based in Birmingham, UK. They did a quick turn around and had good reviews online for delivering the results as promised. The cost was £185.
The majority of private clinics were around the same price.
Make sure you print the result of your PCR test and take it with you to the airport and keep it safe with you for entry into Saudi Arabia.
What was going to the airport like?
I flew late October and the airport was pretty much as normal. I flew from London Heathrow in the UK to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Though it does seem airlines are having less staff on check-in desks so typically check-in times are taking longer than usual.
However now, as of writing this, the UK has gone into a second lockdown so the airports and what is open may have changed if you’re flying from London Heathrow or any other UK airports.
What about luggage and cabin luggage?
Again this was as normal, I took my cabin luggage bag, a laptop bag and a handbag. There were reports that some airlines weren’t allowing cabin luggage during the initial stages of the Coronavirus outbreak but everything was back to normal as far as I could see.
Was the airport lounge open?
I flew from Terminal 2 in Heathrow, currently being used to fly to Saudi since April 2020. The Plaza Premium lounge was open. Access is available to those with a lounge access membership or if you choose to buy lounge a single pass from Lounge Pass or direct from Plaza Premium Lounge.
Lounge Pass allows you to buy access for various lounges across the globe.
Inside the lounge, there was a counter to order food with a menu and some cold food items on display which were all served to you individually by a staff member. Coffees, teas, water and juices were self-service. So it was pretty much back to normal just apart from the small change of having someone serve you the buffet.
These lounges have now closed since the 5th November. British Airways have also announced their lounges in Terminal 5 are also closed until further notice.
What was flying like during Covid?
Shortly after takeoff, I was given a hygiene pack which consisted of Dettol wipes, hand sanitizer, two masks and a pack of tissues.
I ordered a gluten-free meal, this was given to me as normal in economy. I didn’t see any noticeable differences. If you are flying business, meals are currently being served as they would be in economy. As a pre-packaged meal rather than their typical re-serving it on crockery.
Going the bathroom was the same as normal, I have heard some planes are making sure social distancing is kept and you can only go to the bathroom when the toilet is free. It was pretty quiet on the plane so there weren’t any queues for the bathroom.
As far as I could tell there weren’t any other changes flying to Saudi Arabia due to Covid apart from there being fewer passengers, masks were worn and social distancing was in place.
During the flight they gave me a form for the Ministry of Health, MOH for short, to fill out ready for landing.
Getting off the plane?
This is one of the key differences due to Covid and social distancing. Each person or group has to de-board the plane row by row. So those who are sat at the front of the plane are the first to get off and those who are at the back are last.
The plane did announce that you must obey these rules otherwise the authorities will be called. Everyone obeyed the rules which is unusual for the Middle East. Where normally people take their cabin luggage and queue in the aisles, sometimes before the seatbelt sign is even off.
The initial part was pretty normal after flying to Saudi Arabia. I landed in the new Jeddah Terminal and had to walk through the tunnel to arrivals. Everything was kept socially distanced but since the airport was pretty quiet, it was pretty easy to keep everything socially distanced.
We first got to passport control where they asked for my PCR test result. I gave them this and they placed a sticker on it. I then had to join a second queue where there was a scanner taking people’s temperatures.
The queue led to another desk where they took our PCR forms and our MOH form. The MOH form is a declaration that you don’t have any Covid symptoms, download their app and confirm you will quarantine upon arrival. You can download the form here, print it and pre-fill it out ready for your journey.
What is the Saudi app for Covid?
There are two apps which the Saudia Airlines website says you are required to download. The Tawakkalna app and the Tetamman app.
On the Ministry of Health form, they state you need to download the Tetamman app. This app you need to download within 8 hours after landing.
The first Saudi app for Covid is called the Tetamman app; which lets you select a location for where you are quarantining. You can also book a Covid test or access your Covid test results. The second Saudi app for Covid is the Tawakkalna app; this alerts you of cases in your area and was previously used for issuing permits for movement during the lockdown.
Can Saudi citizens travel out of Saudi?
Currently, both Saudi Citizens, GCC Citizens and Expatriates working in the kingdom have to apply for a permit to leave the country. This is applied through the Absher service portal on a laptop.
For Saudi Citizens to travel they must have a business, educational or personal emergency-related reason. These restrictions will be lifted in January 2021 according to the Saudi news sources. Allowing Saudi citizen to travel without applying for a permit.
So that was my experience flying to Saudi Arabia and what the process was like. Along with what it was like preparing for the flight. I hope having a bit more detail about it all will help you with your journey too.
For more information about the Saudi, check out this handy guide which answers all your questions!
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