11/2013 UPDATE: Numerous reports suggest that Saudi Arabia has suspended the issue of transit visas in the United States. Contact your nearest Saudi consulate or the Saudi Embassy in Washington if you are in need of one. Case-by-case exceptions may still be made, particuarly if you work with a reputable company like Travisa to help obtain your visa.
When I forced in a 23-hour layover in Jeddah on my recent Saudia trip, I was taking a conscious risk. The consensus across the internet was that Saudi Arabian transit visas are routinely denied and nearly impossible to procure. If my visa request was denied, my trip would be over. Saudi Arabia allows transits of up to 18 hours without a visa (and you generally cannot leave the airport), but beyond that a visa is a must. Unlike many carriers, Saudia makes clear that there are no refunds on a restricted ticket if a visa is denied. With no visa, I would have been denied boarding, losing my $557 trip and more importantly, my chance to try out the Park Hyatt Jeddah and visit Afghanistan.
But I wasn't worried. And for that I credit Alex Brewer, BrewerSEA on Flyertalk, who was able to procure a Saudi Arabian transit visa for his trip through the Kingdom in 2011. His success story gave me hope and the day after booking my ticket, I went to work on obtaining the visa.
Visa outsourcing companies like Travisa will help you get the visa for a $65 fee, but I had a trip to Washington coming up and decided to do everything myself.
Oh what a pain this was. The first step in the visa process is submitting an online application and photo. The Saudi government uses a company named Enjaz to handle this and the website is not user-friendly...to utter the understatement of the century. The form is not all that detailed, but there is this one little thing that makes it difficult: the website was designed for Windows 95...
You must submit a picture of yourself, but the file size must be between 3-18K. No, that is not a typo. "Huge" 20K files will be rejected. I used Adobe Photoshop to resize my passport photo to the requisite size and tired to upload it--not that my face was legible anymore. But the site still would not accept it.
If you use a Chrome web browser, you cannot complete the online visa application. If you use Safari, you cannot complete the online visa application. If you use Firefox, you cannot complete the online visa application. Only Internet Explorer works...who uses that anymore?
I surely do not and had to find an old computer with which to complete the application. Not only did I have to pull a dusty Dell out of the garage, I had to retool IE's security settings. Thanks to Travisa for the following help:
- A Windows computer using Internet Explorer as the browser is required.
- Change settings to enable "Download unsigned ActiveX controls". To do this, go to Tools -> Internet Options -> Security ->Custom level. Scroll to the listing for “Download unsigned ActiveX controls” and select the option “Enable”
- Once that is enabled, the applicant should click on the yellow bar to allow the control to install. ((Once you have changed the setting to enabled, click on "OK" or "continue" (depending on your set up) to install your changes.)
- It may be necessary to restart your Internet Explorer for the changes to take effect.
- Once the control is installed, Click the“Import Person Picture” button.
- If no window appears then the ActiveX control is not installed, so repeat the steps above and restart your Internet Explorer.
- If you receive an error message, than your scanned photo is most likely not saved to the correct size.
- Please note: after you select your photo, even if the photo does not appear in the photo box, you should be able to continue to the next step as long as you do not receive an error message.
- Once your photo is loaded, click continue.
That did the trick. From there, it was easy--I successfully uploaded the picture, filled out the application, and entered my credit card details for the $10.50 processing fee. Payment was accepted and an application number was generated. That application number is necessary in order to complete step two.
Moments later I recieved a call from the Chase fraud department, wondering if I had authorized a payment inside Saudi Arabia. I said yes. The first step was done.
Step Two: Fill out and print a visa application form
You'll acknowledge such things as I am aware that all alcoholic beverages, narcotics and other illegal drugs, pornographic materials or publications that violate the social norms of decency and all other publications that are disrespectful of any religious belief or political orientation are prohibited and shall not be brought into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and I am also fully aware that the crime of smuggling narcotics and other illegal drugs into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is punishable by the death penalty before completing the short application form.
Importantly, you'll need to include your Enjaz application number on the application and staple a color passport photo. Also remember "ladies cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a male relative."
Step Three: Mail or Visit Your Local Consulate or the Saudi Embassy in Washington
In addition the the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC consulates are located in New York, Houston, and Los Angeles.
601 New Hampshire Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20037
866 Second Ave., 5th Floor
New York, NY 10017
5718 Westheimer, Suite 1500
Houston, TX 77057
2045 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
images from Google Maps/Street View
I was going to be in Washington anyway, so I stopped by the Embassy on New Hampshire Avenue NW, located across the street from the Watergate complex. Visa drop-off hours are weekdays from 9:30a-12:30p and pick-up is from 3:30p-4:30. Visas generally take a week process, unless you are Canadian (due to a diplomatic row, visas for Canadians can take 2-3 weeks for approval).
I entered the building and went through a metal detector, where I encountered a large marble lobby with incense burning and large pictures of the royal family on the wall. I checked in at the desk and left my baggage (I was traveling) in the corner of the lobby. To the right was the visa office and I proceed right to the window, where there was no line.
"Why do you need to go through Saudi Arabia?" was the first question asked by the man at the desk, with a skeptical look in his eye and tone his voice. Oh boy, I thought...so much for the visa. I responded that airfare was dramatically cheaper flying via Jeddah on Saudi Arabian Airlines and presented him with my visa application, a confirmation of my Enjaz registration form, a copy of my air itinerary, and a copy of my hotel reservation.
He simply nodded his head and stapled a perforated salmon-colored receipt to the back of my passport, tearing off half of it to give to me and instructing me to come back next week. I nodded in agreement and left. Not that it probably mattered, but I was dressed neatly--khaki pants and a collared shirt.
Step Three: Pick-up Visa
I had dropped off my visa on Friday afternoon so I did not expect it to be done Monday afternoon. Still, I was on my way back to Philadelphia and in the District again, so I stopped by at 3:30p to see if my visa was ready.
Before stopping at the Embassy, I visited the post office to pick up a Priority Mail envelope and stamp--if I could not get the passport (and hopefully the visa) today, it would have to be mailed to me.
Through security and to the visa office again, I found the same man at the desk as Friday. He remembered me and said to come back tomorrow, that the visa was not ready yet. I told him I was leaving town but handed him the stamped, self-addressed envelope to mail the passport. He told me to hold on a for a moment and came back about five minutes later with my passport, opening it to show that not only had I been granted a visa, I had been granted a double-entry visa in case I wished to go into Jeddah again during my 8-hr return layover!
I was ecstatic and a huge grin spread across my face. He smiled back as I thanked him for his assistance.
Visa was now in hand...at a cost of $0.
Read more of my Saudi Arabia + Afghanistan Trip Report--
Introduction: A Journey to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan
How to Obtain a Saudi Arabian Transit Visa
New York JFK to Jeddah in Saudia Economy Class
Review: Park Hyatt Jeddah
Pictures from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Jeddah to Dubai in Saudia Economy Class
Dubai to Kabul on Ariana Afghan Airlines
Arrival in Afghanistan
The Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan
My Hotel, er Compound, in Kabul, Afghanistan
Kabul – TV Tower Hill and Darul Aman Palace
Kabul – National Museum of Afghanistan
Kabul – Gardens of Babur and Kart-e Sakhi Mosque
Kabul – The Green Zone and British Cemetery
Kabul International Airport and Departing Afghanistan
The Afghanistan Dilemma
Kabul to Dubai on flydubai
Dubai to New York via Jeddah in Saudia Economy Class