The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the most difficult countries in the world to travel to because of the immense difficulty in obtaining a visa. Some countries require American passport holders to obtain a visa before traveling, one of which is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia does not make it easy for casual tourism to the Kingdom. Most travelers come for Hajj, Umrah or work. Outside of those options obtaining a visa can be a very difficult task.
Transit visas are available for those staying longer than 12 hours, but I wanted to spend more than that in the Kingdom and it is common for those visa requests to be rejected. Knowing full well it's not easy to gain entry to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia I was prepared for what could be an difficult visa application process.
Luckily, we have a good friend who lives and works in Saudi Arabia and was willing to assist Carrie and me in obtaining a visa to visit him. Being good friends and avid travelers we could certainly not turn down our friend’s invitation and the exclusiveness of traveling to Saudi Arabia. The first step was to obtain approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’m not entirely certain what our friend had to do at his end, but the process took several months. All we did at this stage was provide scanned copies of our passports and proposed travel dates.
Receiving approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was just the first step of a multi-step application process. The next step was to apply for the visa using Enjaz, the Saudi online visa application system. While I am thankful for its existence, it was not the most intuitive system nor was it easy to pay the visa fee through. The first challenge was to upload a photo that was between 3 and 18 KB with a maximum pixel resolution of 200 x 200. In order to upload a photo that fit those parameters Carrie had to scan a photo of each of us and then I adjusted the size and quality before uploading them into Enjaz. Next we answered various questions, most of which were fairly routine. There was also some confusion as to whether I should add Carrie as my companion traveler or if we simply apply separately, as well as what visa to apply for out of the several that were relevant to our visit. We consulted our friend for advice on how to proceed with these issues.
The true joy of the experience of using Enjaz came when it was time to pay the application fee of $10.50 each, which was the step after completing the online application. After tediously entering in all the required information and uploading the photo the payment transaction subsequently failed which caused everything I had entered to be lost. Carrie was lucky enough that her credit card was accepted on the first attempt. I on the other hand completed the application and attempted to pay the fee several more times using several different cards before resorting to calling to authorize the transaction. In the meantime I had received several texts messages and emails from the banks about fraudulent charges. After I authorized the approval with my bank I was told to wait five minutes before submitting the application and payment again. Unfortunately, the payment failed yet again so I reverted back to the original credit card I had used in hopes it would work. Luckily, this time it was successful. To be fair I had responded affirmatively to their second text message that I was indeed trying to pay the Government of Saudi Arabia $10.50. On the next page I had to note my application number, as we don’t have a printer. At no point during the application process did they ask for my email address so there was no way I would know what the application number was once I closed out of the browser.
The next step was to complete a hard-copy application form, which was somewhat similar to the online application we had just submitted. According to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia the online application should be printed and brought to the Embassy, along with the other hard-copy application, the approval document from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, proof of payment, and one passport photo (in addition to the one uploaded). We were well aware that there was a $110 visa fee, but it was not obvious how to make that payment. Everything we read stated the payment should be made through Enjaz and not at the Embassy. Figuring that it's possible the visa that we were applying for was only $10.50 and with nothing else telling us to make an additional payment we proceeded to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC.
The consular section of the Embassy is open from 9:30 to 11:30 am for application drop-offs. We arrived at the Embassy around 9:30 and proceeded through security where we surrendered our phones and headed to the consular section. There were two other people who were waiting for something else, so we were called forward to the window to present our applications. After our applications were reviewed we were informed that we still had to pay the $110 visa fee, but were not told how to locate that option on Enjaz. Not wanting to waste the time we had already invested in taking off of work we grabbed an Uber and headed for the closest FedEx Kinkos. During the ride Carrie scoured the Enjaz website on her phone for an option to login and pay the fee. Once there, I logged into a computer, accessed my application, and paid my visa fee (the credit card was accepted on my first attempt. The same cannot be said for Carrie).
We grabbed an Uber and raced back to the Embassy to submit our applications. The applications were accepted and we were given orange tickets and told to return the next day. After months of waiting for approval the actual visa could be available in as few as 24 hours!
We showed up at the Embassy the next morning hopeful that we would walk out with our passports containing the elusive travel visa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was unfortunately not our day. We handed the clerk the tickets we had received the day before, but instead of going into the box with what appeared to be all the passports with visas he grabbed both our passports from a stack beside the box. Our applications had been rejected and were covered with red ink indicating our mistakes. The applications were rejected because the photos did not match (the uploaded photos were slightly older than the attached photo). Nowhere on the application did it state that the photos had to match. We used the older photo to fit the small size, low resolution that the online application required. The other reasons the applications were rejected was because the online applications were not done in all caps and the hard-copy applications were hand-written, the guidelines stated that it was permissible to hand write your application. The hard-copy application required that you fill it out in all caps, which we did. We were told we could amend our submitted applications. While that option does exist on the Enjaz website that option is not available if you have already submitted your application.
Not wanting the mighty bureaucratic machine to destroy our travel plans, we spent our Saturday filling out new applications and I worked to re-size the new photos so they would fit the required dimensions for the online application. My major concern was paying the $110 visa fee again. On Monday morning I went back to the Embassy to re-submit our applications. Luckily for me the guy working remembered me from Friday and took extra care to ensure our documents were all in order this time. He did this by going to the office of his supervisor to review our applications. He returned several minutes later and informed me that I would have to pay the $110 visa fee each again and that he would refund the $110 we both paid for the rejected applications, otherwise we were good. I was relieved to hear that, but nervous I might not get the promised refund.
So like the previous attempt to submit our applications I jumped in an Uber and headed to the nearest FedFex Kinkos to pay the visa fee and print the receipts. I returned to the Embassy within 15 minutes to submit our completed applications. I was informed that the refund from the rejected application would be processed within the week and that there was no documentation they could give me about the refund. I left hopeful that when I returned the following day that I would have the visa and that the rejected application payment would be refunded. Amazingly, I found out that both $110 visa payments had in fact been refunded that same day.
The visa pick-up time is from 3 to 4 or 4:30. What’s listed at the Embassy is different from what’s posted online. So to play it safe I arrived at 3:30 and found the longest line of the now four days in a row that I had visited the consular section of the Embassy. As I approached the window I prepared myself emotionally for the possibility that our applications could be rejected. I strained my neck to see if I could see our passports in the dreaded rejected pile. Frighteningly enough there were two applications, but I was able to catch a glimpse of the photo on top and was relieved to see that it was not of Carrie or me. As I was called up to the window I slid the two tickets (this time they were green) through the opening and instead of going to the rejected pile the clerk went into the box and grabbed our passports! My heart raced with excitement as I watched the clerk flip through the passports to the pages with the visa on them. For a second I felt like thanking all of the staff for their assistance over the past four days, but the long line of anxious travelers and tired couriers suggested I not waste anyone's time so I left. I flipped through the passports to see the visa for myself before leaving the Embassy. Never in my life have I worked so hard to obtain a travel visa.
Our plan is to travel to Saudi Arabia in early December for four days as part of a larger trip to the Middle East that will include the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman. I will use Backpacking with the Bonds to release more about our upcoming trip and my process for planning it. Stayed tuned!