- Purchase the complete Expat Arrivals Saudi Arabia Guide (PDF)
Saudi Arabia offers a wealth of opportunity for expat job seekers and companies. It's crucial that expats understand the entry requirements attached to visas for Saudi Arabia. In recent years the visa system in the Kingdom has experienced a few changes. These changes have been made to encourage more foreign visitors to the country and to increase foreign investment.
Everyone entering Saudi Arabia requires a visa, except for nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Holders of a re-entry permit issued by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are also exempted.
All visitors need to have a passport valid for at least six months and an appropriate visa.
Visas must be obtained prior to arrival. It is important to remember that the majority of visas require an individual or company to act as a sponsor. The sponsor is someone who will vouch for the individual’s conduct while in the country.
Visas for Saudi Arabia
Below are the different types of entry visas. These are issued by the Saudi Arabian embassy or consulate in an expat’s home country. Or can be acquired directly from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia by a sponsor:
Tourist visas for Saudi Arabia
Historically, there has not been a substantial tourist industry in Saudi Arabia. This is because, unlike other countries in the GCC, Saudi Arabia didn’t issue tourist visas except for approved tour groups following organised itineraries. However, this changed at the end of 2019 when the Saudi Arabian Government formally opened its doors to tourist from across the world. This forms an important part of the government’s vision for a more diversified economy and tourism hub.
Applicants for the new tourist visa for Saudi Arabia will be divided into two groups. Group A applies to 49 countries including the UK, USA and Australia. These applicants will be eligible for e-visas and visas on arrival. Group B will cover applicants who aren’t from one of these 49 countries. They can apply for the tourist visa through the Saudi consulates or embassies in their home country.
This visa will allow visitors to attend business meetings and practice touristic activities. It will also allow Muslim visitors to perform Umrah.
The visa is valid for one year with multiple entries. The maximum period of stay in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t exceed 90 days per year. Heavy penalties will be payable for those who overstay their visa.
Business visit visa for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has a number of visitor visas available to foreigners, for example government visit visa and family visit visas. Business visas also fall under the visitor visa category. A visitor visa requires a formal invitation from an individual or company sponsor. Proof of the invitation for a business visa should be provided in the form of a letter certified by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The invitation will contain a visa number and serves to show the embassy that the applicant has obtained a visa via the sponsor. The applicant can then take this visa number along with their passport, an application fee, and other required documentation to their local Saudi embassy or consulate to collect the visa.
A business visa can either be valid for single or multiple entry. The single-entry business visa is valid for a maximum of 30 days. Penalties for overstaying can be quite severe for both the business visa holder and the sponsoring company.
Expats should note that the business visa is quite restricted. It isn’t possible to rent property, buy a phone or a car when on this visa. Most importantly, expats on this visa are not allowed to earn a salary. For these reasons, expats intent on staying in Saudi Arabia long term should consider applying for a work visa instead.
Family visit visas for Saudi Arabia
This visa is issued to the immediate relatives of expats currently working in Saudi Arabia. In order to obtain a family visit visa, proof of relationship, such as marriage or birth certificates, should be produced.
To get a family visit visa for their family, employees need the help of their employer, which will need to provide a letter. The family member working and living in Saudi Arabia acts as sponsor for the members who are coming to visit. As with the residency visa, the approval of this visa can only be obtained from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia.
Work visas for Saudi Arabia
If a person intends to work in Saudi Arabia they are required to apply for a work visa. The employment contract should be accompanied by academic or professional credential documents, and the results of a comprehensive medical examination. These documents must be presented to the Saudi embassy/consulate in the applicant’s home country or to the authorities in Saudi Arabia via their sponsor (person or company), known as a kafeel. This will ultimately lead to a visa number, allowing the applicant to be issued their visa. The visa is valid for two years. An application fee is applicable every time the visa is reissued.
Residence permits for Saudi Arabia
All expats living and working in Saudi Arabia need to apply for an iqama or residence permit. A sponsor, usually the employer, needs to handle the application for this permit. The iqama needs to be carried with foreign residents wherever they go to prove they are permitted to be there.
Family members can also apply for a residence permit for their immediate family. They then have to act as a sponsor for the family member’s permit application.
The iqama is only valid for one year and needs to be renewed annually. The approval of this visa can only be obtained from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia.
Permanent residency for Saudi Arabia
All expats are normally sponsored by a Saudi employer. They also require visas to enter and leave the country. However, in a landmark decision, Saudi Arabia launched its first permanent residency program in 2019. This allows certain expats to reside in the Kingdom with their families without a Saudi sponsor.
Applications can be made through the Premium Residency Card (PRC) online application platform. There are two types of residency offered: permanent residency and a renewable temporary residency. Expats should note that the fees connected to these programs are exorbitant.
Applicants need to be at least 21 years old. They need to submit a valid passport, prove financial stability and have a clean criminal record and clear bill of health. Permanent residency card holders will enjoy privileges like travelling in and out of the country without restrictions or extra visas. They will also be able to own real estate and private means of transportation.
Other considerations for Saudi visas
Certain individuals could be restricted entry into Saudi Arabia. These include passengers with links to Israel. Those who do not comply with Saudi regulations, including conventions of behaviour and dress, may also be affected.
It is essential to note that all business in Saudi Arabia is conducted according to the Islamic calendar, which is days shorter than the Gregorian calendar that most Westerners are familiar with. This is also the case for the overall length of the visa. It is important that visitors understand when they are required to leave Saudi Arabia because overstaying the visa for as little as 24 hours could lead to serious consequences.
Women planning on travelling to Saudi Arabia must observe certain additional requirements, which may seem rather extreme. Women arriving in the Kingdom must be met by their sponsor at the airport, or they will face problems upon entry. This is non-negotiable.
Leaving Saudi Arabia
There are restrictions and regulations that relate to leaving Saudi Arabia. Women who plan on permanently residing in Saudi Arabia should be aware that she will need the permission of the Saudi male head of the household to leave the country. This applies to women living as a member of a Saudi household, for example after marrying a Saudi man.
This is also true for non-Saudi employees in relation to their employer. One cannot leave the country without an exit visa requiring the signature of the employer, and the employer may hold the worker’s passport. If one wishes to change employers then they will again need the permission of their previous employer.
The sponsorship (kafeel) system
The kafeel or sponsorship system is known, from time to time, to result in various injustices for foreign workers and travellers. Such a severe lack of the personal freedom of movement would undoubtedly seem ludicrous in other countries. Although Saudi Arabia has not ruled out the possibility of cancelling the system, officials have stated that they will do whatever is necessary to protect the rights of both employers and employees.
Upon entering and leaving Saudi Arabia, expats can’t take any shortcuts with regards to the immigration authorities and the various visa rules and practices. However, if the expat is eligible, submits the required documentation and is prepared to follow the stated rules and customs the visa approval process can be fairly smooth.
*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.
Are you an expat living in Saudi Arabia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Saudi Arabia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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