Before You Go: What to Know About Entering and Exiting Israel
After a recent TPG trip to Israel, many readers messaged us with questions about visiting the country. There were, of course, questions about hotels, flights, attractions and food. But a majority of the queries had to do with the logistics of flying into and out of the nation.
Many travelers aren't sure if they're even able to enter Israel, and are concerned about passport stamps, visas and airport security. Here, we'll detail some of the most important things you need to know about entering and exiting Israel.
While these tips are specifically for US passport holders, most of the information can be applied to travelers holding Canadian, British or other European passports. And of course, it's important to remember that, just because something is supposed to happen when entering and exiting Israel, personal experiences can vary, and regulations often change without notice. Feel free to share your own tips for traveling to Israel or sound off on your personal experiences in the comments below.
Have a Passport Valid for at Least Six Months
While US passport holders technically have no minimum validity requirement when entering Israel, your passport must be valid for the entirety of your stay. It's highly recommended, though, to have a passport that's valid for six months or more, or your airline may deny you boarding even though the nation of Israel may not deny your entry. If you're concerned, or are cutting it close, the best thing to do is renew your passport. If it's too late for that, call the airline you're flying to confirm if you'll be allowed to board.
Keep Track of Your Entry Card
US passport holders are allowed to stay in Israel for 90 days with a free tourist visa, and it's possible, in some circumstances, to extend this. Although it's technically a tourist visa, visitors from the US don't have to worry about obtaining or showing any paperwork, or making any payment, either beforehand or upon arrival to obtain the visa. (Nowadays, it's largely referred to as the entry card.) The entry card — a small piece of paper in lieu of a stamp — shows information such as the date you arrived, a small photo of yourself and the date when your 90 days in Israel are up.
Don't lose or misplace your entry card. While you may or may not be asked to present it when exiting the country, showing the card at hotels and car rental companies is important, because it will exclude you from paying the VAT tax of 17%. I was personally also asked to show it at a random road border checkpoint near the Dead Sea, so it's a good idea to always have it (and your passport) on hand. You will also get another small slip of paper when you leave, your exit card.
Don't Worry About the Stamp
When you arrive at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (TLV), your passport should not be stamped. Israel has stopped stamping passports in almost all cases. But, some TPG readers have had their passports stamped during land crossings. Entering both Jordan and Egypt from Israel is permitted and you can do so by land crossing directly from Israel. (For more information on land crossings and possible stamps there, read the land-crossing section below.)
If you already have an Israeli stamp in your passport (the country stopped stamping fairly recently), don't panic. You can try to get a second passport, or just be careful about which countries you enter. Lebanon is one of the strictest countries, denying entrance to anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport.
Other countries you should avoid entering if you have an Israeli stamp are Syria, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Although you will be allowed to enter Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates or Indonesia with the stamp, still be careful. Any interactions with police in a Muslim-majority country, in cases where you have to show your passport with Israeli stamp, could subject you to additional questioning.
Of course, this isn't a science, and some travelers may experience more (or less) questioning or similar issues at border checks when entering and exiting these countries.
It's important to know that when entering Israel, it's OK if you have stamps from Middle Eastern countries. While this may trigger a lot of security questions (see the section on security below), you'll still be allowed to enter and exit the country. Holders of Iranian visas in their passports should expect a lot of added questioning and thorough security checks, but should still ultimately be granted entry.
Get Standard Vaccines
US travelers aren't required to have any specific vaccines when visiting Israel, though having the measles and Hepatitis A vaccines is, as usual, recommended before travel.
Navigating the Land Crossings
It is possible to cross the Israeli border into either Jordan or Egypt — but not to Syria or Lebanon. While an Israeli officer shouldn't stamp your passport upon exiting or entering, we have heard reports of select TPG readers having their documents stamped at land crossings. So, you can simply ask the Israeli border control officer not to stamp your passport and, hopefully, they won't.
You must be careful, however, because the border control agents in Jordan or Egypt will stamp your passport upon entry and exit. The stamp is slightly different than the one you'd get by flying to the Amman (AMM) or Cairo International (CAI) airports, usually showing the name of the land crossing.
Extra scrutiny from a border agent in another country such as Lebanon may notice these entry or exit stamps from Egypt or Jordan and realize you entered by land -- making it clear you'd been to Israel. An easy way around this is to simply ask the land agents in Jordan or Egypt not to stamp your passport when entering or exiting. As I mentioned above, if you do end up with an Israeli (or Jordanian or Egyptian land crossing) stamp, all is not lost. You can apply for a second passport if you then later plan to visit a country such as Lebanon.
If you plan to visit Jordan or Egypt by way of land crossing, you may need a visa, or to pay an entry or exit fee -- and this may be different than the requirements for arriving by air. Fees also depend on the specific border crossing. We have heard reports from a few TPG readers that they were able to pay with a credit card at some of the border crossings. You can always attempt to pay with credit card first, but have cash on hand just in case (and in various currencies, if possible). Some land crossings do have money exchanges nearby in case you're stuck.
You can get a visa upon arrival at two (Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba crossing in the south, near Eilat; and the Jordan River crossing/Sheikh Hussein Bridge in the north, near Beit She’an) out of the three border crossings into Jordan from Israel (except the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge), according to the Jordan International Border Crossing information page. Visa fees (often subject to change) are 40 Jordanian dinars (a little over $56) for a single entry, valid for one month. When departing Jordan, expect to pay 8 dinars ($11) at any border crossings except the airports. The US Department of State explains that, "US passport holders must obtain Jordanian visas in advance to enter Jordan via the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge near Jericho. For US passport holders entering Israel via Jordan at Allenby/King Hussein Bridge [the third international crossing point between Israel and Jordan], Israeli authorities issue visas on arrival. Procedures for all three crossings into Jordan are subject to frequent changes. "
Visitors heading to Egypt by way of Israel at the Taba Border Crossing must obtain a visa in advance from the Egyptian Embassy in their home country or at the Egyptian Embassy or Consulate in Tel Aviv. The exception is if you're only planning to visit Sinai, in which case "Sinai Only" visas are issued in the moment at the Taba Crossing.
US citizens with a valid 90-day tourist entry card (the small blue piece of paper I previously encouraged you not to lose) can visit Bethlehem, which is just a few miles from Jerusalem. Bring your passport along with the small entry card, though you may or may not have to show it at the border. It's best to have at least six months or more validity on your passport if you plan to go to Bethlehem, too.
Airlines Flying to Israel
Not all airlines fly to Israel. Many countries don't even recognize the country, so don't expect to fly to Tel Aviv on airlines such as Emirates, Etihad, Royal Air Maroc, Saudia or Qatar. And the following countries have banned nonstop flights to Israel: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
You can, however, fly Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian and Royal Jordanian Airlines nonstop to and from Israel.
But there are a few interesting exceptions. For example, Egypt Air doesn't fly to Israel — at lest, not exactly. They use a special airline, Air Sinai, which is actually owned by Egypt Air to operate any flights between the two countries. In fact, Air Sinai was established in 1982 for the sole purpose of operating flights between Egypt and Israel. In order to buy an Air Sinai ticket, you'll have to do so through a tour agency or a travel agent, as they aren't available online.
Also, both Saudi Arabia and Libya allow certain airlines (such as Air India and Ethiopian) to use their airspace when flying to Tel Aviv, while the Israeli national carrier, El Al, is not allowed.
If you fly El Al to Israel, expect extra questioning and intense security measures.
Security Before Flying to Israel
You may encounter heavy security and questioning before even checking in for your flight when flying Israeli carrier El Al, regardless of your departure airport. The airline has much heavier security measures than other airlines for entering Israel. Most other airlines won't do any added security questioning before departure.
Some TPG staff members flying El Al noted some serious questioning about their Jewish heritage and customs. TPG travel editor Melanie Lieberman specifically remembers getting asked about her Hebrew name (which she doesn't have) and both Wallace Cotton, TPG's community manager, and Becca Denenberg, TPG's director of marketing and communications, were asked which Jewish holidays they celebrated. Non-Jewish flyers can expect routine questions pertaining to why they are visiting Israel and about any stamps in their passport from Muslim countries.
Getting questioned when flying El Al isn't limited to travelers departing from US airports. You'll be questioned, regardless of departure city, if you're flying El Al. TPG UK's director of content, Nicky Kelvin, has experienced extremely long questioning by El Al security agents before arriving at check-in, as well as occasional follow-up question pre-boarding when flying out of London. (He's flown El Al out of London to Tel Aviv more than 10 times.)
Declaration at Customs
You must declare if you are carrying 50,000 shekels (just shy of $14,000) or more when entering or exiting Israel by air and, if entering or exiting by land, you must declare if you are carrying 12,000 shekels ($3,350) or more.
Security Upon Departure From Israel
Upon departure from the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, all passengers are questioned before check-in.
In theory, the questioning should not be hostile: just very thorough and possibly invasive. During my exit from Israel a few weeks ago, I was questioned exhaustively about several stamps in my passport from destinations such as the UAE, Morocco, Malaysia and Indonesia. I was asked if I knew people in any of those countries, where I had stayed and what my purpose was for traveling there.
Megan Robertson, a video editor and producer at TPG, remembers being questioned about her visit to Turkey, as well as her reasons for visiting Israel. She told TPG she, "got a lot of questions about who I was visiting in Israel, especially since I'm not Jewish and have no family ties there." It's best to be prepared for rigorous questioning, and to "stay calm," Megan said. "Just answer truthfully to the best of your ability."
Depending on your answers, you'll get a sticker on the back of your passport. The first number on the sticker is your flag as a perceived security threat. The numbers range from one, the lowest, to six, the highest. And I got a five. (Apparently, this is normal if you're not Jewish or are traveling alone.) The extra security was definitely a pain, but I've had worse during a brief period of time when I was marked with the dreaded SSSS in the US.
After check-in, I was sent to a special security line, where every single one of the belongings in my carry-on was taken out, examined and tested for explosives. I walked through the metal detectors and was patted down despite not setting the alarm off.
It was annoying and, frankly, a little embarrassing, but not a huge deal. I originally blanched when the staff at my hotel suggested I arrive at the airport three to four hours in advance of my flight departure time, but they were right, and it's worth giving yourself the extra time in case you end up with extra security screening.
However, those with a sticker with the first number as six should be ready for an even more intense search. If you feel you've been unfairly flagged or treated disrespectfully in any way, you can report it. The US State Department warns that, "some US citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage (including Palestinian-Americans) have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints. US citizens who have traveled to Muslim countries or who are of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim origin may face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities. US citizens should immediately report treatment by border officials that they believe is discriminatory or hostile to the ACS unit of the US Embassy in Jerusalem (JerusalemACS@state.gov) or the ACS unit of the Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv (TelAvivACS@state.gov)."
If you are concerned about being flagged or expect to be in a rush upon either arrival or departure, you should consider prebooking a VIP departure or arrival, which varies in price (usually around $300 to $400 per person, depending on the package) but can include everything from pickup at the jetway to VIP security, luggage pickup and check-in, as well as access to a VIP arrival or departure lounge. (Read Brian Kelly's full review of the service.)
After my intense security screening, I headed to immigration, where I was given a pink exit paper — a replacement for my exit stamp. You may also go through an e-gate for immigration, which issues you this pink paper. I was able to keep both the blue entry card and the pink exit one, and faced no additional questioning at immigration or during the boarding process.
If you ever plan to visit one of the aforementioned Middle Eastern countries that may have a problem with the fact that you've visited Israel, make sure to peel off the sticker from your passport to avoid any issues. And leave the blue and pink papers (those Israeli entry and exit cards) at home, too.
Be Prepared When Traveling on Shabbat
Judaism specifies that Shabbat — from Friday at sundown to sundown on Saturday — should be kept as a holy day. For this reason, all public offices and many businesses are closed on Shabbat. As a result, your travel may be affected. While most airlines operate flights in and out of Israel during these hours, El Al normally does not. Security may take longer, too. Public transportation such as trains and buses may not be operating at all or be operating with a restricted schedule, so plan accordingly to arrive at the airport in time.