Residents working in Saudi Arabia generally must surrender their passports to their sponsors while in the Kingdom. The sponsor (normally the employer) obtains work and residence permits for the employee and for any family members. Family members of workers are not required by law to surrender their passports, though some do. Residents carry a Saudi residence permit (Iqama) for identification in place of their passports. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General in Saudi Arabia cannot sponsor private U.S. citizens for Saudi visas.
A married woman should be aware that she must have her husband's permission for her and their children to depart Saudi Arabia. This is true even if the woman and/or her children are U.S. citizens and even if her husband does not have Saudi nationality. The U.S. Embassy can intercede with the Saudi government to request exit visas for adult U.S. women, but there is no guarantee that the visas will be issued, and obtaining an exit visa without the male guardian’s consent takes many months, if it can be obtained at all. The U.S. Embassy cannot obtain exit visas for the departure of minor children without their father's permission (See Entry/Exit Requirements section above).
The Saudi government does not recognize dual nationality. Saudi authorities have confiscated the U.S. passports of U.S. citizens and U.S.-Saudi dual nationals when they have applied for Saudi citizenship or Saudi passports. This does not constitute loss of U.S. citizenship, but should be reported to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the Consulates General in Jeddah or Dhahran. In the case of dual nationals, the Saudi Government may recognize only the nationality of the document used to enter the Kingdom. For additional information, please refer to the Bureau of Consular Affairs dual nationality webpage.
The Saudi government does not permit photography of governmental facilities such as military bases and government buildings. It is also sensitive to photography that may be perceived as portraying the country in an unfavorable light. This policy can be broadly interpreted to include photos of mosques, impoverished areas, the local population, and traditional souks (markets). Be aware of local sensitivities whenever you are taking pictures in public.
Saudi customs authorities enforce strict regulations concerning the importation of such banned items as alcohol, weapons, and any item that is held to be contrary to the tenets of Islam, such as pork and pornography. Imported and domestic audiovisual media and reading matter are censored.
Saudi customs and postal officials broadly define what is contrary to Islam and therefore prohibited. Christmas decorations, fashion magazines, and "suggestive" videos may be confiscated and the owner subject to penalties and fines. Electronic devices may be subject to inspection upon entry or exit. Please see our Customs Information.
Importing Animals: All pets must receive approval from the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture in order to be imported into Saudi Arabia. Cats and dogs entering Saudi Arabia require a Veterinary Health Certificate and a dated letter from the veterinary private practitioner addressed to the Director of Customs, Saudi Arabia. Both documents must be authenticated by the Department of Agriculture Veterinary Service Office and the State Department's Authentications Office and attested by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. The certificate must indicate that the animal was examined and is free from disease, and confirm that rabies and other vaccines are current. Information on the name, breed, sex, color, and age of the animal must also be stated.
Birds: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expressly forbids the import of any avian species. Do not attempt to bring a bird with you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Dogs: Any dog that enters Saudi Arabia must be classified as either a “guard dog” or “guide dog.” However, certain breeds are NOT/NOT permitted in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities can and have refused to admit animals, and have required them to be immediately shipped back to their point of origin. Given the extreme climate conditions in the Kingdom and limited staffing and facilities at Saudi airports that process the importation of pets, this can be injurious or fatal to the animals.
The Saudi government is known to have forbidden the following dog breeds from entering the Kingdom: Spitz; Akita/Akita Imu; Affenpinscher; Griffon Bruxellois/Brussels Griffon/Brabancon/Belgian Griffon/Hovawart; Boxer; Bulldog (any type); Rottweiler; ALL terriers, including but not limited to Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Dandie Dinmont Terrier; Lancashire Heeler; Swedish Vallhund/Swedish Cattle Dog/Vasgotspets; Newfoundland; Pit Bull; Great Dane/Deutscher Dogge; ALL mastiff breeds, including but not limited to Bull Mastiff, Old English Mastiff, Neopolitan Mastiff; Leonberger; and Doberman.
Employment and Business Contracts: The Arabic text of a contract governs employment and business arrangements under Saudi law. Before signing a contract, U.S. companies should obtain an independent translation to ensure a full understanding of the contract's terms, limits, and agreements. No U.S. citizen should come to work in Saudi Arabia or make a business arrangement without having read and understood the full written contract. Verbal assurances or side letters are not binding under Saudi law. In the event of any contract dispute, Saudi authorities refer to the written contract.
Since the Saudi sponsor generally holds the employee's passport and controls the issuance of exit permits, U.S. citizens cannot leave Saudi Arabia in the event of a labor or business dispute. A U.S. citizen who breaks an employment or business contract may have to pay substantial penalties before being allowed to leave. To change employers within the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia requires the written permission of the original sponsoring employer, which is discretionary. Saudi courts take seriously their responsibility to adjudicate disputes. This process, which is performed in accordance with Saudi law and customs, should not be entered into without an Arabic interpreter, generally takes months or years, and may require hiring legal counsel.
Persons involved in legal cases are not permitted to leave the Kingdom until the case has been resolved or abandoned. The U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulates General cannot adjudicate labor or business disputes or provide translation or legal services. U.S. consular officers can provide lists of local attorneys to help U.S. citizens settle business disputes, but ultimate responsibility for the resolution of disputes through the Saudi legal system lies with the parties involved. For additional information on Saudi labor law, please refer to the Ministry of Labor’s information on related regulations.
Teaching English in Saudi Arabia: English teachers comprise a large and growing segment of the U.S. expatriate population in Saudi Arabia. In the past few years, several teachers have complained about rapid dismissals and restrictions on their movement. Teachers should make sure they obtain the appropriate work visa prior to coming to Saudi Arabia. Business visas do not grant the applicant the right to work or to reside in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Employers of English teachers frequently issue short-term, single-entry work visas that coincide with a 90-day “probation” window, during which time the employee or employer can freely end the working relationship. Many teachers facing dismissal have claimed they were unaware of a 90-day probationary period and felt that their contracts were not honored. Because foreign employees reside in Saudi Arabia under the sponsorship of their employer, they must leave the country soon after dismissal or face deportation proceedings. For this reason, and because individuals on a visit visa lack the same rights as a permanent resident in Saudi Arabia, dismissed employees have little, if any, recourse or grounds for appeal. It is important for prospective teachers to consider these factors prior to relocating to Saudi Arabia and to be aware of the type of visa they were issued. Further information can be found in our Guide to Teaching English in Saudi Arabia.
Standards of Conduct and Religious Police: Islam is the official religion of the country and pervades all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. Public display of non-Islamic religious articles such as crosses and Bibles is not permitted. Non-Muslims are forbidden to travel to Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, the cities where two of Islam’s holiest mosques are located. Norms for public behavior in Saudi Arabia are extremely conservative, and the religious police, formally known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), and referred to colloquially as the Mutawwa or Al-Hay’a, are charged with enforcing these standards. Mutawwa are required to carry special identification and usually are accompanied by uniformed police; however, in some cases they have detained persons without an accompanying police officer. The CPVPV has accosted or arrested foreigners, including U.S. citizens, for improper dress or other alleged infractions, such as consumption of alcohol or association by a female with a male to whom she is not related. Mutawwa who are accompanied by a uniformed police officer have the power to take individuals to a police station or Mutawwa office. If a uniformed police officer is present, an individual must (if requested) hand over his or her residence permit (iqama) or other identification to the police officer. While most incidents have resulted only in inconvenience or embarrassment, the potential exists for an individual to be arrested, physically harmed, or deported. U.S. citizens who are involved in an incident with the Mutawwa should report the incident to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the U.S. Consulates General in Jeddah or Dhahran.
In most areas of Saudi Arabia, and particularly in Riyadh and the central part of the Kingdom, women wear a full-length black covering known as an abaya, and cover their heads. Women who choose not to conform to this dress code face a risk of confrontation by Mutawwa and possible detention/arrest. Men should not wear shorts in public or go without a shirt.
Many areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by sex to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of mingling (a punishable crime). Some Mutawwa try to enforce this by asking for proof that a couple is married or related. Women who are arrested for socializing with a man who is not a relative may be charged with prostitution. Some restaurants, particularly fast-food outlets, refuse to serve women who are not accompanied by a close male relative. In addition, some restaurants or cafes do not have a "family section" in which women are permitted to eat. These restrictions are not always posted. This is more common in Riyadh and the more conservative central Nejd region.
Dancing, playing music, and showing movies in public are forbidden.
International Schools: The U.S. citizen community and third-country national populations from Western countries continue to grow. This growth has put a severe strain on “international” schools that cater to Westerners. Travelers with school-aged children are strongly advised to contact international schools well in advance of their arrival to Saudi Arabia. The Embassy and Consulates General are not able to assist with school placement.