We recently returned from a 10 day trip to Israel and Palestine. This was our second trip to the Holy Land, our first being in 2005. What set this trip apart was the size of the group we led; a total of 29 people of all ages, from their early 30s to almost 80. Thankfully, we had a very uneventful entrance and exit, but it is not always that way. Entering Israel is almost as easy as any European country, but leaving can be more…complicated.
Most importantly, if you’re coming from the US, UK, and many European countries, you will not need a visa. Of course, you should check the requirements to be sure. This article assumes that you are entering and leaving through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Entering and leaving via Jordan and the Allenby Bridge can be more complicated and is a topic for a different article.
One thing you’ll notice throughout your experiences with Israeli border security and immigration folks is that they are very professional, but polite. That is, they strive to be polite, but are clearly on a mission. Entering Israel isn’t much different from entering a European country: you arrive and proceed to passport control. The officials will ask you if you’ve visited before, the purpose of your trip, and possibly details of your lodging accommodations. It never hurts to mention, if it’s true, that you’re there for a pilgrimage. One member of our group did have a little difficulty because of a misunderstanding about where we were staying. Politeness and persistence will pay off, as will having the contact information for your hotel or guesthouse.
On our first visit, Israel still stamped passports, but would stamp a card instead if you asked. This may seem odd, but many middle eastern countries will not allow you to enter if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport and the Israelis are well aware of this. Now, the passport control folks printed a small card that you keep in your passport. I recommend taping this into your passport so you don’t lose it. You’ll need this slip to exit.
Once you clear passport control, you head out to grab your bags from the luggage carousel and then proceed to customs. If you have nothing to declare, that’s it for you. You’ll be able to walk out of the international terminal and to your transportation.
Traveling between Israel and Palestine
Border crossings between Israel and Palestine are complicated. For ease of understanding, just imagine that the crossings between Israel and Palestine are international borders. Some technically are and some are not. But, for the sake of simplicity, just imagine. The situation at crossings is fluid and can change multiple times during the day. Generally, you will have less trouble entering Palestine (the West Bank), than returning to Israel. On our last trip, we entered Bethlehem via Checkpoint 300 without issue. We were traveling via bus and the border guards let us right in. However, when we tried to leave that night, Checkpoint 300 was backed up because of increased security. We tried another crossing and it was closed to buses, so we had to travel to another crossing before finding our way out that night.
When we traveled to the Dead Sea, we had almost no security scrutiny when we left Israel, but upon returning later that day, our bus was boarded by two IDF soldiers. They were polite and moved quickly, but it can be surprising to find two armed soldiers on your bus. After sweeping the bus, they checked the luggage area underneath and allowed us to enter.
If you are traveling by foot, you’ll likely find the entry and exit process very simple. I walked to Bethlehem one night with a friend and we had trouble even finding the guards inside Checkpoint 300. When we did, they seemed quite uninterested in us, both going and coming, and basically waved us through. Sometimes it pays to have a US passport.
Just as traveling between Israel and Palestine is pretty unpredictable, so too is leaving Israel via Ben Gurion Airport. Generally, you’re going to want to get there early. I recommend three hours before your flight. You’ll quickly notice that security here is very different than in the States.
First, you’ll likely be questioned before you even exit your vehicle. As with all government and military officials, answer politely, efficiently, and skip the schtick. More importantly, answer completely, but do not offer a lot of additional information. If they want to know more about your trip, don’t worry, they’ll ask. The more information you give, the more interested they’re going to be in your travel.
When you get to the airport, you’ll notice that the ticket agents are beyond security. You’ll find out what departure hall you’re going to (A, B, C, or D) and head over to the security line. Your carry on and checked baggage will be scanned right away, while it’s still in your possession and your passport will get a barcode sticker. This sticker will determine what your next step is. Some people will be allowed to proceed to the ticket counters, while others will have been selected for additional screening. Of course, I was selected.
Picking up my bag from the scanning machine, I headed over to the inspection counter. After a short wait, a young woman waved me over and told me to open my bag on the table. She carefully searched my entire bag, pulling a lot of gear out, examining some things, asking a lot of questions about my trip and the items in my luggage, and apologizing for the depth of the search. To her credit, even though the search was invasive, she was very nice and we chatted a bit about her wanting to visit the US and how she was saving money to do so. During this time, she asked a number of questions about my travels, who packed my bags, if anyone had handled my bags, and some general questions about my trip.
Once the inspection was over, she helped me repack my bag and guided me to the ticket counter. The upside of this level of security was that I was escorted to the front of the ticket line. I actually headed to the station manager’s counter where he quickly printed my tickets, checked my bag, and had me on my way. The security agent was responsible for escorting me to this point and making sure I kept moving, so with her job done, she wished me a safe trip and I headed into the next layer of security. For some people, however, this isn’t the end of security. On our first trip, we then had to go to a private screening area where we were carefully inspected, subjected to more questions, and even had to partially disrobe for security screening.
From here, you’d recognize the security procedures. Stand in line, go through the x-ray machine, open your carry-on, answer more questions, and then you’re done. This process was a little slower and less efficient than the first layer of security, but still not as inefficient as you’re likely used to in the States.
A final note, as you board the plane, there is another small security check. Generally, this is just a quick glance at you and your bag, but you’ll have to toss any beverages you have, so be prepared.