Definitive Umrah Guide (October 2019)
The following journey originated in Doha, but the visa processes are the same for e-visa eligible nationalities (The list can be found here).
Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah
Alhamdulillah, I was fortunate enough to visit Makkah and Madinah in October 2019 using the new Saudi E-Visa for Tourists; although the visa says Tourist, it can be used for Umrah too. However, should you avail this service, it is an entirely DIY Umrah. This means you book your own flights, transfers, hotels, ziyaara etc. – it is simple to do but can be challenging for first time visitors.
Here is a quick step-by-step guide of the process – to start with my group was composed of 2 adults, 2 kids (aged 7 and 5), all British nationals with sufficient expiry on their passports, all are QID holders (Qatar residents)
Step 1: Hotel Bookings
I used Booking.com to book fully refundable hotel rooms; these were booked in my husbands name. No family details were specified, other than number of guests as it could impact breakfast, if this is an option. Hotels can be very expensive depending how far you are from the Haram. This is a personal choice, based on your budget.
We chose to stay in a hotel within the clock tower, as it meant with the kids, we had all essentials close by, (Pharmacy, food courts, supermarkets etc).
Step 2: E-Visa
Nationality is the biggest factor for eligibility of these visas, to start the application go to https://visa.visitsaudi.com and create an account by selecting ‘Apply for E-Visa’, you need constant access to your email during this process, as every login requires an OTP (one time password sent to your email to login, this was a bit buggy but eventually worked fine)
Once an account is created, select ‘Apply for Individual’, you can then ‘Apply for yourself’ or if applying for your family, then select ‘Apply on behalf of someone else’. The next step is to enter all your details. It includes the upload of your passport, your visit dates and a white-background passport photo of the applicant, in addition to the hotels you plan to stay at during your trip. The final step was the payment of SAR480 which includes mandatory travel insurance. We paid with our Qatari credit card.
In our case, the husband applied for himself first, and his application was instantly rejected, we did not get an email about this but logged onto application portal and saw an error about his passport picture. He uploaded another but this time it stayed Pending Review, so we moved on and applied for my own visa.
I followed the steps and the application was instantly approved within 3 minutes and I received the PDF of the visa by email. I then applied for my children’s’ visa and their applications were even easier as it had an option saying ‘Travelling with’, I selected my name (my husbands was not there) and the hotels and dates were all imported onto my kids’ applications.
Note: myself and my children have different surnames but this wasn’t a problem at this stage. I also assume although the application required hotel names, these are not validated as hotel bookings were in my husbands names.
As for my husband, a couple days later, he got a rejection for his application, he realised his photo background was grey, he resolved that and got the visa within a few minutes of uploading a new picture.
Step 3: Flight Bookings
I booked the following flight combination using Google flights :
Out: DOH-KWI and KWI-JED
Return: MED-KWI and KWI-DOHA.
This was on Kuwait Airlines and cost approximately QAR1500/£350 return per person. This price largely depends on demand.
Step 4: Preparation (in Doha)
You can purchase Ihrams, Belts, Thawbs and Abayas all from Ansar Gallery in City Centre for a fair price. For the boys I bought one adult size ihram (25QAR) and cut it to size.
We packed socks for within the haram, and crocs/sketchers to wear for walking outside.
Remember to carry a drawstring bag, big enough to carry your shoes.
Before you leave, print out your e-visas as well have copies on your phone, I would also recommend having a copy of your marriage certificate and children’s birth certificate if your (wife’s) surname does not match your children.
Step 5: The Journey
From Doha International Airport, we were asked by the check-in assistant for our visas, they queried why we hadn’t printed them but nonetheless allowed us to check-in.
The Kuwait Airlines short haul flights are pretty basic, no TVs and a sandwich might be served. The stopover in Kuwait was 90 minutes for us, which was more than sufficient, as we know the airport well.
As we were flying into to Jeddah, the plane crosses the Meeqat (Haram boundary) wherein you should be in a state of ihram, there are 2 options which are popular;
1. Put your Ihram on at Kuwait Airport,
or 2. On the KWI-JED flight before you cross the Meeqat. There were multiple reminders about the time to the Meeqat by the flight attendant at 30 mins, 10 mins and at the crossing, from when you start your Talbiyah.
For the Fiqh of Umrah, check with your go-to Sheikh.
Kuwait’s newly opened airport has good food options for all but not a dedicated changing area, so (for the men) if you choose to change into Ihram, it has to be done in the bathroom or prayer rooms which are both quite small and require some practice if you are a first timer. You also need to pray your 2 rakaats here.
Step 6: Arrival into Jeddah
As you arrive into Jeddah Airport, it is usually very busy, congested and full of potential Umrah-goers, the time to get through could take up to an hour depending on the planes arriving. At the immigration counter, we are asked about our visa, which we showed on our phone. This was fine, however most people did have printed versions. The immigration official also queried my surname differing from the kids, she requested approval from her supervisor and we were let through.
There are baggage assistants in Jeddah airport but you need to pay them in Saudi riyals, so have cash with you if you need this service. Upon exiting the baggage area you will be approached by many legal and illegal taxi firms. The legal ones (which have stands) will take you to Makkah for around SAR250-350 depending on the size of the car required. Again, payment has to be made in cash to the driver. The drive is around 1.5 hours but can be longer depending on traffic.
Step 7: Arriving into Makkah
You are in a state of Ihram (check the restrictions with your go-to Sheikh), so upon arriving into Makkah you will usually want to do your Umrah first, but this depends on you, arrival time, kids etc., so you can rest in the hotel before starting your Umrah.
Umrah itself takes around 2-4 hours depending on the time and your speed. I would advise starting after Fajr if possible, as Maghrib time onwards its very busy, especially in the summer months.
As Umrah is a lot of walking, you will walk around 6-8 km in total, this is not easy for children or elderly. You can hire a wheelchair usually from your hotel, or pay a wheelchair guy just outside the Haram to take you along on Umrah (SAR200 fixed fee) or negotiate a price to borrow one of the wheelchairs off these guys for a fee and return it to them.
We did the latter and pushed the kids around on the wheelchair ourselves. The 7 year old managed most of the walking, but the 5 year old did not, given this the wheelchair was excellent, however again there are restrictions on the times the wheelchair can be taken to the Sahn (the ground floor where the Kabah is) morning hours are usually fine, but evenings are not, so you can only enter through to the first floor or roof if you are doing your Umrah at those times.
For the final ritual of Umrah for the men, head shave. We simply went next to the clock tower into Zam Zam towers, where there are a few barbers located.
Step 8: Makkah
Makkah is very busy and hectic. There is a lot of walking to and from the Haram especially if you have kids who need frequent toilet breaks. The toilets closest to the Haram are pretty awful so try to prepare in advance the toilet breaks with kids and carry wipes etc with you.
Makkah does have many historical sites, however they are not easy to get to, so it’s best to get a driver / guide if possible. Check with friends who may have contacts, we were lucky to have a friendly Pakistani Uncle who has been in the Middle East 50 years, he spoke Urdu and good enough English to point places out, but couldn’t give the history of each place well. I would advise to research each place you want to visit, so you know what to look for and the stories behind them all. The major places to visit which require a driver are: Jabal Thawr, Arafat/Jabal Rahma, Mina, Jabal Noor/Cave of Hira – also various masjids and wells of significance to the Seerah.
Part 2: Madinah & Part 3: How I kept the kids occupied are both coming soon.