We’ve covered quite exhaustively the best ways to get to Egypt in this previous blog post, so now let’s talk a little bit about what to expect on arrival at Cairo International Airport, or CAI as it’s known.
First, you can get a tourist visa in advance if you want to, but it’s totally not necessary because you can get a “visa” on arrival at the airport. I put visa in quotes there because it’s a joke to really call it a visa. It’s basically a little postage stamp that they sell you at the airport and you slap it in your passport and they stamp it over it at the next window. It’s more like an arrival tax, but it’s cheap and negligible in the grand scheme of your entire trip cost. It used to be like 10-15 bucks for Americans and Europeans, so expect it to be somewhere in that range.
BUT – and this is a VERY important but – make sure you have American cash or Euros on you when you land so you can get your “visa” stamp. There are no ATM machines that let you withdraw American dollars or Euros in the airport (or anywhere in Egypt that I remember), and it’s a bit of a hassle if you have to go to the one pre-customs ATM and get out Egyptian Pounds and try to convince one of the visa stamp windows to let you pay in local currency. They will tell you up and down all day long that you can’t pay in Egyptian Pounds and must pay in Euros or Dollars, but there’s usually one seller that will eventually break down and take your Egyptian money.
However, the best and easiest thing to do by far is to have at least 20 or 40 bucks in dollars or euros on you for the visa when you get there. And if you’re traveling with friends, inevitably someone won’t have cash and will be hard up to get their arrival visa, so you can be the pal that lends them a 20 so they can get into the country too.
The place where you buy your visa stamps on arrival are these little windows that look like bank teller windows. There’s no application or fuss or anything. You just hand them the cash, they hand you a postage stamp, and you take that with your passport on to the immigration line to get it rubber stamped then you’re in.
This part can change too, but for quite a while Egypt has also required a paper arrival card to be filled out as well. Your airline should have given you one of those while you were still in the air, but if not there are plenty in the area where you queue up to get your passport stamped and you can just grab one and fill it out quickly there then hop in line.
When you get up to the immigration official, you’ll just hand them your passport, visa postage stamp, and completed arrival card. These officers speak a little English in case you need to ask a question or if they need to ask you anything, but generally they’re looking to avoid conversation and move you on through. Stamp stamp, bam bam, you get your passport back and you’re off to collect your luggage.
I try to avoid checking luggage like the plague, but for most people who are traveling somewhere for a week or two, it’s a necessary evil. You’ll pick up your luggage at a belt after you clear immigration, then you’ll proceed to the customs chokepoint where a few customs officers will be there to give you a once over. I’ve always observed that simply showing your American passport face up so they can see the nationality always gets you waived right on through, sometimes even with a smiling “Welcome to Egypt” from the giddy officers who are excited to see Americans visiting and excited to practice an English phrase or two.
If they do want to ask you a question or two or glance at your bags, don’t fret. It’s just standard there for them to touch or examine a lot more than you would see at an American or European airport, for example. Remember here in Egypt everyone is coming out of the same door, so there is no separate exit for locals or lower-risk customs targets. All that’s to say that it’s normal for the customs guys by the exit to at least glance at everyone’s bags and passports, but for Americans you’ll almost always just be waived right in with no fuss in the slightest.
But please don’t let that be your signal to smuggle anything into or out of the country! As I’ve said before, Egypt is still an Islamic country and the penalties for bringing in drugs or smuggling anything out of the country, like illegally purchased or stolen antiquities, for example, can be very severe. Don’t risk it, please!
You can, however, both bring in and purchase alcohol if you need a little relaxer at the end of a long day. Most standard liquors can be picked up in Duty Free on the way out after baggage claim but before customs and exit. I personally LOVE Disaronno brand amaretto (I drink it straight just on the rocks) and it’s really hard to find that there, or if you do it’s super expensive like most western alcohol in Egypt, so I often bring a bottle or two of that with me to slowly sip and enjoy along my journey.
Although you can get Western brand liquors at Duty Free in the airport before you exit, I don’t ever recall seeing any beer in Duty Free. Maybe there is, but I wouldn’t count on it. Beer is readily available in Egypt, but it’s usually these two local Egyptian brands that are ok in a pinch or if you’re just craving a beer. But it’s not the greatest quality, so just be warned. I’ve drunk a lot of it though and I’m still alive.
On that note, people do say that you can be taking your health into your own hands if you drink local Egyptian liquors. They’re usually ripoffs of foreign brands, like Finlandi instead of Finlandia or Bacards instead of Bacardi. But word on the street is that it can make you go blind if you get a bad batch. I know that sounds a little urban myth-like, but I’ve heard it enough to feel like I’ve always needed to avoid bootleg Egyptian liquors, and most of the expats I’ve known have followed the same advice.
So in sum, the local beer is totally fine to drink. Just don’t expect European craft quality. And you can get any kind of western liquor at bars and hotels in Egypt, or you can bring your own or grab some on the way in at Duty Free.
So onward from here… I’ve been walking you through your arrival at CAI and we’ve exited the plane, got our visa that looks like a postage stamp, got our arrival info card filled out, gone through immigration, got our luggage, stopped by Duty Free for a beverage or two, and been waved through by the friendly customs officers who glanced at our bags and said “Welcome to Egypt.”
Then the doors open into the airport’s main arrivals hall and… HOLY MOTHER OF TUTANKHAMON it’s a madhouse out there!
This first scene entering into real Egypt will likely be pretty typical of a good part of your experience in Cairo, or at least the parts where you’re out in public. Just like the arrivals hall at the airport, Egypt is busy, chaotic, crowded, and a hodgepodge of people from all over the Middle East and Africa buzzing around.
In the airport, they’ll be waiting for family to arrive on the many flights that are constantly coming into CAI. This usually means the arrivals halls are always busy and chaotic. This is also where most people encounter their first hassles and solicitations and where a lot of foreign visitors start getting ripped off. If you look like you’re alone or confused or unaccompanied, you’re basically fresh meat to all the taxi drivers and salesmen who crowd around the arrivals door to catch tired and disoriented tourists and begin draining their pockets.
If you know me or have at least listened to me talk about Egypt a little bit, you’ll know that I’m a HUGE proponent of using one of the few Western-controlled tour operations. Whether you’re with a small group or have arranged a private escort through a legitimate Western tour company, that’s the way to go in Egypt. I personally hate tour groups when I travel, but there are a few places where I absolutely recognize the enormous value added by sticking to a small group tour and Egypt is one of those places.
This is not so much because of the safety issue, but more so because there are a billion and one ways in which people will try to rip you off in Egypt. It’s just the nature of highly touristic places that are also developing countries and have very impoverished populations. There is SO much to see and do in Egypt and it’s a journey to get there, and we all just want to make sure you have the trip of a lifetime and enjoy every minute.
The thing that pisses me off more than anything and is just such a shame is when I see someone getting hassled or pestered to the point that it causes a confrontation or an incident because the hasslers just won’t let up. Having an experience like that can be scary and get your blood boiling, and it can at least ruin your day if not sometimes an entire trip. Those situations are so easy to avoid if you know what you’re looking for and know how to get rid of the hasslers, and that’s why having someone with you who knows Egypt is critical.
Again, it’s not a safety issue; it’s a quality and smooth-trip issue. You’ve spent so much time and money getting there and you’ve been waiting your whole life to see Egypt. It’s just worth a few extra bucks to trust a brother on this and let yourself be guided around.
The right tour company that knows how Westerners, specifically Americans and Europeans, are and will not smother you or treat you like a tourist. However, most of the tour companies out there will because they’re shoddy local operations that treat tourists like cash-soaked commodities that they have to squeeze as tight as they can before you leave. This is why it’s so important to pick the right tour company and operation so that your trip truly is smooth and amazing.