For years, Israeli passport stamps have bedevilled “Western” tourists visiting the Middle East. It seems, though, that a new Israeli policy – apparently only just launched – could signal more freedom (for some) to move around the region.
[NOTE: All of this applies only to holders of “Western” passports who are exempt from applying for Israeli tourist visas (full list here). Citizens of other countries must apply, pay a fee and sometimes wait for official clearance. However, Israel is known to discriminate against Western tourists of Arab or Muslim origin at its points of entry, and also severely restricts the movement of Palestinians into and out of the West Bank and Gaza – they cannot use Tel Aviv airport, for instance. Hold that in mind as you read on…]
I explain the original problem in detail here.
In a nutshell, many Arab and Muslim countries refuse entry to people who show evidence of a visit to Israel. “Evidence” mostly means Israeli passport stamps, but it can also mean Egyptian or Jordanian stamps from the crossing-points into/out of Israel.
The ban means that, apart from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco – who don’t care – if your travels include almost any other country in the region you either have to construct a touring itinerary so you visit Israel last, or you have to do a complicated (and expensive) bit of backtracking through a certain border post where, thanks to a piece of bureaucratic doublethink, your passport usually remains free of stamps.
For years (decades!) Western travellers have meekly asked Israeli immigration officials not to stamp their passport, but – as has happened to me – officials have been known to cheerfully “forget” and bang a stamp in anyway. And then shrug. For me that’s not such a big deal. For someone, say, living in Dubai, such a stamp could mean separation from family, property and livelihood, and massive added expense and worry in obtaining a new passport and reconfirming immigration status.
I was just in Israel again – entering and leaving through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I asked the official not to stamp my passport, but this time he told me there’s been a new policy in the last “couple of months” and they’ve stopped stamping passports altogether. Instead he quickly scanned my passport and issued me with this:
It’s the usual B2 tourist visa, but on an electronically printed slip of paper, which includes my name, nationality, photo (copied from my passport photo), date and so on. My thumb conceals a serial reference number and my passport number, and I’ve obscured the barcode. You’ll spot that Arabic, one of Israel’s official languages, is noticeably missing here.
This is the back of the slip:
There was no rubber-stamping at all. I kept the slip in my passport, and when I left the country the passport official returned it to me, again without stamping (she date-stamped my airline boarding card, that was all).
Is this a universal policy, or only at Ben Gurion airport? I don’t know, and I’ve not been able to source any official comment either way. The last time I passed through Israeli immigration was in December 2012, when I crossed the northern Jordan River bridge. Back then they were stamping – are they still doing so? Maybe someone could add a comment below to tell me.
And what happens if you are granted entry on a B2 visa, but with restrictions – excluded from PA areas, or restricted to PA only, or on a limited time validity (less than the standard 3 months)? Do they stamp then, or issue a printed slip? I don’t know.
If this turns out to be a universal policy, applied at every entry point, to every “Western” (i.e. visa-exempt) tourist, it opens up (for those people at least) the possibility of guaranteed free movement around the Middle East. You still need to be careful not to pick up tell-tale Egyptian and Jordanian exit/entry stamps, but if you know your passport will definitely remain clear of Israeli stamps, it’s one less thing to worry about on a complicated border-hopping tour through the region.
If anyone can shed more light, please feel free to add a comment.
UPDATE: It seems I was right, and there has been a policy change. One of the most experienced local travel companies, operating cross-border in Jordan and Palestine for many decades, has contacted me to point out a newly revised section on the website of one of their subsidiary firms. Their information corroborates my original post.