Sri Lanka Visa online vs on arrival

ETA and Visa for Sri Lanka

A brief introduction and answers to most common questions

Maintained by the Sri Lanka Destination Experts

Introduction

Just like many other tourist countries, Sri Lanka welcomes tourists but with some caution; after all it wants to screen to prevent people coming to work locally, beg on the streets etc.. And it has decided to impose a ‘levy’ on most tourists even for shorter trips. This is done by giving a ‘free’ 30 day tourist visa, but only giving that to anyone who has first paid for an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation). Which is a bit of a confusing name as the ETA is generally not compulsory before boarding a flight to travel to Lanka, and can also be obtained (with extra cost and waiting time) at the Visa on Arrival desks at Katunyaka/Mattala airports. But the odd airline check-in staff member or even office is not aware of this ‘not compulsory’ rule, hence if you have an ETA (also for the Immigration department staff, see later) it’s helpful to bring a print.

Requirements before boarding a flight to Sri Lanka

But before telling about on the ETA, let’s first make clear what is needed before flying. Most important is some flight confirmation out of Sri Lanka again. For most people this is a return ticket (going in and returning later with same airline to starting point), but if you have e.g. a one-way flight or a return Colombo-Male-Colombo before leaving the island back home you might get lots of trouble at check-in for the inbound flight if you can’t prove the planned leaving (the later flight from Colombo). Note that it’s not compulsory that the return flight is within 30 days – one can arrive on the island with a tourist ETA and tell ‘plan to extend for a longer visa before this expires’. See later in this article about extensions. Secondly at rare cases people are asked at Immigration to prove they have sufficient funds, e.g. by showing hotel bookings and/or a credit card, but if you don’t look like a tramp in rags generally this inspection won’t happen. And thirdly, also quite important but that holds for almost all travel further ashore: the passport should be valid for not less than 6 months from the date of arrival into the island. If needed get a new passport in time (and before getting the ETA as that is linked to a passport number!); regularly in the TA forum we have people even considering to board a plane to Sri Lanka without enough duration left on the passport. Do NOT even consider so, such a person would either be turned back before departing or after landing in Colombo; rules are rules!

 

The ETA thingy

Only a few nationalities do not require an ETA, as they give Srilankans visa-free entry; the list is a.o. Singaporeans and Maldivians. All other do require it. Fee for Internet application for SAARC nationalities is USD 20 and for all other nationalities USD 35; this is for the 30-day tourist ETA. Visa on Arrival fees are USD 25 and USD 40 respectively, hence USD 5 extra. Hence if one has a credit card, it’s really best to pre-apply over the Internet.

Next to the tourist ETA there exists a free ‘transit ETA’. This is valid for stays of maximum 48 hours, and does (contrary to some misleading texts on the ETA site and even in the generated e-mail confirming the ETA) allow entry into the country. Pre-applying is recommended, as it saves the visa-on-arrival queue and the small (but real!) risk that an Immigration employee tries to scam money out of tourists by asking them to pay (to his private pockets) for this free thing. Next to the maximum duration one must prove that it’s for transit, generally meaning a different onward destination than the airport one arrives from; so it’s not meant for short (weekend) stays from e.g. India or Male! Also of course it is a perfect fit for an 1-day or 2-day cruise ship visit.

Do note that for airside transits at Katunayake airport, from 1 flight to another, no visa is needed if and when your luggage gets transferred automatically. This means a single ticket (PNR) for both flights, and also a relatively fast transfer (1 hour is fine). If however you need to collect your bags and check-in again for next flight (longer time needed, 2.30-3 hours is safer) then you also need a transit ETA. Exception is when 2nd flight (transfer into) is Srilankan Airlines, their transfer desk can based on your luggage tag print a new one for next flight and have someone grab your bags from the belt and put on next flight; in this case again faster transfer possible and no ETA needed. It does not work the other way round (transfer from Srilankan flight and 2nd flight with another airline on separate PNR)!

Now a number of frequent questions about ETA and provisional answers to those.

 

Where and how to apply?

This is simple: the sole authorized site is http://www.eta.gov.lk/. Many other sites claim to deliver the ETA for you, are layouted similar to the official site, and pay Google etc. to end up higher on the search list than the official site. But invariably they ask (far) more than the legal USD 35 (20) for basically no extra value/service, and many of them even scam you worse than that by not at all delivering!

What if I applied at a scammers site?

Well first check whether in the end you got a valid ETA, as applying for a new one is technically impossible as long as you possess one (albeit a quite overpriced one) already. This can be done at the Check Status tab of the official site. If you have a valid ETA, you’re into a slippery process if you try to dispute the charges at your credit card company as during the process you cannot apply for a new one. If you don’t got an ETA at all, apply for a good one and use full force to dispute the charges at the credit card company.

How long before travel can I apply for the ETA and how long is it valid?

You can apply up to 90 days (changed again, used to be 6 months) before planned arrival in the island. After arrival it’s valid for 30 days; within that period you have a dual-entry visa (for e.g. a return trip to Male). However the period of validity of the ETA (–> being allowed to enter Sri Lanka) is still 6 months after issuing.

How long does the application process last, and can I check the outcome?

You should get a 2nd e-mail for approval after the first e-mail confirming your application. Normally this happens within 1 hour, around weekend and public holidays it might last longer. But e-mails on the Internet are not a 100% secure mechanism and spam filters with some people also create fun. Hence in case of waiting too long, use this same Check Status tab on the site and only try to contact Immigration Department if that gives no success after quite some time.

What to fill in for flight details and Lankan address?

Use the incoming flight into Colombo (in case of transfers, e.g. from Dubai or Singapore) so that Immigration can make a rough passenger volume planning. For Lankan address, use name and address of your first (planned) accommodation after arrival. It’s a minor detail, hence if no accommodation booking available yet you could even fill in an accommodation which you later might or might not use. Same, in a way, applies for the flight number and date – if that would happen to change later due to e.g. cancellations, ETA remains valid within its 6 months validity period.. Main reason for the flight details is capacity planning for Immigration department,

What if my flight changes, or I even need to postpone my trip with a much later arrival?

The flight details are only for capacity planning, hence no need to modify ETA if they change. As long as your arrival is within the validity period of the ETA (6 months after applying/granting) it’s fine. If you need to postpone the trip further, well you need to apply and pay for a new ETA. Changing ETA is not possible, for this kind of risks there is travel/cancellation insurance.

Is it better to use group ETA or individual ETA for a family or group?

The outcome of a group application is still individual ETAs. The main advantage of the group option is less data entry, as all passengers get the same dates and flight-accommodation details and also one pays a total fee by credit card (e.g. USD 105 for 3 Westerners).
Note that this part of the ETA site is quite peculiar: one starts with first group member, and after that should click the button ‘Add group member’ hidden at the bottom of the screen. Regularly people forget this, and end up with both a lower payment amount than planned and a smaller number of ETAs (often 1) than needed. Which itself is easy to correct, afterwards one applies for the missing ones – but better prevent it..

It is needed to bring any proof of ETA when arriving?

Not really. Immigration checks your passport number (in computer) and date of birth (doublecheck manually). With those two together they conclude that the passport matches the ETA in their systems. But it’s not a bad idea to bring a printout of your confirmation e-mail or status check screen just to be sure in case of any errors, and also for the odd badly informed airline check-in agent who tells that ETA is a prereq for travelling.

Part xxx of  the name was misspelled in the application.

Well as written above, the main checks are passport number and DoB. Hence minor differences between the name in the ETA and in the passport should be fine. Major differences, like a totally different name, might still cause trouble. If you go ahead despite a minor mismatch, bring a copy of the ETA confirmation also in case of any disputes.

I have an ETA but it does contain a major mistake, and I can not apply for a new one!

As written above, some technically valid ETA’s can cause trouble at the airport – e.g. with a proper passport number and wrong name or Date of Birth. And on one passport number-country combination (DoB does not seem to be part of this ‘key’, it’s checked manually) it is not possible to possess two active ETA’s at same time. E.g. one tourist accidentally got a free ETA because he specified his DoB as 2015, making it a free kiddies ETA. Theoretically one can e-mail the immigration department and get the wrong ETA cancelled, but this is quite a steep route as the department has the same bad reputation with e-mail as most Lankan businesses. Also the cancelling (with an e-mail link sent by Immigration) in at least one case meant a new one could not be applied for until a few days later.

Hence advice is to accept the situation. After landing proceed to the Visa on Arrival queue/desk at the start of the airport pier and explain the situation. They will accompany you to the office room at the back where your current ETA will then be cancelled, and then you go back with them to the desk and buy a new on-arrival ETA for USD 40/25 (hence USD 5 more than the online option). By the way, for this and other situations where Visa on Arrival is relevant: payment is in several foreign currencies next to credit card; at least GBP and EUR next to USD.
Or in some cases the current ETA is replaced by a new one for free, if you already paid the full fee and can convince staff that the error was caused by a website glitch; however discussions about this can add quite some extra time. For this approach (e.g. if only DoB is wrong) skip the Visa on Arrival queue and head straight to Immigration queue.

Talking about dates: just as with group visa, the ETA site is not of the highest web design quality to say the least. Below copied the analysis of an unfortunate traveller who did not doublecheck all the data entry and hence had to pay USD 40 extra for a 2nd ETA.

‘I then discovered that there is a trap that one can fall into if you are not watching carefully.

The birthdate field is filled in by one of those date selectors, not by entering the date. However, on the date selector one must select the year, month and date in this reverse order. However, when one selects the month, the screen still shows dates outside those within the particular month and if one’s birthdate is shown twice, the date in the different month will still be accepted and will in turn change the month. It is a classic case of poor web design.’

Note that immigration authorities at Colombo airport can be very demanding with respect to the accuracy of the passport number on your electronic travel authorisation obtained online. A single digit mistake is taken as a reason to force you to buy a new visa and refer you to some obscure government office in Colombo for refunds of your online payments. Be careful about the digit 1 (one) vs. the capital letter I and the digit 0 (zero) vs. the capital letter O. The number should exactly match the machine-readable section of your passport, and not anything else (for example, Russian passports have a non-alphanumeric number sign that should be completely excluded).

 

What to do for my kids?

They too need separate ETA, assuming they have their own passport. But for age 0-11 the ETA is free.

Is an ETA possible and needed for my nationality, xxx?

Well the list of nationalities exempt from ETA in a positive way (free 30-day stay) remains quite stable: Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles. The reason is ‘reciprocality’: Lankans get free on-arrival visum for these countries too.

The list of nationalities blocked from ETA in a negative way (not possible to apply for it through the standard methods) fluctuates a bit over time. Best is to simply check the eta.gov.lk site and start a dummy process selecting your nationality from the dropdown list; e.g. currently Nigeria when selecting tells ‘not possible, apply at embassy’. But even then there are some gray areas: e.g. for Afghanistan we have regularly heard that ETA can be applied online yes but not on-arrival; hence airlines will, contrary to all other nationalities, require an ETA if someone with such a passport checks in for a flight. ‘Check with your local travel agent where you book the ticket’ is safest in a case like that. And also if possible check the website of the Lankan embassy in your country – for e.g. Pakistan this might contain quite different information than the ETA website gives, and that is reason for extra caution!

During my trip I will enter Sri Lanka twice, what kind of ETA/visa is needed?

That depends on quite a few factors, like how long the stays are and how long the total trip lasts. There are two basic rules: 1) a tourist ETA converts into a dual-entry tourist visa valid for 30 days after first arrival, and 2) it’s technically impossible to have two ETAs on a passport at the same time. Also notice that one or both of the stays could be shorter than the 48 hours, allowing a transit visa. But if your first ETA does not cover the 2nd stay also, e.g. because the stays are more than 30 days apart: apply for the 2nd ETA after you leaving Sri Lanka the first time, this due to basic rule 2).

 

Extending the stay

For e.g. ‘hibernation’ tourists or longer-stay backpackers longer tourist trips than 30 days are possible. Either you buy a 3-month visa (including the ETA for the first 30 days) from a Lankan embassy/consulate before flying, or you land with a 30-day tourist visa and then extend by spending a half day in Colombo (Battaramulla, an eastern suburb – changed Aug-2016 from the former location in Borella).

All information about the process is at http://www.immigration.gov.lk/

Getting the extension from 1 to 3 months is relatively straightforward; you supply some extra snaps, pay the fees (which vary widely depending on your nationality) and fill in the form, and give some proof of funds to spend. Avoid locals in the waiting room offering help as generally they ask for (lots of) extra money for something you can very well do yourself. Just like at the rare checks at Immigration this “proof of funds” can consist of confirmed accommodation bookings, credit card, bank statement etc.

A report about getting this extension, in order to paint the scene: “But yes, waiting in season time can be looooong. You wait to admit your forms, after that for getting the bill, after for paying the bill, after for getting the passport back. And everybody is queue jumping without any rules. And you even don’t know where to wait and for what and why you have a queue number and nobody is respecting it. There is no navigation. Didn’t change with the new building 🙂 So take a book or fully charged phone, a small snack and be alert for queue jumpers (whack them!).”

Note that the trip to, and half day stay in, Colombo could be disturbing for some tourists. If they cannot use the alternate option of buying-before-flying then locally there are also some options who charge a lot more due to couriers to/from your residence place, but allow one to avoid this extra trip. See e.g. www.immigrationlanka.com .

Back to the extension. Getting another 3 months (hence a total stay of 6 months) after the first extension costs the same fee plus an extra levy of Rs 10,000 and requires some more screening by the Immigration staff to make sure you’re a genuine tourist and not involved in business, study, volunteering etc. Because for these visa applies the same as for the ETA tourist visa: no work, not even unpaid (volunteer) work, is allowed!

 

Overstaying

The odd tourist comes in the situation that they are tempted to stay anything between 31 and 35 days on a normal tourist ETA/visa of 30 days and then asks the forum members ‘how lenient is Emigration at airport, can I get away with it’? To discourage these who are either too pennywise/greedy to pay for the extension (see above how to do so) or too lazy to reserve the half day Colombo visit needed for it, below the advice to what can happen based on some forum experiences.

  • ‘Best’ were tourists that after long interrogations and discussions did not need to pay a fine, but some of them almost missed their flight due to the time needed for all of this.
  • However a major part of those not having to pay still got told that they are on a black list, and can’t visit Lanka on a normal ETA for the next five years (they would need to ask for a special visum).
  • But the majority of cases is people who simply got fined – for a higher amount than what they tried to save. To be exact: officially emigration on an  overstayed/expired tourist visa seems to be allowed for up to 7 days after expiry. But the cost is that of the missed visa (generally that for 90 days, there is no shorter period) plus at least a few thousand rupees. Pennywise poundfoolish as we say…

Other types of visas

Just to make clear that there are other visitor types for which one cannot use a normal tourist ETA but does need to preapply for a visa at a Lankan embassy/consulate before flying. E.g. ‘Business purpose visa’ (which also at times seems to apply to foreign people wanting to marry in Sri Lanka, and which does have a special kind of ETA) and visa for more permanent residency. Volunteering, as mentioned above, is also a risky category. Tourists happening to do a not preplanned half day stint teaching English at a local primary school generally would not get any problem doing this on the ETA. But those having a planned stint e.g. for one week/month at a school or animal shelter or even a religious institution definitely are safer off preapplying for a visa allowing this, most likely a business purpose visa. After all there is a risk of locals, validly or not, complaining to authorities that ‘the foreigner is simply doing a job where otherwise the place would have hired a local, hence he is stealing our jobs’.

And this applies far more for backpackers who take on the offer of some shady guesthouses/homestays, often foreigner-run,  for ‘free room and food IF you work 4 hours a day as staff member in e.g. housekeeping or cooking’. The guesthouse breaks the local laws and will be persecuted if detected (and locals, rightly so in this case, will complain quickly). And the tourist will be put in a dirty prison cell for at least a few days, then have to pay a serious fine (far more than what she hoped to save in accomodation coast) and expelled from Sri Lanka.

 

Just like all other top questions: please feel free to post any additional corrections/questions in the forum, or suggest text fixes to the DE’s by PM (who can also give out Google editing rights).