Working out the logistics of a trip to a country as controversial as Israel can be a bit of a nightmare. You might be lucky enough to have an amazing travel agent to manage it all for you. If not, never fear: we’ve got it all in one place on Our Honeymoon in Israel. This is our guide to everything you need to know about travelling to Israel.
Visas to Enter Israel
For Australian and Kiwi tourists travelling on an Aust/NZ passport: you don’t need to apply for a visa ahead of time. Upon arrival, you’ll fill out some forms, and they will issue you a three-month tourist visa on the spot (free of charge). They might also ask you a few questions about why you’ve come to Israel, what you plan to do there, and when you’ll be leaving. You’ll receive a tiny slip of paper (it looks like a fancy EFTPOS receipt), and you need to keep this on you at all times. We kept ours tucked inside our passports, and we were asked to show them on several occasions. You’ll also need it to depart without problems.
Israel has similar arrangements with a number of other countries (including the U.S., U.K., and much of Europe), but it’s always best to double check with your Israeli embassy or your own government before jetting off. If you’re one of the unlucky ones that does need to apply in advance, there’s a visa application form available online, which needs to be sent ahead along with copies of your passport and roundtrip ticket (and, of course, a small fee).
Bear in mind that these rules apply for tourists only: if you’re planning to work or live (>3 months) in Israel, you’ll need a different visa.
Currency of Israel (New Israeli Shekel)
Formally, Israel’s currency is the Israeli New Shekel, but pretty much everyone calls it by its former name: the New Israeli Shekel. This gets abbreviated to “NIS”. Technically, the NIS breaks down into “aragot” (100 aragot to the NIS, like cents in the dollar), but you don’t see prices in aragot all that often. Most prices are rounded off.
For Australians: I couldn’t find a single Australian bank offering a traveller’s card that could be loaded with NIS. (If you’ve found one, please let me know in the comments below!). As such, cash and standard domestic credit/debit cards are going to be your only options. Travellers cheques are not widely accepted.
USD is accepted in some areas (particularly those with sites of particular historical/religious significance, and tourist hot-spots), given the high volume of tourists from the U.S.. Still, there’s no guarantee, so we didn’t want to rely on that. We used NIS the whole way through.
You can get a great exchange rate for your local currency through Travelex. We’ve also covered a bunch of tips for managing money in Israel here.
Geography of Israel
Israel packs a whole lot into a very small space. The country spans 424km (263 miles) from north to south, and ranges from 114km (71 miles) to just 15km (9 miles) across. It is bordered to the north by Lebanon and Syria, to the east by Jordan, and to the south by Egypt. Bear in mind that the instability in these regions may cause your flight paths to be diverted when flying in – our pilot made a wide berth around Syria, which added a little to the flight time.
The Mediterranean Sea makes up the western border, and the Dead Sea straddles the border between Israel and Jordan. In between, there are mountain ranges and coastal plains.
In real terms, it’s very possible to road-trip around the entire country in a day. Transit between major cities and sites of significance will likely not take more than an hour or two, regardless of your method of travel (car, bus, etc.). As per our experience road tripping to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, we strongly recommend road trips as the best way to experience Israel. We rented our vehicle (and a life-saving GPS device) through rentalcars.com.
Religion in Israel
Israel is the only country in the world where the majority of citizens are Jewish. However, given the significance of many sites to other Abrahamic religions, there are large Muslim and Christian populations as well. Tourists and pilgrims from all three religions stream through Israel every year.
Religion influences may aspects of day-to-day life in Israel, so you’ll need to consider:
- Shabbat: observed on Saturdays (as per the Jewish faith), so most businesses (including museums and stores) will close down from Friday afternoon (at or before sunset) through to Sunday morning. The Israeli work week runs Sunday-Thursday. Tel Aviv is a bit of an anomaly, in that a lot of places (most importantly, restaurants and bars) will remain open through Shabbat. So, unless you intend on observing Shabbat with the locals, it’s best to be there over weekends.
- Clothing: you should plan to dress quite conservatively for much of your trip. At a minimum, skirts/pants that cover the knees and tops that cover the shoulders and upper arms are expected at sites such as the Western Wall. Men will be provided with kippahs (skull caps) as required. Again, in Tel Aviv, no one will raise an eyebrow if you run around in shorts and singlets (which is particularly tempting given the proximity of gorgeous beaches, and the desert temperatures) However, in more conservative areas (including Jerusalem, and the West Bank), it’s best to err on the side of caution. We wore jeans and long-sleeved shirts for such occasions, and encountered no problems.
- Religious holidays: we got caught out by Shavuot, and it really threw a spanner in the works. Make sure you take a look at a calendar of Jewish holidays (remember they don’t necessarily follow the Gregorian calendar!) and try to plan your trip around them. Even Tel Aviv was a ghost town during Shavuot, which took us by surprise given their laissez-faire attitude to everything else.
Language in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
The official language of Israel is Hebrew, and they’ve done an excellent job reviving what was feared to be a dying language. We had heard that English was basically ubiquitous, but that’s not necessarily the case. In the major cities (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem) you’ll get by just fine with English (maybe one or two things being lost in translation). However, in more remote areas, you’ll struggle if you haven’t got at least the key Hebrew phrases down.
Bear in mind also that, in the Palestinian territories (e.g., along the West Bank), using Hebrew might raise a few eyebrows or unintentionally cause offense. It’s best to lock down some phrases in Arabic as well, if you’re planning on travelling to those areas.
Electrical Adapters for Israel
We had a really hard time getting a straight answer about this online before we left, and when we arrived it became clear why. Israeli outlets take Type H plugs, which are unique to Israel and Palestine. The plugs look like three round pins arranged in a triangle. However, outlets built after 1989 also accept Type C plugs (the ones used in much of Europe). And some outlets built for the old Type H flat-bladed plugs still linger around. So, it’s confusing!
We found that most hotel rooms/buildings had a couple different types of outlet (one for the old Type H plugs, one for the new Type H and Type C plugs). We would recommend getting a Type H electrical adapter for your trip to Israel, if you can. If not, your hotel may be able to provide one to you. Avoid the temptation to force other types of plugs into the outlet! (It might look like Type E and Type F plugs can fit, because there’s only a 0.3mm difference, but you risk electrocuting yourself and damaging your device. Stay safe, kids!)
And that should be just about everything you need to know about travelling to Israel. Have we missed anything? Please let us know in the comments below or via our Contact page!