Travel and visas in Sri Lanka

Visas

Nationals of all countries except for the Maldives, Singapore and the Seychelles require an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) to enter Sri Lanka, which amounts to the same thing as a visa. The ETA costs US$35 at the time of writing and can be applied and paid for by credit card at eta.gov.lk. Check the URL carefully, as scam ETA sites abound. The application must be made within 30 days of your intended date of arrival and usually takes up to one day to process, whereupon you’ll be emailed a letter that you can print out and show upon arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport to guarantee entry.

If you don’t have an ETA, you can buy a visa on arrival, but this means joining a tiresome queue at a special desk in the airport, and carries a small risk of being refused entry for some or other reason. Until recently, the online ETA application process was exclusively for tourist visits, but business travellers can evidently apply on the same website.

The immigration desk customarily stamps in visitors for 30 days. If you intend to stay longer, the conservative option would be to obtain a visa covering the full duration of your visit from a Sri Lankan embassy or high commission (to see a full list of consulates abroad, visit mfa.gov.lk and click on the ‘missions’ tab). Alternatively, you can extend your stay to 90 days at the Department of Immigration and Emigration in Colombo at any point within the original 30-day period.

US citizens may also obtain a reciprocal five-year multiple-entry tourist visa for US$135 (including the ETA), but confirm at your local consulate as this visa is only advertised by the Permanent Mission in New York City.

Getting there and away

By air

Practically all international flights to Sri Lanka land at Bandaranaike International Airport, which stands in Katunayake some 30km north of central Colombo and 10km southeast of the popular resort town of Negombo. Bandaranaike is serviced by a good selection of international airlines offering non-stop and/or reasonably direct one-stop flights to most capital cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. These include the national carrier SriLankan Airlines, which operates direct services to London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Moscow, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Canton, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Karachi, Kuwait, Riyadh, Jeddah, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Dubai, Malé and several cities in India.

Coming from Africa or the Americas, the flight of least resistance is generally a one-stop routing through the Middle East with Emirates, Qatar or Etihad. From Australia or New Zealand, the most convenient option is through Asian cities such as Tokyo or Singapore.

Major airlines that fly to Bandaranaike include: Aeroflot, Air India, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Fly Dubai, KLM, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines. For a full list of airlines and flights servicing Bandaranaike, visit airport.lk.

Getting around

Distances in Sri Lanka are relatively short and the limited but useful rail system is supplemented by a network of well-maintained surfaced roads connecting all major towns and most other points of interest. This means it is very easy to get around, whether you travel with a rented car and driver, or depend on public transport, which includes an inexpensive and all-but-comprehensive bus service and an equally affordable rail network. In addition, a plethora of reasonably priced three-wheeler tuktuks can be found almost everywhere for short urban hops or local excursions.

By air

A limited network of domestic flights is available but seldom used by tourists, except to travel between Colombo and the far north- or east-coast resorts such as Trincomalee and Batticaloa. The main domestic carriers are SriLankan Airlines, Helitours, FitsAir and Cinnamon Air.

By rail

Established in the colonial era and vastly upgraded following the end of the civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has a useful rail network comprising four main lines out of Colombo. These are the South Coast line running to Matara (and Beliatta, reaching Hambantota and Kataragama in the future) via Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Galle and Weligama, the Hill Country line running to Badulla via Kandy, Hatton and Ella, the East Coast line running to Trincomalee via Kurunegala, Maho and Gal Oya Junction as well as to Batticaloa via Kurunegala, Maho, Gal Oya Junction and Polonnaruwa, and the Northern line to Jaffna and Mannar via Kurunegala, Maho and Anuradhapura.

By road

The road network is good and extensive, and the main highways are generally well maintained, although country lanes are bumpier. There are also two excellent multi-lane toll roads in the southwest: the 160km Southern Expressway connecting the southern Colombo suburb of Kottawa to Matara via Bentota and Galle, and the 35km Katunayake Expressway linking the northern Colombo suburb of Kelani to Bandaranaike International Airport. A third tollway (Central Expressway) connecting Colombo to Kandy is being constructed in three phases, with the first section between Kurunegala and Mirigama opened in early 2022; it is expected to be completed by 2024.

By tuktuk

Also known as three-wheelers and ground-helicopters, motorised tuktuks are the most ubiquitous form of transport in Sri Lanka, swarming and weaving between larger vehicles in every town and village, and usually sitting waiting at any strategic junction countrywide.

In Colombo, most tuktuks are metered and the first kilometre incurs a charge of about Rs80, with subsequent kilometres at Rs60. Elsewhere, tuktuks are unmetered and rates are negotiable within the range set by local cartels, but you shouldn’t be paying more than around US$1 per 3–4km, though in some cases you might need to factor in waiting time, or the fare for the driver to return empty.

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