The Outer Hebrides are part of the UK, so UK, and at the time of writing EU, nationals do not require a visa. Visitors from the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries need only fulfil the procedures required of them at any UK port of entry before freely visiting the islands. After the UK leaves the European Union, documentation requirements for EU citizens may change. Check before travelling.
A few preconceptions need to be addressed when it comes to travel to the Outer Hebrides, not least of which is the presumption that they are located beyond the back of beyond.
Although the islands are one step further than Skye and Mull, the travel is not particularly onerous, and in any case the old adage of the journey being part of the experience certainly applies. The drive to the ferry ports on the mainland is extremely beautiful, especially the northerly routes to Ullapool or through Skye to the port at Uig.
The majority of visitors to the Outer Hebrides arrive by ferry. CalMac enjoys a near monopoly of maritime services. CalMac operates five services from the mainland to the Outer Hebrides. For the latest timetables, visit the website. It’s worth bearing in mind that while departure times are fixed, ferries do occasionally leave ahead of time to keep clear of incoming bad weather.
Take the Ullapool–Stornoway (Lewis) service if your holiday is based on Lewis; it can also be used for reaching Harris overland once arriving in Stornoway. The Uig (Skye)–Tarbert (Harris) service is ideal for Harris holidays and also convenient for Lewis. The Uig (Skye)–Lochmaddy (North Uist) route is the quickest gateway to the Uists and Benbecula; note there is no land crossing to Harris from North Uist.
There are three airports on the islands: Stornoway (Lewis), Benbecula and Barra, all operated by Highlands and Islands Airports. The only airline flying to the Outer Hebrides from within the UK is Loganair. Stornoway is reached by direct flights from Glasgow (up to 4 times daily), Edinburgh (1–2 times daily) and Inverness (1–3 times daily).
Almost all roads are paved and in generally good condition. A network of main roads, known as the Western Isles spinal route, runs from Stornoway on Lewis all the way south, under different road numbers, to Lochboisdale on South Uist. The islands collectively have 439 miles of A, B and C roads and 302 miles of unclassified roads.
It can be expensive to rent cars on the islands, particularly in high season, when you may not get much change out of £900 for two weeks’ rental. Rentals are cheaper on the mainland, but you then need to factor in the cost of the ferry and mileage to get to Uig on Skye, Mallaig, Oban or Ullapool.
Services are generally reliable but infrequent. They reach every nook and cranny of the islands, from the remote eastern shores of Harris to the lonely townships of Uig on Lewis or the west coast of South Uist. Almost everywhere tourists might want to visit is theoretically accessible by bus. Services are single-decker buses in and around Stornoway and often minibuses in more remote areas.
CalMac operates two inter-island ferry services. The Harris–Berneray ferry from Leverburgh to Ardmaree is the north–south link between Harris and the Uists. The journey through the Sound of Harris is beautiful and takes around an hour. Further south, a 40-minute ferry ride links Eriskay with Ardmore on Barra. Those connecting from one ferry to another should note that Ardmore is some 15 minutes’ drive or 8 miles, about as far as it is possible to be on such a small island, from Castlebay where you will find the ferry port to Oban.
Catching a lift is perfectly feasible and, given the friendliness of local people, can be socially rewarding. The islands’ reputation for safety means you should expect few issues; nevertheless, always use your judgement and talk to a driver before committing yourself.
One factor to bear in mind is the remoteness of townships from one another and the intermittency of traffic off the main roads: you may end up waiting a long time for one of the very few drivers headed for a particular township, and then you have no guarantee they will want to pick you up.