You will need a visa for Syria unless you are a national of an Arab country. Officially this must be arranged by the Syrian embassy in your home country. If there is no Syrian representation in your nation, as in the case of New Zealand and Ireland for example, then you are entitled to get a visa on arrival at the border.
You can get single or multiple entry visas. These are valid for 15 days and can be extended for a further 30 days in all major Syrian cities. In Damascus the request takes just one day to be approved and stamped into your passport. It’s chaotic though so go prepared! (See tips on getting your visa renewed in Damascus.)
Visa renewal offices are less crazy in other cities but you may have to wait up to 3 working days for the paperwork to go to Damascus and back. Depending on the office, you will need as many as 6 passport photos and between 50-100 Syrian pounds for forms, tax stamps and photocopies.
SHHHH…. GET IT AT THE BORDER
In theory, visas are not available at the border or airport for nationals who have a Syrian embassy in their home country but in practice many people do get visas on arrival when crossing into Syria by land from Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon.
This is not a 100% guaranteed bet so if your entire trip hinges on getting into Syria then you’d be wise to make arrangements for a visa before leaving home. However, if the duration of your trip or other reasons prevent you from doing so then it is certainly worth trying your luck.
During our travels in Syria, we did not meet anyone who was refused a visa at any of the crossing points. These included American, Polish, British, German and Dutch travellers.
Lebanon is regarded by many travellers as the most likely crossing point for getting a Syrian visa on the border, followed by Jordan and Turkey. You may have to wait several hours as border guards fax your request to Damascus but bring a good book and the approved request is very likely to come through in the end.
At the Bab-al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, you may wish to seek out the help of the two men who run the tourist bureau. Both speak excellent English and with their help we were issued a visa and into Syria within an hour. We paid slightly more for this “express” service.
GETTING THE VISA EN ROUTE
For those on extended journeys, the temptation is to get a visa from a Syrian embassy abroad. This used to be possible in many cities but it seems things have been tightening up lately and you should check before you leave home. Recent reports (December 2008) suggest visas are no longer being issued to passing travellers in Turkey.
In addition to the usual forms, you may also need a letter of recommendation from your own embassy for the application. This can be a tedious and expensive process. Not only will you have to visit your home embassy to get the letter but the cost can be as much as 35 euros for Canadians or 100 euros for UK nationals. The good news is that most letters are issued immediately.
Beware that some countries (including Germany as of October 2007) have a policy of not issuing letters at all for Syria, in which case you will not be able to get a visa from a Syrian embassy other than in your home country.
DON’T MENTION ISRAEL
Remember that any sign you’ve been to Israel is a dead end for your hopes of visiting Syria. When you’re filling out the necessary paperwork, don’t absentmindedly check off the box that asks if you’ve been to “occupied Palestine” (Syria’s name for Israel). Some travellers coming north from Egypt have worked Israel into their itineraries by asking not to have their passports stamped when they exit and then return to Jordan via the King Hussein Bridge but both Jordanian and Israeli border guards have to cooperate to make this work. If one side puts their mark on your passport it’s game over for your Syrian holiday.