Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv is infamous amongst travellers for being seriously heavy with security. Horror stories of innocent travellers being detained for hours, missing flights and intrusive luggage checks are the norm, and the average traveller is often paranoid about strip searches and heavy interrogations, so what is it really like entering and exiting one of the most security conscious countries on the planet?
Security in Israel is heavy, there is absolutely no doubt about that. Thanks in part to a partly overblown reputation of being a dangerous country and a history of tension in the region, these guys make the TSA in America look even more like rank amateurs just after their afternoon nap, but lets just separate a few facts from fiction and give you the actual truth about what arriving and leaving Israel is really like, and what really happens when you go through immigration and security in Ben Gurion Airport.
Do they stamp your passport?
This is still one of the most heavily asked questions by first time travellers to Israel, and the simple answer is no, they don’t.
It is an unfortunate reality that – just like Israel views certain stamps in your passport as a security issue, a large number of countries in the middle east and beyond view having an Israeli stamp with equal distrust. In some countries this may get you a bit of heavy questioning at arrivals, in others it will bar your entry completely.
So what do they do? They give you a very handy little piece of paper that you can keep in your passport and then discard when you get home or onto your next destination. You get one when you arrive, and one when you leave.
So what happens when you try and leave Israel?
First of all you will be questioned, just accept that as inevitable.
How much you are questioned and how many times you are questioned depends on how you arrive at the airport (via the train or taxi), what answers you give, who you happen to be questioned by and whatever assessment of your risk level the individual security officers make on any given day. There is a good chance you may be questioned before you get into the airport itself, and you will certainly be questioned before you even get to the check in counter.
The small guy with the bald head who questioned me was very good at what he did. Probably ex military of some sort, he was quite likely highly trained in numerous psychological interrogation techniques as he gauged my responses and switched his questions based on them. He was very polite and extremely friendly, making the questions seem like a simple informal chat, but he asked and repeated routine – and a few not so routine – questions with practiced ease.
His eyes only left my face to glance at my passport, quickly but methodically asking me about each of the destinations I had stamps for. There were a lot.
I was just grateful some of the more ‘suspect’ stamps were in my old, filled passports back home.
The biggest question mark in my current passport was for some reason Indonesia, even more so than the UAE, Turkey and many others. I have absolutely no idea why. Apparently Israel doesn’t trust Indonesia very much. Now I don’t like to guess it was for religious reasons, but most likely it was because of religious reasons. Either way the guard was very interested in knowing why I had been multiple times and if I kept in touch with anyone from there (of course I don’t, honest Guv’nor)!
But the questioning was kept very informal and very friendly, he asked what I did, why I was in Israel, all the usual questions you might get at any airport, but he threw a few personal curve balls at me and repeated a few questions too. It was all very thorough and very polite.
The infamous security stickers.
For those who don’t know, Israeli security have a system for judging how much of a threat you are, and how much you will be questioned and searched later on down the line.
After the initial round of questioning, which to be fair didn’t really last all that long despite the repeated questions, I was given a little yellow sticker on my passport with a long number and a barcode.
This of course looks innocuous enough, but is in fact a subtle system of profiling you and passing a message along the line of security of how much they should question and search you as you move along it.
I got a five.
Of course no one but Israeli security know the exact specifics of the criteria they use, but it is almost certain racial profiling – or risk based security if you want to use the professional term – is used alongside the individual judgement and discretion of the guards themselves.
Very basically the system goes from one through to six. The first two at least are reserved for Israelis themselves, diplomats, the type of people who aren’t considered a threat at all by Israeli security. Three to four are reserved for foreigners who aren’t considered a risk (and yes, racial profiling does play a part in this whether you like it or not), five is for foreigners who raise a couple of flags and in their eyes deserve a few more questions and perhaps a search, and six is considered a high security risk and will be controlled and searched thoroughly.
It is important to remember that even though there is a chance you may be considered a security risk worth searching, this doesn’t mean anything terrible will happen, it really just means you will be questioned more and your luggage searched.
I have also heard rumours of a 6T for extreme threat levels, and if this is true I really would not like to be in the shoes of anyone who gets that sticker!
Now a five isn’t really anything to worry about, the impression I got personally is that although technically it is considered a security concern, the majority of Western foreigners travelling through Israel will get this number and they will perform routine security checks on all of us.
Apparently my friend who got a six was deemed more of a security risk than me and got questioned and searched more thoroughly! I kind of feel a bit insulted at that. What’s wrong with me?
The luggage screening and security checkpoint.
After you get designated your number, the next guard checks your sticker and you are directed to a specific line.
Then the waiting begins.
I got a five, so that meant a couple more questions, a step through the metal detector and a thorough bag screening and check.
A friend of mine did receive a six, most likely because she still had a few suspect stamps such as Iran in her passport, and received a lot more questions in a private room and a more thorough bag search than I did.
For me though, with my lowly number 5, I just got the routine questions and bag search. Now I have to say that these procedures were nothing more than you would get at any airport around the world. The only difference in my mind is that in the name of being meticulous and thorough, Israeli security was so damn slow!
I mean there’s being thorough and there’s taking the …
I did refrain from getting annoyed at the two women in front of me who somehow didn’t realise that they would have to go through airport security and spent an extra ten minutes sorting through their bags to separate all their electronics, toiletries and everything else. Okay, I did get annoyed a bit, their blissful self indulgent ignorance was adding even more time to an already lengthy process! this isn’t really rocket science people!
Eventually it was my turn and I placed all my electronic devices and chargers (already separated into their own stuff sacks) into the plastic tray, everything out of my pockets (already held in my hand) next to them, then laid my carry on luggage on top.
For the benefit of the two ladies in front of me, this took approximately 5 seconds.
Then time stopped. My bag – just like every bag before it – was in that X Ray machine for what seemed like a lifetime. The guy sat on the other side staring at the screen casually chatted to his companion as they gave my bag more doses of radiation than the Incredible Hulk and acted as if they were binge watching an entire season of Game Of Thrones on Netflix. It certainly seemed to take as long.
Eventually my bag went through the other side of the machine and I was waved through the metal detector. No problems there, so the guard swabbed my hands and feet – again nothing that doesn’t happen at every other airport – then politely asked me to take a seat while she searched my bag.
And she did. Everything was looked at, every pocket was searched and everything was swabbed for trace elements of explosives or drugs.
Everything here was done out in the open, a couple of passengers at a time while the queue on the other side of the X ray machine was getting longer and longer, and they weren’t in any hurry to move the line along either, they were taking as much time as they needed.
It was then I was really glad I got to the airport early.
The only thing she questioned during the search was my first aid pouch, but a quick look inside satisfied her and she moved on. She was extremely professional, extremely polite and extremely friendly.
I think that is the one message I really want to get across here.
Israeli security is thorough and slow, very slow, but they are polite and professional and certainly nothing to be afraid of.
There was no real difference in my experience – apart from the time and thoroughness – between the checks leaving Israel and the checks leaving any other country around the world. They just took their time and looked a little deeper, it was no big deal. To be honest I waited longer in a queue at Denpasar Airport in Bali because the annoying bloody security guy was trying to chat up all the women passing through ahead of me! No such unprofessional behaviour here!
Granted, I was glad I didn’t get a six on my little security sticker, that definitely would have taken a lot longer than the time it took me to get through on my lowly five, and I have heard people say that they can strip search you, look more thoroughly through your gear and get a lot heavier with the questions, among other things. Obviously the more of a threat they think you are, the more intrusive they are going to get. But at the end of the day all that would have really meant was more questioning and more time taken. An annoyance certainly, but not anything to overly concern myself with.
Just remember to arrive at the airport a little bit early, 3 – 4 hours is enough, just in case they do make you wait, keep your calm and stay relaxed, and you will have no real problems getting through Israeli security at all.
Unless they think you are a security risk!
Ben Gurion International is considered to be one of the safest airports in the world, no flight at the airport has ever been hijacked and they haven’t had a major terrorist incident in almost 50 years, so at the end of the day they have to be doing something right!
Yes security is tight and yes it can be a bit of a pain in the arse when you are stuck in a line that never moves. Ever. I get that. But it really isn’t anything to be overly worried about either. Go and enjoy your trip to Israel, have a great time and let the security guys do their jobs on your way home.
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