Getting a visa for Libya has recently become much easier than it has been in the last 12 years since Ghaddafi was overthrown in the NATO-backed revolution in 2011. Prior to 2011, there was tourism in Libya, still notably less than its neighbours of Tunisia and Egypt, but nevertheless, during this time tourist visas were available.
After the revolution in 2011, those that dared to try get into the country could only do so with a business visa. This visa involved A LOT of restrictions, bureaucracy, heavy fees and there was still not a full guarantee you would be allowed in. Most travellers posed as people working for oil companies, allowing them to then secure a business visa (usually in Rome), and then, they could still only travel in groups as big as four people, heavily guarded for the entire duration of their stay, with no freedom at all.
If you entered previously on the business visa, you were also to follow strict protocols while in the country. You had to have an armed escort wherever you went. Women were told to wear headscarves while in public and once you were at your hotel you were not to leave. These days are now over and a bright tourism future for Libya is on the horizon.
*The Visa on Arrival (VOA) for Libya has currently been suspended as tensions have risen in the country. This will most likely change again in future but for now it is not available.
Tourist visas to Libya are now organised by fixers within Libya who will provide you with documentation that you show upon arrival at Mitiga (Tripoli) International Airport. It’s theoretically a very similar system to that of Turkmenistan , Syria , and several other countries, where you secure some sort of pre-approval, which then allows you to get the “visa” on arrival – the pre-approval of course being the important part. Now, getting a visa has definitely gotten easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s as simple as showing your e-visa form at the airport.
Once you arrive at the airport with your document, you will be met with confused looks from border agents as tourist visas are still quite new (this will likely change as numbers increase, but for now is very much the case). Your fixer will then have to meet you at the immigration desk. They will come with you into the “room” where you will be told to wait while they process it. This takes time, namely because the country is still in a transitional phase and the different offices that process it at the airport don’t exactly work together. In addition to this, they also don’t have a proper machine to print the visa and so it must all be handwritten (likely also to change of course – try and get one of these before it’s too late!). This might not sound too difficult, however if you don’t speak Arabic and someone told you to fill out a visa form in Arabic script, I’m sure you would also struggle.
Your visa as well will only allow you access to certain areas that you must sort out with your fixer before arrival. Once your visa is issued and your permits have been given there is currently absolutely no way to alter your plan. Not even to change around the days of particular activities. For example you’re going to Leptis Magna on Day 3 and Sabratha on Day 4, you can’t just decide on the spot to do Sabratha before Leptis Magna.
You will also be required to have a police escort who will usually come from the tourist police, who will be with you for your whole trip. While in Tripoli, you may also have random plain clothes police people following you. They will try be discreet and they do stay in the background, but you will start to notice them following. Mainly these guys are here just in case something goes wrong or if someone nasty comes to hassle you, and mostly for your protection. They want to put a good image on for the country and this means not letting anything happen to you. But of course, they also don’t want you doing anything you shouldn’t!
The only people that may experience difficulties getting the visa are US citizens, which just may get outright rejected, or people with stamps from many countries that are also conflict zones. For the latter at least a reasonable explanation by your fixer should suffice. We of course all have stamps from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst others and make it through with a little explanation. They are worried about foreigners coming over and working as mercenaries so as long as you don’t look like Rambo you’re probably fine.
*Evidence of previous visits to Israel though, make Libya off-limits for you unfortunately.