Sierra Leone travel guide
About Sierra Leone
Like one of its rough diamonds, Sierra Leone is a destination of exquisite natural beauty and great potential. But despite its lush rainforests, palm-fringed beaches, fascinating history and vibrant culture, the country remains largely unexplored and undiscovered.
It’s hard to believe now, but Sierra Leone once attracted some 100,000 tourists a year. They were drawn to the country’s white sandy beaches, azure waters and swaying palms, until the horrors of civil war ravaged the country and knocked it off the tourism map.
Suffice to say Sierra Leone remains somewhat overshadowed by this bitter and bloody conflict, which raged between 1991 and 2002. Dramatised in the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the war is still one of the first things most people think about when Sierra Leone is mentioned.
Happily, this negative reputation is gradually receding and a new picture is emerging. Pioneering travellers are also trickling back to this corner of West Africa to rediscover the country’s many charms.
In some ways, nothing has changed. Known locally as ‘Sweet Salone’, Sierra Leone remains one of the friendliest countries on the continent. The smiling people and relaxed vibe are characteristic of this small nation. Wherever you go, and whomever you meet, you’ll be greeted as though you are part of the family.
Another thing you will notice in Sierra Leone is the abundance of wildlife. From hippos, forest elephants and chimpanzees, to bountiful birds and exotic insects, Salone is a dream ticket for nature enthusiasts. Pack your binoculars.
It’s also paradise for sun-seekers. In fact Sierra Leone’s gorgeous sandy beaches are considered by many to be the best in West Africa. Combine this with the country’s off-the-beaten track feel, welcoming people, and awe-inspiring scenery, and it’s easy to see why ‘Sweet Salone’ is being vaunted as an up-and-coming destination for intrepid travellers.
71,740 sq km (27,699 sq miles).
6,592,102 (UN estimate 2016).
82 per sq km.
President Ernest Bai Koroma since 2007.
President Ernest Bai Koroma since 2007.
Last updated: 20 February 2018
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
If you travel outside the Freetown peninsula, try to complete your travel during the hours of daylight, inform your employers of your whereabouts and make sure they have copies of your itinerary.
Terrorist attacks in Sierra Leone can’t be ruled out. Attacks could be indiscriminate. You should be vigilant, especially in places visited by foreigners.
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.
Safety and security
Most visits to Sierra Leone are incident free. But a small number of incidents have been reported of British nationals being robbed, sometimes at knife-point. These incidents were reported in the areas of Congo Cross, Wilkinson Road, Lumley Beach and Aberdeen.
The greatest risk to short-stay travellers is from pick pocketing and mugging in Freetown. If you are staying for a longer period make sure your property is secured properly and employ guards.
You should take the following precautions against crime:
- avoid crowds and political demonstrations
- don’t display or carry expensive items or large sums of money
- avoid walking alone after dark
- plan your transport arrangements and minimise use of public transport, taxis, poda-podas (minibuses) and Ocadas (motorbikes). Some robberies have been carried out by associates of the drivers and other passengers.
- familiarise yourself with your surroundings and remain vigilant.
Local Travel (Getting to Freetown from the airport)
Lungi airport is situated on the far side of a wide estuary from Freetown. There are several transfer options from Lungi airport including by road, ferry, water taxi and local boats or pirogues. The 3 main water taxi operators run reliable services, with safe vessels.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) staff operate a policy of informed choice and use all of the transport options available with the exception of local boats (such as the local canoes and wooden pirogues).
If you plan to stay at one of the Lungi Airport hotels book early as rooms are extremely limited and in high demand.
Transfer by road
The journey time by road is normally between 3 and 5 hours. You should prearrange pick-up as there are no car hire facilities at the airport. The Consular section at the British High Commission can provide lists of Freetown-based car hire companies. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) staff don’t use this option for travel after dark.
Transfer by sea
During the rainy season (May to October) rough sea conditions may lead to delays or cancellations. If you choose to cross the estuary, it’s good practice to notify a reliable contact of your departure and expected arrival times and agree what action they will take if you don’t arrive at the expected time.
Water taxi – the journey time is usually 25 minutes on the water. These water taxis operate between Freetown (Lumley area) and Lungi. They have navigational aids, night lights and provide life jackets for passengers. They have limited rescue capability. Operators run scheduled services at set times that are aligned with the flight arrivals and departures. Check the times before you travel. Water taxis can be privately chartered if you miss your crossing, though this will be more expensive.
Ferry – the journey time is about 1 hour on the water. The service terminates in Freetown in the eastern end of the city. You should pre-plan your onward journey from there, particularly if you’re arriving at night. The service offers a crossing for both foot passengers and vehicles. The ferry lacks basic safety equipment. Foreign foot passengers have reported being pick-pocketed.
Local boats/pirogues – these craft operate without lights and any safety equipment. You should avoid using these craft.
Plan your journeys outside Freetown, travel in convoy if possible and report your progress. Have a plan for what to do and where to go in case of emergencies.
Make sure you use well maintained vehicles. Erratic driving is common and motorbikes are a particular problem. Most roads have little or no lighting and have hazards like vehicles with no lights, wandering pedestrians and animals. Serious traffic accidents are common.
Children will sometimes put a rope across the road and ask for a small donation for mending the road. These incidents are most common at the weekend and on roads to tourist beaches in the Western Area. The rope will be lifted if you indicate that you don’t intend to stop. You can distinguish them from official police checkpoints, which are manned by uniformed officers with marked barriers.
FCO staff avoid road travel outside the Freetown peninsula during night hours.
FCO staff do not use local taxis, poda-podas (minibuses) or ocadas (motorbikes).
The FCO can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe.
A list of recent incidents and accidents in Sierra Leone can be found on the website of the Aviation Safety network.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation carried out an audit of the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone has many attractive beaches, but strong currents exist at some. Seek local advice about conditions. There are no lifeguards. Swimming is at your own risk. Beware of hospital waste, including needles, on Lumley beach.
Sierra Leone has taken significant strides following 3 democratic elections since the end of its civil war in 2002 and the political situation is stable. The next Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on 7 March 2018, with a run-off, if necessary, scheduled around 2 weeks after that. Campaigning has started, and you should avoid political rallies.
Vehicular movement will be restricted on election day, which will be a public holiday. Only accredited vehicles and personnel will be able to move freely around the country. For operational reasons, and until such time as the election results are known, the UK mission will be limiting country-wide movement of some staff around the time of the election.
Water and power
Mains water is limited. Power is improving but remains unreliable. Rented accommodation and hotels rely on generators and private water supplies.
No mobile network provides country-wide coverage. Some areas have no mobile reception. There’s no public telephone system and landline connections are poor. It is not possible to call a Sierra Leone mobile phone from a Sierra Leone landline and vice-versa.
Terrorist attacks in Sierra Leone can’t be ruled out. Sierra Leone contributes to the UN peacekeeping initiative in Mali (MINUSMA) and may therefore be considered a legitimate target by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQ-M) and its associated groups.
As seen in Mali, Côte D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, terrorist groups continue to mount attacks on beach resorts, hotels, cafés and restaurants visited by foreigners. There may be heightened security in these places.
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.
Local laws and customs
Sierra Leone has a tolerant multi-religious culture. You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend other cultures or religious beliefs.
Don’t become involved with drugs of any kind.
All precious stones require an export licence. Check the quality of any gems and/or minerals you buy. Any deals that appear too good to be true probably are.
If you commit any criminal offences, including drug trafficking and diamond smuggling you can expect to be subjected to local law. There are heavy penalties and local prison conditions are harsh.
Homosexual acts are illegal in Sierra Leone. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
You should carry ID (passport or residence permit) at all times.
The Sierra Leone Police levy a SLL300,000 fee for all foreign nationals who need a police report. They are unable to issue crime reference numbers without a police report. You should make your payment to the Sierra Leone Police Revenue Generation Fund Account at the Bank of Sierra Leone and get a receipt. Don’t pay the Sierra Leone Police direct. If you wish to report a crime but do not require a crime reference number or a written report there will be no charge.
Adoption orders from Sierra Leone are not recognised in the UK. The Government of Sierra Leone, together with UNICEF, are tackling issues related to the trafficking of children. If you are planning to adopt a child make sure you comply with Sierra Leone’s adoption laws. The government office responsible for adoptions in Sierra Leone is the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (Telephone: +232 76 624 597).
The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
All British nationals need a visa to enter Sierra Leone. Contact the Sierra Leonean High Commission in London.
The Sierra Leone High Commission in London sometimes issues Emergency Travel Certificates to Sierra Leoneans resident in the UK and those with dual British/Sierra Leone nationality. These documents are not valid for return travel to the UK. Sierra Leone nationals require a visa for the UK, which can only be issued in a full passport.
Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the time of your visa application.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) are not valid for entry into Sierra Leone. ETDs are accepted for airside transit and exit from Sierra Leone
Visit your health professional at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip to check whether you need any vaccinations or other preventive measures. Country specific information and advice is published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre on the TravelHealthPro website and by NHS (Scotland) on the fitfortravel website. Useful information and advice about healthcare abroad is also available on the NHS Choices website.
The World Health Organisation declared Sierra Leone Ebola transmission free in March 2016.
If you’re concerned that you might have been exposed to Ebola, or are showing symptoms, you should seek immediate medical advice. If you’re in the UK call NHS on 111. You should also follow the health advice on the NHS Choices website.
If you travel to Sierra Leone, especially whilst on business, you should stay in contact with your employer or host organisation about the support that they can provide to you while you’re in the country, and if you should wish to leave.
Rabies, Lassa fever, water-borne diseases, malaria and other tropical diseases are common to Sierra Leone. Vaccination against yellow fever is required to enter Sierra Leone.
Cholera is endemic in Sierra Leone with outbreaks, particularly during the rainy season, in areas where there is poor sanitation. You should drink or use only boiled or bottled water and avoid ice in drinks.
In the 2016 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic the UNAIDS/WHO Working Group estimated that around 67,000 people in Sierra Leone were living with HIV. You should exercise precautions to avoid exposure to HIV/AIDS.
Sierra Leone has a cash-based society and bank or credit cards are only accepted in a few hotels in Freetown. There are a few ATMs in the capital, but you should be vigilant when using them because of high levels of fraud. Outside the capital bank and credit cards are not accepted and you should assume that ATMs will not be available.
Opportunities to exchange travellers’ cheques are limited. All foreign exchange transactions must be handled through banks and official exchange offices. A small number of banks in central Freetown may be prepared to accept credit cards to buy local currency.
Travel advice help and support
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).
Foreign travel checklist
Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.
The FCO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Registering your travel details with us
We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.
Previous versions of FCO travel advice
If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.