Sri Lanka travel guide
About Sri Lanka
Southern India meets Buddhist Asia; Sri Lanka is a land of ancient ruins and religious relics, palm-fringed beaches and colourful reefs, balmy rainforests and local legends.
With memories of civil war receding, and a new government intent on healing the scars of the past, this sun-kissed island nation looks set to regain its position as the holiday capital of the Indian Ocean.
Life in Sri Lanka is dictated by the sea. Monsoon winds create the seasons, rainbow-coloured fishing boats deliver the bounty of the Indian Ocean to the nation’s tables and tropical surf washes endlessly against the island’s golden beaches. For many, this is the perfect introduction to the Indian Subcontinent.
While Hinduism holds sway in nearby India, Buddhism dominates Sri Lanka. Ancient temples and enigmatic dagobas (stupas) enshrine relics of Buddha, shaded by saplings taken from the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. At times, Sri Lanka’s Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minorities have struggled in the face of Buddhist domination, but it has shaped this island nation for millennia.
Across Sri Lanka, the ruins of ancient cities emerge from the jungle, while the remnants of Indian, Portuguese, Dutch and British settlements add to the delightful mishmash of historic architecture. Perhaps the most evocative monuments are Sri Lanka’s ancient monasteries, which are still major centres for pilgrimage and devotion, particularly during the island’s epic festivals.
In the Hill Country, the centre of the British occupation, colonial-era trains still wind their way through tea plantations and cascading paddy fields, but this highly populated little island is far from frozen in time: the coastline is peppered with modern resorts, beach bars, bronzed surfers and boutiques full of designer swimwear.
Elsewhere the forests of Yala, Udawalawe and other national parks teem with monkeys, leopards and wild elephants, while sea turtles, dolphins and blue whales can be spotted around the coast. Not bad for an island similar in size to South Carolina.
65,610 sq km (25,332 sq miles).
20,995,130 (UN estimate 2018).
335 per sq km.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe since 2022.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardene since 2022.
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provides advice about risks of travel to help British nationals make informed decisions. Find out more about FCDO travel advice.
Before you travel
No travel can be guaranteed safe. Read all the advice in this guide as well as support for British nationals abroad which includes:
- advice on preparing for travel abroad and reducing risks
- information for women, LGBT+ and disabled travellers
If you choose to travel, research your destinations and get appropriate travel insurance. Insurance should cover your itinerary, planned activities and expenses in an emergency.
This advice reflects the UK government’s understanding of current rules for people travelling on a full ‘British citizen’ passport from the UK, for the most common types of travel.
The authorities in Sri Lanka set and enforce entry rules. If you’re not sure how these requirements apply to you, contact the Sri Lankan High Commission in the UK.
There are no COVID-19 testing or vaccination requirements for travellers entering Sri Lanka.
Passport validity requirements
To enter Sri Lanka, your passport must have an ‘expiry date’ at least 6 months after the day you arrive.
Check with your travel provider that your passport and other travel documents meet requirements. Renew your passport if you need to.
You will be denied entry if you do not have a valid travel document or try to use a passport that has been reported lost or stolen.
Tourist visas are normally valid for 30 days. If you overstay your visa you could be fined or detained by the police.
You must follow the guidelines for tourists issued by Sri Lanka’s Immigration and Emigration department.
Applying for a visa
You can get and pay for a Sri Lanka ‘Electronic Travel Authorisation’ (ETA) online, a few days before you arrive. You should get your approval notice within 24 hours, and you can use this to enter Sri Lanka.
You can also get a 30-day tourist visa on arrival if you land at Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. It costs 60 US dollars, which is 10 US dollars more than the ETA.
You can complete an online arrival form 3 days before arriving in Sri Lanka. The service is free and may save time when you arrive.
If you want to stay for more than 30 days, up to 180 days, you need to apply online as you cannot apply on arrival.
If you want to extend your visa, contact the Immigration and Emigration department.
You do not need a visa if you’re travelling through Sri Lanka by air, as long as the connecting flight is within 24 hours of your arrival. Check with your airline about transit times.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the vaccinations and certificates you need in TravelHealthPro’s Sri Lanka’s guide.
Depending on your circumstances, this may include a yellow fever vaccination certificate.
There are strict rules about goods you can take into or out of Sri Lanka. You must declare anything that may be prohibited or subject to tax or duty.
Taking money into Sri Lanka
Most major banks allow Visa and Mastercard cash withdrawals. There are ATMs in major towns and cities, but not all accept international cards.
You cannot transfer money without an exchange control permit issued by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
Some travellers have reported problems using cards on arrival in Sri Lanka when their bank’s automated fraud protection system blocks transactions. Inform your bank in advance of your intended travel arrangements.
There is a high threat of terrorist attack globally affecting UK interests and British nationals, including from groups and individuals who view the UK and British nationals as targets. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times.
UK Counter Terrorism Policing has information and advice on staying safe abroad and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Find out how to reduce your risk from terrorism while abroad.
Terrorism in Sri Lanka
Terrorists are likely to try and carry out attacks in Sri Lanka.
Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners such as hotels, tourist sites and places of worship. Avoid crowded public places, large gatherings and demonstrations, and follow the advice of local authorities.
On Easter Sunday in April 2019, more than 250 people, including 8 British nationals, were killed in terrorist attacks against 3 churches and 3 hotels in Sri Lanka: in Colombo, Negombo and in Batticaloa.
Security was stepped up across the island. The Sri Lankan authorities made a number of arrests in relation to the attacks.
Political and economic situation
In 2022, large-scale protests resulted in violence, injuries and loss of life.
Protests, demonstrations, roadblocks and violent unrest can happen anywhere across the island at short notice, and security authorities may use tear gas and water cannons against protesters. The authorities may impose restrictions, including curfews, with little or no notice.
Avoid demonstrations, political protests or large gatherings. Monitor local media and sign up to get email notifications when this advice is updated.
Sri Lanka’s economic situation may limit the availability of some products, including food and medicines. Hospitals and other medical services may also be affected. There may be occasional power cuts.
If you have a health condition, speak to your healthcare provider before travelling to Sri Lanka. Make sure you have adequate supplies of any medicines you need with you.
Protecting yourself and your belongings
There’s been an increase in incidents of low-level opportunistic crime because of the current economic situation. Store your belongings as safely as possible to avoid thefts from hotels and guesthouses and minimise the number of personal items you carry with you.
On the street, criminals may ride past on mopeds or motorbikes and try to snatch your bag. Take care of your passport and money by keeping them in a body-belt. Carry bags on the side of you that is furthest from the road and do not place bags in the front basket of bicycles.
If your bag has a shoulder strap, do not wrap the strap around your arm or shoulder and do not try to hold on to your bag. People have been injured by being pulled to the ground by their bag straps.
Violent crimes against foreigners are rare. Gun crime is not uncommon, but usually it is due to a dispute between different criminal groups.
Using bank cards safely
Credit card fraud is common. Do not let your card out of your sight during transactions. Only use ATMs attached to banks or major hotels.
Visitors have reported spiked drinks in bars and restaurants in southern beach resorts after accepting drinks or food from strangers or leaving drinks unattended.
Women continue to report incidents of verbal and physical harassment by men, ranging from sexually suggestive or lewd comments to physical advances and sexual assaults.
Incidents can happen anywhere, but the majority of reported cases take place in crowded areas including:
- bus and railway stations, or on buses
- sporting events
- tourist sites
Take care when travelling alone or in small groups, and consider carrying a personal alarm.
Laws and cultural differences
You must carry an official form of identification at all times. Your passport is an acceptable form of identification. If you do not have it with you and are stopped or detained by the authorities, ask them to contact the British High Commission.
Alcohol laws and bans
You could be fined if you ignore instructions not to drink in certain public areas.
Alcohol is not usually available on religious holidays. Drinking in public on these days could be culturally insensitive. Check locally for dates of religious holidays of when this would apply.
Smoking and e-cigarette bans
You could be fined if you ignore signs not to smoke in certain public areas.
Detention and prison sentences
There are severe penalties for drug offences, terrorism and all other serious crimes. You could be held without charge indefinitely. If convicted, you may face a lengthy jail sentence.
If you’re arrested under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, you could be detained without charge awaiting a trial date.
Using cameras, binoculars and drones in secure areas
Do not fly drones near, use binoculars to look at, or take photographs of:
- military bases
- government buildings
- vehicles used by VIPs
Check how to register and operate drones with Sri Lanka’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Same-sex relations are illegal, but the FCDO is not aware of any prosecutions.
Read more advice for LGBT+ travellers.
Laws on clothing
Nude or topless sunbathing is not allowed.
Sri Lankan attitudes to informal styles of dress are generally relaxed, but women travelling alone may feel uncomfortable if not dressed modestly. If you enter a Buddhist temple:
- cover your legs and shoulders
- take off shoes and hats
Disrespecting Buddhist images and artefacts, or making offensive remarks about religion, is a serious offence and can lead to arrest. If you have visible tattoos of Buddha, you can been refused entry to Sri Lanka or face deportation. Do not pose for photographs standing in front of a statue of Buddha.
Some Sri Lankan animals can be dangerous. If in doubt, follow advice from authorised guides or local authorities. Wild elephants and crocodiles will attack humans on occasion. Though not common in populated areas, venomous insects and snakes are found in many parts of the country. Feral dogs are common and sometimes carry rabies.
Outdoor activities and adventure tourism
Many beaches in Sri Lanka have dangerous surf or rip tides at certain times of the year. Seek advice from your hotel or tour operator before going in the sea.
You need a 1949 International Driving Permit and a Sri Lankan recognition permit to drive a hire car or motorcycle.
You cannot buy an IDP outside the UK, so get one before you travel. Find your nearest post office branch that offers this service.
Before you start driving, take your UK driving licence and your IDP along with 2 passport photos to the office of the Automobile Association of Ceylon at 40 Sir Mohomad Macan Markar Mawatha, Colombo 00300, to verify your documents and get a recognition permit. Your hire car company may be able to help with this.
Some roads, particularly in more remote areas, may be in poor condition. Driving is erratic and there are frequent road accidents, particularly at night. Pedestrians and animals often appear in the road without warning. Riding a motorbike can be particularly dangerous.
If you have a collision, stay at the site of the accident with your vehicle as long as it is safe to do so. If it is not safe or if you feel threatened, report to the local police station.
There are still security checkpoints on main roads in parts of the country. Follow the instructions of the police or army officers on duty. Security forces have opened fire on vehicles that have not stopped when asked. Roads around government and military sites in Colombo are often closed for security reasons, such as access for VIP convoys.
Public buses are often driven fast and rarely give way. They are often poorly maintained. There have been serious bus accidents in recent years. Tourist buses are usually driven more professionally and safely, but standards can vary.
You can book taxis using local and international taxi apps. There is less availability outside tourist areas. Motorised rickshaws (tuk-tuks) are available for hire in towns and villages. Agree a price before you set off or look for one with a working meter.
There are occasional reports of harassment, particularly of female travellers at night. Change to a different tuk-tuk or taxi if you have any concerns about the driver or their standard of driving.
You may have difficulty getting a taxi or tuk-tuk if there are fuel shortages. There may be limited or no service during curfews.
When travelling by train, make sure you stay within the train carriage while the train is moving. There have been fatal accident when visitors have hung out of open doorways or windows of trains. Take care of your personal possessions at all times. There have been incidents of theft and pickpocketing.
You need prior permission to enter Sri Lankan waters and the security zones in coastal areas.
The threat of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean remains significant. The combined threat assessment of the international Naval Counter Piracy Forces is that all sailing yachts under their own passage should stay out of the designated High Risk Area or face the risk of being hijacked and held hostage for ransom.
See more advice on piracy and armed robbery at sea.
Extreme weather and natural disasters
Monsoon rains can cause flooding in many places in Sri Lanka. Floods can cause widespread displacement of people, injuries and occasional deaths. Heavy rains and landslips can also lead to road closures and affect local transport links.
Northern Sri Lanka
There is a visible military presence across the north. Follow local advice and instructions from the security forces and take seriously warning signs about landmines.
Operations to clear mines continue, particularly in the heavily mined area towards Elephant Pass. However, apart from High Security Zones, there is free movement with fewer checkpoints.
Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya
There is a visible military presence. There was severe war damage to property throughout the northern region so accommodation options and infrastructure are limited. Follow any local advice about signs warning of mined areas.
Eastern Sri Lanka
De-mining and clearance operations are ongoing in parts of east Sri Lanka. There are several areas, primarily former military and police locations, that continue to be marked as minefields. Follow the instructions of the local security forces and look out for signs warning of landmines. Do not leave the roads or cleared footpaths and, if in any doubt, contact the local security authorities for advice.
Before you travel check that:
- your destination can provide the healthcare you may need
- you have appropriate travel insurance for local treatment or unexpected medical evacuation
This is particularly important if you have a health condition or are pregnant.
Emergency medical number
Dial 011 2691111 and ask for an ambulance.
Contact your insurance company promptly if you’re referred to a medical facility for treatment.
Vaccinations and health risks
At least 8 weeks before your trip check:
- the latest information on vaccinations and health risks in TravelHealthPro’s Sri Lanka guide
- where to get vaccines and whether you have to pay on the NHS travel vaccinations page
All regions of Sri Lanka experience outbreaks of the mosquito-borne dengue fever. Take precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.
The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or bought in the UK can be different in other countries.
The NHS has information on whether you can take your medicine abroad.
Healthcare facilities in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s economic situation may limit healthcare services. Public hospitals may face shortages of imported medicines and medical equipment. Private hospitals are likely to have better supplies. Fuel shortages and power cuts may affect hospital and other medical services.
Emergency medical treatment outside main cities is not readily available and you may have to be brought to Colombo for treatment. Treatment in private hospitals can be expensive and the options for repatriation to the UK or neighbouring countries in an emergency are limited and very expensive. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
FCDO has a list of English-speaking doctors in Sri Lanka.
COVID-19 healthcare in Sri Lanka
If you test positive for COVID-19, you will be expected to isolate for 7 days in line with this guidance from the Government of Sri Lanka.
Travel and mental health
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) cannot provide tailored advice for individual trips. Read this travel advice and carry out your own research before deciding whether to travel.
Emergency services in Sri Lanka
Ambulance: 011 2691111 or 1990
Fire and Rescue: 111
Emergency Police Mobile Squad: 011 5717171
Tourist Police: 011 2421052
Contact your travel provider and insurer
Contact your travel provider and your insurer if you are involved in a serious incident or emergency abroad. They will tell you if they can help and what you need to do.
Refunds and changes to travel
For refunds or changes to travel, contact your travel provider. You may also be able to make a claim through insurance. However, insurers usually require you to talk to your travel provider first.
Find out more about changing or cancelling travel plans, including:
- where to get advice if you are in a dispute with a provider
- how to access previous versions of travel advice to support a claim
Support from FCDO
FCDO has guidance on staying safe and what to do if you need help or support abroad, including:
- finding English-speaking lawyers or funeral directors in Sri Lanka
- dealing with a death in Sri Lanka
- being arrested or imprisoned in Sri Lanka
- getting help if you’re a victim of crime
- what to do if you’re in hospital
- if you’re affected by a crisis, such as a terrorist attack
Help abroad in an emergency
If you’re in Sri Lanka and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the British High Commission in Colombo.
You can also contact FCDO online.
FCDO in London
You can call FCDO in London if you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad.
Telephone: 020 7008 5000 (24 hours)
Risk information for British companies
The Overseas Business Risk service offers information and advice for British companies operating overseas on how to manage political, economic, and business security-related risks.