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 Gotabaya Rajapakse since 2019.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe since 2018.
Last updated: 26 November 2019
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.
The Sri Lankan presidential elections took place on 16 November 2019. There were sporadic incidents of violence during the campaign and it is possible these will continue into the post – election period. You should take appropriate security precautions, follow local advice, comply with security instructions and avoid large gatherings, protests and rallies.
Monsoon rains have caused flooding in many places in Sri Lanka. The Centre for Disaster Management has issued a general alert. Heavy rains and landslides can also lead to road closures and affect local transport links. If you’re travelling in the area, you should check local advice when planning your journey.
You will need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Department of Immigration & Emigration has announced that British nationals arriving in Sri Lanka before 31 January 2020 on a short visit of up to 30 days are exempt from paying visa fees.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners. More than 250 people including tourists were killed in April 2019 in terrorist attacks that targeted churches and hotels.
Security has been stepped up across the island following the April 2019 attacks, but the State of Emergency has since been lifted. Increased security measures including checkpoints are likely to be in place for events attracting large crowds, such as festivals and other cultural events.
Dengue fever occurs throughout the country.
Sri Lanka can be affected by severe weather such as like tropical cyclones and monsoon rains. A general alert has been issued by the Centre for Disaster Management over the onset of the South Western Monsoon (check local advice before setting out.
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.
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.
Safety and security
There were outbreaks of mob violence following the Easter Sunday attacks. These could happen again with little or no warning. You should remain vigilant, keep up to date with developments and follow the advice of local authorities and hotel security staff.
Violent crimes against foreigners are infrequent, although there have been an increasing number of reports of sexual offences including on minors. When travelling around Sri Lanka, you should make arrangements through reputable travel companies and take care.
Western women continue to report incidents of verbal and physical harassment by groups of men. Such harassment - ranging from sexually suggestive or lewd comments to physical advances and sexual assaults - most frequently happen in crowded areas such as market places, railway stations, buses, public streets and sporting events but can happen anywhere. There has been an increase in sexual attacks against females in tourist areas. There have been reports of drinks being spiked with drugs in bars and restaurants in southern beach resorts. Be careful about taking drinks from strangers at bars and restaurants, and don’t leave drinks unattended. Women should take particular care when travelling alone or in small groups, and carry a personal alarm.
Credit card fraud is a risk for visitors. Use cash wherever possible and only use ATMs attached to banks or major hotels. Don’t lose sight of your credit card if you use it. Some travelers experience problems using their cards on arrival in Sri Lanka when their banks’ automated fraud protection system blocks transactions. It may be possible to avoid this by informing your bank in advance of your intended travel arrangements. There are plenty of money-changers in tourist areas if you want to change cash.
There have been reports of thefts from hotels and guesthouses and of some street crime targeting tourists (e.g. bags being snatched by criminals on mopeds/motorbikes). You should take precautions to safeguard your valuables, especially passports and money.
Gun crime is not uncommon, often involving disputes between different criminal groups.
The Sri Lankan justice system can be very slow.
The FCO can’t offer advice on the safety of every individual airline, but the International Air Transport Association (IATA) 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 doesn’t necessarily mean that it is unsafe.
Local travel - North
There is a visible military presence across the North. Parts of the region remain heavily mined, though the work to clear the minefields continues. You should follow local advice and instructions from the security forces and take seriously signs warning of the danger from landmines.
Local travel - Jaffna Peninsula
There is free movement everywhere outside High Security Zones with fewer checkpoints around the Peninsula. Operations to clear mines continue, particularly in the heavily mined area towards Elephant Pass.
Local travel - Kilinochchi, Mullaittivu, 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. Some areas were heavily mined and operations to clear minefields continue. There are signs warning of mined areas and you should follow any local advice.
Local travel - East
Demining and weapons and ordnance clearance operations are ongoing in parts of the East. There are several areas, primarily former military and police locations that continue to be marked as minefields. Always follow the instructions of the local security forces and look out for signs warning of landmines. Don’t leave the roads or cleared footpaths and, if in any doubt, contact the local security authorities for advice.
Many beaches in Sri Lanka have dangerous surf or rip tides at certain times of the year. Always take local advice before entering the sea. A number of foreign nationals drown every year.
You will need an International Driving Permit and a Sri Lankan recognition permit to drive in Sri Lanka. You can obtain a recognition permit at the AA in Colombo. A British driving licence on its own will not suffice. Always wear a seatbelt and make sure you’re insured.
Main roads in most areas are in a good condition, but some roads, particularly in more remote areas, may be in a state of disrepair. Driving is erratic and there are frequent road accidents, particularly at night. Pedestrians and animals often appear in the road without warning. Vehicles don’t stop at pedestrian crossings. Riding a motorbike is 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.
Security checkpoints and roadblocks still occur in parts of the country. Take care when passing through them, and always obey the instructions of the police or army on duty. There have been a few cases where security forces have opened fire on vehicles that don’t stop when asked. Roads around Government and military sites in Colombo are regularly closed for security reasons (e.g. VIP convoys).
Public buses are notorious for driving fast and rarely giving way. They are often poorly maintained. A number of serious bus accidents have occurred in recent years. Tourist buses tend to be driven more professionally and safely, but standards can vary.
Taxis are inexpensive and many are now available via local and international taxi apps, particularly in Colombo (coverage can be patchy 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. Most travellers report no difficulties, although there have been reports of harassment, particularly of female travellers in the evening or at night. Change to a different rickshaw if you have any concerns about the driver or standard of driving.
There have been a number of fatal accidents when visitors have hung out of the open doorways or windows of trains. You should remember that there is a very real risk of death or serious injury if you do not stay within the train carriage while the train is not stopped at a station. Visitors should also be aware that there are reports of theft of travellers’ personal belongings during train journeys, including theft of briefly unattended belongings, or pick pocketing. Take care of your possessions at all times.
Entry into Sri Lankan waters, at any point, requires prior permission.
You should avoid the coastline and adjacent territorial sea of the Trincomalee, Mullaittivu, Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mannar administrative districts in the north and east, which have been declared restricted zones by the Sri Lankan authorities.
While there have been no successful piracy attacks since May 2012 off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, the threat of piracy related activity and armed robbery in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean remains significant. Reports of attacks on local fishing dhows in the area around the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa continue. The combined threat assessment of the international Naval Counter Piracy Forces remains that all sailing yachts under their own passage should remain out of the designated High Risk Area or face the risk of being hijacked and held hostage for ransom. For more information and advice, see our Piracy and armed robbery at sea page.
You should be aware that some wildlife can be dangerous. If in doubt follow advice from authorised guides or local authorities. Wild elephants and crocodiles in particular are generally treated with respect and caution by Sri Lankans, for good reason, as both 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.
Political rallies and electoral periods in Sri Lanka have occasionally turned violent. You should avoid any political gathering or rally and be wary of spontaneous large gatherings. You should carry your passport as official photographic identification with you at all times. You should follow local news closely in case a curfew or other restrictions are announced.
Nationalist rhetoric has in the past led to anti-western protests against the British High Commission and other diplomatic premises, but these have become less common in recent years. Although no protests have so far been directed at the British community more generally, you should be vigilant and avoid demonstrations.
Terrorists are very likely to try to 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 21 April 2019, bombs were used to attack 3 churches and 3 hotels in Sri Lanka: in central Colombo; in the northern suburb of Colombo Kochchikade; and in Negombo roughly twenty miles north of Colombo; and in the east of the country in Batticaloa. More than 250 people were killed, including 8 British nationals.
Security has been stepped up across the island. The Sri Lankan authorities have made a number of arrests in relation to the attacks, and security operations are ongoing.
If you witnessed or were affected by the April 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka, consult this guidance on support available to victims of terrorism. This includes a 24/7 support line, offering emotional support for anyone affected by an attack, and it is free to call.
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.
Local laws and customs
Following the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, the Sri Lankan authorities announced emergency regulations that ban the wearing of clothing or objects that conceal the face in such a way that prevents the wearer’s identification.
The Sri Lankan government published a revised list of organisations and individuals proscribed under Sri Lankan law in November 2016. The list no longer includes the British Tamil Forum (BTF) or the Global Tamil Forum (GTF).
There are severe penalties for all drug offences and crimes related to the abuse of children. In some circumstances you can be held without charge indefinitely. Convicted offenders may face a lengthy jail sentence.
It’s Sri Lankan law that you must carry an official form of identification at all times. For foreign nationals, the acceptable form of identification is your passport. If you do not have it with you and you’re stopped by the authorities, you may be detained. If you’re detained, you should ask the authorities to contact the British High Commission.
Same-sex relations are illegal but the FCO is not aware of any prosecutions. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
Nude or topless sunbathing is not allowed.
Although Sri Lankan attitudes to informal styles of dress are generally relaxed, women travelling alone may feel uncomfortable if not dressed modestly. Cover your legs and shoulders, and take off shoes and hats if you are entering a Buddhist temple.
The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and tourists have been convicted for this. British nationals have been refused entry to Sri Lanka or faced deportation for having visible tattoos of Buddha. Don’t pose for photographs standing in front of a statue of Buddha.
Don’t take photographs of military bases, government buildings or vehicles used by VIPs (this includes numerous sites in central Colombo).
You can be fined if you ignore instructions not to smoke or drink in certain public areas.
Alcohol and meat are not usually available on religious holidays. Drinking in public on these days would be seen by many as culturally insensitive.
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.
You will need to get a visa to enter Sri Lanka. If you’re staying for less than 30 days, the Sri Lankan immigration authorities recommend that you get a visa online (ETA) from the official portal before you travel.
The Sri Lankan Department of Immigration & Emigration has announced that British nationals arriving in Sri Lanka before 31 January 2020 on a short visit of up to 30 days are exempt from paying visa fees. For the latest information and advice on visas, check with the Sri Lankan High Commission in the UK.
If you’re travelling for paid or unpaid work, and/or are planning a visit of longer than 30 days, you should get a visa from the Sri Lankan High Commission before you travel.
Overstaying your visa will attract a fine and possible detention and deportation. If you have overstayed your visa, you must report to the Department of Immigration & Emigration
Visas on arrival have been suspended for all travellers arriving from Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry to Sri Lanka.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents are accepted for entry, airside transit and exit from Sri Lanka.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.
Visit your health professional at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip to check whether you need any vaccinations or other preventive measures.
Check the latest country-specific information and advice is published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website or from NHS (Scotland) on the fitfortravel website. Useful information and advice about healthcare abroad is also available on the NHS Choices website.
Emergency medical treatment isn’t easily available outside main cities, and you may have to be brought to Colombo for treatment. Medical facilities are not always of a standard expected in the UK, particularly outside Colombo. 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.
While travel can be enjoyable, it can sometimes be challenging. There are clear links between mental and physical health, so looking after yourself during travel and when abroad is important. Information on travelling with mental health conditions is available in our guidance page. Further information is also available from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC).
All regions of Sri Lanka experience outbreaks of the mosquito-borne dengue fever. The Epidemiological Unit of the Ministry of Health issued a public message on 9 September 2019. You should take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 011 2691111 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment
The Disaster Management Centre of Sri Lanka issues updates and advice about local travel conditions.
The Sri Lankan Department of Meteorology provides local weather forecasts.
See our tropical cyclones page for advice about what to do if you’re caught up in a storm.
Monsoon rains can cause brief but swift flooding in many places in Sri Lanka. Floods can cause widespread displacement of people, injuries and occasionally deaths. Heavy rains and landslips can also lead to road closures and affect local transport links.
for the latest updates on flooding and seek local advice about travelling conditions during the monsoons.
You can’t exchange Scottish or Northern Irish bank notes in Sri Lanka. Travellers’ cheques aren’t normally accepted. Most major banks will allow Visa and Mastercard cash withdrawals. There are ATMs in major towns and cities but not all of them accept international cards.
It’s relatively easy to send funds to Sri Lanka. However, money can’t be transferred out of the country without an exchange control permit issued by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. For further information and a contact point see this Central Bank of Sri Lanka guide.
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.
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