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World Travel Guide > Guides > North America > El Salvador

El Salvador travel guide

About El Salvador

The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is big on natural wonders. The word is out among more intrepid travellers that this is the region’s up-and-coming destination. Newcomers are bowled over by the stunning landscape, with smoking volcanoes, surf-pounded beaches, pristine cloud forests and crystalline lagoons. And those in the know are drawn back time and again by its warm-hearted and dynamic people.

This tiny tropical land, about the size of Wales or Massachusetts, is packed with highlights. Magnificent, crowd-free national parks include Cerro Verde, Montecristo and the irresistibly named El Imposible. You can shoot the rapids on whitewater rafts, or take a lazy boat ride across volcanic crater lakes Ilopango and Coatepeque. Surfers flock to the world-class Pacific breakers at Sonsonate, El Zonte and La Unión, only a short drive from the capital. The archaeological remains at Tazumal mark the furthest outpost of the Maya empire; the Ruta de Las Flores features colourful, flower-filled villages, with volcanic hot springs and indigenous craft markets; and Morazán province offers tours of civil war trenches led by former guerrillas turned guides.

El Salvador still has a bad reputation for violent crime, but the truth is that the locals have always suffered much more than tourists at the hands of criminals, most of whom are more concerned with the feuding of rival drug gangs.

The tourism industry is responding rapidly to the country’s rising popularity. Coffee plantations are inviting guests to visit, to eat and drink, to stay, to work. Beach resorts are becoming more boutique, spa hotels are multiplying and the eastern Gulf of Fonseca is being developed, with boat-and-bus routes connecting with neighbouring Nicaragua. El Salvador may not yet be the most comfortable place to visit in the region, but for the increasing number of people who are making the effort, the rewards are plentiful.

Key facts

Area:

21,041 sq km (8,124 sq miles).

Population:

6,146,419 (UN estimate 2016).

Population density:

291.9 per sq km.

Capital:

San Salvador.

Government:

Republic.

Head of state:

President Nayib Bukele since 2019.

Head of government:

President Nayib Bukele since 2019.

Travel Advice

Coronavirus travel health

Check the latest information on risk from COVID-19 for El Salvador on the TravelHealthPro website

See the TravelHealthPro website for further advice on travel abroad and reducing spread of respiratory viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Entry and borders

See Entry requirements to find out what you will need to do when you arrive in El Salvador.

Returning to the UK

When you return, you must follow the rules for entering the UK.

You are responsible for organising your own COVID-19 test, in line with UK government testing requirements. You should contact local authorities for information on testing facilities (only available in Spanish).

Be prepared for your plans to change

No travel is risk-free during COVID. Countries may further restrict travel or bring in new rules at short notice, for example due to a new COVID-19 variant. Check with your travel company or airline for any transport changes which may delay your journey home.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you may need to stay where you are until you test negative. You may also need to seek treatment there.

Plan ahead and make sure you:

  • can access money
  • understand what your insurance will cover
  • can make arrangements to extend your stay and be away for longer than planned

Travel in El Salvador

Most businesses and services are operating. However some COVID-19 restrictions and other measures remain in force.

Anyone leaving their accommodation must wear a face covering. Other measures could be introduced with little or no notice. You should familiarise yourself with any local measures or restrictions, and comply with these and any other emergency measures.

Accommodation

Please check that your planned accommodation is available and whether any COVID-19 restrictions are being applied before travelling.

Public spaces and services

Key services (including most shops, banks, petrol stations and restaurants/take away/home delivery food services) are open; entry controls, temperature checks, social distancing measures and limits on customer numbers are common. Schools and universities and some businesses and organisations, including some tourist visitor facilities, remain closed or require a prior appointment. Large gatherings are discouraged.

Health

British-issued prescriptions cannot be used locally. To find a pharmacy (“farmacia”) look for one of the big national chains such as Farmacia San Nicolas, Farmacias UNO or Farmacias Economicas, among others; a quick search online should help you to identify the nearest open one. For contact details for English speaking doctors visit our list of healthcare providers.

Your emotional and mental wellbeing is important. Read guidance on how to look after your mental wellbeing and mental health.

View Health for further details on healthcare in El Salvador.

See also the guidance on healthcare if you’re waiting to return to the UK.

COVID-19 vaccines if you live in El Salvador

We will update this page when the Government of El Salvador announces new information on the national vaccination programme. You can sign up to get email notifications when this page is updated.

The El Salvador national vaccination programme started in March 2021 and is using the AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac vaccines. The Government of El Salvador has stated that British nationals resident in El Salvador are eligible for vaccination if they choose to join the programme. Further information on the vaccination programme is available on the Government of El Salvador Ministry of Health website.

Find out more, including about vaccines that are authorised in the UK or approved by the World Health Organisation, on the COVID-19 vaccines if you live abroad.

If you’re a British national living in El Salvador, you should seek medical advice from your local healthcare provider. Information about COVID-19 vaccines used in the national programme where you live, including regulatory status, should be available from local authorities.

Finance

For information on financial support you can access whilst abroad, visit our financial assistance guidance.

Further information

If you need urgent consular assistance, contact your nearest British embassy, high commission or consulate. All telephone numbers are available 24/7.

Crime

El Salvador has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America. Violence between gangs is common and targets are usually rival gang members or the military and police. While most gang violence occurs away from tourists and visitors, no location is completely safe. Most visits to El Salvador are trouble-free but there have been isolated attacks on tourists including robberies, car-jackings and violent assaults. You should take the following steps to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of crime:

  • take particular care in downtown San Salvador, other towns or cities, or if you are travelling on roads outside of major towns and cities after dark: the following areas within San Salvador are safer than others at night, but you should still take care: Santa Elena, San Benito, Maquilishuat, La Gran Via and Multiplaza

  • take care when travelling alone; it may be safer to travel with others or take part in a tour with a reputable company; the same applies to walking on remote trails; there have been reports of opportunistic attacks on tourists walking alone

  • if possible keep your valuables including your passport in a safe; carry a photocopy of your passport for identification purposes; take particular care of your personal belongings at bus stations, airports, tourist sites and on public transport

  • avoid displaying items of value, particularly when arriving at the airport; foreigners have been targeted when leaving the airport; don’t wear expensive jewellery and only carry minimal amounts of cash

  • it’s safer to withdraw money from ATMs in shopping centres or change money in hotels or banks; don’t withdraw too much money at one time; foreigners have been attacked after withdrawing money from ATMs; don’t use ATMs at night or in isolated or badly lit areas

  • stick to main roads; avoid travelling on unsurfaced roads as you are at greater risk of attack in remote areas where there are fewer police patrols

  • public buses (repainted old US school buses) are not safe; private inter-city buses are generally safer, although attacks can also occur on these; only use reputable coach companies; for shorter trips within towns and cities, take radio, pre-booked or hotel taxis operated by reputable companies; don’t use unofficial taxis

  • there remains a small risk of kidnapping, despite success by the national police in tackling the problem in recent years; kidnap gangs generally target rich Salvadorians rather than visitors

  • if you’re driving, take extra care at junctions, where stationary traffic is often targeted by armed robbers

  • if you’re attacked, don’t resist

Scams

Foreign visitors and residents can be targeted by scam artists. The scams come in many forms, and can cause great financial loss. If you, or your relatives/friends are asked to transfer money to El Salvador, make absolutely sure it is not part of a scam and that you have properly checked with the person receiving the money that they are requesting it.

Local travel

Should you have any questions on security or local travel; you can call the local tourist police on +503 2511 8300 or 2511 8303 or visit the POLITUR website.

Road travel

You can use your UK Driving Licence to drive in El Salvador for visits of under three months. However, an International Driving Permit is recommended.

Driving standards are variable and you should expect the unexpected. Lane discipline is poor. Car insurance is essential. If you are involved in an accident, contact the national police or the fire brigade by dialling 911. If you are involved in an accident, you should normally wait for the police to arrive.

Always lock doors and keep windows closed.

Roads between the main tourist locations in El Salvador are of a good or acceptable standard. Sometimes manhole covers are stolen, leaving large holes in the road. In more isolated locations, roads are unsurfaced and four-wheel drive vehicles are advisable.

Take particular care when travelling to/from the border with Guatemala. There have been reports of violent attacks on vehicles, particularly on the Guatemalan side of the border. Vehicles with El Salvador number plates are often targeted. It’s better to cross borders in the morning, giving you time to reach your destination before dark. Borders sometimes close in the early evening. Private bus companies are considered safer than public buses for crossing borders.

There may be a small risk of unexploded ordnance (eg landmines) in remote areas. If you are going off-road take local advice and avoid travel to such areas if advised.

Swimming

Swimming on the Pacific coast can be dangerous due to strong undertows. The currents around La Bocana de San Diego are particularly treacherous. Several people have drowned in recent years. There are very few or no lifeguards. You should avoid swimming on isolated beaches, especially after consuming alcohol.

Political situation

There are ongoing political tensions in El Salvador. On the afternoon of Sunday 31 January in the centre of the capital, San Salvador, gunmen opened fire on activists from one of El Salvador’s main opposition parties, killing two people, and injuring five other people. On 1 May, motions carried by the Legislative Assembly to remove the judges who sit in the constitutional chamber of the nation’s Supreme Court and the Attorney General led to calls for protests. The El Salvador Constitution prohibits political activities by foreign nationals, and participation in demonstrations may result in detention and / or deportation. You should avoid large gatherings or demonstrations and exercise caution in public areas.

Consular assistance

The British Embassy in El Salvador reopened in May 2012, but the Embassy doesn’t have a dedicated consular section. For consular assistance during and outside office hours, weekends or holidays, dial (503) 2511 5757 and follow instructions to be transferred to a consular officer. For non urgent assistance email enquiries you can contact: Guatemala.Consulate@fcdo.gov.uk.

Terrorist attacks in El Salvador can’t be ruled out.

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 more about the global threat from terrorism.

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.

This page reflects the UK government’s understanding of current rules for people travelling on a full ‘British Citizen’ passport, for the most common types of travel.

The authorities in El Salvador set and enforce entry rules. For further information 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.

Entry rules in response to coronavirus (COVID-19)

Entry to El Salvador

Local authorities have advised that from 24 March, people seeking to enter El Salvador must be able to show, including to the relevant airline or travel company, that one of the following COVID-19 requirements is met:

  • That you have been vaccinated against COVID-19, including both doses if appropriate for that vaccine make
  • That you have a negative COVID-19 PCR, NAAT or LAMP test certificate issued within a period of no more than 72 hours prior to their arrival in El Salvador

You should contact the Embassy of El Salvador in London for information on other migration requirements and documentation that you may need prior to travelling.

Regular entry requirements

Visas

British passport holders can enter El Salvador for tourism or business for up to 90 days without a visa (subject to COVID restrictions referenced above). This can be extended on application to the Salvadoran immigration department, Centro de Gobierno, San Salvador; Telephone: (503) 2213 7700. For other types of travel, contact the Embassy of El Salvador in London.

If you overstay your visa then you should expect to pay a fine before leaving the country. For information you should contact the Salvadoran immigration department.

Passport validity

Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into El Salvador.

Central America Border Control Agreement

El Salvador is party to the Central America Border Control Agreement (CA-4).  Under the terms of this agreement, British tourists may travel within any of the CA-4 countries (Honduras,Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala) for a period of up to 90 days, without completing entry and exit formalities at border Immigration checkpoints.

The 90 day period begins at the first point of entry of any of the CA-4 countries. Fines are applied for travellers who exceed the 90-day limit, although you can apply for an extension of up to 30 days by paying a fee before the 90 days limit expires. If you’re expelled from any of the 4 countries you are also excluded from the entire CA-4 region.

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 valid for entry to and exit from El Salvador. ETDs must also have a minimum period of 6 months validity from the date you enter El Salvador.

If you’re travelling via the United States of America on an ETD, you’ll need to get a USA visa. For more information, please contact the Embassy of the USA in El Salvador.

There are severe penalties for drug trafficking and drug use in El Salvador. Prisons are overcrowded and violent.

There are no legal provisions for same-sex marriage or adoption in El Salvador. (The Family Code establishes that marriage should happen between a man and a woman, although the Constitution does not make this specific point.) Due to prevailing conservative attitudes and the risk of harassment to same-sex couples public displays of affection are not recommended. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.

Carry a photocopy of the personal details page of your passport for identification purposes.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Check the latest information on risk from COVID-19 for El Salvador on the TravelHealthPro website

See the healthcare information in the Coronavirus section for information on what to do if you think you have coronavirus while in El Salvador.

General health

At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.

General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist is available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you’re abroad.

The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or purchased in the UK can be different in other countries. If you’re travelling with prescription or over-the-counter medicine, read this guidance from NaTHNaC on best practice when travelling with medicines. For further information on the legal status of a specific medicine, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.

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).

Other health risks

Water is not generally safe to drink, but bottled water is widely and cheaply available. Rivers tend to be contaminated and unsafe to swim or bathe in. Cases of typhoid and hepatitis A have increased in recent years, largely due to contaminated water.

UK health authorities have classified El Salvador as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For more information and advice, visit the website of the National Travel Health Network and Centre website.

Cases of Chikungunya virus and dengue fever have also been confirmed in El Salvador.

Local medical care

Medical facilities outside the capital San Salvador are generally basic. State-run hospitals are on the whole under-staffed, under-funded and ill-equipped. Use private clinics and hospitals whenever possible, but be aware that some hospitals may be reluctant to treat you until they are satisfied you have medical insurance.

Not all hospitals will accept patients with COVID-19 symptoms. Those that do often have specific areas set aside for possible COVID-19 patients. You should check before travelling to a hospital.

Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation. Carry a copy of your insurance cover at all times. Most medical staff speak only a little English.

If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 911 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.

Volcanoes

El Salvador has a number of active volcanoes.

Seek local advice before climbing any volcanoes in El Salvador and monitor local media for any updates on increased volcanic activity. You can find volcano warnings on the website of the Directorate General of Civil Protection (in Spanish). When climbing volcanoes or walking in remote areas, it is safer do so in daylight hours and with a tour guide.

Rainy season

The rainy season normally runs from June to November, coinciding with the hurricane season in the Caribbean. During the rainy season you can expect frequent heavy rain, thunder storms and possible tropical depressions. Roads can be affected by landslides and flooding. Mountain areas are particularly vulnerable to landslides.

Monitor local and international weather updates from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), the World Meteorological Organisation and the US National Hurricane Centre. See our Tropical Cyclones page for advice about what to do if you are caught up in a hurricane.

Earthquakes

El Salvador is subject to frequent minor earth tremors and occasional earthquakes. Local information can be found (in Spanish) on the MARN website or their Twitter feed @MARN_SV.

Make sure you know what action to take should an earthquake occur. If you are staying in a hotel read their earthquake instructions. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency website has advice about what to do before, during and after an earthquake or tsunami.

Fire

Fires can increase during the dry season; particularly in San Salvador. You can contact the fire brigade by calling 911.

The US dollar is the official currency in El Salvador.

It is almost impossible to change pounds sterling anywhere in El Salvador, so you should bring a mixture of cash and travellers’ cheques in US dollars. US$50 and US$100 notes are generally not accepted in many smaller restaurants, bars and shops. US$100 and US$50 notes may be exchanged in banks on arrival, but it is advisable to bring smaller denominations with you.

ATMs are widely available. You should inform your bank of your travel plans before you travel to avoid your card being blocked.

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 FCDO in London on 020 7008 5000 (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.

Travel safety

The FCDO 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 FCDO 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 FCDO travel advice

If you’re looking for a previous version of the FCDO travel advice, visit the National Archives website. Versions prior to 2 September 2020 will be archived as FCO travel advice. If you can’t find the page you’re looking for there, send the Travel Advice Team a request.

Further help

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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