16 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Sri Lanka is an island country off the coast of India filled with endless beaches, timeless ruins, lush jungles, and a plethora of wild elephants. It is becoming more and more popular as a tourist destination due to it's variety of landscapes and activities, combined with its cheap cost! Here are 16 things you need to know before you visit!

1. Visa

As an American citizen, you DO need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. (Check here for your country) You can easily apply online here, and will receive it via email within 48 hours for $30 USD. Or you can get one upon arrival for $35 USD. The visa is valid for 30 days, and if you wish to extend it, you must go into the Department of Immigration in Colombo. (*From August 1, 2019 until January 31, 2020 the following countries' fee will be waived in order to increase tourism. AKA- don't buy a visa online if you are traveling to Sri Lanka within this time. Once you arrive you will get the visa in your passport for free!)

USA, Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, EU (29 countries), Israel, Iceland, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, China, Ukraine, UK, S. Korea, Malaysia, India, Philippines, Canada, Switzerland, Indonesia, & Russia

2. Budget

It's important to stick to a budget when traveling to make sure you don't break the bank! I set a budget for myself of $25 USD per day for everything: food, accommodation, transportation, entertainment, etc. I used my Trail Wallet app (see all must-have travel apps here) to track my expenses and see if I stuck to it. After 12 days in Sri Lanka, I only averaged $21 per day. Here's an average breakdown of what you'll spend:

- Accommodation: $3-5 USD (dorm bed or basic double room split with partner)

- Food: $1-3 USD local meal, $4-7 Western meal

- Transportation: $0.50-4 USD (bus travel is soooo cheap!)

3. Take the public bus from the airport

You will most likely arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport since it's the biggest in the country. However, it's actually a lot farther from the capital city of Colombo than you'd think. It will cost at least 2500-3000 LKR ($13-16 USD) for a car to the city, which is insanely expensive. If you follow the signs for the airport bus station, you can hop on any bus that says "Central Bus Station" on the top. The journey takes about 45 min - 1 hour to get to the Central Bus Station in downtown Colombo, and only costs 150 LKR per person ($0.83 USD)- now that's more like it!

4. Get a SIM card

The SIM cards in Sri Lanka are ridiculously cheap, so definitely get one. BUT NOT AT THE AIRPORT. The airport's "cheap plan" was $10 USD. But when you get into the city you can get it for way cheaper. You'll pay 100 LKR for the SIM card + 150 LKR to activate it with talking minutes and SMS. Then you can add a GB/day plan that suits you- I chose the 14 day, 1.5 GB plan so that's 179 LKR. Total for 2 weeks my SIM was 430 LKR ($2.38 USD). I got Airtel because I didn't think the company really mattered, but it didn't work too well sometimes. (Still better than not having it at all) But, I'd recommend getting Dialog.

5. Wifi

The wifi is HORRIBLE! The worst wifi as a country I've ever experienced. This makes getting a SIM card even more important. And just be aware of it- even when you log on at a restaurant or hostel it will usually connect, but then nothing loads. Just don't expect to be super connected to the online world.

6. They have UBER

I always prefer ride hailing apps over taxis so I know how much I'm paying before my journey and don't end up getting screwed over! I was able to successfully use UBER in Colombo, but in other cities it just kept searching for drivers and never got one. So try it out and maybe you'll be able to find an UBER. Otherwise, you can use it as a bargaining tool when Tuk Tuk drivers say 1000 LKR to go somewhere, you can say, "no it's okay it's only 500 on UBER" and they'll usually match. (Also, don't be surprised when a tuktuk rolls up as your uber!)

7. Always use a metered tuk tuk

Certain tuk tuks will advertise that they are "metered tuk tuks"- only use these, not the un-metered tuk tuks. But even though they advertise for it, right when you get in make sure to check that there actually is a working meter. We got in a tuk tuk from the Central Bus Station to our hostel (which was only supposed to be a 400 LKR ride), and the driver said it was metered. When we pulled up he charged us a whopping 2500 LKR ($13 USD), it was insane. But there was nothing for us to argue because there was no meter and we didn't know what to do. DON'T MAKE THIS MISTAKE.

8. Save money with public transportation

There are so many amazing destinations in Sri Lanka, that lots of people opt to rent a car or hire a driver through Pickme.lk to get from place to place. This can be nice because it's more convenient and comfortable, however, it is extremely expensive. Renting a car in Sri Lanka costs about $25+ USD a day and one 6-hour journey on Pickme will cost you about $45 USD. The exact same bus or train journey will only cost you $1-3 per person. If you're traveling on a budget (like me!) this is a HUGE money savor. Plus, Sri Lanka is known for having some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world- you don't want to miss them! More details here.

9. Travel Inefficiency

Sri Lanka is a very small island, and in a perfect world you could travel from corner to corner of the country in under 3 hours. However, the roads are very inefficient and typically only have 1 lane. This makes traveling between cities EXTREMELY time consuming. You could put your desired location into your maps on your phone and it'll say "1 hour," but in reality it'll take about 3-4. Just be aware that traveling between cities will most likely take up half a day to a full day. (Also they're usually always 20+ minutes late, so just be aware that things are never on time!)

10. Plugs

The outlets are a little strange. Every hostel or guesthouse we went to had different ones- either US, UK, or EU outlets. So definitely bring an adapter so you can plug in your devices no matter what kind of plugs are available.

11. Monsoon Season

Sri Lanka actually has 2 monsoon seasons- one for the N/E and one for the S/W. The NE monsoon season is from about December-March, while the SW monsoon season is from May-September. So make sure you are aware of what time of the year you are going and what part of the country you plan on visiting!

12. Time Zone

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that is on a 30 minute time interval- not that this affects you too much, but just something to be aware of when trying to talk with people back home. (Only a couple places in the world are on a 30 minute time zone!)

13. Prices for Locals

The prices for anything (bus, entrance fees, tuk tuks, etc.) are SIGNIFICANTLY CHEAPER than the price for foreigners for the same thing. For example, climbing Pidurangala rock is 500 LKR for foreigners, but free for locals. So just don't be surprised when you see them paying so much less than you!

14. Alcohol Limitations

They stop selling alcohol at 9pm throughout the whole country. So around 8:50pm you'll see lots of people flooding to the local liquor and grocery stores to buy their last bottles for the night! Also, on Full Moon days and every public holiday, the government prohibits the serving and selling of alcohol.

15. Guesthouses vs Hostels

I found that guesthouses are definitely the way to go if you're traveling in a group of 2 or more. Typically we paid $6-8 USD per night for a private double room with our own bathroom in a guesthouse, where as most hostels were $4-8 per person for a dorm bed. Definitely make sure to check all options and not just automatically book hostels.

16. Be Cautious of Scammers!

In all my travels around Asia, I've never felt like anyone was trying to take advantage of me or scam me. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, this is the not the case. Of course lots of local people are very kind and helpful, but I did find that a lot of the time people were trying to scam me: tuk tuk drivers, guesthouse owners, even bus/train workers. They always just try to charge you more for things or add on extra fees that don't make sense. Make sure you are always aware of exactly what you owe, so you can be firm with them about your money.

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