So you’ve decided to visit Istanbul. Excellent choice! Both modern and historic, Asian and European and a food lover’s paradise there is a lot to do and see in Istanbul. Arrival in any unfamiliar city can be a bit overwhelming so keep reading for a few tips on how to get started on the right foot in Istanbul including getting a phone plan, currency exchange, transportation and more.
Tourist Visa in Turkey
Getting a visitor’s visa for Turkey was an easy process that we completed entirely online and took us only a few minutes. It cost about $60 Canadian dollars each, while Americans only have to pay $20 USD. Since we are staying in Turkey for the full 90 days allowed under a tourist visa, we thought that it’s a pretty good deal.
Once I completed the online form and submitted my payment it was processed very quickly, but I did have a moment of panic when the charge showed up on my credit card as “Bursa Tekstil.” I thought I had fallen for a phony visa site scam and quickly went back to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs site to check that I hadn’t been swindled. There is an option at the bottom of their site for you to check the validity of your visa by entering your reference number and I was relieved to find out that I had actually applied at the legitimate government site. To avoid my panic, make sure you apply at the official site https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/ and not one of the many sites with ‘official’ sounding names.
You’ll most likely land at Istanbul International airport (ISL.) There is another international airport, Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW) on the Asian side, but this article is about Istanbul airport, the destination for most international arrivals. It’s located in the Arnavutköy district which is about 50-60 km (quite a distance!) northwest of the usual areas tourists will stay or visit. Istanbul airport is brand new (it took over from the old Ataturk airport, which closed in 2019) so it’s super modern, clean and feels very well organized and easy to navigate.
Once you arrive the signage is pretty clear to lead you towards passport control where we found the line to be well controlled and the agent we dealt with was fast and friendly. They’ll check your documents, take a quick photo and send you through towards the baggage claim area. The baggage claim area is a large, high ceilinged, cavernous space but the carousels are well marked and you should have your bags and be on your way in no time. I suggest you don’t stop in this space to get your money exchanged or look for other services as there is more selection once you enter the main arrivals terminal which you’ll be reaching shortly.
After you get your bags the next step is to follow the big exit signs (çıkış) is the Turkish word, but the English ‘exit’ is underneath in smaller font,) leading towards the customs area. There are two lines, one for declarations and one for nothing to declare. We brought nothing to declare so we entered that line and walked straight through without even having to show papers or speak to an agent, though it did look like they were randomly choosing people for an additional paperwork check. Once through here you’re on your way out to the arrivals area.
In the Arrivals Area
There are 3 main mobile providers in Turkey: Turkcell, Vodafone, and Türk Telekom. All of them have a storefront in the arrivals terminal. Once you enter the arrivals terminal, turn left and all 3 are pretty easy to find. We researched ahead and were told NOT to get our phone cards in the airport. We read that the airport vendors were overpriced and that you would get a much better deal once you got into the city. BUT we arrived during the covid pandemic in August of 2021 and our online research said that we would require something called an HES code. The HES code in Turkey is a contact tracing method, designed to help control the spread in the city. Some online forums said that it was Issued by the Turkish government via text only to a Turkish phone number, and that number had to be linked to our transit cards in order to board any form of public transit. Since we intended on using a bus to get to our Airbnb we thought we needed a local SIM to get the HES and to get on our planned bus.
We went ahead, bit the bullet and bought 2 x 20gb phone cards in the airport for 320 Turkish Lira each (about $37 USD.) As we intended to be in Turkey for 3 months, and we had wi-fi in our Airbnb, I thought that this amount of data would be just right for our full 3 month visit. To be sure I asked the store attendant if the data on the plan would be valid for 90 days and he assured me that it would, so we went ahead and purchased our overpriced ‘tourist welcome package’ and we got entirely ripped off. As we were headed into the city we got our welcome text from Turk Telecom saying we can only use our data for the next 30 days.
To add insult to injury we found the same plan from the same provider elsewhere for half the price. Even worse, we paid for and boarded the bus and nobody even asked for the HES code, so I guess you live and you learn. So much for trying to be over prepared. Final advice, if it’s possible for you and your circumstances, don’t buy your SIM at the airport.
Banking and Currency Exchange
I would highly recommend waiting to get to Istanbul to get your Turkish Lira. Banks, at least in North America, offer terrible currency exchange rates when pre-ordering foreign currency. I would assume the same to be true for most European banks.
A few things to keep in mind when using foreign ATMs. First, If an ATM offers you the choice to withdraw cash using either your country’s or local currency, always choose local currency. Banks around the world use what is called dynamic currency conversion when using an ATM, it’s a ploy by banks to seem helpful, but it is a total scam. Basically if you choose to use your home currency you can expect a worse exchange rate and a minimum 2% markup on top of that for the privilege of having them do the conversion for you. If you choose the local currency option, the transaction will be based on whatever the daily exchange rate is.
The second thing to keep in mind is ATM fees. Depending on your bank, you may have to pay “out of network” ATM fees for using a foreign machine. If you’re Canadian, none of the big 5 banks offer free out of network ATM fees or ATM fee reimbursement. Some US banks do offer reimbursement of these fees. Canadian big 5 banks will also charge a 2.5% foreign transaction fee on top of the currency exchange rate. In most instances you will also be charged an additional fee from the ATM you are using. Luckily, Geoff has done so much research, we’ve been able to avoid this. There is a network of banks globally that charge no fees for using their ATMs and for the Canadians reading this there are options to avoid paying ‘out of network’ ATM fees AND foreign transaction fees. If you would like to learn more, send us an email or leave a comment below and we’ll be happy to send you an email with the most up to date info.
Getting from the Airport to Your Accommodations in Istanbul
There are the usual ways to get from the airport to your accommodation…if your hotel has an airport shuttle, that’s great or you can arrange a private transfer, take a taxi or ride a bus. There are taxi company stands in the terminal (you’ll find them if you turn right once you enter the terminal.) You can hail an Uber to Istanbul airport, though that app will simply hail you a local yellow taxi that you can track and pay through the Uber app.
We arrived right during afternoon rush hour and heard that the traffic can be terrible in Istanbul so we chose the bus as it’s much less expensive, especially if you’re going to be stuck in traffic, no matter the method you choose.
After you exit the terminal to the outside, there is a taxi queue right in front and you’ll see the bus area just to your right. Havaist is the company that runs the airport buses and they have dozens of buses running to different parts of the city. The buses have comfortable seating, are air conditioned and they even give you a tag for your luggage checked below the bus to ensure you’re the only one who can offload your baggage. You can visit their site to find the bus you need to take, but the attendants wearing blue vests outside the terminal are very helpful, speak pretty good English and can direct you to which bus you need to take. Just be sure to have your phone open to a map of where you’re going so that they don’t misunderstand where you need to go!
You can purchase your ticket ahead of time on their website, or just pay the driver via credit or debit card when you board. Our tickets cost us 38 Turkish Lira or about $4.50 USD each, total $9 for both of us, while a quick check of the Uber app showed us that a Taxi or Uber would cost almost 5 times that amount 375 Lira (or about $45 USD) so it’s a pretty good deal.
Expect it to take you at least an hour to get to your accommodation, but most likely much more, depending on where you’re staying and which method of transportation you choose. It took our bus just over 2.5 hours, as we chose to stay in Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city and had the good fortune to arrive at 5pm, right during afternoon rush hour.
No joke, the highways into the city were so congested that there are vendors who make their living selling snacks (on the freeway!), strolling and selling their wares between the lanes of the stand-still jammed lanes. The amount of vendors out there show that it’s a certainty that the traffic is so frequent that one could plan a consistent livelihood out of selling snacks and water to frustrated commuters.
Now you’re ready to enjoy the legendary sights, sounds and tastes of Istanbul…enjoy! If you have any questions, feel free to message us or leave a comment below.