Foreign travel advice

United Arab Emirates

Local laws and customs

UAE laws and customs are very different to those in the UK. Be aware of your actions to ensure that they don’t offend, especially during the holy month of Ramadan or if you intend to visit religious areas. There may be serious penalties for doing something that might not be illegal in the UK. You are strongly advised to familiarise yourself with, and respect local laws and customs.

In 2023, the holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on 22 March and finish on 21 April. See Travelling during Ramadan

You can read more about living in the UAE here.

Importing goods

Importing pork products and pornography into the UAE is illegal. Videos, books, and magazines may be subject to scrutiny and may be censored.

Drugs

There is zero tolerance for drugs-related offences. The penalties for trafficking, smuggling and the possession of drugs (including residual amounts) are severe. Sentences for drug trafficking can include the death penalty. Possession of even the smallest amount of illegal drugs can lead to a minimum three-month prison term or a fine not less than AED 20,000 and not exceeding AED100,000. The Emirati authorities count the presence of drugs in the blood stream as possession. Some herbal highs, like Spice, are illegal in the UAE. Possessing and concealing money from drugs related offences, and performing transactions using money from drug-related offences are also crimes, which could lead to imprisonment and a fine.

Many people stop off in UAE airports on their way to other destinations. UAE airports have excellent technology and security, so transiting passengers carrying even residual amounts of drugs may be arrested.

Some skincare products and E-cigarette refills may contain ingredients that are illegal in the UAE such as CBD oil. If found in possession of such products, they will be confiscated and you may face criminal charges. A list of narcotic, psychotropic and controlled drugs where this rule applies, allowed quantities and documents to present can be found on the UAE Ministry of Health website.

Alcohol

UAE Residents can drink alcohol at home and in licensed venues. Liquor licences are still required for Residents in Dubai but are no longer required for Residents in Abu Dhabi and other Emirates (save for Emirate of Sharjah) to purchase alcohol for personal consumption.

In Dubai, tourists are able to obtain a temporary liquor licence for the duration of a month from the two official liquor distributors in Dubai. Tourists will be provided with a code of conduct document and will be asked to confirm they understand rules and regulations in relation to purchasing, transporting and consuming liquor in Dubai. This licence is only for use in the Emirate where it is issued.

Liquor licences are not available to non-residents in the other Emirates, but it is possible for tourists and visitors to buy and drink alcohol in licensed venues, such as hotels, restaurants and clubs. However, you should be aware that it is a punishable offence under UAE law to drink or be under the influence of alcohol in public. British nationals have been arrested and charged under this law, often in cases where they have come to the attention of the police for a related offence, such as disorderly or offensive behaviour.

Generally, the legal age for drinking alcohol is 18 in Abu Dhabi, but a Ministry of Tourism by-law prevents hotels from serving alcohol to those under the age of 21. In Dubai and all other emirates besides Sharjah, the drinking age is 21. Drinking alcohol in Sharjah is illegal.

Dress code

Women should dress modestly when in public areas like shopping malls. Clothes should cover the tops of the arms and legs, and underwear should not be visible. Swimming attire should be worn only on beaches or at swimming pools.

Cross-dressing is illegal.

Hotels

It is normal practice for hotels to take a photocopy of your passport or Emirates ID. You can’t stay in a hotel if you’re under 18 years old and not accompanied by an adult.  

Offensive behaviour

Swearing and making rude gestures (including online) are considered obscene acts and offenders can be jailed or deported. Take particular care when dealing with the police and other officials.

Public displays of affection are frowned upon, and there have been several arrests for kissing in public.

Sexual relationships outside marriage

If you become pregnant and give birth to a child in the UAE outside marriage, to obtain a local birth certificate both you and your partner will need to ensure that you either get married or you and/or your partner must singly or jointly acknowledge the child and provide identification papers and travel documents in accordance with the laws of your country considering the applicable laws of that nation. If you become pregnant outside of marriage, you may not be covered by your medical insurance, and you should consult with your medical insurance provider before giving birth in the UAE.

Consensual sexual relationships between a male and female outside marriage where both are over the age of 18 years, including extra-marital sexual relationships, is generally permitted under UAE law. However, in the case of an extra-marital consensual sexual relationship, if either person’s spouse or parent/guardian files a criminal complaint, then both parties of an extra-marital consensual relationship shall be liable to a jail sentence for a period not less than six months.

If either person in a sexual relationship is under the age of 18 years, he/she is deemed a minor, and the other person over the age of 18 will be prosecuted for having a sexual relationship with a minor. If both people are under 18 years of age they will both be prosecuted but punishment is likely to be limited to a caution, parental supervision, judicial supervision, professional training or psychiatric treatment.

Same-sex relationships

All homosexual sex is illegal and same-sex marriages are not recognised.

The UAE is in many respects a tolerant society and private life is respected, although there have been some reports of individuals being punished for homosexual activity, particularly where there is any public element, or the behaviour has caused offence. This applies both to expatriate residents and to tourists. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.

Photography/media

Photography of certain government buildings and military installations isn’t allowed. Don’t photograph people without their permission. Men have been arrested for photographing women on beaches. Hobbies like bird watching and plane spotting, may be misunderstood - particularly near military sites, government buildings and airports.

Posting material (including videos and photographs) online that is critical of the UAE government, companies or individuals, or related to incidents in the UAE, or appearing to abuse/ridicule/criticise the country or its authorities, or that is culturally insensitive, may be considered a crime punishable under UAE law. There have been cases of individuals being detained, prosecuted and/or convicted for posting this type of material.

If you wish to carry out media activity related to the production, transmission and/or distribution of printed, digital, audio, video and/or visual information, you will be required to obtain the appropriate permission from the Emirati authorities in advance. Failure to do so could result in imprisonment and a substantial fine.

Further information about media activity and how to obtain the necessary permits can be accessed by registering on the National Media Council website.

Fundraising/charitable acts

If you’re considering undertaking or promoting fundraising or other acts of charity in (or while passing through) the UAE, bear in mind that these activities, including where conducted online and via social media, are heavily regulated. You should be fully aware of the legal requirements and seek professional advice as necessary. Non-compliance can incur criminal penalties, including heavy fines and/or imprisonment.

Buying property

If you want to buy property in the UAE, you should seek appropriate professional advice, as you would in the UK. A list of lawyers for Abu Dhabi and Dubai is available on the British Embassy website.

Financial crime

Financial crimes, including fraud and the non-payment of bills (including hotel bills) can often result in imprisonment and/or a fine. Bank accounts and other assets can also be frozen.

Bail is generally not available to non-residents of the UAE who are arrested for financial crimes. Those convicted will not generally be released from jail until the debt is paid or waived and they may even remain in jail after a debt has been paid if there is an outstanding sentence to be served.

Weapons, ammunition, body protection and related equipment (like cleaning kits, gun belts, etc), however small the quantity and whatever the purpose, all require permission before entering or transiting the UAE.

Technical equipment

Equipment like satellite phones, listening or recording devices, radio transmitters, powerful cameras or binoculars, may require a licence for use in the UAE. Seek advice from the UAE Embassy in London.