Is Sierra Leone Safe? 7 Travel Safety Tips

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Sierra Leone doesn't have a reputation as a tourist destination. But what are the real dangers for travelers? James Torvaney, founder of Xtreme Africa, has lived in Sierra Leone since 2016 and shares his local insights.

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Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone Photo © Getty Images/John Seaton Callahan

Opinions differ about the safety of travelers in Sierra Leone. According to official government warnings, it's a crime-riddled, corrupt and dangerously un-regulated country. However, many travel bloggers disagree, saying Sierra Leone is one of the friendliest places in West Africa known for its beautiful beaches.

The truth is, it's a bit of both, and your view of the country will be determined by your own personal experience.

The U.S. Department of State says to “Exercise Increased Caution” and the Australian, Irish and Canadian Government’s advice to their citizens is to “Exercise a high degree of caution”. Check with your Government’s travel advisory for the most up to date information.

Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest nations and experienced a civil war between 1991 and 2002. Economic development is still slow, and where poverty exists, inevitably so do high levels of petty crime such as pickpocketing and theft.

Sierra Leone is an adventurous rather than a traditional holiday destination. This may change in the future as conditions improve and the rest of the world wakes up to Sierra Leone's stunning beauty. Those who visit now are generally rewarded with warm hospitality and an almost tourist-free experience.

When traveling, take the phone numbers of anybody you think may be useful or helpful, including drivers, hotel workers, or government officials. People are usually happy to help and most problems can be fixed with a simple phone call. The most common cause of issues is cultural misunderstandings: try not to get worked up or angry as that can spiral into confrontation.

Here are a few of the specific challenges travelers may face while traveling in Sierra Leone.

1. Safe transfers from Lungi Airport

Lungi Airport is situated across a wide estuary from the capital, Freetown. There are three main ways of moving between the airport and Freetown.

By road

The drive between Freetown and Lungi Airport (via Port Loko) takes around three hours although the road is paved and in good condition. Taxis and buses operate from the main bus stations in Central and Eastern Freetown, but take far longer and do not run on scheduled timetables.

Kissy ferry

This is the cheapest (around US 0.50) and most popular form of transport for locals.

The government-owned ferry leaves from Kissy in the East End of Freetown, far away from most hotels and tourist attractions. The departure times rarely coincide with flight times. The maintenance standards of these vessels are poor and there is no safety equipment on board. However, the ferry is certainly the most interesting form of transport, as there are often comedians, singers, food and drink vendors, and even farm animals on board. Unlike the water taxis, the ferry is able to carry a limited number of vehicles. If you are late, small speedboats leave from the same ferry terminal throughout the day for a slightly higher fee. With either the speedboat or the ferry, leave plenty of time for delays.

In traveling from Freetown, you will arrive by boat at Tagrin and will need to take an additional taxi or motorbike taxi to reach Lungi Airport.

Water taxi

The most expensive but most popular form of transport for tourists and business travelers: there are at least four water taxi services that time their services with incoming and outgoing flights and deliver you either to the center of Freetown or around Aberdeen, close to the Lumley Beach and most of the tourist hotels. These are generally quite safe and include a bus transfer to/from the airport terminal. Sea Coach at Aberdeen appears to have the best amenities and the safest boats.

If your flight arrives late at night, you may wish to book a room at one of the Lungi Airport hotels – the official airport hotel is nearby but is quite expensive at around $80 per night. There are far cheaper local hotels and guesthouses available, some of which are of respectable quality.

If you are traveling to any city other than Freetown, it is quicker to proceed directly by road rather than spending time taking a boat across the estuary and then navigating your way out of Freetown. There are licenced taxis parked within the airport car park, or you can try your luck finding a taxi or motorbike on the main road outside.

2. Safe transport options in Sierra Leone

Traveling by road is probably the most dangerous part of visiting Sierra Leone. Your safest option is to get around via a privately owned or rented vehicle rather than public transport.

Private vehicle hire

4WD vehicles like Toyota Land Cruisers and Prados are widely available. These come with personal drivers and start at around US $60 per day (inside Freetown) and US $100 per day (countrywide). Flash Vehicles are popular and offer an Uber-like service via an app, and also rent vehicles by day, but there are many other similar providers such as AYK and Moliba Car Rentals. Many Sierra Leoneans rent out their vehicles for side income and can be marginally cheaper, although you have no safety or quality guarantees.

Due to the poor quality of the roads, it is hard to find vehicles for hire that are not 4WD. Taxis, some of which are well maintained, can be hired by day for around US $30 and upwards, although many are poorly maintained. Ex-pats living in country and hotels may be able to recommend taxi drivers, although there is no central database or mainstream taxi agencies.

Public transport

Public transport consists of kekes (motor tricycles), shared taxis, poda-podas (minibuses), and ocadas (motorcycle taxis)

Poda-podas are the cheapest form of transport but are poorly maintained, stop frequently, pack passengers tightly together like sardines and often smell like fish.

Ocadas are usually the most convenient form of transport but renowned for their reckless driving. Be very careful if you do take bikes and try to insist the driver provides you with a helmet. Look for drivers with well-maintained bikes and beware of drivers who look or smell drunk or intoxicated – they probably are.

Taxis often provide a relatively safe and comfortable compromise within Freetown. They ply set routes and you can either hop in with other people or offer to ˆ (charter) the entire vehicle and direct the driver wherever you want (try to agree the fee beforehand to avoid being ripped off. As a general rule, drivers will charge $4 to 5 per hour)

Outside of Freetown, taxis and minibuses travel between major routes and will generally contain more people than there are seats. Within provincial towns, motorbikes are often the only form of transport. Be aware of pickpocketing on public transport.

Most roads in Freetown, and all roads outside the main cities, are unlit, and travel on the highways outside of Freetown should be avoided after dark wherever possible. Travel beyond the provincial capitals can be problematic, due to very bad roads, poorly maintained vehicles and intoxicated drivers. There are no vehicle breakdown services in the country. Whenever you travel, try to keep copies of passports and insurance documents, and a list of phone numbers, for example of friends and hotels. In general, if you maintain basic caution, you should be able to travel relatively safely. The risk of violent crime on public transport is low, but mechanical problems and the propensity to cram in as many passengers as feasibly possible can hinder your journey. Wherever you meet a driver that is reliable and safe, it is wise to take their number for future use.

View of ferries in murky brown water from above
The ferry from Tagrin arriving at Kissy Terminal in Freetown. Photo credit: Getty Images/John Seaton Callahan

3. Road safety in Sierra Leone

The main roads between major cities such as Freetown, Bo, Kenema, Koidu, Makeni, Lungi, Kambia, and Kabala are paved and suitable for standard taxis and other vehicles. Secondary roads to provincial towns like Kamakwie, Moyamba, and Pujehun are dirt roads, but still graded and driveable in a taxi. However, other roads may be quite bad and require an off-road vehicle.

Between June to November, the rain can make dirt roads muddy and treacherous, even with off-road vehicles. If in doubt, ask around before you leave. Taxi and bike providers will often attempt even very bad roads with unsuitable vehicles. Hotels and guesthouses can often arrange transport for you.

Road blocks

Illegal roadblocks are sometimes put up by youths, who will often ask for a small "donation" for mending the road. Police may also stop you at checkpoints. This is almost always just posturing and an attempt to illicit a small bribe.

If stopped, your first instinct should be to act cordial and let your driver or Sierra Leonean companion sort the situation out. Otherwise, the best tactic is to act naive and friendly.

Humour generally goes down well and they will let you through after a couple of minutes without taking any money. If you must grease any palms, one or two dollars should suffice.

Asking for money to buy ‘water’ or ‘rice’ are euphemisms for small handouts to speed things up. Again, it is always good to keep a list of useful names and numbers you can call if things get confrontational.

If an official asks to see your passport, show them, but you should not allow them to take it somewhere where you cannot see it.

4. Crime in Sierra Leone

The official warnings say Sierra Leone is a high crime nation, with a significant risk of pick pocketing and theft. This is not the place to flash lots of cash or expensive phones.

Certain places are to be avoided or treated with caution. The nightclubs and bars of Lumley Beach and Aberdeen areas of Freetown are favorite haunts of criminals, muggers, pickpockets, and prostitutes.

Avoid the Lumley end of beach road, by the golf club, at night, as it is unlit and notorious for muggings. The area in and around the national stadium is also well-known for theft, especially during big events like music concerts or football games.

It is advised not to take large amounts of cash to such events and, if possible it is a good idea to get a cheap ($20) feature phone with a local SIM so that you can leave your expensive smartphone behind.

Exercise caution walking around central Freetown and the “PZ” area at night, as well as any roads that are not paved.

There are occasional fights between rival groups of youths in the central and eastern areas of Freetown around Siaka Stevens Street, Lightfoot Boston Street and Sir Samuel Lewis Road. These disturbances normally disperse quickly, but if you encounter an incident, you should leave the area immediately. Recent high inflation and rising fuel prices have occasionally seen small and peaceful protests.

Looking out over brown and red buildings to see crowded streets of Sierra Leone below
View from the British Council in Freetown to the city below. Photo credit: Getty Images/Abenaa

5. Are the beaches safe in Sierra Leone?

Travelers will tell you Sierra Leone has the most beautiful beaches in Africa. There are around a dozen along the peninsula, and most of them are almost deserted, at least during the week. This is one of the reasons many expect it to become the next destination to be developed for mass tourism. However, unlicensed deforestation and mass building along the beaches and up the surrounding mountains threatens to blight the landscape in the years to come.

Official warnings say you should not walk barefoot on Lumley and other beaches, where there can be trash, including needles. The Tourist Board has recently invested in beautifying the Lumley Beach area and removing trash.

There are strong currents near the shore and there are life guard or emergency services available. Whilst the seas close to the beach are general safe for strong swimmers, there have been numerous cases over the years of locals and tourists drowning due to strong currents. If in doubt, ask the locals and be careful before swimming alone.

Be cautious walking alone on remote beaches, and give the beach stroll a miss after dark.

6. Local knowledge

Foreign currency

ATM machines are available at the airport, around Freetown, and in most major cities. However, they are incredibly unreliable and even when working dispense a maximum $40 per withdrawal. The machines closest to the Central Business District by the Cotton Tree are the most reliable.

The government placed restrictions on foreign currency in 2019 and whilst they have eased up, note that it is a crime to use foreign currency such as dollars, for any transaction. This is treated as an offence. All physical cash transactions should be conducted in Leones.

Gems and diamonds

Be extremely careful about buying diamonds or other minerals. These are likely to be scams. Note that it is illegal to export precious stones without an export license from the government. Diamond and gem smuggling is treated similarly to drug trafficking – expect a lengthy jail term.

Sporting events

Sporting events and concerts at the national stadium can be enjoyable but pose a risk to personal security and safety. Pickpocketing is rife. Poor crowd control and overcrowding make the general stands - and sometimes even the VIP area – uncomfortable and unsafe. Rioting has occurred at previous events and could occur again in the future.

Always carry ID

You should carry ID (passport or residence permit) at all times, particularly when driving or taking a taxi or when moving outside of Freetown. Most checkpoints will not bother you, but occasionally they will ask for ID. Be cordial and comply with their instructions. Do not let anybody, even police officers, take your documents away from your sight as you may face a fight (or, more likely, a bribe) to get them back.

Respect the religion

Sierra Leone is predominantly a Muslim and care should be taken not to offend. Most Sierra Leoneans are very tolerant and the society is, in general, much more liberal than much of the developing world and the rest of Africa.

However, homosexual acts are technically illegal, so avoid showing any public displays of affection or speaking about your sexual orientation while traveling here.

Females should err of the side of caution with their dress, particularly when at the beach, and follow the leads of the local women.

What language do they speak in Sierra Leone?

The common language throughout Sierra Leone is Krio, a pidgin-like language based on English that is spoken by 95+% of the population. Though English literacy is low, you will usually be able to get your point across eventually. There are over a dozen regional languages and most people will speak at least two or three languages.

A little Krio can go along way: simply greeting people with ‘Ow di bodi?’ or ‘Kushe!’ can spark conversations, breed familiarity, and even reduce the cost of goods in the market. When getting into a taxi or other public space, err on the side of friendliness; it is common courtesy to greet fellow passengers when boarding.

Cost of living

Do not expect traveling in Sierra Leone to be cheap, especially if you expect comfort. Import duties mean that everything you want to buy in a supermarket is probably double what you would pay at home.

As a foreigner, you will often be charged at least more than a local would for the same item. Remember that everything is fair game for bargaining, and often they will double the price in the expectation that you will negotiate down.

If you are willing to truly live like a local, you can live relatively cheaply. Bowls of rice are available on almost every street corner for around SLL 3,000 (as of Jan 2020). Couscous, fried egg with bread, and a strong tea called Ataya are also widely available.

7. Health and disease in Sierra Leone

You will need a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate to enter Sierra Leone. You'll need it to leave, too. Some airlines won't let you board if you can't produce it. You'll certainly need to show it to border control agents at your next destination.

Malaria is common in Sierra Leone. Take prophylaxis before going and seek a malaria test at a hospital or pharmacy at any sign of fever. Sleep under a bed net and use mosquito spray where necessary.

Also, be aware of typhoid (vaccinations are available). Do not drink the tap water – you should boil or purify any water or drink bottled water. Most of the water sold in plastic packets is of poor and variable quality, although the Grafton brand is reputed as one of the better ones. There are occasional regional outbreaks of diseases like cholera or Lassa Fever. Try and research before you travel, although these are not a major cause for concern, particularly in the cities. Avoid eating bushmeat such as bat or monkey and avoid improperly cooked meat or fish.

There can be water shortages in the Freetown area, especially at the end of the dry season (March to June), which lowers the quality of the drinking water. If you suffer from diarrhea you should seek immediate medical attention.

Since sanitary conditions are poor and refrigeration is unreliable, avoid eating uncooked vegetables, salads, seafood, or meats at restaurants and hotels.

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11 Comments

  • Anonymous said

    These statements are false about Sierra Leone.
    "The official warnings say Sierra Leone is a high crime nation, with a significant risk of pick pocketing, theft and also aggravated robbery. Occasionally they will be armed."

    Don't talk about what you don't about a country you have never been to.

    Reply

  • Jaco Brits said

    Dear sir/madam.

    If you do not agree with the author, please inform us what the truth may be.

    Tell the story the way you see it so we the readers can compare.

    Regards
    Jaco Brits
    South Africa

    Reply

  • Joey Lee said

    I would like to know more about how to get from airport safely. What hotel by airport do you recommenced?

    Reply

  • Sue said

    I live in Freetown currently and find most of the article accurate; however, travel from the airport to either major water taxi (seacoach/seabird) is fairly easy and safe. The water taxis are much better now and provide reliable schedules coinciding with the flight schedules.

    The beaches are lovely and the people generally nice. You will pay much more for anything than the locals. Best to pay a local to do your purchasing for you. Helps them and you both.

    Great experience here thus far and is a beautiful country once outside the cities. Expect to see poverty and trash most everywhere though. It is ultimately worth the adventure should folks decide to travel to Sierra Leone.

    Reply

  • Tara said

    I've been there for 6 months and most of the stuff I read wasn't accurate but it do depends on the individual experience. I would recommend connecting with a local to assist you. I was fortunate to have married into a beautiful family.

    Reply

  • Owen Newman said

    I lived in Sierra Leone for a couple of years. You need to be young, hardy and able to look after yourself. It is a splendid rural country but the people do have a bit of a chip about their rights. I enjoyed it but I was brought up in an out-of-the-way Devon village where hand to hand fighting was a way of.life for survival. I am older now and would struggle to cope.

    Reply

  • Anonymous said

    This is well out of date. Please anyone reading this article take with a pinch of salt. As of 2018 the information is so inaccurate as to constitute a slur against the country.

    For example, there are plenty of safe options to travel from the airport into town, crime against foreigners is very low, and the roads between major cities are perfectly good for the most part. I have spent years taking public transport every day and I wouldn't worry about it.

    And unless you are a spoilt snowflake who needs all kinds of unnecessary luxuries on theirs travels, it is an extremely cheap country to be in.

    the article really needs to be revised. It isn't fair.

    Reply

  • Amelia said

    Hi everyone,

    We are well aware this article is very out of date. Keep posting your experiences and updated information in the comments section, we're in the process of updating these articles and appreciate your input.

    Cheers,
    [email protected]

    Reply

  • Amelia said

    UPDATE: Thanks to the new author James Torvaney, we now have reliable, up-to-date information based on his local insights.
    Please continue to share your personal experiences traveling in the country.
    Cheers,
    [email protected]

    Reply

  • JW said

    Hi. I am the author of this article and I just want to make clear that I did not write the byline 'Sierra Leone is known to be notoriously corrupt, crime riddled and dangerous', which I believe is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation. I believe the country is very safe for travellers, although I would still beware of petty theft and poorly maintained vehicles upline.

    Reply

  • Musa Mundah said

    As a Sierra Leonean, who divides his time between SierraLeone and the UK, I find this report quite balanced.
    I have not seen posts that seem not to agree with the writer but yet offer information or share their experience, contrary to what the writer has written.
    So please share why you would disagree so that others may learn and make their own judgement.


    Reply

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