How to Travel to Northern Cyprus

Traveling to Northern Cyprus is a bit complicated and yet simple at the same time. This region considers itself a separate country, but the Republic of Cyprus (essentially the south) does not consider Northern Cyprus to be a separate country. Things can get confusing pretty quickly, and it’s a little weird to travel to a country that’s not really a country. A little background:

How the split happened

In 1974 a group of Greek Cypriots staged an unsuccessful coup. The country had recently gained partial independence from the UK but many wanted to become part of Greece, which of course resulted in conflicts with the Turkish Cypriots who did not want to be part of Greece. Within a few days, Turkey sent troops to the country, and Turkish Cypriots in the south fled north, while Greek Cypriots in the north fled south. You can see a timeline of events here.

The country has been divided ever since. The northern third of the island was declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but Turkey itself is the only country that recognizes it. There is a border of sorts, known as the green line, dividing the northern third from the southern two-thirds.

how to travel to Northern Cyrpus
St. Hilarion Castle in Northern Cyprus

Practicalities of the split

The south uses the euro and predominantly speaks Greek, while the north uses the Turkish lira and predominantly speaks Turkish. They have different license plates, and generally you can’t drive a rental car from one side to the other.

I also learned the hard way that the north uses Turkish cell phone carriers. Our German phone plan allows us to use our phones in any country in the EU at low rates. I was texting Andy throughout my week in Cyprus, and while in Kyrenia my internet connection wasn’t good enough for Skype, so we made normal calls. And when I stayed in Nicosia, my hotel was too close to the green line, and I unknowingly picked up a cell tower on the north. I ended up paying an extra 100 euros on my phone bill that month.

In 2003 people were able to cross the green line for the first time since the split. The border controls have slowly eased, little by little, ever since then. Up until a few months before my trip, the Turkish side stamped a little piece of paper and put it in your passport, but now they don’t even do that.

Today you still have to show your passport to enter the north, to exit the north, and to enter the south. You don’t have to show your passport to exit the south because their view is that you’re not leaving the country. But the south checks you on the way in to make sure you entered the country legally.

how to travel to Northern Cyprus
View of Northern Cyprus and Northern Nicosia (capital of Cyprus) from Southern Nicosia

What counts as entering legally?

There are international airports in the north and in the south. If you want to visit both sides, you must fly in and out of the south. That way you get the official Cyprus entry and exit stamps. (Understandably, they are not part of the Schengen Zone.)

If you fly into the north, which you can only do from Turkey, you can’t go to the south. Cyprus views flying into the north as entering the country illegally. This is why you shouldn’t try to visit the south if you flew into the north.

Update: A reader has informed me that they have been flying to Northern Cyprus and then entering the south without any issues for over a decade. So apparently there is conflicting information out there, and it might not be as much of an issue as I had been led to believe.

Separate but not

Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but the north doesn’t really benefit from this. They rely heavily on aid from Turkey, and since they aren’t recognized as a country by anyone else, they can’t really trade with other countries. Roads and buildings are a little run down because they don’t have the money to do repairs and improvements like they do in the south. Though if you talk to some people in the south, they’ll tell you it’s because the Turkish Cypriots just don’t take care of things.

Many people on both sides of the island want a reunited Cyprus, but so far it hasn’t happened. The man who drove me from Larnaca to Kyrenia told me his mother used to live in the north, and they’ve gone up there a few times to see her old home. He told me she cries every single time because she had to abandon her home (which for all I know could have been in her family for generations) and now someone else lives there. The guy driving the shuttle van from Kyrenia to the north side of Nicosia told me how much it saddens him that the two sides are still separated.

If the two sides ever do reunited, it sounds like it’ll be a nightmare to get everything sorted out. Like the Greek Cypriot who told me about his mother’s home in the north, many people will claim rights to homes and property they had to abandon in the 70s. How do you decide between kicking someone out of the home they’ve been living in for 30 or 40 years, and returning a home to someone who might have a deed and whose family lived there for generations? And would you really want to move back after all this time?

There’s obviously a lot more to the story of Cyprus than this. As an outsider, I can’t really understand all the details that make up this tangled 40+ year history of a divided nation. But I was fascinated to visit and talk to a few people about it.

how to travel to Northern Cyprus
The Turkish flag (red) flying next to the Northern Cyprus flag (white)

How does it all work?

In hindsight, I wish I had made more effort to talk to people on both sides about the split and how things work logistically. Like passports – how does a Turkish Cypriot get a Cyprus passport? No other country besides Turkey sees Northern Cyprus as a country, so trying to travel on a Northern Cyprus passport wouldn’t work. Although according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, Northern Cyprus passport holders can travel to 7 countries, including the US and France. If France lets them in, they technically have easy access to the entire Schengen Zone since there are no border checks.

According to this poorly sited Wikipedia article, Turkish Cypriots who can prove their decent from a Cypriot citizen, so basically someone from before the split, they are entitled to a Cyprus passport. Turkish settlers are not entitled to a Cyprus passport. According to this one, Turkish Cypriots can get Turkish passports.

It’s mind boggling. If I ever get the chance to go back to Cyprus, I’ll definitely go armed with lots of questions and find people to talk to. This is one of the reasons I love travel, because it teaches me about other parts of the world and it shows me that there are two (or three or 10) sides to every issue.

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