Is it safe to travel in Pakistan? After months of firsthand experience, here’s my answer, including advice on where it is and isn’t safe to travel, safety tips for travel in Pakistan, and more.
You’ve seen photos of epic mountains and jaw-dropping shrines. Heard tales of boundless hospitality. Read articles saying Pakistan is the next best travel destination. You want to visit, but you’re still wondering: is Pakistan safe?
Your family and friends might be dubious… but listen to me, not them. I’ve independently traveled all across Pakistan for months. Clearly I’m not dead; that, at the very least, proves you’re not guaranteed to be blasted to bits upon arrival.
… but I assume you’re interested in a more nuanced answer than “No blasting anticipated”.
I have traveled through Pakistan for more than six months, visiting the country for the first time in 2016. I organize tours there and have been to all provinces, traveled both solo and with friends, moderate two Facebook groups related to travel in Pakistan, and have more experience with traveling in Pakistan than most other travel bloggers who write about this place combined. Read on for my firsthand thoughts on whether or not it’s safe to travel Pakistan now.
- Is Pakistan safe?
- Pakistan’s security situation
- Why you’ll be safe in Pakistan
- What areas are unsafe for travel?
- High-risk places and events
- Safest places to travel in Pakistan
- Is it safe to visit Peshawar?
- Actual dangers of traveling in Pakistan
- Safety tips for travel in Pakistan
Is Pakistan safe?
The short answer: yes.
Though I don’t think it’s the easiest country to travel for a variety of reasons, I firmly believe Pakistan is currently safe enough to travel for both men and women. Adventure travelers and other experienced travelers should strongly consider visiting!
What’s actually going on with Pakistan’s security situation?
The country stabilized immensely since peak Taliban activity around 2009-2012. Pakistan’s military has a tight hold on the country to maintain peace. ISI, the country’s intelligence agency, is highly active behind the scenes ensuring potential threats are dealt with before harm comes to anyone. Streets might seem militant because of all the checkpoints and army personnel, but they are far safer than they were before.
The Pakistan you see on the news—guns, bombs, and terrorists galore—is far from the reality of Pakistan on the ground. Places that casual tourists are likely to visit are peaceful these days. There’s little need to fear acts of terrorism. Come and see for yourself!
Why you’ll probs be safe in Pakistan
Not convinced yet? Showing this to your mum and she’s still not convinced? Fair enough.
It’s important to note how unlikely it is that the average tourist will be harmed in Pakistan.
Normal tourists are unlikely to come to harm because…
It’s extremely difficult to enter dangerous areas. Pakistan’s security organizations require something called a Non-Objection Certificate (NOC) for most high-risk areas. Aside from the NOC tourists receive if crossing the Iran-Pakistan border, it’s virtually impossible to get an NOC for other areas without a powerful local’s help/sponsorship. If you don’t have an NOC, you’ll be turned back at a checkpoint. In short: it ain’t easy to get to dangerous places in Pakistan.
Attacks or threats usually occur in places the average tourist wouldn’t be. Think police headquarters, cities in areas requiring NOCs, minority religious events that most tourists don’t know about, let alone be comfortable visiting (crowds of men 4 dayzzzz).
Security escorts are common in risky areas tourists can visit. In some places foreign tourists are assigned armed security guards to escort them around. My thoughts on this matter are another story entirely, but I won’t deny it adds extra security to your existence. Fairy Meadows is the most common destination where this is the case.
What areas are “unsafe” for travel in Pakistan?
There are several regions in Pakistan that, though not entirely dangerous or filled with evil folk, are riskier than others.
Why: Balochistan is risky for a variety of reasons. Bandits prey upon people in the center of the province. The road for the economic corridor China is building through the country (CPEC) is sensitive for those who don’t want it to be constructed. Balochistan harbors separatists who want to create their own Balochi state.
Allowed to visit? Pakistani tourists can travel freely in Balochistan. Foreigners are not allowed to visit any of Balochistan without an NOC, and will not receive one unless crossing into/out of Iran. However, some foreigners have snuck in to drive the Makran Coastal Highway and visit Hingol National Park with the help of locals.
Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)
Why: Some of the “agencies” along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan still see violence and harbor terrorist groups, along with other people doing unscrupulous things along the border.
Allowed to visit? Though recently absorbed into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, all foreign tourists need an NOC to visit any of the tribal agencies. Local tourists can visit, though they need to provide their CNIC to enter FATA.
Line of Control in Kashmir (LOC)
Why: The border in Azad Kashmir between Pakistan and India has been disputed for years, and still sees occasional crossfire. It’s extra off-limits now given rising tensions between Pakistan and India. Foreigners who go too close are almost certain to be considered spies.
Allowed to visit? Foreign tourists can now visit parts of Kashmir that are more than 10 kilometers away from the India-Pakistan border, such as Muzaffarabad and Mirpur. Note that this rules out popular destinations for local tourists such as Neelum Valley, and you might still encounter difficulties when entering Kashmir.
Kohistan and Diamer (Dasu to Chilas)
Why: In the area of the Karakoram Highway between Dasu and Chilas there is serious poverty and a lack of education and gender equality, even by Pakistan standards. There were many attacks in this region in the past, and though the area is now relatively safe and the Karakoram Highway is frequented by tourists, it still sees some issues such as the burning of girls’ schools in 2018.
Allowed to visit: Tourists can drive along the Karakoram Highway. Foreign tourists can now move freely in Chilas. Public transport usually has an armed guard riding along within this region. Solo travelers may receive a security escort in the area around Dasu town. Note that you need an NOC for any of the side valleys off the KKH in this area, such as Darel.
High-risk environments in Pakistan
Though most gatherings are fine, there is a larger risk of terroristic acts at certain kinds of places and gatherings in Pakistan.
Minority religious groups and activities are a common target for terrorists in Pakistan. Minorities are basically any non-Sunni religious groups. Think Shia Muslims and their holidays such as Ashura/Muharram, or Sufis and festivals like the urs in Sehwan Sharif or the urs at Data Darbar in Lahore. Sufi shrines were targeted several times in recent years:
- May 2019: Bombing of Data Darbar in Lahore
- Oct 2017: Bombing of shrine in Quetta, Balochistan (not accessible for foreigners)
- Feb 2017: Bombing of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh
Does that mean you should stay away from minority groups or events in Pakistan?
If you’re traveling off the beaten track in Pakistan, you should be able to inform yourself of risks and make calculated judgements as to whether or not you find risks worthy.
Personally, I find it worth the risk to learn more about groups and events firsthand. I regularly attend Sufi gatherings in Lahore, have visited Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras around the country, and spent days in the thick of crowds during Muharram and Safar, months of mourning particularly significant for Shia Muslims. All of which go against my government’s recommendations.
It’s worth noting that security at large minority events is intense. Spot lights, truck barricades, barbed wire, police everywhere, blocked mobile signals. And then some. Yes they are risk areas, but security officials account for that and do everything they can to mitigate. At times they might not want to allow foreigners in because of the security risks—it’s useful to have locals with you to help.
Where are the safest places to visit in Pakistan?
No place is 100% safe, of course, but some places are calmer than others in Pakistan!
Hunza, Gilgit Baltistan
Most of Gilgit Baltistan as a whole is quite peaceful, but if you’re looking for ease of travel, welcoming people, and a very safe track record, Hunza is the place to start. The most touristed region in northern Pakistan has been peaceful for decades, and aside from a small number of harassment incidents, most travelers have an easy and safe experience in Hunza. I recommend Hunza to all first time (solo) female travelers in Pakistan.
Ghizer, Gilgit Baltistan
Like Hunza, Ghizer district to the west of Gilgit city (along the road to Shandur Pass) is peaceful. Home to generally well-educated and open-minded Ismaili Muslims, it’s a very welcoming place for travelers. Ghizer is my favorite district in Gilgit Baltistan—Phander Valley is a good place to start.
Pakistan’s capital is, hands down, the safest city in Pakistan. Admittedly this leads to a very sterile experience (in my opinion, anyway) but it’s a safe and very forgiving starting point for any Pakistan trip.
My favorite city in Pakistan is also relatively safe for travelers. People are quite used to seeing foreign tourists in Lahore, especially in the historical areas, and the city is quite well managed security-wise. The normal risks associated with visiting big cities exist—think harassment, petty theft, etc.—but as a whole, Lahore is welcoming and a good addition to any trip.
Note: To be fair, all of Pakistan’s major cities—Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar—are safe enough to visit. Standard precautions should still be taken, especially in Karachi where snatching of phones and bags still sometimes occurs.
Is it safe to visit Peshawar?
Close to Afghanistan’s border with a reputation for being a terroristic Wild West where guns and hashish are sold openly and women flutter through the streets in burqas, it’s understandable why people are apprehensive about visiting Peshawar. Foreign tourists used to receive security escorts when visiting Peshawar, and many governments still advise not to visit.
But these days it’s safe to visit Peshawar, and I highly recommend it! The City of Flowers is working hard to rebuild and attract tourists after being ravaged by violence in recent decades. Though its visible conservatism might initially shock, it’s home to some of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen in Pakistan—don’t miss the Sethi Haveli and Mahabat Khan mosque—and Pashtuns are indisputably the most hospitable people in Pakistan.
Note: You might have trouble finding accommodation in Peshawar; most hotels don’t allow foreigners. If on a budget, Al-Ibadat Hotel in Peshawar has rooms for around 800 PKR/night. Couchsurfing is another option—it’ll provide an opportunity to learn about Pashtun culture from the source. Female travelers, be on guard; many solo female travelers have had bad experiences Couchsurfing with less reputable hosts in Peshawar.
What are actual dangers of traveling in Pakistan?
Oh, you mean besides the 5 most serious dangers of traveling in Pakistan?
Jokes aside, here’s what I think travelers should actually be careful of while in Pakistan:
- Harassment. Groping, stalking, and sometimes more is a common experience for both male and female travelers in Pakistan. Groping is particularly common in large crowds.
- Road accidents. Pakistani drivers be cray. Roads in cities are busy. Many truck and bus drivers give no fucks and consume large amounts of hashish while driving their routes. Watch out, and never step in front of a moving bus.
- Food poisoning. Hygiene standards in Pakistan are poor. Combined with the excessive use of oils and spices in the food, it’s common for visitors to have tummy issues at some point during their trip.
- Violence or stampedes in large crowds. People can be hotheaded in Pakistan, and when people get worked up… they get really worked up. Be careful in large crowds that are getting unruly—it’s easy for violence to flare up or stampedes to start.
Safety tips for travel in Pakistan
The most important thing you can do while traveling in Pakistan is trust your instincts. If something feels bad or suspicious, back off.
Vague, I know! Instincts come with time, and you’ll figure things out while there. In the meantime, I recommend a few other safety basics to people visiting Pakistan:
Always have a local SIM card and a local’s phone number. It might sound strange now, but trust me—people will offer their phone number to you for assistance often. Save some! They’re useful for translating in tough spots, letting people know where you are, and staying in touch with hosts and other helpful folks. Telenor and Zong offer the best mobile coverage in Pakistan.
Reach out to locals and experienced foreigners for information. Facebook groups such as Backpacking Pakistan (mostly foreigners only), See You in Pakistan (local and foreign), and Female Pakistan Travelers (local and foreign women only) are treasure troves of information and contacts. Couchsurfing is another great resource for connecting with locals.
Watch yourself in big crowds. From bum grabs to brick throwing to bag snatching, crowds can be tricksy business. Watch your things—and your parts—in thick crowds, just in case.
Have faith in people. I know this guide can be intimidating, but in the end, having faith in people you meet is important to enjoying your time in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis are very welcoming of foreign guests, and will do their best to make sure your visit goes smoothly. Constant suspicion is tiring; trust people who seem good. I assure you, if someone’s inviting you to their house, it’s probably because they want to introduce you to their family and stuff you full of food, not blast you into bits. Just sayin’.