This is part of the Been There, Done That series, where our expert globetrotters travel the world to get the insights and information you need to have a seamless travel experience.
As the largest of the city’s two international airports, Istanbul Airport is a testament to Turkey's rich heritage and modern aspirations. Since its opening in 2018, it has served over 120 million passengers, attesting to its sprawling facilities and exceptional services.
When you first arrive at Istanbul Airport, it can feel a bit daunting. The airport spans over seven million square meters, with two terminals that operate as separate airports. However, with some preparation, you'll find it exciting and easy to navigate.
Whether you're stopping by for a quick layover or beginning an enchanting adventure in the heart of Turkey, my complete guide to arriving at Istanbul Airport is your personal travel companion.
Get set for Turkey: The importance of pre-travel preparation
Here are some essential tips to ensure your trip starts off without a hitch:
Begin by checking in online – it's super easy, thanks to most airline apps, and you get to choose your favorite seats for the flight. Plus, it's a great time-saver at the airport!
Arrive early for baggage drop-off. Trust us, those lines can be long, and you don't want to miss out on your adventure because you're still queuing.
Once you drop off your bags, keep that baggage sticker safe - you know, the one they usually stick on your passport. It’s essential for locating your bags in case they don't arrive with you (this proved to be a valuable tip for my trip!).
Shop duty-free on arrival at Istanbul Airport. It's easier and avoids the hassle of carrying extra bags through security before you go.
Lastly, remember the golden rule: be at the airport at least 3 hours before your international flight, and at your gate no less than 45 minutes before boarding.
Arriving at Istanbul Airport: First impressions
As my overnight flight approaches Istanbul in the early hours, the first light of dawn greets me, casting a soft glow over the city. From my window, the expansive landscape of Istanbul unfolds, a blend of history and urban vibrancy.
Stepping off the plane, a bus awaits to take us to the arrival terminal, where there are numerous restrooms to freshen up. My adventure in Istanbul starts now, bright and full of potential!
Istanbul Airport welcomes me with a gorgeous sunrise early in the morning.
- Airport code: IST
- Wi-Fi: Up to 1 hour free of charge
- Languages: Turkish, English
Immigration checks: Quick and efficient
Navigating Istanbul Airport is a breeze, with clear signs in both English and Turkish guiding me to passport control. The escalators lead me to two distinct lines: one for Turkish passport holders and another for international visitors.
Just follow the signs.
In the international queue, a police officer conducts a preliminary check of my passport, meticulously inspecting the watermarks—presumably to keep things moving smoothly. When it's my turn, the immigration officer scans my passport, and I pause momentarily to face a camera to verify my identity.
For Turkish eVisa holders: When they scan your passport, your eVisa status pops up in their system.
iVisa tip: Always have a printed copy of your eVisa or, at the very least, a digital version on your smartphone. It's better to be safe than sorry in case of any technical hiccups.
For Turkish Embassy Visa holders: The officer will examine the visa sticker in your passport, ensuring its authenticity and that your travel dates align.
If you're traveling with a companion and mentioned this in your visa application, it's usually noted in the system. This means you and your travel partner can efficiently go through immigration together.
Regardless of the visa type, if everything checks out, you'll hear the satisfying sound of the stamp in your passport!
Documents and info needed for immigration
Keep the following info and documents on hand when going through immigration checks:
Your passport with a validity of at least 6 months beyond the date of your arrival
Ensure you have at least one blank page in your passport, especially if you're a frequent traveler, for entry and exit stamps
Your valid visa or a copy of your eVisa downloaded on a mobile device (if you need one)
Details about where you'll be staying and the places you plan to visit during your trip
Although I don't speak Turkish, everyone at the airport communicated comfortably in English.
Baggage claim and beyond
After breezing through passport control, I hop onto a travelator, following the signs to baggage control. It's a smooth ride that leads you directly down an escalator and right into the heart of the duty-free shop – a paradise for last-minute shoppers.
iVisa tip: Be prepared to pay 30 Lira (about US$1) for a luggage trolley by cash or card. It's just a deposit, and you’ll get this back when you return it by scanning your ticket at the trolley return machine when you're done.
You can pay for your baggage trolley deposit by cash or card.
You'll find the trolley machines conveniently located at each baggage conveyor belt. Once I’m set with my trolley, I take a quick look to figure out which side my suitcase will arrive at on the screen and then head in that direction from the duty-free area.
It's all pretty straightforward, and before you know it, you'll be all set to go with your bags in tow. If only that were the happy end of my luggage story…
How to report a lost bag at Istanbul Airport
After waiting for about 30 minutes at the baggage claim, it became clear that my case was taking its sweet time – or maybe not arriving at all. As the crowd thinned and no new bags rolled out, I knew I had a problem and needed to take action.
First things first, I head to the information desk at the baggage hall to ask for assistance. The process might vary depending on your airline. For me, flying with Ethiopian Air, I walked over to the Havas office, where they had me fill out a form and provide the following info:
My passport details
My boarding pass and departure date from Turkey
The baggage sticker you received upon checking in for your flight
Where I’m staying in Turkey and my home address
The easiest way to contact me during my stay and at home
Fair warning, this isn't a quick process. It took me almost an hour, but it was necessary to get things moving. After filling out the form, they gave me a file report number and assured me they'd contact me using the details I provided.
A little note on the staff – they might come across as a bit stern at first, but don't let that discourage you. If you have any questions or need clarification, don't hesitate to ask. It's always better to get all your doubts cleared up right away.
iVisa tip: My husband and I always split our clothes and personal items between our two suitcases when we travel together. That way, if one bag gets lost, we still have access to our essentials.
Luckily, my bag was sent to my accommodation in Istanbul a day later, and I could resume my journey as usual.
Something to declare: Navigating customs
Luggage or no luggage, proceed to the ground floor arrival area. If you have items to declare, this is the moment to do so by following the red tunnel. If you have nothing to declare, simply make your way through the green tunnel, like me.
Connect with ease: Getting a local SIM card
When I land in a new country, staying connected is essential for me, especially because of my remote job that demands availability across different time zones. My go-to solution is to pick up a local SIM card.
After leaving the customs tunnel, turn right. You'll find a variety of local mobile data providers there, including names like Turk Telecom and Vodacom.
I found Turk Telecom to offer the most budget-friendly plans. After choosing a suitable data plan, I simply provide my passport details. The helpful staff even assisted in setting it up on my phone.
Money matters: Currency exchange & ATMs
Next, you have the convenience of exchanging currency or withdrawing cash from an ATM right away. Exchange or take out only the amount you absolutely require at the airport. You'll find better exchange rates in the city, allowing you to get more bang for your buck.
iVisa tip: Familiarize yourself with the Turkish Lira and consider exchanging some currency before flying for small expenses upon arrival.
Ground transportation: Your ride into the city
The new Istanbul Airport is situated approximately 30 miles (50 km) from the city center in the Arnuvutköy district on the European side, known for its wooden Ottoman mansions.
Here are the main ways to get to the city from Istanbul Airport:
Because it was so early in the morning and I was exhausted, I opted for a taxi. It was comfortable and direct, but traffic can affect travel time.
Takes about 50 minutes and costs approximately 350 Lira (€19/$20).
Yellow taxis are cheaper, more premium blue taxis are 15% more expensive, and black luxury taxis are double the price.
Be cautious of unofficial taxis and overcharges and only use the official taxi rank just outside the arrivals hall or at the departures area on the second floor.
Only use official taxis, identifiable by their “TAKSi” signage.
About using ride-sharing or taxi apps in Istanbul
- Uber is available, but is somewhat more expensive than regular taxis. The airport's free Wi-Fi coverage is strong enough to use the app without a local SIM card.
- The local BiTaksi app can be used to request a regular taxi, which offers the same price as traditional taxis, but you can also pay by credit card for convenience. I found the app to be a bit glitchy, however, so ultimately, I just stood in the taxi queue outside the arrivals hall.
Havaist and IETT are the main bus services that serve the city centre of Istanbul.
Havaist buses, specifically the iSt-12, go directly to Sultanahmet, taking around 90 minutes (67 Lira or about €3.70/$3.90).
IETT buses serve less popular parts of the city and might require additional transfers.
The bus station is at the -2 airport level, where you can purchase or top up an Istanbulkart, valid for all public transport.
The new Metro Line M11 links the airport to the city in the cheapest and quickest way.
The journey to Sultanahmet involves a transfer at Gayrettepe Station and takes about 40 minutes, plus waiting time.
Requires an Istanbulkart, which costs 60 Lira (€2.94/$3.10) and a one-way ticket is 9.90 Lira (€0.48/$0.55).
When you exit the airport through one of the arrivals doors, follow the signs for the metro. The symbol for the airport metro is a white ‘U’ on a red background.
The Metro is open from approximately 06:00 am to midnight.
Offers freedom but requires navigating through traffic, which can be chaotic.
It takes about 50 minutes to reach Sultanahmet by car, but is prone to traffic delays.
All car rental offices and counters are located on the arrivals floor.
Offer comfort and privacy.
Ideal for those preferring a direct and more luxurious option.
Your accommodation or hotel might offer a special deal for guests, so be sure to ask before you go!
iVisa tip: Download the Istanbul Airport app for real-time flight updates and information on airport facilities, city sights, and events. The “Home to Airport”-function helps you plan your journey from the airport to your chosen address. Like having a personal travel assistant right in your pocket!
Getting an Istanbulkart: For airport and city
If you decide to go by public transport, note that you cannot pay for public transport in Istanbul using cash or contactless debit/credit cards. Instead, pick up an Istanbulkart, a handy reloadable card for the metro, bus, tram, funicular, and ferry, including to and from the airport. It's super convenient and easy to top up as you go.
At the metro station, you'll find four Istanbulkart vending machines, easily recognizable in yellow and black. Two of these machines accept credit and debit cards, while the others are cash-only, accepting Turkish Lira. Just a heads-up: there's often a bit of a line for these machines, so you might need to wait a bit to get your card.
Transferring to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen
Istanbul Airport and Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW) are not just separated by 52 miles (ca. 84 km), but they also sit on different continents. Yes, that's right! While Istanbul Airport graces the European side of this historic city, Sabiha Gökçen proudly resides in Asia.
Occasionally, travelers find themselves having to do a same-day airport transfer in Istanbul as part of their journey. If you plan to bridge this continental divide, here's a quick glance at your travel options with their respective costs and journey times:
Taxi: About 550 Lira (€30/$32) for a 65-minute ride.
Bus: Roughly 85 Lira (€4.60$5) for a 110-minute journey.
Private transfer: If you like to plan ahead, book a transfer.
Make sure to plan enough time between flights to make the trip and account for check-in and boarding times. And here's a little peek into the future – plans are in motion for a high-speed train to seamlessly connect these two airports.
Facilities: Combining contemporary and classic
Arriving at Istanbul Airport is fast, efficient, and hassle-free! From the moment you touch down, you'll find yourself in an impressively modern and meticulously organized setting. It's no wonder that it's in the running for "World's Best Airport" in 2023!
To enhance your experience further, here are a few handy tips to ensure an even smoother journey:
Information and accessibility: Need help? Just look for the “Danışma” sign at information desks, where you can get assistance in over 40 languages using translation devices. Whether you need directions, wheelchair services, or have other general inquiries, they've got you covered.
Families with children: For families who have checked in their pram or stroller, the airport provides convenient pram systems, allowing you to borrow one for easier navigation through the terminal with children.
Restrooms: One of the first things you'll appreciate is the restrooms – they're not only plentiful but also spotless and well-maintained. It's a small detail, but it makes a world of difference after a long flight.
Water fountains: As the world shifts towards sustainable solutions, Istanbul Airport is at the forefront, embracing eco-friendly practices. Recognizing the limitations on liquids through baggage control, there are complimentary hot and cold water dispensers available at 18 strategic locations throughout the terminal.
Stay comfortably: YOTEL offers two convenient locations: LANDSIDE, accessible before immigration and passport control, and another AIRSIDE, located in the transit area (at the duty-free shops) and available only with a valid boarding pass—a convenient and comfortable option for long layovers.
Lost and found: If you've misplaced anything in the terminal, at security points, or in the car park, don't worry! There are Lost and Found Property Offices, located opposite entrance 7 and near gate C3 after passport control. A small charge applies from the second day of storage. If you left something on the plane, simply contact your airline for assistance.
Security: In Turkey's airports, always expect two security screenings upon departure: one at the airport entrance (this one includes the bags you’ll check in) and one after passport control. At each checkpoint, be ready to pass through metal detectors and x-ray machines.
Overall, the airport does a fantastic job of blending functionality with cultural elegance, making your arrival in Istanbul not just a transit but a part of your travel experience.
What to see and do in Istanbul
I'm thrilled to offer you a treasure trove of personal insights and tips for your journey through the enchanting city of Istanbul as well!
From hidden gems to local favorites, I've gathered a collection of recommendations to enhance your experience in this magical metropolis. Get ready to explore Istanbul like a local, with insider knowledge that will make your adventure truly unforgettable.
Get ready to explore with the locals!
Experience an unforgettable adventure in Turkey! And don't forget to explore our comprehensive airport guides for more travel insights: