A relative will visit me in Amsterdam. She does not speak English or any other major language, nor has much experience with air travel. How do people in similar situations find their way?

She will arrive with a flight from outside the Schengen area, but she does not need a visa for EU. The airline is from her country, so until landing there will be no language barriers. However, afterwards, I don't know how will she find her way to the passport control (and talk with the officer), and so on. Schiphol is an easy airport to navigate, but still difficult for someone who is not used to airports and air travel, and without the knowledge of a major language.

What am I supposed to do? Does the airport organise assistance in such cases?

I will be waiting outside after the customs, but as far as I know there is no way for me to go "any closer" than that.

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    possible duplicate of Language problems at the airport?
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:48
  • Thanks. But the answers on that discussion are limited to the formalities around passport control. I would appreciate a wider answer covering the way from the gate to the passport control, and baggage belt (ok, in Amsterdam the latter is easy).
    – flotr
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:52
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    Amsterdam Schipol airport is actually very good, lots of maps and signs around the place, including ones with pictures, so it ought to be just fine
    – Gagravarr
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:53
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    A good strategy in practice is just to follow the crowd. Most people who get off the plane are are going to go through passport control, baggage claim, etc. too. In hub airports, connecting passengers will either split off little by little (in which case just follow the crowd still), or at a single point where transiting and arriving passengers separate -- and in the latter case that point will be clearly marked with pictograms for "arrivals" (suitcase pictogram) or "transfers" (plane taking off pictogram) pointing in different directions. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:58
  • Thank you for your answers. I think that she will manage by following the crowd and visual signs, but at the same time I am surprised that there is no standardised procedure for this, as a paid service.
    – flotr
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:09

3 Answers 3


I've travelled quite a bit in countries where I can't even read the script (Russia, the 'stans, Japan). At least I can read English, and sometimes they have English counter-signs. Of course, if you can't read it at all, then you start instinctively looking for other clues.

Firstly, you may have noticed most airports use both words and pictograms. Little images like a plane going up for departures, or down for arrivals. Toilets (men and women figures). Knife and fork for food. It's surprisingly easy to just look for those.

Secondly, you'll find it's actually pretty difficult to go the wrong way in an airport. You get off the plane and just follow your fellow passengers, and keep an eye out for signs.

Eventually you get to either immigration, or luggage, or immigration then luggage. Your flight number is on a board above the carousel, usually. Not a word has needed to be spoken, except perhaps to immigration, and even then they can get a translator if they really need to ask you something critical.

Millions of people pass through airports every year, so they're designed (believe it or not) to be easy to use without a local language. And if they really need help, they could pre-print a piece of paper saying 'I don't speak English or Dutch - I speak x - can you help me?'. Or possibly pre-prepare words like 'arrivals', 'baggage', 'visiting my relative' and 'help, I need a bathroom!'.

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    (Note, I'm not totally kidding on that last sentence, while you may not need the other ones, everyone needs that one eventually...)
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 4:48
  • Ha, maybe we should get 'where is the toilet' cards made with that phrase in multiple languages. But, yeah, Amsterdam airport is pretty hard to get lost in. Follow the signs for immigration (picture of a guy with a hat looking at documents, if I recall correctly) after that baggage and the exit is obvious. It may be worth getting to know the people next to you on the plane and/or the cabin crew as some of them are almost certainly going to have to go the same direction when they get out the plane.
    – SpaceDog
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 21:48
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    These pictograms, by the way, are an ISO standard. There is this handy booklet (in pdf) that explains some of the symbols and provides other guidance. Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 6:48

I started writing a comment, but it became a bit much. And it contained several suggestions that fit as an answer.

If your guest owns a phone, she can call you as soon as she lands, and you can guide her through the whole procedure of getting out of arrivals. Sure, she needs a phone contract that allows for roaming.

Can she read Latin script? If so, either of you, on the phone, can spell out signs.

Is your guest not blind? She can carry, on paper, a few notes on what signs to follow. An arrow should be recognizable whatever language she speaks, so all she needs is a note that reads 'Arrivals' and 'Passport control'. Related to this, the pictogram of a piece of luggage is widely used to direct arriving passengers.

She's arriving in a plane from her country, so the airline staff can be expected to speak a language she also speaks. She can tell the staff she does not know what to do when disembarking, and it is likely that staff will ask for some kind of assistance for her once off the plane.

You could of course also game the system by requesting the need of a wheelchair. I would be surprised if not someone would be with her all the way through picking up her luggage.

(And, as was also pointed out in the comments, whenever I fly to an obscure destination in some obscure country, following the crowds is pretty much always the surest bet.)


Also you could arrange "special assistance" upfront with the airline, this is usually for handicapped or elderly people and they will wait with a wheelchair at the gate for her but they will guide her through everything.

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