Iran 101 – Everything You Need to Know Before You Travel

Iran is a beautiful, complex, fascinating, confusing, gorgeous place – and shocking to navigate, unless you come prepared.

Planning a trip to Iran? First of all, congrats! Take me with you? Iran is a fantastic country to visit but visiting takes a little more effort and research than your regular weekend getaway to Prague.

Here is a quick (?) rundown of everything I know about about preparing for a trip to Iran. I travelled in September and October 2019 so all this information was current then.

Let’s get started!

Nasir Al-Mulk mosque

First of all, who is Iran for?

Iran might be a harder than average country to visit – due to language barriers, cultural differences and the pure frustration factor that dealing with Iranian tourist infrastructure sometimes is. So I wouldn’t recommend it as a first solo backpacking trip.

Iran is for you if you’re open minded, adventurous and don’t mind the occasional squat toilet – but still want to travel somewhere where it’s easy to meet other backpackers.

FOR AMERICANS, BRITS AND CANADIANS.

Ya’ll’s politics got messed up with Iran’s, so now you can only visit the country on a tour or accompanied by a tour guide at all times. If you have a dual citizenship, you can travel freely using your second passport (I mean, only if it’s from a country that allows that). I’ve heard stories of people who’ve booked a tour and cancelled it once they get the visa, and travel agencies providing these kinds of “fake tours”, but I would not advice trying to get into Iran like this. If you get caught, you’ll be in a ton of trouble.

While locals might have heated opinions about your politicians, they’re not hostile for people from your countries – instead, I’ve heard that they often try to treat you even more kindly because they want to change the prejudice against Iranians. So travelling in Iran as an American, Canadian or Brit is as safe as for anyone else.

Forbidden stamps

You will be denied entry if you have a stamp from Israel on your passport or other proof that you have visited there.

 

Yazd

Visa

VISA COST:

Applying for visa:                                        Visa on arrival:

Visa fee: 50 e (EU national)                        Visa fee: 75 e (EU national)

Agency fee: 30 e

Total 80 e

 

You’ll 99% sure need a visa to visit. (There are 16 visa-exempt countries; most recently, China.) Most visitors can get a 30 day visa on arrival – but only if you fly in. (See if you can get a visa.)

Visa on arrival

Visa on arrival should cost about 75 e. They don’t stamp your passport anymore; you might get a stamp on a separate piece of paper or no stamp at all.

Visa application

If you’re arriving in Iran through a land border, you need to apply for a visa beforehand.

The process has many steps but it’s easy enough.

First, you’ll need a visa Grant Notice. In other words: a letter of invitation.

The Iranian government has started an e-visa system to make the application process easier but DO NOT APPLY through the official e-visa page. Most of the time, applications get stuck in the system and you’re unlikely to ever get your invitation code through them.

Instead, contact a tour agency in Iran to get the code for you. I used Key2Persia that Caravanistan recommends and paid them 30 e to help with the application process. I’m sure there are also cheaper agencies but I wanted one with a good reputation, and they were excellent and answered emails fast. I got my code in a few days.

To get the code, you’ll need to send them:

  1. a picture of your passport
  2. a passport photo
  3. the name of the embassy where you want to pick up your visa
  4. a rough itinerary

This is important. The agency will probably ask for an itinerary for your planned stay in Iran; they will also ask you to inform them in case this itinerary changes. In truth, once you’re in Iran, no one cares if you follow this route or not. I looked up some itineraries from travel blogs and filled in a few cities, and looked up hostels in those cities on Hostelworld. (You don’t need to actually book anything yet.)

This is where I kinda screwed up. I figured I was going to get a 30-day visa anyway so I got bored filling the application and only gave an itinerary for 21 days. And surprise surprise – they only gave me a visa for 21 days.

I ended up extending it (more on that below) but it’s easier to just fill in a full-month itinerary if you plan to stay for a month.

Golestan palace

Secondly, you’ll have to visit an Iranian embassy.

Once the agency tells you that they’ve got the Grant Notice, you’ll have to go apply for the visa at an Iranian embassy in person. I went to the embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan. At the embassy, you’ll have to bring

  1. a copy of your passport
  2. your actual passport
  3. passport photos (They didn’t need mine, but just in case. You also don’t need to wear a headscarf in your visa photo.)
  4. cash for the visa fee
  5. proof of insurance

Many regular insurance providers don’t cover Iran but insurance is required to enter the country. I got my insurance through 1Quest since many bloggers recommended it. Their coverage is not as good as some of the other providers but they are the absolute cheapest option. This blog post has some more information on insurance providers that cover Iran!

Dress code for visa application:

You don’t need a headscarf in your visa photo, and you don’t need to wear one to the embassy.

TOP TIP: Write down Iranian numbers before you head to the embassy. The employees spoke good English and the queue numbers were shown in regular numerals, but my ticket only had the queue number in Persian numerals.

 

Thirdly, go back to the embassy to collect your visa.

If all goes well, you’ll probably get your visa on the same day or the next working day. The Iranian visa is not stamped on your passport but given to you on a separate piece of paper – this is the paper they also stamp when you enter the country.

in Kerman

Extending your visa

If you get to Iran and realise you’re completely enthralled by the country, extending your visa is a pretty simple process if you’ve got an hour to spare.

Instead of the embassy, find the international office (will probably be titled “Visa extension office”.) There’s one in most touristic cities; I’ve heard extending in Yazd or Shiraz is the easiest. (I extended in Yazd.)

To extend your visa, you’ll need:

  1. a copy of your passport
  2. your actual passport
  3. copy of your Iranian visa
  4. two passport photos

Note that you need passport photos with a headscarf on if you’re female. I just had the scarf-less ones I took for my visa and they did accept them after a minute but they did inform me that technically it was illegal.

You’ll have to fill in an application that you get at the office.

I paid 345,000 rial (about 3.5 USD / 3 e) and got a 30-day visa extension.

Money in Iran

Money in Iran is CONFUSING. The official currency is rial but often people refer prices in toman, which is not a real currency but just rial with one zero gone. Example: 100,000 rial = 10,000 toman = often said as “ten toman”.

There are two exchange rates: the official one you’ll find on websites like xe.com, and the black market one. Never exchange money at the official rate. Currently, the official rate is about 45,000 rial per 1 USD, while the unofficial rate varies between 111,000-115,000 rial per USD. Right now, rial is pretty stable but it has gone through massive fluctuation since the American sanctions were put in place so most of the converted prices listed in blog posts about Iran are probably wrong.

You also can’t exchange rials outside of Iran so make sure to get rid of your currency before leaving.

Foreign credit cards don’t work in Iran. You’ll need to take all the money you need for your trip in cash. Take US dollars or euros and exchange when you get to Iran (euros are better but USD works too.) You can also get an Iranian debit card; your hostel should be able to order one for you and have it waiting when you arrive.

I’m going to write a more comprehensive budget guide to Iran in a few weeks and talk more about the currencies, exchange rates, scams and how much to budget – I’ll link it here once it’s done, and meanwhile, if you got questions, leave a comment or slide into my Instagram DMs.

Language

The language spoken in Iran is Farsi. It uses its own alphabet; numerals are also written differently, and even though the letters might be impossible to pick up, it’s worth learning the numbers.

Finding English speakers is a little hit-and-miss if you’re a tourist; many people don’t speak a word, some speak a little. I also met many Iranian whose English was completely fluent, but don’t count on it.

I tried learning some phrases before getting to Iran – just to find out that almost everything down on Wiktionary is wrong. So here are some phrases Iranians taught me (written as they’re pronounced so don’t come at my grammar):

merci – thank you (yes, like in French)

hhodafes – goodbye

sop / rus / shab be her – good morning / day / night

hhosh mäze – delicious

hhosh bahhtam – nice to meet you

farsi nemi dunam – I don’t understand Farsi

nemi dunam – I don’t know

ancient citadel of Bam

Internet usage

VPNs

In Iran, many websites and most social media platforms are blocked. (Talk about freedom of speech…) Only Instagram works, and in the past the government has tried to shut it down, too.

You’ll need to get a VPN – it’s basically a service that directs your internet traffic through a server in another country. Download your VPN before you even get to Iran since many provider sites are also blocked! Download a few options since VPNs might also randomly stop working.

I downloaded these three:

  • ExpressVPN: Seems to be popular and worked great, and actually ended up being the only one I used. You can get the first month for free.
  • NordVPN: My first back-up VPN that I didn’t need to use but it had good reviews. It’s about 12 e per month, but you can cancel it within the first 30 days and get a full refund, no questions asked.
  • Avast VPN: Not a big fan of Avast but this one was free and I just wanted a second back-up. Didn’t end up using it, though.

SIM cards

Most backpackers get an Irancell SIM card. It should cost about 250,00 rial (2.5 e) on the street, and 4GB of data costs 400,000 rial. It takes a few days for your SIM card to get activated. I bought a pre-registered SIM card from Tehran Heritage Hostel and while it was more expensive (700,000 rial = 7ish e), I could start using it right away.

Wifi

After hearing stories of Iranian wifi, I was surprised to notice that most hostels in the bigger cities actually had very decent wifi. Sometimes the connection is slow but I was even able to work while I was travelling in Iran. You won’t find free wifi on public places or restaurants, though.

Nasir Al-Mulk mosque

Religion

The name says it all – the Islamic Republic of Iran is a Muslim country. Unlike you might think, though, not being Muslim is not illegal; in fact, the country has small Christian and Jewish populations as well as one of the largest (and one of the only) Zoroastrian populations in the world.

A few years ago, The Washington Post made ripples listing Iran as one of the 13 countries where you can be executed for being atheist. This is technically not true – being an atheist is not illegal in Iran but irreligious citizens are not recognised by the Iranian government and don’t get the same citizenship rights; citizens of Iran have to identify with one of the four religions. Only abandoning Islam is illegal and can be punishable by death. The last case was in 2014. These days, there are tons of non-practicing Muslims as well as non-believers, but understandably they keep pretty quiet.

As a tourist, you won’t get in any trouble being whatever religion you are or are not.

Dress code

Iran is much stricter than most Middle Eastern countries when it comes to dressing modestly.

For men: Much more lenient than for women so we ain’t currently accepting complaints. Men have to wear long trousers; t-shirts are fine.

For women: Oh boy, are women expected to be modest:

  • Wearing a headscarf is obligatory even for tourists – but you can still show some hair.
  • Long-sleeved shirts. In reality, though, many women do bare their forearms – just no t-shirts, okay?
  • Long trousers or skirts. They have to cover your ankles.
  • A shirt or a dress that covers your whole butt and other curves; although many local women wear their dresses and jumpers fitted around the waist.

There are some myths regarding women’s clothing in Iran. Firstly, you don’t have to wear closed shoes; any kind of shoes are fine, including open-toe and high heels. You also don’t have to fully cover up with a chandor although some shrines and mosques require you to wear one – don’t worry, they’ll borrow you one on the premises. It’s also a myth that you’d have to wear black or even dark colours!

Tattoos

Tattooing is also illegal in Iran. Showing your tattoos is okay though, and I only ever got curious questions about mine, never judgement (at least out loud.) You’ll see lots of young people with ink on, still, some young men even with full sleeves or neck tattoos.

 

Food

Iran is very meat-heavy. They eat a lot of chicken, there are also many dishes with lamb and beef. Pork, obviously, is not eaten.

Vegetarians will struggle and vegans even more. Restaurants usually don’t have many vegetarian options and if they do, they’re all the same (prepare for a lot of eggplant!) I’ve heard from some veggie travellers that restaurants have even refused to serve them just plain rice which in some places is the only option! If you don’t eat meat, here are some options you could try, or check this blog for more ideas:

  • It’s hard to find a good meal salad in an Iranian restaurant but you could always order from the starters; usually they have some options.
  • Kashke bademjan. Bademjan means eggplant, and this dish is kind of a mashed-together yoghurt-and-eggplant mess. It’s pretty good, tbh.
  • Fesenjan does have chicken but some restaurants make the sweet pomegranate and walnut sauce separately so you could try ordering just the sauce with some rice.
  • This will probably be the corner pillar of your Iranian cuisine. Sorry.

Many hostels also have kitchens so cooking for yourself is not impossible.

Water

Tap water is safe to drink in Iran, although in some areas it might have a funny taste to it. In cities, you’ll find taps and drinking fountains all over the place where you can fill your bottle.

Alcohol

Alcohol is illegal in Iran; instead, locals gather in tea shops to drink tea.

Tarof

Tarof is a concept of offering something out of politeness even if they don’t mean it. Iranians are very hospitable but in case of tarof, you’re supposed to refuse offers for lunch, to stay at their homes, etc. three times before you can be sure that they really mean it and are not offering just out of politeness. I found the concept to be a little bit old-fashioned, especially among the younger generation. Before I could even get into a full song-and-dance, many people rushed to tell me that they were serious and their offer wasn’t tarof. So you might encounter this concept, or you might not.

In any case, if an Iranian invites you to a lunch to their home or for a cup of tea in their shop, in most cases it’s fine to go (listen to your gut feeling – there are bad people in Iran just like everywhere else, too), and these experiences can be the best ones you have on your trip.

Safety

General safety

Iran, despite what you might’ve heard, is a safe place to travel and violent crimes are rare. In any case, keep an eye on your belongings and always keep your valuables on you since petty theft is always a possibility.

In summer 2019, a lot’s been going on in the Western media as the relationship between Iran and the US – and subsequently the rest of the world – has further soured. Neither side seems to want war so a full-on conflict is unlikely – but you might still want to keep an eye on the news.

Oh, you might’ve also seen the news about the Australian and two Aussie-British backpackers that got arrested in Tehran in August 2019. (They were released earlier this week.) Apparently they were arrested for camping and flying a drone near a military site. Espionage is taken extremely seriously in Iran and flying drones is massively illegal (unless you have a special permit for it!)

Politics

I’ve seen posts saying you shouldn’t talk about politics (or religion) with Iranians. However, I found that a lot of Iranian were eager to have a chat about the politics – you should let them start, though, and try to listen without offering too much of your own opinion. Like, duh.

Female travellers

Solo female travel in Iran is as safe as most other places – however, talk to other girls who’ve travelled Iran before to get a sense of what you’re up against. Sexual harassment towards Western girls is not unheard of in Iran but normally it’s limited to catcalling and stares.

Unfortunately women’s rights in Iran are, uh, not the best – to put it lightly. As a tourist, you probably won’t get in too much trouble for small breeches of the etiquette but it’s best to try to follow the law the best you can.

It’s illegal for women to:

  • not wear a headscarf in public
  • to sing or dance in public
  • to sit next to a man they don’t know on a bus (shared taxis are fine)
  • to be alone with a man they don’t know (tour guides don’t count)

It’s not actually illegal for a woman to ride a bicycle; but it’s considered haram, and in some of the bigger cities women have got in trouble for riding a bike.

Queer travellers

Being gay is illegal in Iran and punishable by death. So if you’re a part of a sexual minority, be careful when you’re travelling in Iran! However, if you’re travelling with your partner, you can still book private rooms since it’s quite common for members of the same sex to share rooms. Just be careful with PDA.

 

When to go

The best times to go are spring and autumn, so March-May and September-October. I travelled around in the autumn and while it was hot, most of the time temperatures were pleasant compared to the height of summer. Also contrary to popular belief, Iran does have seasons, and the winter can be a cold time to visit.

If you want to visit the islands on the Persian Gulf, better to go in the winter – so, about November-January. Even in October the heat was unbearable!

If you want to hike, note that the Northern parts of Iran are already getting chillier in October.

Getting around

Taxi

In cities, the Snapp app will be your best friend. It’s the Iranian Uber and much cheaper than taxis – and as a solo girl, I felt a lot more secure getting taxis through Snapp than off the street. Note that due to American sanctions, iPhones are blocked on the app store so you’ll need to use a third-party app to download Snapp on an iPhone.

Bus

The easiest and cheapest way to get around Iran. Most popular routes have very frequent busses and you don’t usually need to book beforehand. An 8-hour journey costs about 600,000 rial (6 USD / 5.5 e.)

Train

There are some train connections but these are usually fully booked – if you want to take a train, book it through your hostel a few days or even a few weeks beforehand.

Plane

Most major cities in Iran have airports, and flying might save you some time if you’re planning to visit really distant destinations like Mashhad or Kish Island. Tickets can be as cheap as 10 e.

Hitchhiking

If you’re feeling adventurous, hitchhiking in Iran is apparently very easy (I wouldn’t do it alone as a woman, though.) The thumbs-up symbol is an obscene gesture in Iran and might not be understood so you’ll have to flag cars down with a wave.

Bike

You’d be surprised how many people are cycling through Iran!

 

Persepolis

Accommodation

There are options for all comfort levels and budgets. Me, being the broke millennial I am and wanting to rub shoulders with other travellers, stayed mostly in hostels. A bed in a dorm usually costs 5-8 e per night and should include breakfast.

Couchsurfing in Iran is illegal – and incredibly popular. While the site is blocked, Iranians use VPNs to get around it, and it can be an awesome way to meet locals that are known for their friendliness and hospitality.

Isfahan

Where to go in Iran

Tehran

The 15-million-person capital is chaotic, busy and dubbed the most liberal place in Iran. It doesn’t have a lot of historical sites but visiting the former US embassy, viewing platforms, museums and coffee shops might still be interesting.

TOP TIP: Take the red metro line up till Tajrish and grab a taxi to the Jamsidieh park. When you climb up, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view over the city – and it gives you a break from all the chaos and smog for a bit.

Yazd

This desert city is known for its old sand-coloured houses and badgirs, windcatchers that are used to keep houses cool. Since it’s a pretty religious city, being there during Ashura is an experience.

TOP TIP: Go to the Towers of Silence at sunset; they say the site closes at 6 p.m. but in truth you can buy a ticket from a guard and they’ll let you stay until sunset.

Kerman

Kerman is still often overlooked by foreign tourists but its surroundings are a home to whopping five UNESCO sites: the old citadel of Bam (2 hrs away), the Lut Desert, Persian gardens (the easiest one to visit is Shahdez in Mahan, 30 mins south of Kerman), the water ducts called qanat, and the Meymand village.

TOP TIP: Take a two-day tour of the Lut desert to get to sleep there under the stars.

Hormuz island

Iran’s “Rainbow Island” is a home of hippies and artists, and it’s a popular place for camping on the beach.

TOP TIP: Go in the winter – in the summer, the temperatures are unbearably hot.

Hormuz island

Qeshm island

Queshm is mostly known for its unique geographical formations.

TOP TIP: There’s currently only one backpacker hostel, Queshm Hostel, but it’s a nice place that arranges day tours around the island.

Shiraz

Iran’s second city is full of beautiful mosques and bustling markets, and it’s one of the most popular destinations for travellers in Iran.

TOP TIP: Nasir Al-Mulk or the Pink Mosque is possibly the most famous attraction in the whole country. You won’t completely beat the crowds even if you go there at 7.30 when it opens, but with some patience, timing and angles you can still get pictures with no people in them. If you’re planning a photo excursion, reserve the whole morning and watch as the light changes when the sun rises higher.

Isfahan

Isfahan is another tourist favourite, with attractions like the Armenian quarter, Iranian music museum and Naqsh-e Jahan square, the second biggest square in the world where locals gather to picnic and where you can find the most beautiful mosques in the city (including the one found on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide book!)

TOP TIP: Go to the square after 10 p.m. when the fountains are turned off to see the reflections on the pool.

Yazd

Kashan

Kashan is known for its traditional houses and rosewater products. The old town is a delightful maze of sand-coloured alleyways, and the bazaar is one of the most beautiful ones in the country.

TOP TIP: Take an overnight trip to the sand dunes on the Maranjab desert to sleep under the stars. The tour run by Maranjab Desert Eco Camp is really good and you can find them on Hostelworld!

Qom

After Mahhad, the second most religious city in Iran. Not much to see but makes for a nice stop for a couple of hours on your way in or out of Tehran to see the Holy Shrine of Fatima Masoumah and taste their traditional sohan toffee cookies.

TOP TIP: There are no backpacker hostels that I know of but Qom can be visited as a day trip from Tehran or on your way in or out of the capital.

Tabriz

Tabriz doesn’t have much to offer for sight-seeing, but it’s best known for its sprawling, UNESCO listed old Bazaar, the town of caves Kandovan, and mountain adventures around the city.

TOP TIP: Instead of taking the cable car, hike up the Aynali mountain at sunset for an awesome view.

To end with: Understanding Iran…

Iran is often called the cradle of civilisation. The land of the ancient Persia these days is a beautiful, welcoming country with diverse landscapes and adventures aplenty.

Due to volatile politics, the Iranian economy is in dire straits. Since pulling out of a nuclear deal with the US last year, United States has imposed harsh sanctions on the country which have basically forced many foreign investors and companies to leave the country, crippled Iranian export and import, and affected the value of the local currency. Goods are now significantly more expensive for Iranians than they were a year ago, and many essentials like medicine are in short supply. (For tourists this is good news – your money will go far and then some.)

You can say what you will about the oppressive regime – but our task as travellers is not to fix it. I’ve heard many say that they would never travel to Iran because they don’t want to support the current government. This only goes to punish the regular citizen, though, whose hostels, restaurants and shops could still use your tourist dollars.

When you travel to Iran, you’ll see that the horror stories conveyed by much of Western media are exaggerated and even false. Most Iranians I met were friendly, hospitable, eager to talk about politics, polite and highly educated. Due to bad economy and a weak passport, travelling is harder for them, and while most love their country, many young people are also preparing to leave for Germany or Canada as soon as they can.

Tourism in Iran is quietly starting to gather force, and I’d wager that in two or three years it will explode. Right now, it’s a very lucrative business to be in – in a country where an average receptionist makes less than one euro per hour, there’s a lot of money to be made in tourism. Now might be the best time to visit.

Iran is a safe country tarnished by a bad reputation. We can’t – and we shouldn’t – fix what we think is wrong. There are plenty of activists in Iran putting their lives on the line for freedom Instead, we should talk to people without prejudice or judgement and work towards understanding why this complex, beautiful country is the way it is.

So there you have it – a 101 to visiting Iran, and probably not a completely exhaustive list (although I just finished writing it and I am exhausted.)

Are you planning a trip any time soon?

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