Many travel to Iran to experience the delights of the ancient Persian Empire, yet are unaware of the limitations faced by the rules and regulations of what is now a strict Islamic Republic. As travel warnings persist and diplomatic relations with other countries continue with varying degrees of existence, many are confused by how to go about entering Iran and travelling around safely, efficiently and within the boundaries set by the current regime.
Travel to Iran doesn’t have to be difficult at all – tourism is growing as relations develop; hatred of the western world is not as rife as the media likes you to think; ancient Persia is within easy grasp, most notably in the central region where key sites has been maintained and infrastructure linking them is growing; and tourists are not subjected to as heavily enforced rules as the locals.
With enough pre-planning and prior research, you can easily avoid the limitations and stresses that come with travelling in what is perceived to be a closed and tricky country to traverse. Use this 10-point checklist to help get you started, before reading about my experience travelling in modern Iran and ancient Persia.
Iran Visas and Authorisation Codes
Getting a visa for Iran travel is quite possibly the most difficult and stressful part of your entire trip. For countries like the UK, which have little to no diplomatic relations with Iran, you may find that you cannot even get a visa in your country because there is no Iranian embassy and so you may have to travel elsewhere. Brits have to travel to Dublin or Paris for example.
How to Get an Iran Visa on Arrival – 180 Countries
Most airlines will not allow you on a flight unless you show you have the visa, but you can get a visa on arrival. However, sanctions have been lifted, most notably in 2016, with up to 900 Visas daily on average granted on arrival, according to the Office of Foreign Affairs. Tourism numbers annually have increased year-on-year, with 5.2 million foreign visitors entering Iran in 2015, in comparison to 4.7 million in 2013.
On the 14th February 2016, the Ministry of Iran announced that airports are directed to issue 30-day visas for nationals of 180 countries.
Non-eligible nationalities for Iran Visa On Arrival:
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, India, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Somalia, USA, UK
A 30-day Tourist Visa Upon Arrival, for those of eligible nationality, can be obtained at the following airports:
IKA: Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport
THR: Tehran Mehrabad Airport
MHD: Mashad Airport
SYZ: Shiraz Airport
TBZ: Tabriz Airport
ISF: Isfahan Airport
Those people I met who were granted a visa on arrival as part of the tour were given a special letter from the company that they could present to both the airline and passport control on arrival in Iran.
Getting Your Iran Authorisation Code – Non-Eligible Nationalities
Before you apply for your visa (giving you up to 30 days), you have to apply for an Authorisation Code. EVERYONE has to have one of these and it will determine if you are granted an application for a visa or not. For those who HAVE to travel in a group (see below), this code will normally be processed by your tour company; for everyone else, you will can use IranianVisa.com, source an Iranian travel agency local to you or seek direction from the embassy you wish to get for visa from about where to apply for it.
When applying for the authorization code, you will need to specify which embassy you will be processing your visa at – a pain for those travel around with no solid plans. Once the code is granted you cannot change the embassy choice. It’s wise to choose an embassy in a city you are likely to fly to Iran from (see also timings below).
Iran Visa and Authorisation Code Costs
Authorisation codes (if not booking with tour) come with an administration cost of around 35 Euro, which is dependent on the agency you are working with. There is no set price for a visa since it is determined by nationality and where you process your visa.
I paid 180Euros for mine in Tbilisi, Georgia and a British guy on my tour paid a little more to process his in Paris. The Australians in my tour group paid differing amounts between 50-100Euros, as did the Germans. There’s no hard and fast rule – it’s more about luck.
Iran Visa Timings with Authorisation Code
If all that wasn’t enough, it is highly likely that 1. Your authorization code will take WEEKS to process 2. It will most likely arrive with only a matter of DAYS to spare before your planned arrival in Iran or tour start date.
This means that before any trip to Iran, especially when travelling in a tour, you will be dashing to the embassy in the hope of them processing quickly (and where you may have to pay extra for fast-tracking) and booking flights very last minute (which is course doesn’t always guarantee the best price).
DON’T book your flights or any travel arrangements until you know your visa will definitely be processed. Many people travel to Turkey before hand to process their visas and use the country as a cost-effective flight or train route to entry.
Refusal of Entry to Iran – Proof of Travel to Israel
The main reasons for Iranian visa refusal is if proof is found that you have travelled to Israel and the government’s paranoia based on your career (think journalists, media workers and similar).
Refusal of Entry to Iran – Current Diplomatic Relations
Diplomatic relations and any political actions for/against Iran based on historical or current issues at the time of applying may also affect your entry into the country.
Solo Travel vs Tours
Nationality Restrictions – Americans Travelling to Iran
Because of long standing history of coups, espionage, nuclear sanctions and everything else in between that is outside of the average American citizen unconnected to the historical actions of their government, all US passport holders are only allowed into Iran if part of a tour group (or with a guide). It apparently still stands that Americans must also be escorted from the airport to the hotel, and cannot make their own arrangements (it all has to be pre-organised – a simple addition via a tour company).
Nationality Restrictions – British and Canadians Travelling to Iran
As of February 2014, British (and Canadians) became subjected to the same ‘tour only’ (group or private guide) sanctions, which means your visa is usually only granted for the exact number of days of your tour, with a couple of days either side if you list this as part of the arrival and departure options.
Everyone else you are fine (although keep an eye on any changes). Israeli citizens cannot enter Iran at all.
Tours in Iran
I’ve been travelling with G Adventures for over eight years now, so they were my preferred tour partner and sponsor for my ‘Discover Persia’ tour which operates through the revered Iranian agency AITO. I allowed myself free time in Tehran either side of my tour though so I had a taste of both worlds, albeit on a small scale.
The upside to a tour, however nomadic and sporadic you normally are, is that these trips pack a real punch in getting you to a LOT of sites in a 14-day period. I saw places I would not have been able to access easily on my own or with public transport and my guide was the walking encyclopedia a history and sociology geek like me needed for an ancient civilization such as Persia. The downside is a lack of free time and lazy resting for an itinerary that would normally, on my terms, take about three weeks, not two.
However, even while on a tour we were allowed time to ourselves in each destination. Being in a tour group does not mean being chaperoned and watched 24-7.
Travelling Solo in Iran
Note that while solo travel is absolutely fine in Iran (if of a free nationality), Iran is not exactly that well trodden on the independent path. There’s little to no hostels and guesthouses, and mostly big, expensive hotels (especially in Tehran) and even then it is rare to stumble upon a bunch of solo travellers to join ranks with. Additionally, in a society where women are much more restricted than their male counterparts, solo female travel is a little harder and can be viewed with surprise/suspicion depending on where you go.
However, solo travel is happening and it is safe…. just a little more challenging than normal which can, in itself, be pretty exhilarating.
Couchsurfing in Iran
Note that couchsurfing is officially illegal in Iran but it happens anyway. Nearly all independent travellers I have spoken to have mentioned that they have travelled here via this resource though – your local hosts, of course, being the best guides.
Dress Code in Iran – Headscarves and Hijabs
Iran does have a strict dress code and this is one of the biggest concerns for female travellers to Iran. Most importantly – PACK A HEADSCARF IN YOUR HAND LUGGAGE. You MUST be wearing this the moment you exit the plane and are officially in Iran.
You must wear a headscarf the entire time you are there (except when in your hotel room) and loose clothing that covers your body. But let’s get one thing straight – you don’t have to wear a burka or anything that fully covers you. When you arrive you will soon see the reality is far removed from the stereotype. Iranian women are super stylish and proud of their appearance – fashion being a means to stand out and make a statement.
The ‘Morality Police’ you hear of do exist in Iran, but are not spending their time chasing down foreign visitors, so do not worry too much with that. If anything, you will simply get a polite mention. Visitors have a bit more flexibility when it comes to the rules.
- If your headscarf falls, don’t worry – quickly put it back on again. You won’t be in trouble for this, but just pay attention at all times. Wearing your hair in a high bun or ponytail helps keep the scarf in place. Many Iranian women wear it a little loose and half way back on their head, since showing a little hair is granted.
- Tops must be loose-fitting and three-quarter length sleeves are ok – a little more comfortable in the heat.
- It is said that trousers must be baggy but some local women wear tight, brightly coloured leggings. For tourists, leggings worn with a long, loose-fitting top are accepted. However, in the more conservative areas such as Isfahan, Mashad and Qum, respect the values and revert back to looser fitting trousers.
- Open toes sandals are fine. Pack some sports shoes for longer day-trips where you might be walking a lot (such as at the Persepolis). You’ll soon see how sports shoes are fashionable in Iran, especially in bright colours!
- Worried you do not have enough appropriate attire? Fear not, as soon as you arrive in Tehran or even Shiraz (if you fly into there), hit the bazaars and the local markets and shop away. There’s plenty to be sought out. Other people on my trip simply stuck with two outfits and alternately hand-washed them every night.
For men it’s more simple – you will be dressing much the same as you do in western countries, except no short shorts, no super short sleeves and no extreme tight-fitting clothing.
You Are Safe in Iran and Iranian People Are Very Welcoming
Iran’s image of being a terrorist driven, American bashing, nuclear weapon holding, burka clad society is something that has been highly driven mainly by western media. While breaking the rules of the Islamic society (including drinking alcohol, taking drugs and engaging in sexual activity with locals) can result in deportation, arrest or worse, general travel here is completely safe.
Since the election of the more moderate President, Hassan Rouhani in August 2013, both international relations and internal rules have become less severe and slighty more open. It won’t take long before Iranians give you a warm welcome, ask where you are from or even invite you to dinner or tea. They are just as keen to show you they are the exact opposite of how they are portrayed, as you should be showing them that the western world doesn’t hate them.
Don’t assume you can break any rules and play the dumb tourist. This is an Islamic State and if you can’t play by the rules, don’t go.
Currency in Iran – Two names, One Currency
Take US Dollars or Euros with you to Iran and change them up into Iranian Rial at the local exchange offices (not the dodgy guys on the street or at the hotels which have the lower government exchange rate).
Before you know it, you have millions of Rials and it all looks easy. However, while ALL notes state ‘Rial’ there is another ‘currency’ or ‘super unit’ that is used – Toman – which is not listed on any note or coin.
Toman is simply one tenth of the Rial price, so when the day came that I was presented with my dinner bill of “37,000”. I was quietly chuffed that my food had cost the equivalent of $1.5, but this was, in fact, the price in Toman. To covert to Rial, you simply add a zero – therefore my dinner was actually 370,000 Rial.
Lost? It takes a couple of days to get used to, but in the majority of cases, unless stated clearly, all prices are in Toman and not Rial. Hence, the basic equation anywhere in Iran is to add a zero onto printed prices (if ‘Rial’ is not listed), or ask market vendors and others which ‘currency’ they are operating in to save the confusion.
Pre-Register With Your Country’s Foreign Office
Different countries have different specifications, rules and warnings about travel to Iran – some way more dramatic than others. If you can, register or alert your foreign office about your whereabouts just as a safety and piece of mind measure. As a British citizen, with no embassy representation in Iran, this is especially a good idea.
Not that some travellers are not granted adequate travel insurance until they have alerted the relevant authorities of their travel plans, so it is worth checking exactly who you need to inform before you depart, in order to be comprehensively covered.
Internet Access Is Limited
Be prepared to take a forced ‘Digital Detox’ during you time in Iran. Internet is slow, all social media (except Instagram and What’s App) is blocked and you are normally paying per hour for the privilege of a sluggish connection. While I sporadically got good internet, which allowed my VPN to work, it was never superb. Want to look up sites in Iran? Super quick. Want to find some decent news in the outside world? Good luck.
Tell your family and friends that they may not hear from you that often, and be prepared to do without the connection, however hard it may be.
Food, Drink and Vegetarian Difficulties
I’m not a huge foodie but I had built up incredible visions of Persian food in my mind before I went. I thought it would be everywhere – easily accessible and in abundance. Wrong.
Finding Traditional Food Amongst the Fast Food
It’s there but you have to do some digging on where to go and find delicious vegetable and pomegranate stews, or the traditional Dizi (a lamb based strew where the broth is separated from the solids which are then mashed together and eaten separately) or Ash (a thick and tasty soup of lentils, beans, starch noodles, vegetables, fried mint, fried onion and yoghurt).
Other than that you will realise that the streets are paved with fast food outlets, whose neon lights advertise the norm – kebabs, burgers and pizzas. Try and seek out the falafel places, since these are normally the best choice for a cheap and yummy quick fix.
Vegetarians have more of an issue. I travelled with a vegetarian and whether at a big buffet or a local teahouse or restaurant, what appeared to be the vegetarian option still had meat in it. It may mean living on aubergine / eggplant based dishes, which are your safest bet, or really begging for meat to be left out of your dish if not already pre-prepared.
There’s no alcohol here. No bars, no clubs. Nothing. The best you get is non-alcoholic beer in a variety of fruity flavours like peach, lemon and strawberry. A local might be being kind in offering to find you the real deal, but really… don’t take the chance. They might be able to waver the punishment; you won’t.
Understand the Concept of ‘Persian Time’
‘Persian Time’ is much like ‘Asian Time’ – things take much longer than you expect, service is slower and the times you are given for things (like an arrival at a destination) are not always clear or roundabout correct, like this example:
Guide: “It takes four or five hours. So if we leave at 8am, we will get there around 4 pm.”
Me: “But that’s eight hours, not four.”
Guide: “Yes, it takes about eight hours. Will we stop and x, y and z on the way and arrive around 2pm.”
Quite simply, don’t reply on or worry about time, and pack a bit more patience than you would at home, especially when it comes to food service and paying.
Read Up on the History of Iran
Ancient Persia isn’t an easily absorbed history lesson, and while your guide (if you choose to have one or if you are a part of tour group) will spout a level of information that will blow your mind, it is worth reading up on the history of Persia, as well as details on the lead-up to the Revolution in 1979, in order to understand the basic makeup of the country.
It will mean names like Zoroastrian, Cyrus the Great, The Achaemenid Empire, Reza Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei won’t be lost on you when you travel to Iran. Easy reference for most of us came from the Iran Lonely Planet. Much like Burma, having this guidebook was a handy resource for the entire trip.