This Iran Travel Guide was updated in January 2019. Constant revisions with the help of an authorised tour guide on the ground in Tehran, alongside access to regular Iran tourism updates via local Iranian on the ground and affiliated tourism groups and businesses, ensure that this article remains the most comprehensive guide to Iran on the web. Alongside tips for travelling to Iran, you will also find helpful resources and discounts.
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 the 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 in Iran safely, efficiently and within the boundaries set by the current regime.
However Iran travel 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 and travel there is safe; ancient Persia is within easy grasp, most notably in the central region where key sites have 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 checklist and list of tips for when you visit Iran as a comprehensive guide to help get you started.
- 1 Persia and Iran – Are they the same?
- 2 Can I Travel to Iran? Iran Visas and Authorisation Codes
- 3 Cost of Visas for Iran and Cost for Visa on Arrival in Iran
- 4 You Must Have Travel Insurance for an Iran Visa Application
- 5 Getting Your Iran Authorisation Code – Non-Eligible Nationalities
- 6 Refusal of Entry to Iran
- 7 Solo Travel in Iran vs Tours in Iran
- 7.1 Nationality Restrictions – Americans Travelling to Iran
- 7.2 Nationality Restrictions – British and Canadians Travelling to Iran
- 7.3 Nationality Restrictions – Israelis Travelling to Iran
- 7.4 Booking the Best Iran Tour
- 7.5 Private Guided Tours of Iran
- 7.6 Travelling Independently in Iran
- 7.7 Couchsurfing in Iran
- 7.8 Solo Female Travel in Iran
- 8 When is the Best Time to Visit Iran?
- 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran
- 10 Dress Code in Iran – Headscarves and Hijabs
- 11 Is it Safe to Travel to Iran? Absolutely
- 12 Currency in Iran – Two names, One Currency
- 13 Credit and Debit Cards in Iran
- 14 Public Transport in Iran – Options, Usage and Cost
- 15 Pre-Register With Your Country’s Foreign Office
- 16 Internet Access in Iran
- 17 Food in Iran (and Vegetarian Difficulties)
- 18 Drinking In Iran
- 19 Etiquette in Iran
- 20 Understand the Concept of ‘Persian Time’
- 21 Read More on the History of Iran
- 22 Thinking about Travelling to Iran? Pin It!
Persia and Iran – Are they the same?
Both Iran and Persia are used interchangeably when you hear about the country and also while you are on the ground. Reference to Persia is more so in the context of the history and legacy of the ancient kingdom of the Persian Empire; Iran in reference to the modern-day Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East.
READ MORE: About my experience travelling in modern Iran and ancient Persia and what to expect when you are on the ground.
Can I Travel to Iran? Iran Visas and Authorisation Codes
Getting a visa for Iran is quite possibly the most difficult and stressful part of your entire trip. You first need to know if you are eligible and what limitations you may face.
For countries like the UK, which have little to no diplomatic relations with Iran, you may find that you cannot even get an Iran visa in your country because there is no Iranian embassy. British travel to Iran means a little more legwork, where you may even have to travel elsewhere, like Dublin or Paris for example, to obtain the visa since there is no Iran embassy in the UK.
How to Get an Iran Visa on Arrival – 180 Countries
Most airlines flying to Iran will not allow you on a flight unless you show you have the Iran visa, but you can get a visa on arrival. However, sanctions have been lifted, most notably in 2016, with up to 900 Iran 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 Iran, 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 Iran airports:
IKA: Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport
THR: Tehran Mehrabad Airport
MHD: Mashad Airport
SYZ: Shiraz Airport
TBZ: Tabriz Airport
ISF: Isfahan Airport
Simply follow the signs that say ‘Visa on Arrival’ where you will be asked a few questions about your trip to Iran and asked to present:
- Details about your confirmed first night’s accommodation in Iran, including address and phone number (you may also be asked about your travel plans on-going).
- Proof of a confirmed return flight ticket.
- A copy of your travel insurance policy document and policy number.
- Those people I met who were granted an Iran tourist 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.
You can be waiting up to 30 minutes before your visa is granted and you can proceed to immigration. You will need:
- A passport with at least six months validity
- Two passport photos, in which women should be wearing a headscarf
- The completed visa form. You can also fill out the form online before arrival in Iran, from which you will receive a visa application reference number, print it off and take it with you.
Cost of Visas for Iran and Cost for Visa on Arrival in Iran
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You Must Have Travel Insurance for an Iran Visa Application
Travel insurance is a requirement in order to obtain your visa for Iran. Without proof of purchase and printed documentation of it, you cannot pick up your visa from the embassy or secure your visa on arrival at the airport.
Aside from it being a stupid idea not to have travel insurance coverage, check that your current policy (or the one you are thinking of getting) covers Iran. Some do not provide travel insurance for Iran or only cover limited regions of the country and activities.
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Getting Your Iran Authorisation Code – Non-Eligible Nationalities
For those not eligible for a visa on arrival, and for those wanting to apply for a visa for peace of mind before they arrive 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 1stQuest who offer essential travel services for Iran travel, otherwise, source an Iranian travel agency local to you at the time of planning or seek direction from the embassy you wish to get for a visa from about where to apply for it.
- When applying for the authorisation code, you will need to specify which embassy you will be processing your visa at – a pain for those travelling 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 €180 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-€100, 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 authorisation 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 on a tour, you will be rushing to the embassy in the hope of getting your authorisation code for Iran processed quickly. You may have to pay extra for fast-tracking and organise your flight ticket to Iran very last-minute. This, of course, doesn’t always guarantee the best price and the idea of getting a cheap ticket to Iran has to be pushed aside.
DON’T book your flights to Iran or any travel arrangements until you know your Iran visa will definitely be processed. Many people travel to Turkey beforehand to process their visas and fly to Iran from there, using the country as a cost-effective flight or train route for entry.
Refusal of Entry to Iran
Proof of Travel to Israel
The main reason for Iranian visa refusal is when there is proof you have travelled to Israel and the government’s paranoia based on your career (think journalists, media workers and similar).
Current Diplomatic Relations
Diplomatic relations and any political actions for/against Iran based on historical or current issues at the time of applying may affect your refusal of entry into the country or an Iran travel ban being put in place.
For example, on 29th August 2018, France informed diplomats to postpone all but non-essential travel to Iran after a foiled bomb plot near Paris. The following day, Iran dismissed such restrictions, but it is best to stay aware of any sudden changes.
Solo Travel in Iran vs Tours in Iran
Nationality Restrictions – Americans Travelling to Iran
One of the biggest questions I hear is: can US citizens / Americans travel to Iran? They absolutely can, but 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 Iran tour packages (or with a tour guide).
Despite restrictions, it is safe for Americans to travel to Iran so don’t be put off by the bureaucracy needed to get there. US travel tips to Iran focus on this red tape. For example, it apparently still stands that Americans must also be escorted from the airport to the hotel, and cannot make their own arrangements. This all has to be pre-organised (a simple addition via the tour company) so do check this before you leave.
Nationality Restrictions – British and Canadians Travelling to Iran
As of February 2014, British and Canadian citizens going to Iran became subjected to the same ‘tour only’ sanction (official Iran tour operator or private Iran guide). This 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.
Nationality Restrictions – Israelis Travelling to Iran
Unfortunately, Israeli citizens cannot enter Iran at all. This is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.
Booking the Best Iran Tour
While those booking up Iran holidays might choose a tour package for the fact that everything is taken care of on the ground and for ease of travel, I had no choice since I had a British passport.
There’s an overwhelming amount of Iran tour packages and it can often be hard to know where to start. My recommendation is G Adventures, who I have been travelling with for over a decade, and 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 to visit 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. On the G Adventures Iran tour, I saw places I would not have been able to access easily on my own or with public transport and my local guide to Iran was the bundle of knowledge that a history and sociology geek like me needed for an ancient civilisation such as Persia. The downside of such holidays in Iran 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 small group tour we were allowed time to ourselves in each destination. Being in a tour group when visiting Iran does not mean being chaperoned and watched 24-7.
Private Guided Tours of Iran
Normally under a condition that you must have two people minimum, hiring a private tour guide in Iran is also an option. This is also a viable option for those with visa restrictions who do not want to travel in slightly larger groups.
Come2Persia is a certified and reliable Iran travel agency run by a trusted Iranian friend of mine, Ali Reza Nokhostin who I met and travelled with when in Georgia. He is both passionate about showing off Iran and in changing perceptions of it. Specialising in incoming tours to Iran, Come2Persia also provides other travel services needed to complete the private tour package, including hotel bookings, visa application, transportation and access to various guides, not just Ali.
Travelling Independently in Iran
Note that while solo / independent 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.
However, solo travel in Iran 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 in Iran is officially illegal, but it happens anyway. Nearly all independent travellers I have spoken to have mentioned that they have travelled here via this resource with your local hosts, of course, being the best guides. However, travellers looking to Couchsurf in Iran must be aware that they can not hold the Couchsurfing host responsible if anything goes wrong because there is no official ‘filter’ in place when it comes to the hosts listed online.
Solo Female Travel in Iran
In a society where women are much more restricted than their male counterparts, solo female travel in Iran is a little harder and can be viewed with surprise/suspicion depending on where you go.
Also in Iran, since public displays of affection between males and female are not allowed, any kind of harassment or inappropriate contact by an Iranian male to a female traveller would be frowned upon and draw attention.
Iran is one of the safest countries in the world based on tourists’ feedback. There have been many solo female travellers who have experienced Iranian hospitality and kindness. However, it is important to bear in mind that Iran is an Islamic country with traditional values and of course some types of outfit would send the wrong message, especially in smaller and more conservative cities, such as Yazd, Kashan and Qom.
When is the Best Time to Visit Iran?
Iran is a four-season country, which means in different corners of the country you can experience various climates at the same time. So when is the best time to go to Iran, based on the different climates in the country? As a quick guide to Iran and its geographical mix, we can divide the country into three regions:
- The Classic Route (Tehran, Qom, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz) and the Caspian Sea (Mazandaran, Guilan, and Golestan provinces). There are two high seasons:
- From early March until late May
- From early September until late November
- The Northwest and West route along the Zagros mountains (Ardabil, Tabriz, Zanjan, Hamedan, Kermanshah, and Sanandaj)
- There is one high season, from mid-April until mid-November
- The Southern route and the ski resorts north of Tehran (Ahwaz, Bushehr, Bandar Abbas (Kish, Qeshm, Hormoz and Hengam islands), Chabahar, Dizin, Shemshak and Tuchal ski resorts)
- Only one high season, from late November until late March
In between the high seasons from July to September is marked by high temperatures rendering travel on the classic route potentially uncomfortable.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran
Iranians love to shout about the abundance of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As my local friend stated, “It gives Iranians a lot of pride to possess such ancient lineage”.
Iran has 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – 22 cultural and one natural. Each of which is the result of years of investigation and presentation of evidence as to why they should be regarded as world heritage sites. It would take more than one trip to traverse them all.
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. It’s called ‘Roosari’ in Farsi and you MUST be wearing it the moment you exit the plane and are officially in Iran.
You must wear a headscarf the entire time you are in Iran (except when in your hotel room), as well as 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.
What should I pack for Iran?
- A headscarf (and you can buy more when you are there). 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 halfway 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. The general rule of thumb is that the body should be covered and arms should not be bare.
- It is said that trousers must be baggy but some local women wear tight, brightly coloured leggings. As long as your legs are covered down to the ankles, it is fine. 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.
- Colour of clothing. It’s a myth that you need to dress in dark colours or black tunics. Embrace fashion the ways the locals do and bring some colour into your Iran packing list!
- 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 the city), hit the bazaars and the local markets. There’s plenty to be sought out. Other people on my trip simply stuck with two outfits and alternately hand-washed them every night.
- Strict dress codes do not apply in the same manner when travelling with children. Young boys can wear shorts and t-shirts and girls under 10 are not required to wear a headscarf.
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.
Is it Safe to Travel to Iran? Absolutely
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. “Is Iran safe?” “Isn’t it dangerous in Iran?” are likely to be some of the first questions you encounter from others when you announce you are travelling here.
Since the election of the more moderate President, Hassan Rouhani in August 2013 and his re-election in 2017, both international relations and internal rules have become less severe and slightly 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. It is a part of Iranian culture to go out of their way to help you, and it’s not uncommon to be given a phone number on a piece of paper or a business card in case you need to call upon someone.
The people of Iran 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.
Is it safe to travel to Iran RIGHT NOW?
There’s never a right time for those who are worried, anxious or scared. Of course, you need to keep up to date with any major political changes and your country’s own diplomatic ties, but avoid listening to the hive of scaremongering out there and those who say don’t travel in Iran.
In fact, Iran remains as one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. While breaking the rules of 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.
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 in Iran, don’t go.
Is Iran an Arab Country?
Given the location of Iran in the Middle East, the Muslim religion and some similarities in culture and language, the scaremongering of Iran can often revolve around the ‘it’s Arab’ misconception.
Iran is not an Arab country. Iranians are not Arabs. The language spoken is Persian (also known as Farsi) and not Arabic (although there are many languages spoken within Iran including Kurdish and forms of Turkish, Indo-European languages and Khuzi Arabic for example, due to the many ethnic groups that exist within the country).
Not only is the Arab misconception a source of contention generally, but Persians can take offensive at these preconceived ideas.
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.
Basically, Toman is used by locals and is one-tenth of the Rial total. 1 Toman = 10 Rial.
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 convert 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.
Credit and Debit Cards in Iran
A big question is if you can use your credit or debit card in Iran. Sadly not, since there is no network in Iran for the use of international cards. It’s always been the best option to carry enough cash with you for your trip to convert to Iranian Rial on the ground.
However, there is now an Iranian pre-paid debit card for tourists and temporary visitors called the Mah Card. Like most travel cards, you can instantly add funds to your card in your preferred or home currency and it will convert it to Iranian Rial. It is more convenient than carrying cash, protects you from unauthorised purchases and is accepted country-wide.
Public Transport in Iran – Options, Usage and Cost
When travelling in Iran you have various options for public transport:
- Private car
- Domestic flight
The Metro is available in several cities in Iran, mainly in Tehran; alongside Shiraz, Tabriz, Mashhad and Isfahan. It is the best option to get around in Tehran, and the stations are also easily accessible by taxi and buses. The ticket price for one trip is 1000 Tomans (around 25 cents). You can also buy a card to pay for the trips and also the buses in Tehran. The rush hours are mainly 7-9 a.m. and 5-7 p.m. You can download the Tehran Metro app on App Store and Google Play.
You can find buses in every corner of the country. There are two main types of buses in big cities: regular and BRT. BRT buses are red and because they have their own stations and paths they are express buses. You can pay for the buses by your Metro card and the fares would vary between 500 to 1000 Tomans (12 to 25 cents) per trip. You can find all the bus and BRT stations on Google Maps.
There are different types of taxis inside the cities:
- Shuttle/shared taxis (khatti): It is a way cheaper way to get around the cities. The two downsides are that they are for fixed destinations and you will have to wait for the taxi to be filled. The fares are always fixed and you cannot negotiate.
- Private taxis (darbast): You can easily hail a taxi and simply say ‘darbast’. It means the driver will not pick any other passengers up and you must negotiate the price before getting on.
- Non-registered taxis (shakhsi): These are non-taxi drivers who you would easily spot from the yellow and green cabs. These are people who try to earn some money by giving people a ride. Again you must negotiate the price before getting on.
- Uber-like apps: Tap30 and Snapp are the two main apps that you can easily use on your phone. Unfortunately, they’re not available on App Store and Google Play, but you can ask a local to help you with downloading them on your phone. Tap30 is available in many cities including Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz and Mashhad. Snapp is available in the same cities and also Ahwaz and Qom.
- Bisim Taxi: You can also call the numbers 133, 1828 and 1833 in major cities in Iran to call a taxi wherever you are.
There are two types of buses between the cities in Iran: regular buses (44 people on board) and VIP buses (25 to 35 people on board). You have more leg room on VIP buses and you can almost lie down on the seats. You can ask a receptionist at the front desk of the hotel, go to a local travel agency or go directly to the bus terminal to buy a bus ticket in Iran. The prices vary according to the type of bus and the distance, for example, the price for a VIP ticket from Tehran to Shiraz is around 70,000 Tomans ($16).
Using trains is the best and safest option to get around the cities in Iran. There are different types of trains: 4-bed, 6-bed and the so-called ‘bus’ trains. You can also ask if the train you are trying to take is an express train or a regular train. As for the buses, you can take trains through the hotels, local agencies or go directly to the train station. The price for a ticket from Tehran to Yazd, for example, is between 30,000 to 70,000 Tomans ($8 to $15).
You have two options to travel in Iran by a private car. You can hire a driver (essentially not speaking English) or a licensed driver guide who can not only drive you from one city to another and show you the sites en route and give you all the information you need in English and other languages. You can find a driver guide in Iran through TourHQ. You can either go to a taxi company or a local travel agency to hire a driver or a guide. Beware a killing machine in Iran named ‘Pride’ it’s a very low-quality car produced by Saipa company. It’s literally the worst car in Iran. Recommended cars in Iran are Peugeots and Samand by Iran Khodro Co.
If you do not have much time on your hands and you want to visit the classic route (Tehran, Qom, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz), it is recommended to take a domestic flight from Tehran to Shiraz and continue your journey by other means of public transportation eventually back to Tehran. You can buy flight tickets from local travel agencies. The price of the aforementioned flight ticket is approximately 180,000 Tomans ($40) and it takes approximately 80 minutes.
Separate Men’s and Women’s Carriages on Iran Public Transport
On the Metro: Generally, the cars are mixed, but if women need more privacy they can get on the first and the last car on both sides.
On the Buses: In some buses, the women sit in the back and the men in front, but other times it is the opposite. However, a couple can sit together in the men’s section and not vice versa.
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 for safety and as a 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 in Iran
Be prepared to take a forced ‘Digital Detox’ during your time in Iran. Internet in Iran 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.
Which Sim cards to use in Iran
Irancell is the best phone operator in Iran which offers temporary SIM-cards designed for tourists. They offer a pre-paid 4G internet and credit balance, and when it is used up you can put in a new credit code sold at any supermarket all around Iran to increase your credit and buy internet packages. You can look up Irancell stores here:
Which VPN to use in Iran
You can only have only one VPN app on your phone so you will need to test which one works best. For Android users, Hi VPN, Psiphon, Hotspot Shield are recommended and for IOS users Psiphon, Free VPN, VPNProxyMaster and X-VPN are deemed to be the best VPN in Iran that work well at the moment.
Food in Iran (and Vegetarian Difficulties)
I had built up incredible visions of Persian food in my mind before I got to Iran. I thought it would be everywhere – easily accessible and in abundance. Wrong.
Finding Traditional Food Amongst the Fast Food
Traditional Persian food is there but you have to do some digging on where to go and find delicious vegetable and pomegranate stews, 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 Iran’s 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 tasty 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.
Drinking In Iran
There’s no alcohol in Iran. No bars, no clubs. Nothing. The best you get is non-alcoholic beer in a variety of fruity flavours like peach, lemon and strawberry which grace most menus.
There’s no set of different rules for travellers in Iran and those visiting. A local might be being kind in offering to find you the real deal at some underground gathering, but really, don’t take the chance. They might be able to waver the punishment; you won’t.
Etiquette in Iran
Like any country, it is important to know, understand and adhere to cultural and religious customs and rules that can often be very different from those at home. Here are the main rules for etiquette in Iran and interesting Iranian culture facts:
- One of the main forms of social etiquette is TAROF, which is where Iranians usually insist on offering things to people and sometimes they do not really mean it. However, you should not accept the first time.
- In Muharram month (the mourning month of Imam Hossein) people DO NOT usually wear bright colours (especially red) as to respect the religious values.
- In Ramadan month, which the majority of people keep fast during the day, it is disrespectful to eat and drink in public.
- In restaurants in Iran, it is extremely unpleasant to see anyone clear their nose especially loudly. In general, restaurant or not, it is also unusual to see somebody break wind.
- Shaking hands between men and women is a difficult topic. Generally speaking, it is not okay for men and women who are not related to shake hands. However, it is completely relative. Usually, it is not advised for female tourists to extend their hand towards men and it’s best to wait and see if the men do so first.
- The thumbs-up hand signal a derogatory sign in Iran and it is best not to use it, especially in the presence of older people.
- When it comes to public displays of affection, you’ll see that affectionate touching, kissing, and shaking hands between men and women who are relatives is very normal. Iranian dating customs are more complex. You can kiss your significant other on the cheek but french kissing strictly goes beyond the line. Holding hands is not something one would raise an eyebrow about at all, whereas hugging, on the other hand, would seem to be crossing the line a little. All that being said, it is relative as to what extent the public display of affection is tolerated. For example inside holy places and religious cities, it would not be easily tolerated.
Understand the Concept of ‘Persian Time’
‘Persian Time’ is much like ‘Asian Time’ – things take much longer than you expect. When travelling in Iran, 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 8 am, 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 2 pm.”
Quite simply, don’t rely 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 More 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 a 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 Iranian 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 go to Iran.
Great books to read before you arrive include:
- Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic for a guide on the more recent history
Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know is by the same author, Michael Axworthy, and tries to explain how there’s more to Iran than its foreign relations, with part of the book also unravelling Iran’s economy, politics, culture and people.
Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution is about a woman who was born in Iran, left to study in the States and returned to a country in the grip of profound change.
- The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran about a journalist in exile after being arrested for political activism
Best for when on the road:
- Easy reference for most of us came from the Lonely Planet Iran guide book. While it shouldn’t be your sole source of information, this particular Lonely Planet is a quick fix guide to travel Iran, especially for historical hotspots. Having this paper guide was a handy resource for the entire trip, especially since quick access to the internet in Iran both at the hotels and while on the road is very limited.
Have you been to Iran? Are there any other pre-departure tips you would add? And if planning a trip there, and what difficulties are you facing, if any?
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Any plagiarism of this Iran travel blog or any of its descriptions used on other sites and blogs without attribution is not information authorised by myself for use. Know your source.