As fascinating as the country is, Iran isn’t on most people’s radar as a travel destination. But if you ask me, it really should be!
Whether it’s due to the current political and economic environment, or due to lack of knowledge and misinformation, Iran seems to be a destination only the adventurous and experienced traveler should visit. But that’s far from the truth.
To help you understand what it is like traveling in Iran and how you could go there, here I’ll share with you everything you must know to visit this wonderful destination that I’m sure will become more popular in the coming years.
1. Who Can Visit Iran? Are Americans Allowed?
Everyone! Well, almost everyone.
Unfortunately, Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter the country. Additionally, admission is refused to holders of passports or travel documents containing an Israeli visa or stamp or any data showing that visitor has been to Israel or indication of any connection with the state of Israel. Thankfully, Israel knows about this, so they no longer stamp your passport to avoid these issues with Islamic countries that restrict entry to travelers with Israeli stamps. Iran is not the only country with this restriction.
Now, let’s talk about all the other nationalities that can visit Iran. At the time of writing, 11 nationalities are allowed visa-free into Iran.
The remaining nationalities need a visa to enter the country. All of these other nationalities can get a Visa on Arrival with the exception of the following 13 nationalities:
- Sri Lanka
- United Kingdom
- United States
These, on the other hand, need to apply for a visa beforehand at an Iranian Embassy or Consulate. As you noticed, I bolded three nationalities above mainly because they require a few extra details to get their visas approved. I’ll go over those details soon. The visa policy to Iran can change at any minute, so I always recommend double-checking this information with this Wikipedia page.
2. Can you do independent solo travel in Iran?
Yes, but it depends on your nationality. Unfortunately, Americans, British, and Canadian citizens (ABC) cannot do solo travel at the moment. Instead, they can travel the country with an authorized tour operator – either on a group or private tour.
In theory, the ABCs need to be accompanied by a tour guide at all times, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be on top of you all the time. You have free time to do whatever you want to and walk around the city on your own on your leisure time.
They just need to travel with you in between cities and main sights. As my tour guide said at one point, she needed to report to the government every day or so the status of her ABCs on tour. Apparently, to avoid any (additional) political situations with ABC nations, the Iranian government wants to make sure they are all fine, at all times while in their country. Or so I was told.
ABCs are restricted on the amount of time they are allowed to stay in the country to roughly 15 days. This can be extended, though, if there’s a reason for the extension (like extending the tour).
During my trip, two British travelers needed to extend their visa for one day. When they visited the foreign affairs office to extend their visas they were told that it was unnecessary to do the official process for just a day or two. Just an anecdote, but I would always advise to do things according to the rule.
Another detail about ABCs is that they are only allowed to arrive in the country up to 24 hours before their tour and leave a maximum of 24 hours after their tour ends. Their visas will reflect this.
For all other nationalities, you have the freedom to travel solo for as long as your visa allows – which is usually 30 days. These visas can also be extended a maximum of two times (up to 90 days total) by visiting the foreign affairs office and paying the appropriate extension fee.
3. How can you apply for a visa or an e-visa?
The process might sound complicated (as it is more complex than most visas out there), but it is not that difficult to apply for an Iranian visa/e-visa.
Iranian visas are issued in a two-step process:
Step 1: An authorization code for your visa must be issued by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is the official visa application site from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get your authorization code.
But, if you’re an ABC, you should fill out your authorization code application via your tour operator, as they will input additional information that will tell Iran you’re traveling with them. Since I traveled with Intrepid Travel on their Iran Adventure Tour, they took care of submitting this step for me.
Step 2: After you get the authorization code, a visa for your passport must then be obtained through an Iranian Embassy or you could request to get it on arrival at the airport. This is requested during the authorization code application, where you will select at which airport you’ll pick up the e-visa or visa on arrival.
ABCs cannot get a visa on arrival. They must pick them beforehand at an embassy (also selected during the authorization code application). The US doesn’t have an Iranian Embassy, but Iran uses the Embassy of Pakistan as a proxy for their operations.
This is their website and address, should you need any additional information.
Embassy of Pakistan
Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran
1250 23rd ST. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037
Tel: 202 965-4990
Everyone can apply for an authorization code from 30 days up to 48 hours before your flight. ABCs, though, should apply 45 to 60 days before departure as their authorization code must first go through their tour operator, who will then do the formal authorization code application for you. Application codes are only valid for 30 days, no matter the nationality. This means that they should book their tours at least two months before departure to have enough time for the visa process.
Should this sound like too much hassle, services like 1stQuest specialize in processing the authorization code and having your visa ready to pick up in person at an embassy or at the airport.
And, what are the chances of being rejected as an ABC? According to 1stQuest records, “only less than 5% of applicants may get rejected. Chances of getting a visa for European (except for the UK), Australian, and New Zealand citizens are as high as 97%. Chances of getting a visa for the US and UK citizens is a bit less at about 90%. There are also certain occupations which are exposed to a higher risk of rejection such as journalism and the ones related to politics.”
4. What are the visa requirements?
For all nationalities, the following is required:
- Travel itinerary, if you have already made travel arrangements.
- Résumé or Curriculum Vitae – You may be required to provide information about your current and previous education and work history.
- Passport Photos (2) – Women, make sure to wear a hijab or scarf on your passport photo
- Passport photocopy/scan
The ABCs though, need to provide a bit more information, including:
- Your father’s name and his employment history (yes, not kidding).
- Social media links or handles, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
A special note for Americans: If you’re a Trump supporter or have any anti-Islamic or anti-Iran messages posted on any of your social media, don’t even bother applying. They will deny your application.
5. If you have dual citizenship, can you apply with the non-American passport?
Definitely! In fact, this is what I did. Even though I traveled Iran with Intrepid Travel (a tour operator I highly recommend not only for Iran but pretty much anywhere), I had the option of traveling Iran on my own as I have dual citizenship, which allowed me to apply for my visa as a Dominican Republic national.
The reasoning behind me not using the American passport was for ease and economy. With the Dominican passport, I could get a visa on arrival vs. having to get it beforehand at the embassy with the American passport.
Also, I wanted to minimize the potential of them denying my visa since I’m a travel blogger/”journalist” (and they’ll notice that quickly after a quick search through my social media). Lastly, the visa for Dominican passports is cheaper than for Americans.
6. How much does the visa costs?
Prices vary depending on the nationality. As a Dominican Republic national I paid 70 euros for the visa once I picked it up at the airport in Tehran. From what my fellow travelers told me, Americans paid $175, British paid 165 pounds, and Australians paid 145 euros. There were no Canadians on my trip, but it’s safe to say that the fee will be around $170-$180.
All other nationalities who can get a visa on arrival would range from 70 to 75 euros. All visa payments have to be made in cash – USD, EUR, or GBP.
Now that you know all the visa details, let’s move on to other planning logistics.
Ready to go to Iran! Let’s go!
7. Flying to Iran and picking up your visa on arrival
Booking a flight to Iran is as straightforward as with any other country, unlike with Cuba which doesn’t show up on some flight aggregators. Due to economic sanctions, most western airlines don’t fly to Iran, but you can always do a layover and change airlines, or fly with airlines like Alitalia, Austrian, Lufthansa, Ukraine International Airlines, and Turkish, among others, who serve both the western and Iranian market.
Here’s a list of all the airlines that fly to Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport.
I booked my flights with Skyscanner, which I always recommend as it usually shows flights cheaper than on other websites.
When boarding, show your visa or authorization code page if you’re picking your e-visa on arrival. The visa on arrival usually has a duration of 30 days, though they may give it to you for 15 days, as it happened to me. Since my trip was only 14 days, I didn’t mind.
Once you arrive, head straight to the visa on arrival office where you’ll fill up an additional form with your name, address in Iran, passport number, occupation, etc).
Have printed the following information:
- Proof of onward or return travel
- Your itinerary – or at least booking of your first few nights if traveling independent.
- Proof of travel insurance – This is mandatory. I usually recommend World Nomads, but they don’t cover in Iran. My second choice is always SquareMouth, where you can pick the best and most affordable coverage for any country, including Iran.
- You may not be asked for this, but have handy any proof of funds to support your trip, especially if you’re traveling independently.
Pay the visa fee, maybe answer a few questions, and after that, you’ll head to immigration, and you’re in!
Women, as soon as you touchdown in Iran, you must put on a hijab or scarf and be appropriately dressed for the country. Men, you must be wearing long pants. More on this soon.
8. Crossing overland
It is possible to enter Iran overland, but you’ll be required to get your visa beforehand. Apparently, only the border with Armenia offers the visa on arrival option, but some reports say that people have failed to get it there, so don’t rely on it.
9. Booking Accommodation
Unlike with flights, booking accommodation in Iran is not as available online. Even though my tour with Intrepid Travel included all my accommodation, I booked my pre and post tour hostel via HostelWorld. It was the only website where I could find a very limited selection of hostels available to book instantly.
For hotels, I highly recommend using 1stQuest, which focuses on booking hotels in Iran and they have a large selection available. They also offer instant booking for buses in Iran, as well as getting flights, visas, and insurance.
Given that Iran is not a hugely popular destination, it is relatively easy to find last-minute accommodation in person as you reach each new city. But, make sure to at least book the first few nights (if you’re traveling independent) to comply with the visa on arrival requirements.
10. Understanding their currency, real exchange, and accessibility
You must bring with you all the money you’ll use in the country, cash, in USD, EUR, or GBP. There’s no access to ATMs in the country and credit cards don’t work there.
It is very important for you to know that there are two exchange rates in Iran, there’s the official exchange rate, which you’ll see at sites like xe.com, and there’s the free market exchange, which you’ll see on this local website, bonbast.com.
At the time of writing, the official exchange rate is $1 to approximately 42,000 Rials, while the free market exchange is $1 to 102,500 Rials.
Know that you’ll be exchanging money and paying on the free market rate, not the official one.
To confuse this a bit more, Iran refers to its currency in two ways, Rials and Tomans. Basically, 1 Toman = 10 Rials. You’ll notice the Bonbast site shows Tomans for their free market rate, not Rials.
Exchanging money is not as straightforward as you’d think. The government imposes random exchange freezes as it wishes, especially on USD (as it happened when I was there). In these cases, you can either find an exchange house that is hidden enough so they still operate the freeze (I did that) or exchange at your hotel or with locals (I did that too).
Due to Iran’s struggling economy and unstable currency, locals will always be open to exchange their Rials/Tomans to USD, EUR, and GBP. Locals will always offer the free market rate or close to it.
Familiarize yourself with the latest free market rate so you don’t get scammed by someone wanting to exchange your money at the official rate. During my two weeks there, the free market rate went from 102,000 Rials to 130,000 Rials. That’s how unstable their currency it.
When buying stuff, locals usually refer to prices in Tomans. If you’re not sure, confirm with them which currency value they referred to. Also, if you’re buying a Coca-Cola that costs 20,000 Rials (or 2,000 Tomans), they might just say it costs 2 (dropping the last four zeros in the Rials’ note). So, familiarize yourself with prices to know which value they are referring to.
11. How do you budget properly to cover your whole trip, cash, with such an unstable currency?
If you’re traveling on a tour, almost everything will be included. In my case, I only paid for food (minus breakfast, since they were included), any additional transportation (like taxis to some monuments I visited on my own), some sightseeing, a SIM card, some miscellaneous (like tips to guides and laundry), the visa, and souvenirs.
In all, I spent approximately $435, in addition to the tour cost.
If traveling independent, your trip could cost from roughly $25 per day on the budget side to $130 per day on the luxury side.
As an example, this traveler has a detailed breakdown of her spending on her two-week independent trip. She spent roughly $75 per day on a mid-range budget trip.
It’s important to know that food is subsidized in Iran and prices are “locked.” So, no matter where you go, a Coca-cola will cost from 15,000 to 30,000 Rials (roughly $0.15 to $0.30), food will be between 100,000 to 500,000 Rials (roughly $1.00 to $5.00), water will be roughly 20,000 Rials (about $0.20).
Museums and other sights costs between 100,000 and 500,000 Rials.
My recommendation is to budget a bit over your travel standard, and maybe take $500 extra, cash, for any drastic change in the exchange rate or any unexpected emergency – or stunning souvenir you want to buy! You’ll see many of these souvenirs around, especially the Persian carpets and handicraft. Trust me, they are all beautiful!
12. Moving around
In general, public transportation in Iran is very cheap. Iran counts with a decent bus, train, and flight network connecting most of its major cities.
Within the City
In major cities like Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, and Tabriz you can use ‘metro’ which is usually the cheapest and fastest way to get around. Tehran has the largest metro network in Iran and the most comprehensive public bus system in the country. These are also relatively fast and substantially cheap.
To get on a bus or metro you need to buy an electronic card ticket which is sold in every metro station and some BRT station in ezPay kiosks. The card itself is 2,500 Tomans and you need to charge the card for further uses. The longest trips on buses or the metro won’t cost more than 1,000 Toman. You can also pay cash on the local bus or pay for a single ticket at the metro kiosk.
You can also use Taxis which are more expensive than public transportation, but still very reasonable. Generally, you can get two types of taxis. Shuttle taxis which have specified stops and stations (called ‘Khatti’ in Iran). These taxis travel in a pre-specified line (or ’khat’), their fares are specified and you share a ride with other people traveling in the same line. The official taxis are colored yellow and green and the moment you get on them, you can see displayed the driver’s ID and license.
There are also the non-official taxis, which will honk you as you’re standing on the street to offer a ride. You need to call out your destination and they’ll stop meters away and agree to take you if they go in the same direction.
Unless you’re familiar with the going taxi rates, agree to a price before getting in the vehicle. Also, don’t forget to have cash in Rials, as most drivers won’t accept euros or dollars. For the taxis I took in Tehran, I always paid between 150,000 to 500,000 Rials. The 45-minute taxi ride to the airport cost me 5 Euros.
I recommend having your hotel or destination’s address written in Farsi (yes, they speak Farsi, not Arabic) so you can give it to your taxi driver, as they may not speak English.
If you want to move between cities, buses and trains are the common budget-friendly options. Domestic flights are also available for long distances, though naturally, more expensive. Again, I recommend using the site 1stQuest to book your intercity buses and domestic flights beforehand.
Or, you can book buses last minute by heading to the bus station. Have in mind, though, that locals also use these buses, so they might fill up quite often. I recommend checking this article that goes into more detail on bus travel in Iran.
Trains are also a popular option, though usually slower than buses. While they often depart on time, they often arrive late at the destination.
Tehran is the main hub of the Iranian train network and most services begin or end at the heart of Tehran Railway Station. There is plenty of daily service to Mashhad, and at least one daily service to Esfahan, Yazd, Tabriz (via Qazvin and Zanjan), Bandar Abbas, and Kerman.
One advantage of trains is that you can save one night’s accommodation by sleeping on the overnight train. There are movable sleeper couchettes with four or six bunks. Almost all trains have a small kiosk where you can buy snacks and drinks. Overnight trains, on the other hand, have a restaurant car where you can have a proper meal. There are first-class trains (like Ghazal, Simorgh, Pardis, Sabz, etc.) which provide extra facilities like an entertainment system, and free meals.
Train tickets can be booked at the railway station up to a month in advance. It is recommended to book these ahead of time, especially for trains leaving on Thursday, Friday and public holidays.
13. Dressing appropriately
Bring enough light fabric clothing to stay cool during the day, but make sure they are styled conservatively.
Men are fine wearing t-shirts (not sleeveless) but you need to wear long pants at all times. I don’t recommend jeans as Iran gets way too hot during the day (at night they are fine as it’s cooler). In my case, I bought some light fabric long pants once I got to Tehran. Wearing flip-flops (sandals) is fine.
Men should also bring one long sleeve t-shirt or shirt should they need to visit a government office (like for a visa extension).
Women are a bit more restricted when it comes to clothing. While women dress conservatively, you should know that fashion is very important for Iranian women and don’t just wear burkas, as many people think. So as a foreigner, no, you don’t need to wear a chador or hijab.
What you need is a scarf or shawl on your head, long (and preferably loose) trousers, or a long skirt (three-quarter length is fine), and a tunic or a long sleeve shirt covering your hips (and preferably up to your knees). Women in Iran have perfected this long sleeve outerwear covering you up to the knees in such a way it looks really fashionable. You could buy them at the bazaar, should you wish to follow this style there. Sandals are also fine.
Women should have at least one set of dark clothing, preferably black, should they have to visit a government office.
14. Staying connected
I highly recommend getting a SIM card for your unlocked phone as wifi in Iran was quite frustrating. Most hotels offer wi-fi, but they are either painfully slow or not working. Now, their 4G internet is another story.
There are three main mobile operators in Iran: Hamrah-e-Aval, Irancell (the one I got), and RighTel. You can buy a SIM card at the airport or at your accommodation if they offer it. I got mine at my hostel for roughly $9 for 4GB of data on a 4G/LTE network. Mobile signal coverage in Iran is generally good, with a strong signal along the shoreline, main cities, and highways.
Have in mind that Iran blocks most sites and social media in the country, so you’ll need to use a VPN there to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other sites. Instagram is open, though.
I used ExpressVPN which worked like a charm there. Their app made the setup and connection a breeze.
Very important is to NOT access your online banking (especially if from the US) while in Iran, even if using the VPN. I did this and my bank account was frozen until after I left the country and presented a boarding pass as proof I left Iran. The same thing happened to me in Cuba.
15. Safety in Iran
It’s pretty safe so you don’t need to worry about terrorism and major crime. Petty thefts like pickpockets can happen, so use common sense. I wrote a bit more about Iran’s safety here. In fact, Iranians are among the friendliest people on earth, so be open to interacting with them whenever possible. I believe these two posts I linked to previously give a good idea of what it’s really like traveling in Iran at the moment.
16. Alcohol and Pork in Iran
Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Iran and severe penalties will be incurred by anyone attempting to bring it into the country.
However, you’ll find non-alcoholic malt beverages/beer in several restaurants. There are many popular brands including Istak, Delster, JoJo, Hey Day and Shams. There are many fruit-flavored beers which aren’t found elsewhere in the world. Give Doogh a try while in Iran, which is a traditional drink made up of sour yogurt, salt, and dried vegetables.
The same restrictions apply to pork – given it is an Islamic country. Drug laws are also extremely strict and travelers face lengthy jail terms if caught. Random baggage checks do happen upon arrival.
17. Bring a camera and a smartphone with a good camera
Sounds like a dumb tip, but hear me out. Iran is stunning, so try to take as many pictures with your good camera. But, there are several mosques and mausoleums that do not allow cameras (DSLR or decent point-and-shoot), yet they allow taking pictures with smartphones.
Their logic is the same many airlines adopted, to reduce the potential of bombs/terrorism that could fit in a DSLR camera.
18. How to travel to Iran without a visa
Yes, technically you can visit Iran without a visa, but only a small portion of the country, which is reserved to Kish Island. This is a small 36 sq. miles resort island in the Persian Gulf often referred to as the Pearl of the Persian Gulf.
You can fly there without a visa. Even though Kish is part of Iran, it is a resort island geared towards tourists, so you’ll miss a lot of the authenticity of mainland Iran.
On arrival, you’ll need to show proof of your reservation and can stay on the island up to 14 days. The dress code is similar to mainland Iran’s.
19. Enjoy every moment!
You’ll see Iran is like no other destination, so I highly recommend you to see it with fresh eyes and an open mind to make the most of the experience. Every city is different. Some more liberal, some more conservative. Yet, they are all just as friendly and welcoming. All as interesting and full of history and culture.
Soak it all up. In no time you’ll see why Iran should be higher on everyone’s bucket list.
LET ME HELP YOU TRAVEL MORE BY GETTING ADDITIONAL TIPS AND INSPIRATION VIA THE MONTHLY NEWSLETTER.
Plus, receive a short e-book with 15 Beginner Tips and Tricks to Start Travel Hacking!