“Oh, Iran. Really? Why?” I’m asked this a lot when I told people of my intention to visit Iran, one of the “Axis of Evil” as labelled by the U.S. Iran is one of the oldest civilisations in the world, and having recently visited, now ranks as the friendliest and most accommodating nation that I’ve been to. It’s the hospitality, history and beautiful landscapes that had a profound impact on my time there, and are the qualities that deserve more recognition in the media than it currently receives.
Despite the crippling effect of economic sanctions, there’s no better time than now to visit Iran. Relationships with foreign Governments are becoming more relaxed, and obtaining a tourist visas is a relatively straight forward process and travelling around the country is fairly easy – if you have time and patience. Yes, there are several cultural and religious practices to adhere to, and it will be no walk in the park. However, if you can overcome them, you will leave Iran thanking yourself for visiting. I hope that the following information will answer any questions that you may have about travelling in Iran, and remove any confusion that you may encounter in the planning process. Personally, I can’t wait to get back again.
Is it easy to get an Iranian tourist visa?
Yes and no. Most countries with the exception of a few are able to apply for a 15 day tourist visa on arrival, but only if you are flying into one of the international airports. If you are a passport holder from Colombia, Somalia, USA, UK, Canada, Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, then you will be required to go through a visa application process. It is the same process if you are planning on staying longer than 15 days (Correct as of 22nd February 2015). I stayed for seventeen days, so had to go through the visa application process which was an ordeal that was time-consuming and stressful due to how fine I was cutting it time wise.
The only way that I can obtain a tourist visa involved using an authorised Iranian travel agent who acted as a “sponsor” to process the paperwork in order for me to receive an approval number. This isn’t the visa approval, but an acknowledgement that it’s been processed. From there, I was required to nominate which Iranian embassy that I wished to collect the visa from which requires a further day or two of processing, while the embassy holds onto my passport.
Normally it would take ten working days as advised by the travel agent, but for me it took over three weeks from application to receiving the visa, due to several Iranian public holidays falling within this time. My advice is that if you have to go through this process then plan your visa application at least a couple of months prior to arriving. The total cost of the visa was €100 at the Istanbul embassy, but I have heard the price varies from country to country.
How will I be treated?
As a solo traveller I’ve always travelled with a certain level of caution, which at first, made the goodwill and constant greetings from the locals kind of awkward. Most Iranians that I encountered, loved foreigners and always want to know more about where I was from and wanted to tell me everything about their country. Even those who don’t speak much English still knew how to say “Hello. Where are you from?” and “Thank you for visiting”
Once a connection is made, it’s likely that you will be invited to join them for anything and they will always want to pay for everything and expect nothing in return. In the end, I had to find ways of stuffing money into their bags as well as purchase drinks for picnics.
Solo vs Guided Tour?
Unfortunately, if you’re American, British or Canadian, you will need to travel around Iran with an authorised Iranian guided tour. It is possible to organise an independent trip that is separate to the group tour however, the tour operator is responsible for you and if you get into trouble, then you risk getting the tour operator into trouble as well.
I chose to do a combination of solo travel between most places and organised tours within some cities. If you’re a solo traveller, I would still recommend organising a guide in some areas such as Isfahan and Yazd, as there are many historical sites that are a long way out of the city that may be otherwise difficult to reach using public transport.
Another reason for using a guide is that Persian history is so extensive and at times confusing. So by using a knowledgeable guide it was the easiest way of developing my understanding of the history of rulers and religious influences. All hostels and guest houses should offer guided tours using qualified and registered English-speaking guides.
Another option is to use Courchsurfing. Although it is considered illegal in Iran, it is still used widely by locals to meet travellers. If you’re using this option then, always go with somebody who has many traveller reviews as there are a lot of Iranians on there with no recommendations. People will contact you directly once you register your interest in travelling through, so just be wary of who you accept an invitation off. Although you don’t have to stay with your host, many will still offer to show you around.
Money: Bring in cash as your cards are useless
With the global sanctions in place, it is impossible to withdraw money out of the local cash machines in Iran. As a result, you will need to bring in fresh U.S dollars or Euros. After the visa ordeal and delays, this was what I stressed the most about as it slipped my mind and I found myself roaming the streets of Antalya, Turkey at 4am a few hours before flying to find an ATM that would dispense U.S currency. When in Iran, there are official currency exchanges offices in each city that will offer a better rate than what the hotel can offer.
If you want to shop and purchase a rug or any other gifts that weren’t budgeted for, I did hear stories of locals using merchant banking services in Dubai to complete credit card transactions. I can’t vouch for it, but it does exist and DHL deliver from Iran as well.
Currency: Two definitions used
The official currency of Iran is Rials. However, another currency or ‘super unit’ used is Toman which isn’t listed on the currency but is quoted when purchasing anything.
The easiest way to interpret it is that Toman is simply one tenth of a Rial, so if somebody quotes you 37,000 Toman, it works out to be 370,000 Rial.
What rules and customs should I be aware of?
Being a conservative Islamic nation, there are several customs that tourists need to abide by; mainly around how to dress and public behaviour. However, these are limited to what is seen in public and not much thought is given to what happens behind closed doors in the home.
How to dress
Women need to wear a headscarf from the moment they enter the airport and at all times, except for inside hotel rooms; so women should make sure that they have one in their handbag for when they arrive at the airport. Women should also wear loose-fitting shirts that cover most of the arm as well as the waistline.
Any reports that women must wear a burka are false, and don’t be surprised to see local women wear colourful and head scarves and leggings. Since the morality police numbers in Tehran have eased, the level to which the local women push the rules has increased, with many wearing a thin head scarf that barely cling to their head.
If you are unsure if you are wearing the appropriate attire, head to the bazaar where there will be plenty of options available. For men, we get a better end of the deal where we are only required to wear long trousers as well as short-sleeved shirts.
Alcohol consumption is banned, but from what I’ve been told, can be found on the black market. The Armenian and the Jewish community however, are given permission to consume wine for “religious rites”. My view on this is that it’s not worth seeking out if you’re going to be there for no more than a couple of weeks.
Couples should say they are married just to avoid any chit-chat as premarital sex for Iranians is forbidden. PDA (public display of affection) is not recommended and giving the “thumbs up” is an offensive gesture, equivalent to giving the middle finger salute. Homosexuality amongst locals is forbidden and in the past, people have been severely punished. For tourists though, whatever happens behind closed doors in the hotel is fine.
The cost of travelling in Iran
Iran by no means is an expensive place to travel to and can be experienced as cheaply or as expensive as you want to make it. The main challenge with not having working bank cards is that you will be required to physically carry with you all of the cash that you intend on spending. This means plenty of planning will be required prior to arriving.
My advice would be to estimate how much money is required and add an additional 20%. Don’t carry all of your money on you in public and take added precautions to secure your money in your main luggage or in a hotel safe when leaving the hotel room. This was my strategy and I had no issues with security nor did I heard stories of other any other people experiencing any theft.
Food – Not vegetarian friendly
Food in Iran is full of meat, affordable and delicious. There is A LOT of kebab on menus and the concept of being vegetarian is uncommon; so if you prefer not to eat meat then unfortunately it will be quite difficult to get around in Iran. An average meal including drink would cost between $4-$5.
Breakfast usually consists of fresh flatbread bread with sour cream, jam, a boiled egg, honey and tea. I actually found this combination quite pleasant and a nice start to the day. Most meals for lunch and dinner will consist of lamb or chicken which will most likely be grilled in kebab form and served on a bed of rice with butter, a grilled tomato and onion to cut through the richness of the meat.
By the end, I was all “kebabed out” as locals prefer to eat this out in restaurants as it’s time consuming to make at home. Not many traditional dishes are found in restaurants as they are commonly made in the home, which I missed out on as I didn’t put enough preparation into making contacts prior to arriving.
Alcohol is forbidden but it didn’t take me long to get used to it. Any health benefits gained from being alcohol free though was negated by the amount of soft drink that I consumed during meal time. Like in Turkey, the food is heavily salted and drinking only water with meals didn’t cut it for me. I really enjoyed the change of introducing more tea consumption during social occasions, rather than the usual drunken ramblings that happens when I usually travel. In fact, I don’t drink much now after leaving Iran.
Accommodation – Simple at the best
Accommodation was the most expensive component of the trip as I went for convenience and location over saving money, and didn’t stray too far from the lonely planet recommendations, which turned out to be satisfactory enough.
The most expensive location for accommodation was in Tehran, where I paid $28 per night for a single room. In other cities, the price varied between $20-$25 per room per night which would get you: a double bed, air conditioning, your own bathroom and breakfast. Most hotels will have a combination of squat and western styled toilets. Travelling as a couple where you can share a double bed or a twin would aid in keeping costs down.
Transport – Rough around the edges, but still efficient and affordable
I was quite surprised at how easy it was to travel throughout Iran as there is an extensive bus and train network connecting most cities. I didn’t catch any trains but I met a few people who did and said the trips too much longer than busses. There are quite a number of bus services competing for business so they are fairly cheap. I used them to travel between Tehran and Isfahan, and also from Isfahan to Yazd.
When leaving for the bus station, there are usually multiple bus station in different ends of the city depending on the direction you are headed, so be wary of this. For no more than $10 for to travel up to 500 km in a “VIP” bus, you can get your own single recliner seat, a packed snack box consisting of a snack bar, biscuits and water. There are no toilets on the busses, but stops are made along the way for breaks.
I flew with Iran Air from Shiraz to Tehran that was booked a week prior to flying and paid $60. I made a change to the booking to leave Shiraz a day earlier and paid an additional $20 change fee. Don’t expect brand new planes as the planes are fairly old and run down due to access to parts and maintenance. So if you’re not comfortable with flying, it is best to allow more time for a bus ride.
Guides – Worth investing in
The single largest tourism cost was the visa, which was the $150 that I paid at the Iranian embassy in Istanbul and $30 to the Pazira travel company in Shiraz who organised the Tourist visa for me. The other larger costs were the private day tours in Isfahan, an overnight desert tour in Yazd and a guide and transport combination between Yazd and Shiraz.
Were the guides worth it? Definitely yes, as some of the historical sites in most locations are a considerable distance out of town, and with no easy to understand local public transport, it’s best for a guide to take you around. These can be organised through your hotel. The only non hotel organised tour that I went on was with a gentleman whom I met outside of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan and turned out to be a great guide. All certified guides are required to be university educated, speak great english and have the right identification cards with them.