Travel tips before going to Iran
Iran, a very beautiful country, unfortunately tarnished with a lot of prejudices. A lot of misconceptions circulate about this country, especially because of mass media, who try to influence what people should think about this or that. Not to mention the US politicians (Bush and his axis of evil, more recently Trump…). With all the information you can find on the internet today, I was surprised when I found out that a lot of travelers (even experienced ones) had a big apprehension before going to Iran.
I’m not even lying, I had absolutely no fears when getting in Iran. I read a lot about this country before going, and I heard a lot of good things about Iranians, and about the country in general. And what confirmed my opinion? All the Iranians I met the weeks before going to Iran, in Tbilisi and Yerevan especially. All very friendly. We got along so well, when they found out I was about to go to Iran, their country, they naturally proposed hosting me. Thanks to this, I lived like a regular Iranian guy, and I learnt a lot about the country. Wanna go to Iran in the near future? Here are some travel tips. This is not a guide telling you what to see, where to eat, where to sleep… Just some information to make sure your stay in Iran goes smoothly.
- Citizens from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Georgia, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey and Venezuela can visit Iran without a visa.
- Citizens from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, India, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Somalia, the UK and the US need to get an iranian visa before going there.
- Citizens from Canada, the UK and the US need to join a tour group to visit Iran. Can’t really help here, I’m french, therefore I was free. But you can find good information here.
For all the other countries, if you come overland, you’ll need to get your visa at an Iran embassy before trying to get in the country. Otherwise you can get a visa on arrival if you arrive by plane (more likely). Before going to Iran, you’ll need to apply for an electronic visa application here at least two days before your trip. So… Once you landed in Iran, what will the customs officers ask for?
- Your passport of course! Must be valid for at least 6 months.
- One or two photocopies of your passport
- Very important, a document proving you have an insurance with medical repatriation! If you don’t have an insurance, or if you have one but no documents to prove it, you’ll have to go to the insurance counter and pay around 30 US dollars. The insurance line is looong… Save yourself this useless waiting time and bring a paper with “Iran” or “valid for Iran” written on it. Obviously it wasn’t written on my insurance certificate but I asked them to send me a document with all the information needed a few days before my trip. Document that I handed to the employees at the airport. “All right, perfect!” they said.
- The address of the place you’re going to stay at the first night, but most importantly a phone number! Because they want to make sure you’re not going to sleep under a bridge! If you sleep in a hotel (most likely), no worries. Hotels are used to receive those phone calls. Give them the name of the hotel, their address and their phone number, and that’s it! If, just like me, you’re hosted by Iranians, explain them that they’ll get a phone call from the customs, and they really need to pick up the phone! Otherwise, you’ll be stuck at the airport! They always call, no matter what time it is
- Bring cash for the visa fees. Those fees vary, depending on the country you are from. Some info here.
- I was told to bring two ID photos, but didin’t ask for them… Bring some just in case…
- I was also told that I needed to show them an onward ticketn but actually no…
- For the non-US citizens, it’s gonna be complicated if you wanna go to the US, with your Iranian visa on your passport. Not impossible but the ESTA doesn’t work anymore. You’ll have to apply for a tourist visa (B2). Application fees? 160 US dollars… Longer, more expensive, annoying administrative procedures… A pain in the ass, really! And once you get in the US, the questioning will be of course a bit more aggressive.
- Last but not least, if you have a stamp from Israel on your passport, you cannot go to Iran.
With all this, you’ll be able to get in Iran. Concretely, once you left the plane, you first go to the insurance line if you didn’t follow my advice. Then an employee from the visa department will ask you “Where are you from?“. Depending on your citizenship, he will give you a paper with the amount of the visa fees, and a form to fill (given name, surname, passport number, name of the host or the hotel, address and phone number). You go to the “bank”, to pay your visa fees, then you go back to the visa counter to show your proof of payment, and you give your filled form and your passport.
And this is when you start to wait… Because this is when they call the different hosts/hotels. Depending on how busy the airport is, the waiting time varies from 30 minutes to 4 hours. Then someone calls you and (usually) says “Good for you!“. They give you back your passport, with your visa on it! On the visa, you’ll see the dates of validity twice. The dates with our Gregorian calendar, and the dates according to the Muslim calendar (1396 for me). Two hours after landing, I finally left the Tehran airport!
Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, Twitter and even Pinterest are blocked in Iran. Google Play, the Apple store, the New York Times, BBC News, CNN and the “popular” porn sites are also not available. Amazon and eBay are unavailable. Annoying when you want to stay connected with the world. There’s only Instagram, very popular there, to show off. Fortunately you can trick the system, with a VPN.
What is a VPN? I’m not a techie guy, but basically a VPN modifies your IP address (we usually know from which country you’re using the internet with your IP address). You’re in Iran, but thanks to a VPN, the world wide web thinks you’re using the internet from another country (France, the US, the UK, whatever!). And yeah, you’ll be able to check your favorite websites (Facebook, etc…). I use ExpressVPN, fast and efficient!
For those who want to stay online 24/7, buy a local SIM card! The most popular operator is Irancell. For 200000 rials (5 US dollars), you’ll get a SIM card. Add 100000 rials (2.50$), and you’ll have 1GB with your SIM card. Handy if you want to use Snapp, their Uber, because you need an Iranian number.
One last thing, if you hang out with Iranians during your stay, download the Telegram app to communicate with them. In Europe, Whatsapp is the most popular, in China it’s WeChat, Line carries off the laurels in Japan. In Iran, it’s Telegram, they all use it!
Iran is a very safe country, especially for tourists. You can travel there by yourself with no problems. Just use your common sense. Avoid talking about politics, don’t take photos of official buildings, military men, police officers, embassies… They might think you’re a spy! Respect the rules and everything will be fine. You also need to know that hotels keep your passports while you stay. Don’t forget to carry around a copy of your passport, and a copy of the page with your Iranian visa.
As a woman, is it possible to travel in Iran? I met a lot of groups of girls in Iran (I was there in August…). They had absolutely no problems and felt very safe. Some curious look, sometimes insistent staring, but nothing more. As a woman, it it possible to travel solo in Iran? I spent two days with a solo female traveler in Tehran, and a few weeks later I talked to several solo female travelers who had been in Iran. They didn’t have problems, they didn’t face situations where they felt unsafe. But some of them had to face Iranian guys groping them, especially in public transportation, where apparently hands “slip”…
Seeing how crowded the subway is, some of those guys think that touching a woman’s bum is fine. If we don’t get found out, we don’t get caught! Do not hesitate to yell at the boor in front of everybody. Believe me, all the people around you will take your side. Men really don’t want to get caught, and in general, Iranians want to make sure the tourists visiting their country have the best stay possible. They really want to get rid of those misconceptions : Iran is a dangerous country, uncivilized, infested with terrorists, etc…
Because of the international sanctions against Iran, “our” cards don’t work in Iran. Therefore it’s impossible to withdraw money at the ATMs in the country. And it’s not possible to pay anything at all with your card. Consequently, you’ll have to figure out your budget ahead of time and bring all your cash with you. And pay everything with cash. You’ll have to get used to it, if you love using your card to pay.
The official currency is the rial. Before getting in Iran, I saw that with 1 euro, I could get 38000 rials. But when I got there, I realized that with 1 euro, I could get 45000 rials! Cool! Something very important you need to know : the official currency is the rial, but they all talk using the “toman”. 1 toman = 10 rials. A bit confusing at first, but you get used to it pretty fast. Example : you want to buy some bread, the guy says “It’s 5000 toman“. Multiply by 10, all right that’s 50000 rials. And you hand a 50000 rials bill. Not too hard to multiply by 10!
If, despite all the precautions taken, you realize you’re gonna run ouf of money soon (it happened to me), there’s a solution. Contact the agency Key2Persia, or you can go to their office if you’re in Chiraz. Explain them your problem, and you’re gonna pay them the desired amount of money via Paypal. And they’ll give you your money (in rials of course!) 24 to 48h later, taking a commission of course… From what I remember, it was around 10%.
The bus network is very developed in Iran. It’s the easiest way to go from one city to another one. Either you buy your ticket one or two days before, or you go straight to the bus station, and face all the touts pressing you to buy from them. In my case, I always booked my tickets one or two days before (actually my Iranian hosts were booking for me). The good thing about it, is that we know at what time the bus will leave. But if you go straight to the bus station no worries. There are buses all the time, you won’t wait all day long for your bus to leave.
For your information, I paid 330000 rials (8.50$) for my 6-hour ride from Tehran to Isfahan. And 360000 rials (9.50$) my 7-hour ride from Isfahan to Shiraz. And from what I remember around 650000 rials (17$) my bus rides from Shiraz to Tehran, and from Tehran to Mashhad. Knowing that everytime, my hosts booked VIP seats for me (very comfortable, and you get a snack box for the road). I found out later that I was on VIP seats! Anyway, regular buses, mahmoolys, are twice cheaper.
For an inner city voyage, there’s the subway in Tehran. Otherwise, you can take a taxi, very popular in Iran. Always negotiate, even if the price looks cheap. In my post about Tehran, I explain that there are private taxis (dar baste, the norm for us), and shared taxis (savaris, more common). In this case, the taxi leaves when the car is “full”, with four passengers.
Iranians always pay the driver after a few minutes in the car, rather than at the end of the ride like we’re used to do. Watch how much they give, and pay the same, in front of the other ones! You’ll have less chances to be ripped off, the driver is less likely to screw with you in front of other people. I wasn’t really fooled, I was with my Iranian hosts and I learned watching them. Just to let you know, any car can be a taxi. Stick out your arm at the edge of the road and in less than a minute someone will stop for you. A lot of french cars are in Iran. Peugeot 405, Peugeot 206 and Renault are all over the place!
You’ll also notice that Iranians drive like crazy! No rules, no limits. It’s ok in Isfahan. But in Tehran, and also in Shiraz, this is insane! You need some time to understand that you have to impose yourself to cross the street, otherwise you’ll never cross it! Cars will definitely not stop for you! The blue police (the one “managing” the traffic) is here but I honestly don’t know if they’re useful… The green police (the one handling everything : traffic but also ID checks…) is more present but once again, seeing how crazy the driving is, I guess they’re busy doing other things… That’s not just the cars, but also motorcyclists, all with no helmets! They’re just having fun brushing past you when you cross the street. Some of them proposed picking me up if needed. “Your driving? No helmets? No thanks…”
I’ve already said it several times, but the Iranians are very welcoming, smiling and hospitable. You can start a conversation very easily with them and they are extremely kind. Always surprised to see tourists coming in their country. One of them, when I told him I was here “for tourism in Iran“, replied funnily “Oh… You come for terrorism in Iran…“. Anyway, here are some examples :
- I just arrived in Iran and I gave my host’s address to the taxi driver. We were in the area but he couldn’t find the street. So I gave the taxi driver my host’s phone number, in order to call him. But his phone was out of battery… An old man was passing by and the driver asked him if he knew the street “Hmmm… No. You have a phone number? I’m gonna call but I need to go home, I don’t have a cellphone!” And the old man takes the phone number, goes to his place (not far), and calls my host. He comes back 5 minutes later “All right, he’s coming!” And two minutes later, my host comes from a discreet street we hadn’t seen before!
- I was looking for a foreign exchange counter, because I absolutely needed to get US dollars to pay the visa fees to go to Uzbekistan. I get in a grocery and ask the grocer if he knows where I can find a foreign exchange counter. He leaves his shop, puts a sign “Closed, will be right back soon“, and says “Not far, I’m coming with you!“. “No no, tell me and I’ll go by myself!“. The grocer insisted and stayed with me until we found a foreign exchange counter together, 20 minutes later…
- That taxi driver who asked me if he could smoke in his own taxi!!! “Do what you want to do!” “Yeah but I don’t want to disturb you…“. Later, stuck in the traffic, he took fruits (watermelon, bananas, grapes…) from a plastic bag, and we savored them together…
- That restaurant in a remote place in Tehran. I was by myself, the menu was in Persian and none of the employees could speak English. “No big deal, give me what you have, I’m not hard to please, I’m just hungry“. “No no, we’ll give you what you want to eat!” Crazy, the four employees asked the WHOLE restaurant (around 20 customers) if anybody could speak English. No one… “Where are you from?” “From France!“. Once again, they asked EVERY.SINGLE.CUSTOMER if one of them could speak French. Needless to say, nobody was speaking french… All of a sudden, one of the customers comes out of nowhere and handed me his phone “Someone for you“. In fact, the customer called one of his friends who spoke English, he recited her the menu and the prices, and on the phone, I had a woman who was repeating in English everything that was on the menu. WOW! I was so surprised that I wasn’t even listening what she was telling me, I was staring at the guy like “This is fuckin crazy!“. And after the phone call, he said “That’s nothing… At least now we know what you want!“. You’ll notice that even though we were not speaking the same language, I was still able to communicate with the employees and Robin Hood.
Taarof, a dark concept for us Westerners. What is it exactly? Basicaslly very often, Iranians (if you hang out with them) will invite you and propose paying things for you (restaurant, drinks, tickets to enter a museum…). It’s not always because they want to, but just to be polite. When they invite you (restaurant, drinks, whatever!), offer to pay three times. If the person still wants to pay, then ok, the offer is sincere. Otherwise, it was just courtesy.
If you are hosted by Iranians, you’ll notice that squat toilets are the norm. You’ll have to get used to it. Bring toilet paper, because they almost never use it in Iran. Or you can try out the bum gun! Those who are used to dawdle in the restroom will have to change their habits (unless you have legs made of steel). But at the hotel, the toilets are just like ours.
Iranians in general have nothing against Americans, they’re mad at the US government. I lived in various places there, and a lot of them watch American movies, American TV series, they listen to music from the US… And most of them speak proper English! The few ones who don’t speak English will still say “Yeah I understand” just to be able to help you out. However, they cannot go to Israel. On their passport, you’ll see “The holder of this passport is not entitled to travel to the occupied Palestine”.
In the subway in Tehran you’ll see quite often young Iranian guys dressed like military men. Military service is compulsory there, and it lasts 21 months. A few exceptions : if your parents are divorced, the son takes responsibility of his mother and he doesn’t have to do it. If the young man is sick, injured… He won’t have to do it either but at least three doctors will make sure that the guy is really unable to do it (too many frauds in the past).
Iranian girls are very open-minded and nice. They speak good English, and it’s easy to talk with them, about anything you can think of. They’re also very beautiful. The thing is, a lot of them get a nose job and to me, it ruins a bit their oriental beauty… You’ll see a lot of Iranian girls with a dressing on their nose in the city center of Tehran. Too bad…
A lot of people said they were disappointed by the food in Iran, “because we eat a lot of kebabs there“. Since I lived at Iranians’ places, I didn’t see it that way. That’s true, they eat a lot of rice and chicken, and bread too. But going to different cities and staying with different hosts, I could test out different dishes, and honestly it wasn’t bad! They drink a lot of tea, and it’s possible to drink tapped water. By the way you’ll find drinkable water almost anywhere in the street. If I’m correct, there’s a historical reason. A former imam died while he was thirsty (he didn’t die of thirst, he died and he was thirsty!)
In Iran, no McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, nor Coca Cola or Pepsi… No Nike either (but Adidas, which is German, is there). You’ll find local copycats of all those fast foods, apparently some of them better than the originals. Officially no alcohol in the country, but I drank rosé my first day in Iran…
As I said before, women need to cover their head with a headscarf. You’ll notice that Iranian girls often cover “half” of their head. We can still see their hairs and ears. Your shirt needs to cover your bum, and you cannot wear short sleeves. All this in public spaces. When you’re home, do what you want to do! Gentlemen, no shorts, even under the sun of Persepolis… But men can wear T shirts. I met several Iranian girls with no headscarf when they were abroad (especially in Baku). And Iranian guys wearing shorts in Yerevan and drinking beers. I guess they take full advantage of their freedom when they leave their country…
I think you know now that I spent three weeks almost always hosted by various Iranians. Therefore I didn’t visit all the touristic spots to see in Iran, and I didn’t follow the “classic” itinerary tourists in Iran usually do. I didn’t want to tell my hosts “I’m just staying two days at your place, I have other things to see, actually I don’t give a fuck about your hospitality!“. In fact, in three weeks, I only stayed in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. Some people see a lot more in 10-15 days. Oh and I also passed by Mashhad but I didn’t stay in the city (I went there to go to Turkmenistan).
Anyway, in two weeks in Iran, you can start with Tehran (no need to stay too long). spend a day in Qom, a religious city, keep going south to Kashan, and then Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz. I’m not a travel guide but you get it, from north to south. That’s what most people do. If you have more time, you can also go to Tabriz, spend a day in the desert, and why not go to Mashhad, but it’s far from everything.
I guess that’s it! I wrote everything I know about this country! After reading a lot about Iran online, before going there, I thought I knew a lot about the country, but actually no! Most of the information in this article, I had them just talking to people there! And as I always do, watching people! I hope this article has been useful! Feel free to comment if there is missing/incorrect information!