The Islamic Republic of Iran is, as its full name suggests, a Muslim country and many people are intimidated by the idea of travelling to Iran. After all, the Australian Government travel advice is to exercise a “high level of caution” when travelling in Iran. (updated in November 2018 to “reconsider your need to travel”).
Tell your friends that you are going to Iran and you will get one of two reactions. Most will look at you as if you are crazy, asking “Why?” and mentioning something about safety or lack thereof. A select few will wish that they were “going with you”.
After spending almost four weeks in Iran in October 2018, I have the following advice. Go to Iran and make up your own mind. I felt safer there than in some European countries and met the most friendly and welcoming people. These tips may make your trip to Iran just that little less intimidating.
Preparing for Your Trip to Iran
Iran doesn’t look kindly on those whose passports have an Israeli stamp in them. And vice versa. If you have been to Israel it may be worth getting a new passport.
Visiting Iran makes it more complicated to get a visa for America in the future. Australians and other nationalities who visit Iran and once were eligible for the American ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) and want to visit America, will have to apply for a B1/B2 Visitor Visa which requires attending an interview.
While many nationalities can obtain an Iranian Visa on arrival, others (including Americans, Canadians and British) must get their visas prior to arriving in Iran. This involves filling in a number of forms and providing a Resume amongst other things. Previous work history may count against getting a visa. Iran requires these nationalities to be accompanied by a certified guide while in Iran.
Australians and some other nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival. There are two ways to do this:
1. Apply for a letter of invitation.
We did this through our tour company. The letter of invitation arrives a couple of weeks prior to departure and facilitates things when you arrive in Iran.
You will have to pay for and obtain the visa on arrival and show proof of travel insurance (or buy insurance there) but with your letter of invitation, most of the work has been done.
The current fee for Australians is €145, which is much higher than most other nationalities will pay.
2. Complete the application on arrival.
To do so you need:
- A valid passport with at least 6 months validity
- A confirmed return ticket within a 30-day timeframe (the visa is valid for 30 days but can be renewed when in Iran)
- A passport photo. Some sites advise that women need a photo wearing a headscarf. In my photo I was not wearing a headscarf.
- An address for your first night in Iran and an approximate itinerary.
- The visa fee which depends on your nationality (currently €145 for Australians).
Note: Iranian Visas on arrival are only available at certain international airports in Iran including Tehran and Shiraz.
On arrival in Iran, follow the process below to get the visa on arrival.
Iran requires all visitors to hold travel insurance for Iran. You will be required to show proof of travel insurance before getting your visa. If you don’t have proof of travel insurance for Iran you will be able to buy it on arrival.
Where and How to get the Iranian Visa on Arrival in Tehran
- On entering the airport, look out for signs to the visa office. Go there before going to immigration and collecting your baggage.
- Show your letter of invitation or complete the forms for a visa on arrival
- Show your proof of Travel Insurance or purchase local insurance
- At a different window, pay the visa fee (EU145 for Australians, less for other nationalities)
- Go back to the first window and show proof of payment to receive your visa
- Pass through immigration, pick up your luggage and enter Iran.
The process will be similar in other airports in Iran
While travel advisories in Australia and other Western Countries advise a high level of caution, I have never felt safer than when I was in Iran. The people are friendly and honest. I carried large amounts of cash around (see ‘Money’ below) without a second thought.
Had there been mass protests or large gatherings in the cities I visited when I was there, I probably would have avoided them just to be on the safe side.
The thing that concerned me most about safety was the traffic and crossing the road. Iran has over 20 000 road deaths each year and it is not surprising given the number of cars and motorcycles and the manner in which they are driven. No one takes notice of traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. Travelling between cities, I felt safer in the local bus than in a car or taxi and in Tehran and Shiraz the metro is a good alternative to taxis.
International Credit Cards are not accepted in Iran and you will need to carry sufficient cash for your whole trip in either Euros or US Dollars. Both currencies are accepted. The notes should be in clean and undamaged.
Going on a prepaid tour means less cash to carry around, however independent travellers will need cash to cover daily expenses as well as accommodation.
The official currency in Iran is the Iranian Rial (IRR). Depending on the exchange rate (recently there have been wild fluctuations), you will get tens of thousands of IRR for your US$ or €.
This means that buying anything from a simple coffee to a large Persian carpet means thinking in tens or hundreds of thousands. And, there is another problem. In 1932, the Rial replaced the Toman (pronounced ‘toomarn’). One Toman is the equivalent of 10 Rial.
A quoted price could be “Sixty”, “Six Hundred” or “Six Thousand” depending on whether the vendor is quoting in Toman or Rial and whether the vendor really understands the English meaning of hundred and thousand. Often prices are quoted in Toman and occasionally the vendor means thousand when he says hundred.
Sometimes it is just too confusing, so, offer one or two notes and they will take the correct amount. We found Iranians to be completely honest in all our dealings with them. If giving small change is a problem for them, they may round the price down, or add a few lollies or something else to make up the difference.
Tip: Always check if the price is in Toman and ask for the price in Rial. Get the vendor to show the price on a calculator (the one on your phone if necessary) to eliminate any confusion.
As it is difficult if not impossible (without a local contact) to get Iranian currency before arriving in Iran, exchange a small amount at the airport before going on to your hotel. The rate may not be great, but you will need Iranian Rial to pay your taxi.
Once in the city, you may be able to change money at your hotel (hotel rates are often not as good as elsewhere) or you could go to an exchange. The third option is to change money on the street. Some warn against changing money on the streets, but so long as you know what the rate is, there shouldn’t be a problem. Men (they are all men) will regularly walk past in the street offering to change money saying “Change dollar” or “Change Euro”. Many of the money changers on the street represent nearby exchanges.
On day one in Tehran a throng of men shouting and gesticulating in the street caught our attention. A passer-by laughed saying “in your country you change money inside, here we do it on the street”. Countless money changers approached us near the Grand Bazaar, a well-known where money changers congregate. Three weeks later, they were gone, replaced by a large police presence. They had moved a few blocks away.
What to Wear as a Woman Travelling in Iran
Foreigners in Iran stand out, no matter what they wear. However, to feel comfortable within the cultural and legal requirements here are some tips for what woman should wear in Iran.
Women in Iran are by law required to wear a headscarf or hijab. The scarf can be as colourful as you like, but it should cover the neck. A cotton scarf is less likely to slip off than its synthetic counterpart. It is common to see women fiddling with their scarf to keep it in place. If it slips down, don’t be concerned. Just hitch it back up again.
Women with long hair who like to wear their hair up in a pony tail can buy a ‘hair tie’ at the markets which is made from a non-slip material and stops the scarf slipping down.
In the bigger cities like Shiraz, Esfahan and Tehran some women wear brighter colours and scarfs in preference to hijabs. Having said that, women who work for the government or university students are required to wear a black hijab and dark blue or black manteau. In more religious and smaller cities like Yazd and Kashan, most women cover themselves in a black chador which could be described as a large black sheet. It covers the head and day clothes and is held closed under the chin with one hand.
A good guideline for what to wear on top is something that “covers your bottom”. Locals wear a manteau which is a long shirt or top that generally comes to mid-thigh.
Sleeves should be long, but many women wear sleeves about halfway along the forearm. Pants or trousers are the norm (often in the form of leggings), most at or below the ankle
Either shoes or sandals are acceptable, although because the environment is very dusty, I felt much more comfortable in closed shoes.
In a shrine, women are required to wear a chador. These are provided at the entrance. Often a local will assist with putting it on.
What to Wear as a Man Travelling in Iran
Men wear long pants and travellers will feel more comfortable following suit. While it is not against the law, local men to not wear shorts (even long shorts).
In the past men wore long sleeves, but these days, short sleeved shirts are common. Sleeveless vests are not acceptable.
What is Ta’arof and how to recognise this Iranian Custom
Iranians are a generous people. Visitors to Iran are regularly offered meals, gifts and even dinner in a local’s home. However, not all these offers are ‘genuine’. Often, they are ta’arof. The custom of ta’arof is confusing. Sometimes an offer is genuine, but other times it is ta’arof.
The visitor (or prospective gift recipient) should decline at least two to three times in case the offer is ta’arof. If after persistent refusal, the local continues to insist, the offer is genuinely meant.
I experienced ta’arof when I asked the taxi driver how much we owed him and he replied “You are my guest”, refusing to name a price. He did not expect me to say thank you and walk away without paying. What he expected was for me to repeat my question a couple more times until he finally told me the amount owed to him.
When someone insists three times that you come to dinner, take the gift or have a lift, then the offer is most likely genuine.
Suggested Background Reading on Iran
Before I travel, I find it useful to read books relating to the country I am about to visit. The following books provide useful background to the life and history of Iran.
“Lipstick Jihad” and “Honeymoon in Tehran”
“Lipstick Jihad” (2006) and “Honeymoon in Tehran” (2010) are written by Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian who grew up in America and worked in Iran as a journalist. While things have changed in Iran since Moaveni wrote these books (President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer in power and in some ways, restrictions on the population are easing) they nevertheless provide an insight into Iranian culture and community.Easy to read.
“Couchsurfing in Iran”
In his book “Couchsurfing in Iran – revealing a hidden world” (2018), Stephan Orth describes his experiences when he spent two months couchsurfing through Iran. Couch surfing is illegal in Iran yet many people do it. It is a way for locals to interact with visitors and for travellers to learn more about local culture.Another quick read showing a different side of Iran.
“Daughter of Persia”
Given to me by a friend after my return from Iran, I wish I had read “Daughter of Persia” by Sattareh Farman Farmaian with Dona Munker before my trip. Published in 1992, this personal story by a woman born in Iran two years after the end of WW1, includes historical background and descriptions of the social situation in Iran during her lifetime.
“All the Shah’s Men”
A book that I didn’t get to but which comes highly recommended it is “All the Shah’s Men” by Stephen Kinzer (2003) looks at the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 by the CIA and British MI6. The book places the broader Iranian political situation into context.
Speaking English in Iran
Iranians are Persians and they speak Farsi. While English is not as widespread as I expected, hotel and restaurant staff do speak English except in smaller villages. Nevertheless, basic words and gestures usually lead to a satisfactory outcome.
Many locals are keen to practice English and will come up to you and chat. The opening line is often “where are you from”, quickly followed by “How do you like Iran?”. Some ask “what did you think of Iran before you came here?” and then “what do you think now?”.
The Persian script is similar to the Arabic script with some modifications. It is fun to learn the numbering from one to ten and how to read them. When I first walking around Tehran I noticed a sign painted on a window. The written words looked like stylised molar teeth and I guessed that the place must be a dentist. Only later I realised I was reading a telephone number.
Alcohol and Other Beverages
Drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden in Iran and can result severe punishment. ‘Pretend’ beer is available in a variety of flavours. It is sweet and rather like a soft drink. The non-alcoholic Mojito is much more palatable.
Bottled water is freely available, and tap water is fine to drink. Freshly squeezed fruit juice is a refreshing change from water. Pomegranate juice (ask for “orb anar”) is delicious and also apparently good for the blood. Try the rosewater drink for a change.
Another favourite of mine is carrot juice ice cream. Be persuaded to try it – in Iran the carrots are incredibly sweet and carrot juice paired with saffron ice cream is delicious. I had to try one in every city we visited. Ask for “orb havij (carrot) bastani (ice cream) saffron”
In Yazd I had a most memorable date milk. If you like dates, don’t go past this one. The only place I found it was Café Fooka near the Jame Mosque. Go up onto the rooftop, take your shoes off and sit cross-legged on a carpeted divan, enjoying the evening breeze.
Another local drink worth trying is doogh (either made on site or found bottled in the drinks fridge) This a savoury yoghurt drink often salted and flavoured with herbs. It is very refreshing on a hot day.
Getting Around in Iran
There are various ways to get around in Iran. We used taxis, a car and driver (sounds posh but wasn’t), VIP busses and the Metro (in Tehran and Shiraz).
Crossing the Road in Iran
Crossing the road in Iran is frightening. The traffic in Iran is unlike anything I have experienced anywhere in the world. Two lanes become three, three lanes become four. The roads are chaotic and cars and motorbikes regularly miss each other by millimetres. Drivers do not respect pedestrian crossings, and often slow down when they see a pedestrian crossing in front of them.
Having said that, there is a feeling of achievement when you do manage to cross five lanes of traffic successfully.
Taxi or Car and Driver
In all cities it’s easy to hail a taxi, but like anywhere in the world, check the fare before setting off. Ask the hotel to write your destination in Persian, and don’t forget to take a business card from the hotel to show the driver for your return.
If the driving time from one town to another is around an hour or so, rather than taking a bus, get a taxi or ask your accommodation to book a car and driver. This s not at all a ‘posh’ option and gives you flexibility to stop for photos or to take a scenic route.
Many locals take a VIP bus (Very Important Passenger) between cities. The bus is a comfortable coach and an inexpensive way to travel. To give you an idea of the price, the three-hour trip from Kashan to Tehran cost just over 220,000 IRR (which when we travelled was around UD$2.00) per person.
Take a taxi to the bus station, and accept the driver’s offer to show the way to the ticket office. This will save time and frustration.
The metro in both Shiraz and Tehran was a pleasant surprise. It is clean, efficient and a great way to get from A to B in cities that get clogged with traffic.
The trains are packed at peak hour so it is best to avoid the metro between around 8am and 9:30am and also later in the early evening.
The station names, are often different from what is on the city map and routes may be unclear. There are a number of lines and you are likely to have to change lines. Don’t let this put you off. The metro is a great way to travel and locals are always happy to help.
In Tehran, some carriages are set aside for women only. Women travelling with a man may use the ‘male’ carriages, however they could feel more comfortable in a carriage for women as the male carriages are often full to overflowing.
A tip for a woman getting into a ‘male’ carriage is to stand just inside the door, against the division between the entrance to the carriage and the seating. This way you have a buffer between you and most of the other commuters.
The metro in Shiraz is relatively new. Again, the names of stations may not match your map, so do check where you should be alighting. There is only one line, and it is not yet complete, but taking the metro to the opposite end to the Airport, is one way to get to see another side of town.
Accommodation in Iran
As in any city, accommodation ranges from simple basic hostels to five-star hotels. A suggestion is to stay in a central location within walking distance of bazaars and sights. Many of the more expensive hotels are further out requiring a bus or taxi ride which takes up precious time in cities clogged with traffic.
It is worth staying in a couple of traditional homestays as the proprietor is a local and will be able to provide local and cultural insights. Some homestays have private bathrooms, and others have only shared facilities. Check before booking.
You will be required to hand your passport in at each place you stay. Keep a copy of your passport in your luggage.
Staying in a Caravansarai is another unique experience. Traditionally Caravansarai were built at intervals along the Silk Road to provide accommodation and refreshment for travellers. Generally, ‘rooms’ are a carpeted floor, with shared bathroom (separate male and female) facilities.
I stayed in these Homestays in Iran
- A traditional home with simple but adequate rooms arranged around a central courtyard.
- Shared bathroom facilities (male and female separate)
- Delicious homecooked meals
- The host will arrange an interesting and informative tour of Abarkooh
- Confirm your arrival time in advance to avoid the mix up we experienced
Contact: +98 912 649 1865
- A traditional home set in pomegranate gardens
- Warm hospitality and delicious homecooked meals
- Shared bathroom facilities (male and female shared)
- Roll out a comfortable mattress on the floor for sleeping
- The lodge is a little difficult to find as there is no identification on the outside wall. Call on arrival or use Google Maps.
- Beautifully renovated traditional home
- One room with ensuite, two rooms with shared bathroom. If the homestay is not full, the bathroom will not be shared
- Warm hospitality, lovely fresh breakfast and great ideas for where to go and what to do
I also stayed in Zeinodin Caravansarai near Yazd.
Interesting fact about Hotel Rooms in Iran
Iran is an Islamic Republic and hence there are a few things to look out for in your room. Look up – the arrow on the ceiling points to Mecca. And in one of the drawers you will find a Koran and a prayer mat.
The Internet and Social Media in Iran
The Iranian Government restricts the use of social media in Iran, and yet it is quite possible for visitors and locals alike to work around these restrictions.
Social Media in Iran
Visitors who plan to use social media including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp should obtain a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and check that it works, prior to arriving in Iran. I used the Nord VPN, paying the monthly rate and then cancelling the plan on returning home. Other products are available.
Locals all use VPNs which they source from inside Iran, and obtain at no charge. If for some reason, access is closed down, they set up another provider.
I was advised to download Telegram before arriving having been told that WhatsApp wouldn’t work. Actually, WhatsApp worked fine.
The Internet in Iran
Every hotel (around three star) and homestay that we stayed in provided internet access. SIM cards with calls, text and data are also useful. Together these were sufficient for my needs.
Buy a SIM on arrival at the Airport if you can. The queue was too long when I arrived and I ended up getting an MTM SIM at a booth at the Golestan Palace. You will need your passport when purchasing a SIM.
A Tour or Independent Travel in Iran?
Some ask whether it is best to go on a tour or to travel independently in Iran. I did both. First off, I joined a twelve-day small group tour and then travelled independently for two weeks after that.
Advantages of a Tour
Travel to Iran is perhaps a little scary for the first time. The negative perception of Iran is coloured by media reports. I admit that when I landed in Tehran and donned my scarf for the first time, I wondered what on earth I was doing.
Taking a tour helps a little with the anxiety of travel in Iran. Guides and drivers explain how things work culturally and put you at ease. All the little things are taken care of. Accommodation is booked. Transport is arranged and there is someone to explain how the money works. If time is limited, a tour (especially a small group tour like the one I took) is the best way to see a lot of Iran in a short time.
Independent Travel in Iran
Independent travel in Iran is easy. Busses and trains are simple to catch, accommodation is easy to book (get your hotel to book accommodation in the next town). Having become familiar with Iran and how things worked by taking a tour first off, I was quite comfortable travelling independently for the second two weeks of travel in Iran.
Final Words on Travel to Iran
Iran is not the first choice of travel destination for most people. The fact that it is an Islamic Republic puts people off. The Iranian government policies put people off. In my experience, locals welcome visitors with open arms (almost literally). Go to Iran and see for yourself. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Note: We took a tour with Yomadic. Our travels in Iran were self-funded.