When I first started pondering about traveling to Iran, a few months before I actually did, the majority of the reactions were something along the lines of ‘what the hell would you do there?!’. Especially because I wanted to go solo. And rightfully so, considering Iran raised quite a few practical and cultural questions, apart from what we think we know or have been told. The truth is, I had wanted to go for years. I had seen mesmerising pictures of cities, deserts, the most beautiful mosques and the few people I knew that had been there reveled about the Iranian people. Most of all, I wanted to go see for myself what Iran was like, a country that had been closed for so many years. So when in late 2017, early 2018, the political situation was relatively stable, I decided it was a now or never thing. As traveling to Iran requires a bit more prep than other countries, here’s a practical overview in hopes that it makes your planning a bit easier.
There are two options when applying for a visa, depending on where you’re from. My entry of choice was through VOA, (Visa on Arrival). The VOA is available to a majority of tourist (!) passport holders, but always check if you are eligible. When opting for a VOA, you will need to have proof of insurance with you, and it will need to be a letter specifically mentioning that you are covered in Iran. They will check this. After the insurance check, you will be directed to the pre-paying office. Depending on your passport, you will be given a post-it note with your visa price. Mine (and I believe all EU passports) was 75 Euros. After you’ve paid this (in cash!), you can go stand in line for the actual visa. Make sure you have a copy of your hotel reservation on this, even if only for the first night. They will check this. My hostel was called at 3.30 in the morning. While I was the first to get off the plane and in the line, I was the last to receive my visa. Standing in line from 1.30 till 4 in the morning did not make me super happy, and I never understood why mine took so long, but I was told this process normally only takes about 60 minutes.
The reason I did not arrange a visa prior through the embassy was because the online application system was rough, and there were stories about people getting rejected at the embassy.
*Note that US, Canadian and British (among some others) passport holders not only need to obtain a visa prior to boarding a plane, you are also not allowed to travel through Iran solo and you’ll have to travel with a licensed tour guide.
Ah, a much discussed topic. With traveling to Iran comes the mandatory dress, especially for females.
For us ladies: Something needs to be on your head at all times when in public. Whether that’s a scarf, a baseball hat or your hoodie. Wear a long shirt that covers your bum and has at least three quarter sleeves, and long pants or skirts. Skinny jeans are totally fine, as are flip flops. I traveled in winter, which made it a lot easier, but as temperatures rise in summer, linen or cotton works best. Just make sure it’s not see-through!
Inside hostels, homes and even cars with tinted windows, it’s usually fine to take off the headscarf. If you are told to ‘relax’, you’re good!
Is It Safe?
Iran is one of the safest countries I have traveled. I felt like people were always looking out for me. Once, getting off a bus, the driver had called a taxi to a drop off point close to my hostel and told the driver to take me there. I didn’t even have to ask. They will look after your luggage in stations and help you on street corners.
As touristic commercialism hasn’t quite reached Iran yet, getting ripped off is not very common. You’ll be able to wander the bazaars freely without shopkeepers pulling at you.
Due to sanctions against Iran, ATM machines do not work on foreign cards. Bring cash for your entire trip, and bring Euros and not American Dollars. With Trump’s shenanigans, it has become harder to exchange USD. Iran is a safe country, but divide money over your luggage, and use safes where possible just in case.
Recently, the Mah Card was introduced. This is an Iranian debit card that allows you to deposit money on it, and then use in ATMs. This would eliminate carrying cash around, but I have not used it myself. Reviews however look good though.
Make an Itinerary.
Because of the above mentioned money situation, I worked out a rough itinerary before I left, just so I could get an idea of how long to stay somewhere and try to calculate an appropriate amount. Now, the itinerary that I had made was not quite followed, but apart from the budget calculations, it did help me save time figuring stuff out once there.
To access sites that are blocked in Iran (for instance, Facebook, BBC, Twitter) you need a VPN. A VPN will allow you to connect to servers in other countries, thus tricking the internet that you’re not in Iran so you can access blocked sites. It has to be downloaded (and tested!) before going to Iran because you guessed it, VPN downloads are blocked once in Iran. I used ExpressVPN and had no troubles accessing any website.
You wouldn’t think it, but buses are actually faster (and have more routes) than trains. Hostels can help you book buses, but I have always rocked up to the stations and never had issues getting on. Bus stations are chaotic and can look disorganized, but as soon as you walk in, you will draw attention and people will be happy to point you in the right direction. I actually even never made it to the ticket office, but was put directly on buses by people. Everyone will keep an eye on you (in a good way) to make sure you go where you’re supposed to go.
Not all buses will stop for toilet breaks, but do ask the driver if you need to go. Also know that females cannot sit next to a man, so you will have to sit in a single seat, or people will shuffle around until you can sit next to a woman. Book a VIP bus and drinks and snacks are provided.
Alcohol is prohibited in Iran. You will see beers on the menu at some restaurants, however they will always be alcohol free. The fact that it’s forbidden doesn’t mean it’s not there. If you get invited into people’s homes, some will have alcohol. Also, ‘Shirazi wine’ is a thing, which is bought from vendors in dark alleys to take home and drink with friends. You’ll be fine inside a home, but do not take it anywhere else. Punishment is harsh.
Iranians are one of the most, if not the most, friendly people I have ever met. They are incredibly hospitable, helpful and super happy to see tourists. You will be told ‘welcome to Iran’ by random passerby’s, they will stop you in the streets for chats, you’ll be invited for tea and get invites to join family dinners at people’s homes. Say yes. It’s an experience you will never forget.
You will also find that people are very well aware of how they are portrayed in Western media, and are quite keen to prove you wrong and talk about it. Be cautious about it though. Don’t start that conversation yourself and be gentle. Talks about culture and daily life will definitely open your mind and are super interesting.
Bring some small gifts from your home country with you. Postcards are well received, but also keychains and magnets. If you do go to people’s houses, bring something, and often hostels (especially ones run by families) will be very happy with them.
To conclude: traveling to Iran can raise some concerns and it might still be a little controversial. There are things to consider, not in the least place the mandatory modest dress. While for us, the wearing of a hijab is a temporary ‘sacrifice’ we choose to make because we want to visit, for Iranian women, it is not a choice, and it is being resisted. It has its political ups and downs, and there are things that might not agree with our Western way of life and thinking.
I traveled to Iran because I believed there was more to Iran and Iranian people, and that travel is not about politics, but rather about connecting with people and cultures. Understanding the reality of a country does not mean acceptance, but it is my personal opinion that the Iranian people are not the regime. I am a firm believer that there will always be more that unites us than divides us as human beings.