Travel to Iran doesn’t have to be difficult at all – tourism is growing as relations develop; hatred of the western world is not as rife as the media likes you to think; ancient Persia is within easy grasp, most notably in the central region where key sites has been maintained and infrastructure linking them is growing; and tourists are not subjected to as heavily enforced rules as the locals.
I assume you are getting ready to travel, I think there are also a couple of things you should know to have a perfect stay in the Islamic Republic. From respecting the local culture to haggling in the right places to the tipping etiquette and how to use social media, there are many things to know before you travel to Iran.
- Visas on arrival are only available at airports, and they’re now valid for 30 days. You’ll have to get a visa at a consulate ahead of time.
- If you can’t get a visa on arrival, you need to get a visa at a consulate. Citizens of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan need to get consular visas, and need to get an authorization number before applying for the visa.
- If there is proof of entry to Israel in your passport, you cannot enter Iran. This also applies if you have land border entry/exit stamps from countries neighboring Israel. Want to get around this? See if your country allows applications for a second passport for special circumstances.
- UK and Canadian citizens can travel in Iran without a guide. The rules have been loosened, though you won’t find any official statements. Some tour agencies acknowledge this, some don’t. For obvious reasons.
- International cards don’t work in Iran. Forget ATMs–thanks to the sanctions, you have to bring all the money you’ll need in cash, and change money once in Iran. Dollars are best, but euros work, too.
- Exchange money at currency exchanges, not banks. Exchanges give better rates than the government-controlled banks. If not labeled “Exchange”, look for small shops similar to jewelry stores that have foreign bank notes in the window.
- Iranian rials are the official currency.
- Prices are given in toman, not rials. 1 toman = 10 rials. People will also abbreviate: for example, if someone tells you something is “5”, they mean 5,000 toman/50,000 rials. It’s confusing in the beginning, but you’ll get the hang of it! Just add an extra “0” to the price to figure out the price in rials. Luckily, people in Iran are very honest, and will let you know when you’re making a mistake. Tourist establishments are the exception to this–they usually list prices in rials.
- Keep your dollars close at hand, and don’t let people see how much money you have. Though theft isn’t very common, you don’t want to be trapped because something happened to your only supply of cash for the trip. Not all guesthouses and hotels have safes or lockers, so for god’s sake, please get a money belt. We can’t recommend them enough.
- If you do lose your money or run out of cash, carpet sellers in tourist areas can occasionally charge credit cards for a fee. The fee is around 10-20% of the transaction, so only use this as a last resort.
- Don’t forget insurance: This one is so important that we have to tell you separately. Never leave home without proper health insurance!
- Iran is extremely safe for foreigners. You won’t have to worry about violent crime, and petty theft is very rare.
- Be careful when talking politics, and don’t insult the Supreme Leader. Speaking badly of the government is punishable by law, so be careful who you talk to.
- It’s okay to go to strangers’ homes. They just want to show you the famous Iranian hospitality! If someone invites you, think about it. Girls, take note: if a man invites you, it’s not proper to accept unless his wife or other women are present, or you’re traveling with a boy.
- Don’t take photos of power plants, factories, transportation hubs, or anything military or police. You don’t want to look like a spy. The government does not like spies.
- Hotels will keep your passports while you stay. However, you’re required by law to always have your passport on you. Either carry around copies of your passport while outside, or give the hotel copies and ask for your passport back. Make sure you have a copy of the information page and the page with your Iranian visa, including your entry stamp. You can do this once in the country–there are cheap copy shops everywhere in cities.
- Buses are the cheapest and most common form of transportation between cities. There are also domestic airlines, for those that want to save time and don’t mind paying a bit extra.
- Taxis have no meters, so you’ll have to decide on a price yourself. It’s difficult, especially when you’re not sure where your destination is. There are multiple mobile applications such as Snapp or Tap30 which can give you a ride with cheapest costs.
- Want a comfortable bus ride? Get a VIP ticket. VIP buses have bigger seats that recline further, and you usually get a snack box for the road.
- Don’t sit next to people of the opposite sex unless you know them. It’s an unspoken rule, and people will often shuffle around on buses and in cars to get the order right. If there’s no other option, just sit–it’s not the end of the world.
- Any car can be a taxitaxi. Enterprising locals will often act as unofficial taxi drivers. It’s fine to use their cars, and they’re a bit more flexible with their pricing than official taxis.
- Many city buses require transportation cards. The cards are sold at little huts next to bus stops. The price of a ride with the card is several hundred rials cheaper than without.
- You’re going to see a lot of speeding, swerving, and sparse seatbelt usage. Prepare yourself.
- If the driving makes you nervous, stick to official taxis/savaris when traveling between cities. Official taxi drivers and bus drivers have to adhere to speed restrictions, which limits the stunts to a minimum.
- Don’t expect buses to stop for food. Roadside snack stalls are usually your only option, so make sure to stock up on food and drinks along for long bus journeys. However, most buses have a supply of water somewhere, and VIP buses usually give out snack boxes.
- You can ask a bus driver to take a toilet stop. They’ll occasionally stop for guys to take a roadside leak, but ladies have to be more vocal about nature’s call.Things to know before traveling in Iran: all about the famous Iranian hospitality.
- Iranians love treating foreigners. People you meet are going to want to take you out and pay for everything. Do offer to pay yourself, but if they refuse you 3 or more times (see the explanation of tarof below), just give in and go with the flow.
- Watch out for tarof. In short, tarof is when someone offers something to be polite, not because they want to. It usually occurs in the form of someone offering to you something for free, but can also apply to invitations. To determine if it’s tarof, offer to pay three times. If the person still resists, the offer is legit.
- You don’t need to tip. Tipping isn’t common unless you’re at a really nice restaurant, or you were very, very satisfied with a service you received.
About Food and Drinks
- Tap water is safe to drink, unless stated otherwise. There are also plenty of water fountains all throughout the cities, so bring a reusable water bottle!
- Tea is the drink of choice, though you’ll occasionally encounter tiny coffee shops, and coffee is more common in touristy areas.
- When drinking tea, put a sugar cube in your mouth, then take a sip. This is the Iranian way of drinking tea. Spoons for tea are only found in tourist areas.
- Don’t feel pressured to eat kebab when out with Iranians. They’ll often order kebab for you because they assume that’s what you want, and it’s common choice when eating out, since not everyone has the luxury of a charcoal grill in the home.
- Persian (Farsi) uses the Arabic alphabet, and is written right to left. Numbers will also be different, but confusingly enough, they are written left to right. Try to learn the numbers so you can understand prices and times. You can use bus rides to learn the numbers from road signs along the way.
- Persians are not Arabs. Iranians are very firm on this, and are offended if you mix the two.
- At small cities everything usually closes between 13:00 and 16:30. During this time people go home to lunch with the family, nap, and avoid the heat. Sights, restaurants or anything at large cities will still be open, though.
- Everything also closes on Fridays. Friday is the holy day of the week, and many stores are closed for the whole day.
- Better to no public displays of affection. It’s illegal to kiss in public, though people bend the rules for the latter in big cities. Of course, this doesn’t meant that all things sexual are off limits—dating is common.
- Don’t wear shoes on carpets. Pack shoes that you can easily take on and off!
- The Lonely Planet (2012) is definitely outdated. Prices have skyrocketed since it was last published.
- Foreigner price for sights is usually 6-8 times the local price. And according to locals, foreigner ticket prices are still on the rise. For the budget travelers, the ticket people sometimes bend the rules and give you the Iranian price if you charm them a bit (and it’s not busy). Otherwise, try going in with a local, and have them buy your tickets.
- Tour agencies often give out free city maps. Check them out–there’s usually interesting things on the maps that you won’t find in guidebooks.
- Visit sights at night when possible. Many religious sites are open in the evening, and are much more pleasant: less tourists, more locals, cooler weather, and beautiful lighting. Sounds good, right?
- Carry toilet paper/tissues everywhere. Cheap accommodations won’t always have toilet paper, and public toilets definitely don’t.
- If looking for a toilet, ask for a “WC”. In English, that is. It’s more commonly used than “toilet”. If you do want to ask for a toilet, try using the French pronunciation, “toilette”.
- Most toilets are squat toilets. Hotels will sometimes have western toilets, but you’ll be doing a lot of squatting away from home. Start building up those leg muscles!Travel blogging is ruining my travel experience for sure.
About Internet & Mobile
- The internet is censored. Many common social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest), Google services (except Gmail), app stores (for paid apps), and western news outlets (BBC, CNN) are blocked, so you’ll need a VPN if you plan on maintaining your internet existence while in Iran.
- Internet is usually fast, and can be easy to find.
- Consider getting an Iranian SIM card if you need internet. Mobile connections are often much faster than wifi and SIM cards are cheap. An Irancell SIM card is 200,000 rials (about $6-7), and 1GB of data is 100,000 rials. Less popular carriers are even cheaper–we got TCI SIM cards with one month of calling and 2.5GB of data for 120,000 rials in total (less than $4).
- Download Telegram. It’s the most popular messenger app in Iran, and you’ll want to use it to stay in touch with the billion and one Iranians that will give you their phone number.
- Iran uses European outlets. If your chargers don’t have the two rounded prongs, you’ll need an adapter.
- Women have a strict dress code. Your head has to be covered, your shirt needs to cover your bum, and you can’t wear short sleeves–3/4 length max. Yay freedom! Tight pants are okay, though.
- Sit in the back of the bus on city buses. Always enter from the middle of the bus, and if you need to pay the driver, do so at the end of the ride by leaning in through the front door after getting out. But these are not a must! Just keep them in mind.
- Wear whatever you want at the beach when in the women-only area. Beaches are separated into separate sections for men and women, and a mixed gender area for families. Alas, you’ll have to cover up if you’re lounging in the mixed area.
- It’s often okay to take off your hijab in people’s homes or when hiking. Follow other women’s examples in homes. As for the great outdoors, if there’s no one around, who will get you in trouble? You’ll see many Iranian ladies doing the same.
- If a man harasses you, make a scene or firmly turn him away. Punishment for crimes against women is severe, and men are too afraid of being caught to let things progress. The tourist police are also very willing to help, providing you have information or photos they can use to track down offenders.