Crossing the Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan border at Bashmagh/Penjwen

From the hostel dorm room in Marivan, I overheard a couple of backpackers’ who had just arrived mention Iraq. I instantly knew that if it was indeed possible to cross the border from Iran to Iraq then that was what I was going to do. It definitely threw my plans completely off, but one of the main reasons I’ve mostly stopped planning anything more than a few days ahead if at all, is so that I can take opportunities that come without worrying about reworking anything. 

In this case, it actually really wasn’t an ideal move because I wanted to go to the Caucasus, but with time on my side, it didn’t matter so much I could still get there in a round about way. I spoke to the couple, who even gave me their Iraqi Kurdistan SIM card, and I wrote down the places they’d visited. 

So, after a few days in Marivan I decided to head to the border, which local people assured me would be very quick and easy. Within minutes of hitting the main street in Marivan, I had a taxi driver approach me who spoke pretty good English. He told me he’d hosted other foreigners before at his home but I informed that I was actually going to Bashmarq so I didn’t want to stay another night. He, of course, then offered to drive me to the border and wanted just 300, 000 rials (AUD$4). I couldn’t say no to that. 

I needed to change money too as my rials were not going to be any good to me in Iraq so he drove me to a corner where there was a string of guys walking the streets with bundles of cash. He obviously had a friend and called him over. The rate was actually very good, and I exchanged my rials into Iraqi dinar. Then we were on the way to Bashmarq. The 20km drive took around half an hour to the gate where vehicles that are not crossing have to drop their passengers. 

Oil and export trucks were lined up slowly crawling towards the border and my driver-friend pointed and said, “Watch.” Two young guys were loitering near a tray truck in front of us and as soon as the line started moving again, one quickly climbed up on the back while the other passed a small drum of around 15L up to him. He placed it in the back and then quickly jumped off, all in about five seconds. Oil smuggling, another lucrative informal trade that happens across this border (check my post on Iranian Kurdistan to learn about the kolbars or porters aka smugglers). 

There were taxis there who drive the 500m to the immigration building and they charge 50, 000 rials (less than 50c). I didn’t realise you could actually just walk the distance so I ended up taking one. 

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Iranian Immigration

Inside the building was a large hall with two lines (one for foreign passports and one for Iranian passports). First, everyone has to put their bags through an x-ray and then on to the exit stamp queue. I lined up in the line that said, “foreign passports” and then found out when I got to the officer that I was in the wrong line? So he pushed me to the front of the other line and the expected confusion ensued. 

A few days before I’d flown into Iran, the government had randomly decided to stop stamping anything in foreign passports, enabling anyone wanting to go to the US or Israel afterwards could without any issues. However, the information had failed to be filtered down to some officials and I’d even had some hostel staff confused by my passport having no evidence that I was actually in Iran. The only thing I had was a receipt from the visa fee I’d paid at the airport (which actually said nothing important on it). So the officer at the border asked for my visa and I told him there wasn’t one. He looked at me confused, flicked through my passport again and then just said, “Okay, go.” So I wasn’t even sure if he’d entered anything into the system to say I’d left the country, but I wasn’t going to worry about it.

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Iraqi Kurdistan Immigration

I walked outside and across the ‘no man’s land’, which was only a couple of hundred metres. It wasn’t immediately clear where I had to go, but I saw a building to the left with a crowd of people outside and only assumed that must be it. There were two lines coming out of two doors, one saying IN and one saying OUT. I lined up at the IN line which was quite a bit shorter and everyone seemed to have papers in hand. I knew I didn’t need a visa but I wasn’t sure if I’d needed to have some form filled out or not. 

The wait was only around 15 minutes and I got to a small room with two officers working frantically. He pulled out a list of countries in front of him which didn’t require visas and he said, “Australia – no visa.” They took a headshot photo and stamped my passport and I was through – it was obviously easier for me than the Iranians in the room. 

The visa stamp says Iraq, which is slightly confusing as technically it doesn’t permit you to enter into Arab Iraq as that requires a proper visa application and another kind of unofficial ‘border’ that separates Kurdistan with Arab Iraq.

I walked back outside and wasn’t sure where I needed to go from there. I assumed the OUT line was for people exiting Iraq. I followed the road back towards the Iran gate and then turned left towards what appeared to be another gate and which I assumed was the Iraq gate, but again nothing was clear. There was no one around to ask but I figured that if I was walking somewhere that I shouldn’t then I would soon be told. I got to the gate and some friendly Kurdish soldiers looked at my passport, “Ah Australia! My cousin is in Perth, very nice!”. I decided to ask him where the taxis were for Sulaymaniyah and he pointed across to the parking lot. Perfect.

shared taxi to Sulaymaniyah

I had read online that there were private taxis for $40USD to Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second largest city, but also shared taxis available. The parking lot the soldier had pointed me to was for shared taxis and there happened to already be three young guys waiting as well so we left straight away. It cost 2, 000 dinar (AUD$2.50) to Penjwen, the closest settlement and ‘border town’. From there, we had to change to another taxi to get us to Sulaymaniyah which cost 7, 000 dinar (AUD$9). It took just over an hour.

As we flew along the road, I couldn’t believe that I was in Iraqi Kurdistan. The border had been a breeze. From leaving Marivan to being at my hotel in Sulaymaniyah took just three hours in total.

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