Iraqi Kurdistan: what you need to know before you go

If you’re contemplating a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan and wondering what you need to know about going there as a tourist, then look no further. In this post, I have covered all the important practical things anyone would need to know before travelling to Kurdistan based on my experience.

Leave your preconceived ideas, assumptions and misconceptions at home

Iraqi Kurdistan is not what many people expect it to be. It’s quite far removed from the dominant narrative of war, terrorism and religious fanaticism that we are fed in the media. Although, if you’re contemplating a trip there, then I’m assuming you already know that. 

The Kurdish people are some of, if not the most, friendliest people I’ve come across on my travels. The difference I found with the Kurds, was that their friendliness was genuine and there was never an ulterior motive or desire to make money off me. That is, at least not yet. When tourism ramps up in the area who knows what may happen, however, for now, tourists are a rare sight, welcomed with open arms and treated like a true guest.  

Kurdish men
Erbil street market

Jump to sections of this post:

When and where to go in Kurdistan

Most people agree that the best time to visit is in March and April when the Kurds celebrate Nawroz, or New Year. To witness the celebrations is apparently an incredible experience, particular in the village of Akre. Otherwise, October and November are also good times to go in terms of climate. I was there in September and the weather was perfect. 

Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Duhok, the three largest cities, are on most people’s itineraries, as are Lalish (the holiest Yazidi temple), Alqosh (Christian village and Rabban Hormizd monastery), Akre (Kurdistan’s prettiest village) and Amedi (ancient hilltop village). Rawanduz canyon is also visited for its incredible landscape and Halabja is a popular half day trip from Sulaymaniyah for those interested in recent Kurdish history.

All of these places can be reached by shared, public transport, except Lalish (which is not really on any main road). Otherwise, most people choose to do Lalish, Alqosh and Akre in one day trip with a private car hire/tour either from Erbil or Duhok, simply for the ease and convenience.

Amedi is best visited as a day trip from Duhok and Halabja from Sulaymaniyah and both can be done by public transport or private taxi. All of these places mentioned (other than the three main cities) have very limited accommodation available if any at all, which makes day trips from the larger cities more appealing. However, Rawanduz does have some accommodation options but can also be seen in a day trip from Erbil if you’d prefer.

You could technically cover all these main places in a week if you hired private transport for a couple of day trips. Otherwise, you’ll likely need at least 10 days if you plan on seeing things by shared transport. 

If you’re looking at doing a more organised tour or want a contact for hiring private taxis, I would recommend Haval. He is one of two local Iraqi Kurdistan tour guides that are quite well established and highly recommended. He is based in Erbil, but organises trips all over the area. If you want to use him as a guide (rather than just getting him to organise a driver), however, I suggest contacting him before arriving as he is in high demand. He can be contacted through Facebook here.

You can view all my Iraqi Kurdistan posts here.

Sulaymaniyah city
Sulaymaniyah city view from Chavi Land

Is Iraqi Kurdistan safe to visit?

Yes. In fact, someone told me that less people have died from terrorist attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan than in Europe, which I would believe. The cities of Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Duhok are extremely safe, even at night, and petty crime is almost unheard of. I would just take regular precautions as you would travelling in any country.

When you’re there you will likely feel a world away from Arab Iraq and even cities like Mosul and Kirkuk which are not too far away are only just beginning to start rebuilding and recovering from the war against ISIS. There is a heavy military and police presence, especially on the major highways and passport checks are common.

Kurdish Politics

Politics is very pervasive in Kurdish culture and everyday life, and people are generally very open to talking about it. It’s also very important to understand at least the basics of Kurdish politics and the region in general, as that will only better inform you while travelling as to why things are the way they are. So here’s a brief summary of Kurdish politics in Iraq to date, if you’re interested (can you tell I have a degree in political science?).

Regional politics is an extremely complex affair. For a start, Kurds want their own nation, ideally incorporating western Iran, southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq, which they refer to as Greater Kurdistan. At this point, it seems unlikely, but many Kurds remain hopeful that one day there will be an official country called Kurdistan. Iraq is the only place where they have achieved some sense of stable independence and they operate on a semi-autonomous system under Iraq’s central government. 

The Kurdistan Regional Government is made up of two dominant political parties; Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP has been dominated by the Barzani family and tribe since it was founded in 1946, which has led many to criticise it as autocratic. The PUK split off from it in 1975 as a sort-of socialist, left party.

The two fought against each other in the 1990s in what is referred to as the Kurdish civil war and led to a division, whereby the PUK controlled the area around Sulaymaniyah and the KDP controlled Erbil and the surrounding area.

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the KDP and PUK slowly worked on a more unified government. Barzani as the leader of the KDP was elected leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 2005 and he only stepped down in 2017 after the failed referendum. There are still many Kurds who have strong opinions about the Barzani family and the divisions between PUK and KDP supporters still exists.

The KRG and Peshmerga forces were one of the US’s greatest allies in the fight against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq and it was largely thanks to the Peshmerga in Iraq that the country has been liberated from them.

In 2017, Barzani called for an independence referendum which upset the Iraqi central government. The result reportedly was that at least 92% of Kurds voted in favour of independence but it was quickly quashed with clashes between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. It was a devastating blow, as the KRG lost control over Kirkuk, one of their most profitable oil fields and they were forced to sign an agreement whereby they would never seek independence again.

ISIS flag Kurdistan

Visas for Kurdistan

Immigration for Iraqi Kurdistan is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. For European nationals, American, Canadian, Australian, Japanese and Korean passport holders, visas are not necessary and you’ll be granted 30 days on arrival.

Note that this is different from the Iraq visa, in which most foreign nationals require to apply for in advance. If you want to visit cities like Mosul or Kirkuk, which are now under Iraqi control, then a proper Iraqi visa is required, even to use the roads leading to those cities.

Borders

The borders with Turkey and Iran are open as well as the sort-of border with Arab Iraq. Visas for all these borders need to be obtained beforehand. Turkey has an easy to use e-visa system, whereas for land border crossings into Iran you need to have applied and received a visa prior to crossing (visa on arrival is only for airport arrivals) and the same for Iraq (see above).

For Iran, you have the option to cross near Sulaymaniyah which takes you into Iranian Kurdistan and Marivan or you can also cross through Rawanduz and Soran, north of Erbil, which takes you closer to Tabriz on the Iranian side.

Technically, the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish-autonomous region inside Syria has been open on and off in the last few years. For tourists, it would be a difficult one, especially now that Turkey has started to make incursions there in an attempt to rid the area of the Kurdish population.

You can read my border reports for the Iran-Kurdistan border here and the Kurdistan-Turkey border here

Thinking of heading to Iran? You can read everything you need to know about travelling there here.

Kurdish flag
Kurdish flag in Duhok

female and solo travellers

As a female, I had no problems travelling in Kurdistan and I felt much more free than I had in Iran. It’s conservative on some levels but is also quite progressive on many others. In the cities, you will notice Kurdish girls tend to wear whatever they feel like and a headscarf is not that common. I would still wear relatively conservative clothing. I felt comfortable in a t-shirt, but always kept my legs covered. 

However, rural life is quite different and if you visit any villages or smaller towns, people will naturally be more conservative. Kurdish family life is still very traditional in many respects and women are still confined to indoor duties and looking after the home. As a foreigner, however, I didn’t feel that people were overly judgemental and I felt that they were pretty accepting of the fact that I was travelling alone, they were just perhaps very curious about it. Of course the age-old, “are you married?” question will be asked a lot, but it’s not to be mistaken as a sleazy gesture but a genuine inquiry, as it is quite a different concept for them that a single 26 year old can freely travel on her own.

Cash Erbil
Currency exchange market in Erbil

money and atms

Kurdistan uses the Iraqi Dinar as their currency. US dollars are widely accepted and even Euros in some hotels. It is truly a cash economy, and almost no where accepts credit cards unless you stay in more expensive hotels, but I wouldn’t rely on it.

ATMs are notoriously hard to come by. In Sulaymaniyah, there are a few around the central area, but in Erbil most ATMs are located on the outer parts of the city and in the Ankawa neighbourhood. Not all ATMs accept foreign cards either. Byblos Bank does and it can also give you USDs as well as dinar but they seemed to charge extra fees for foreign cards (or at least my card). I found the best ATM and bank to use was the Bank of Baghdad which charged no fees and you could also withdraw both USD and dinars.

In terms of budget, keep in mind that Iraqi Kurdistan is not a cheap place to travel, when you compare it to its neighbours. A 2 star hotel ranges from USD$20-40 per night for a single/double room and a meal at a local restaurant costs around USD$5-9. Shared minivans and taxis are not too badly priced, a seat in a minivan between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil for example cost USD$9. For a private taxi hire/tour for a day with multiple stops, you’ll be looking at USD$120+.

language

Kurdish language has many dialects and in Iraq the main two are Sorani and Kurmanji, and along with Arabic, they are the languages you will hear most around Kurdistan.

Not too many people speak English but you’ll find the younger generation almost all speak at least some. 

Erbil food
Typical meal

food and drinks

You wouldn’t go to Iraq just for the food necessarily. It’s pretty standard Middle Eastern affair; very meat heavy and rice and bread make up the rest of most meals. If you’re lucky most places will have some sort of basic salad or eggplant or beans stew, but as for any other vegetables, you won’t really get any. A plate of olives is also a common starter.

A standard meal is chicken or red meat with rice, bread, beans and a plate of onion (plus a plate of eggplant if you’re lucky), refer to picture above. There are cheaper street food and take away options such as kebabs, sandwiches and falafel if you’re on a tight budget.

Vegetarians will find it difficult, but beans and eggplant are staple dishes almost all restaurants will have in some form and falafel sandwiches are a good choice.

Alcohol is available in the major cities at supermarkets and designated alcohol shops. It’s not frowned upon to drink and some of the alcohol is even smuggled across the border into Iran, you can read about my experience seeing the smugglers at work here.

Tea is basically the national drink and you’ll find teashops and young boys walking around with thermos’ practically everywhere. It’s largely a male affair and you’ll rarely, if at all, see a woman sitting at a tea shop. However, as a foreign woman I didn’t have any issues and many locals often invited me to sit for tea (unfortunately, the different treatment between foreign and local females is quite obvious).

transport

As it’s a relatively small region there is no need for a large bus network with regular services, so people rely on minivans and taxis that make runs between towns whenever they’re full. They’re quite comfortable, move quickly and aren’t too expensive. They leave from a parking area usually called garaj. In the bigger cities like Erbil and Sulaymaniyah there are more than one of these garaj’s servicing different areas, so it’s best to check with hotel staff which one you need. As soon as you arrive at a garaj you will hear men shouting destinations and people are more than happy to point to the correct vehicle.

Streets of Erbil
Streets of Erbil

Accommodation

Accommodation in Iraqi Kurdistan is standard hotels, with guesthouses and hostels not a ‘thing’ yet. Hotels are pretty good quality, even 2 star hotels weren’t bad. They all generally have private bathrooms, WiFi and tea and coffee available, while some also offer breakfast.

The only exception is Dolphin Hostel in Sulaymaniyah owned by Shah, which is the only true hostel offering dormitories in Kurdistan. I highly recommend it and Shah is likely to become a good friend after your stay.

For my other hotel recommendations you can see the individual posts for Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Duhok.

Internet and SIM cards

Internet and WiFi is relatively good when you can get it. All hotels have WiFi as do all the more upmarket restaurants and cafes. 

SIM cards are possible and relatively painless to get. I was lucky enough to get one from two people who crossed from Iraq into Iran and so I didn’t personally go through the application process. I was given a Newroz SIM which had unlimited data for 30 days and it costs USD$20 or 25, 000 ID for the month. It worked pretty much everywhere.

I heard that Asiacell was likely better, as it’s one of the biggest companies, but prices are relatively similar no matter who you go with. 

Kurdish men in Sulaymaniyah

If you have any other questions about travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan, comment below or head to the Contact page to shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to answer!

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Kurdistan Pinterest

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