Iran: what you need to know before you go

Iran is not really a country that you can just go without having done any prior research or knowing anything about the country. In fact, I almost made that mistake by only beginning to read about it just a few days before flying there, and I discovered important pieces of information that I really should have known before!

It really is a country like no other. So I have compiled all the information that I think is important to know about travelling to Iran in one post, from safety to visas, to solo female travel to the food you need to try. So by all means book that flight but then read this blog post before you go so you won’t have any surprises!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links which means I get a commission if you buy a product through my link at no extra cost to you. By doing so, I can keep this blog going and continue to create helpful guides for you.

Popular Tourist route in Iran

Most people will begin their journey in the capital city, Tehran, and explore the three main ‘tourist’ cities from there; namely, Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. You could cover this sort of “Iran highlights” trip in around 10 days to two weeks, however, you would be seeing only the main attractions and the places that almost everyone who visits Iran sees. With a few extra days, many people also go to Kashan, not far south of Tehran, as well as Tabriz, northwest of Tehran.

These cities are must sees and for good reason, they are incredibly beautiful and share an abundance of worthwhile sites between them.

If you venture anywhere away from these places, however, then you will see dramatically less tourists and likely, have a very different experience. So if you have the time, I recommend picking a few places that are not necessarily on the popular tourist route so that you can see a different side to the country. My top picks for getting off the beaten track in Iran (although places marked * are definitely becoming popular) include:

  • Howraman Valley, Kurdistan
  • Lut Desert, Kerman*
  • Hormuz Island, Persian Gulf*
  • Qeshm Island, Persian Gulf*
  • Golestan National Park, Golestan
  • Rasht, Gilan
  • Soltaniyeh, Zanjan

Read more: Exploring the hottest place on earth in Iran: The Lut Desert

Read more: Iranian Kurdistan: Marivan and Hawraman Valley

Mosque Iran

When to go to Iran

You can technically visit Iran all year round, although winter is damn cold and summer is bloody hot. It’s a country of climate extremes, like we’re talking the hottest recorded temperatures on the planet in summer versus snow in winter.

March-May is high season, meaning that prices are high and you should be prepared for crowds. But this is when the weather is most pleasant.

I visited in August-September and it was still very hot at this time, around the 40-degree mark during the heat of the day in some places. It depends on your tolerance for heat and at that time, going south to Qeshm and Hormuz was almost still out of the question because of the unbearable heat. However, it also meant fewer crowds, which I prefered.

All of my Iran posts can be found here.

Is iran safe to visit?

The number one thing people always want to know about Iran: is it safe to travel there? The short answer: Yes, it is. The Iran that dominates the news is not the Iran you’ll find on the ground. The government and politics do not necessarily represent what the Iranian people are like and, in fact, many of them will tell you that they don’t agree with much of what their government does.

The long answer: Saying that, there is some reason to exercise caution particularly for dual nationals (for some reason Iran finds these people suspicious) and bloggers and anyone who works in media (especially if travelling on a tourist visa). There have been arrests of tourists for a host of reasons but in general, if you follow basic common sense and don’t draw too much attention to yourself, then you shouldn’t have any problems.

In terms of crime, it is very low in Iran, but as usual, you should follow general precautions against pickpocketing and theft to be on the safe side.

Female travellers in Iran

Women in particular are often afraid of travelling to Iran, especially solo. However, for the most part, travelling to Iran as a solo female is much similar as in any other country. People are generally friendly and you won’t get too much unwanted attention or harassment, which might surprise many people. However, the same cautiousness needs to apply as it would in any country and I have heard of some women having bad experiences, although I can say that I never did.

It is a conservative society, so as long as you follow the dress code and don’t do anything too outrageous people will treat you with respect. It can be difficult though to see how Iranian women are treated, especially when it comes to equality and freedom in law. It’s a country that still has a long way to go in terms of women’s rights and gender equality. However, in the cities some young women are visibly trying to push the boundaries, especially when it comes to fashion and that’s always an exciting thing to see, especially in the face of the authoritarian regime.

Female travel Iran

Dress code

For men, as long as you wear long pants, you won’t have any problems. However, women on the other hand have a more strict code to follow.

Basically, most parts of your body need to be covered. Long pants and skirts and long-sleeved tops have to be worn as well as a headscarf in all public spaces. You also shouldn’t wear anything too figure-hugging or tight, although leggings and skinny jeans are acceptable as long as you’re wearing a loose, long top or dress to cover your bum.

Technically, ankles are not meant to be shown, although if you’re wearing a long skirt that doesn’t quite cover them it seemed to be fine. Don’t be too worried about wearing the headscarf correctly, as you will see many Iranians wearing it very loosely with most of their hair showing. At the end of the day, most Iranians accept that you’re a foreigner and understand that the dress code is not something you will be used to abiding by, and they won’t be too harsh if you make a slip-up.

Most hostels are relaxed and won’t make you wear the headscarf in the common areas inside, although it’s always best to ask.

When going into some but not all mosques, an abaya is required to be worn, but they will always have them available to be borrowed for free. If you prefer to purchase your own abaya, you can at most bazaars across the country.

Iranian Politics

Politics is a popular topic in Iran as it is so pervasive in everyday life. However, it’s always wise to wait for Iranians to bring up the topic in conversation rather than asking any potentially controversial questions or topics. Criticising the regime is considered a huge deal, so it’s not a smart thing to do if you want to leave Iran when you intend to. However, controversial topics are often a popular choice for Iranians, because they are generally very curious, so don’t be alarmed if you end up in a discussion about America!

You will find that many people who speak English, will often ask political questions, especially along the lines of, “What do you think of Iran?” or even, “Is there anything you don’t like about Iran?”. It’s best to err on the side of caution before being too specific of your opinion, but the questions are usually just out of curiosity.

Esfahan Imam
Imams in a mosque in Yazd

Religion

The main religion in Iran is Shia Islam and it is the largest Shia-majority country in the world. The division between Shia and Sunni (the sect that most of the world’s Muslim population follow) came about because of their disagreement over the Prophet’s successor. As a result, they have developed slightly different traditions and customs. The main difference is that Shiites rely on their Ayatollahs (religious leaders) for direction and guidance, whereas Sunnis look to the Sunnah, which is a collection of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

According to official statistics, Iran’s population is around 98% Muslim, with 95% of those people belonging to the Shia branch. Despite what people think, belonging to another religion is not a crime in Iran nor is being atheist, and people are generally interested to hear about your traditions in other religions.

Zoroastrians still exist in Iran, although now in dwindling numbers. Zoroastrianism was the main religion of the Persian Empire prior to Islam and is one of the oldest religions in the world. Zoroastrian temples known as fire temples can be visited, with most of the important ones remaining being around Yazd.

Esfahan mosque
The Great Mosque, Esfahan

Visas for iran

For Europeans, visas are generally pretty straight forward with a 75 euro fee. Australians on the other hand have to fork out a huge 145 euro fee for their visa, but the process is still straight forward.

For Americans, Brits and Canadians, unfortunately, visiting Iran is complicated and must be done on an approved tour. There are a handful of countries who can visit visa free, it’s best to check the most recent updates online.

Technically, if you have visited Israel previously then you may be denied entry into Iran, however, in my experience they didn’t ask nor did they search very hard in my passport because I actually have an exit stamp from Israel in there. I also heard that if it wasn’t a recent trip then they are less likely to care anyway.

Visas can be applied for in advance through an e-visa platform, however, I heard many stories of people being rejected for no reason. I got my visa on arrival at Tehran’s international airport and it was a very easy process with no questions asked. I suspect, although risky, visa on arrival is the best option, and I never heard anyone say they had any trouble. Note that these visas are 30 days, although it’s relatively easy (from what I heard) to extend in any major city.

It’s also required to have travel insurance for Iran. Your policy needs to actually state “Iran” and not Asia or Middle East or something else. For me, I already had insurance paid up for “All of Asia” but that was not good enough for immigration so I simply had to buy Iranian insurance which cost 14 euros on top of the visa fee at the airport. It’s also worth checking whether your policy or company do actually cover Iran, as many don’t due to the political instability and government travel warnings.

Just days before I arrived the Iranian government had decided to stop stamping passports. So basically the only proof that I had that I was in the country was a receipt from the airport that I’d paid 145 euros to the immigration department. There was still some confusion about it, however, I suspect it’s so travellers will not have any problems if they plan on going to Israel or the US in the near future.

Always check the most recent updates and requirements for visas for your own nationality, as this changes regularly. This information here is just based on my own personal experience and research.

Borders

Iran has borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Currently all borders are technically open, but of course each country has different visa and immigration requirements so it’s best to check before heading to any of these countries.

By far the most popular crossings for tourists are with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan and these are relatively straightforward, from what I heard.

I crossed to Iraqi Kurdistan from the Kurdistan province in Iran with no problems either and you can read about my experience and guide to the border crossing here.

If you’re interested in travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan, I have blog posts on my time there, which you can read here.

Hawraman valley

Money issues in iran

Money is complicated in Iran. First of all, no foreign cards will work in the country. None. So you have to take all the cash you’ll need for your entire trip. Euros is best, but USD is also accepted, as well as some other currencies.

Secondly, the official exchange rate you find online for Iranian rials is far from correct. The rate you’ll find being used in the country is hardly ever close to what you find when you search on Google. When I was there in August-September 2019, the rate on the ground was 125, 000 rials to 1 euro. However, this literally changes almost daily with the economic uncertainty surrounding the country, so it’s likely far from accurate now. A good website you can check which is more accurate to what you’ll find in Iran is https://www.bonbast.com

Thirdly, because rials have many zeros, Iranians like to make it easier… for them. They have made their own currency called tomans which is rials with one less zero. Basically, 100, 000 rials is quoted by locals as 10, 000 tomans. Tomans is so popular now that they’re thinking of making it the official currency. But to make it even more complicated, sometimes the locals will just say 10 toman which is actually, 10, 000 toman which is actually 100, 000 rial. Confused yet? The best bet is to just always clarify with whoever you are dealing with whether they’re quoting rial or toman, because of course, this confusion leads to many people getting ripped off. You’ll get the hang of it eventually.

MahCard

So, my solution to all your money problems in Iran is MahCard. It’s a local start-up in Iran and is a prepaid debit card which can be preloaded with cash (or online transfer for a fee) upon your arrival in Iran and then used everywhere in the country, including ATM cash withdrawals. It was so easy to use and the staff personally deliver it to your accommodation and explain it all to you. It’s best to order it before you arrive in Iran so that it’s ready for you and you can do that here.

When processing payment for the MahCard, you can use my promo code: GOINGSOMEWHERE so that you get a discount!

Budget

At the moment, travelling to Iran is pretty darn cheap. That’s because the sanctions have had a significant impact on the economy, making things very cheap for foreigners, but unfortunately very tough for locals. For a backpacker on a budget you can expect to spend between AUD$20-30 per day, obviously less if you hitch rides and/or Couchsurf.

However, this depends heavily on the current economic situation and exchange rates in Iran, meaning that it can change frequently. If you need to stick to a strict budget, I suggest doing some more research as to the current situation in the country.

kharanaq village iran
Kharanaq village

Language

English is a rare thing to come by in Iran. Even signs and information boards are rarely in English and Persian/Farsi even has its own numbers, which means there is a significant language barrier when travelling there.

However, those who do speak English know they are a rare gem and they will likely offer help even when you don’t necessarily need it. At bus stations, there is generally always people who speak English to help you buy a ticket. Taxi drivers are particularly difficult and they usually don’t speak a word of English.

I recommend Google translate, which is always a handy thing to have downloaded for offline use. I would also keep an image of the Farsi to English numbers on your phone so that you can decipher prices quickly.

Internet and VPNs for iran

Many people think that most of the internet is blocked in Iran, which is not necessarily true, and many things can be used as normal. However, social media is basically all blocked, except Instagram. So, if you want to be able to surf the net with little inconvenience then you will need to download a VPN. Don’t worry, I had no idea what it was before Iran either, but it basically diverts your internet traffic through a server that is in another country, which allows you to get around blockages and censorships.

There are quite a few blogs comparing VPNs and after reading a lot into it, I went with ExpressVPN, which seems to be the most popular option. It’s one of the safest companies without slowing down the speed and it’s reasonably priced compared to many others. It works on all devices and even with Netflix, and you get a 30 day money-back guarantee if it’s not working. ExpressVPN have plans ranging from 1 month to 12 months, with 1 month costing $12.95 and 12 month plans at $8.32 per month.

You can use the link here, to get started!

SIM cards

It is possible to get a SIM card as a foreigner. The best company to go with according to most Iranians is MTN/Irancell. You can get one at their desk at the airport or at a shop in Tehran or other major cities. Some hostels can also organise one for you for an extra fee.

It is becoming more difficult, however, and the Irancell office in Tehran wouldn’t issue me a SIM card for an unknown reason. Although when I went to a smaller independent shop the lady was happy to do it for me, so it might depend and may take multiple attempts and some patience. However, if you’re going to be in Iran for a month, it’s worth it.

A SIM card with some calls and 4GB of data should cost around 800, 000 rial (AUD$10). It is easy to buy more data and very cheap if you run out.

Kerman bazaar
Kerman bazaar

Transport in iran

In cities, the best way to hail taxis is through the Snapp app, which is basically Iran’s version of Uber. It’s mostly just young guys in their own cars trying to make some money. It certainly makes life a lot easier and cheaper for foreign travellers. You have to enter your pick up and drop off location (language barrier be gone!) and the price is set (and VERY cheap). It’s easy to download and requires a local number to set up. You can opt to pay cash which is what you should do unless you have an Iranian card. Otherwise, official taxis are generally difficult to deal with, and the prices are quite high (for tourists).

Buses are the ideal way to get between cities and are extremely easy to use. I never pre-booked any bus and always seemed to find one by just rocking up at the station. There are multiple companies but the standards are very high and similar to countries like Turkey. There are normal and VIP buses, although the price difference is often negligible and worth paying the extra for longer trips.

Although normal buses are very good, VIPs have a row of solo seats on one side and the normal two seats on the other. Snacks and water are also included, and the legroom is comparable to first-class on the plane! They are cheap and usually cost around 300, 000 rials (AUD$4) for 6-hour trips.

The metro in Tehran is also pretty useful for some sights scattered outside of the centre. A trip costs around 12, 000 rial or 10c and one time use tokens can be purchased at stations.

Tahchin
Tahchin

Iranian Food

Tap water is drinkable in Iran, hooray! So buying plastic bottled water is NOT necessary.

Iranian food is delicious, although slightly limited and repetitive. Aside from pork, they eat a lot of meat, especially chicken. In fact, a meal without meat would not be considered a meal and vegetarians find it notoriously difficult when travelling in Iran. However, beans and eggplant are common and if you’re avoiding meat that’s what you’ll likely live on. Rice and bread are eaten in large amounts and make for filling meals.

Kebabs are popular like in Turkey, however, my favourite traditional meals were:

  • Kofte (meatballs made from ground meat, nuts, dried fruit and spices, melt in your mouth!)
  • Ghormeh sabzi (a herb stew usually with beans and lamb, often looks disgustingly green but is delicious)
  • Tahchin (crispy rice cake made with saffron, and baked with chicken inside, often served with pomegranate for decoration)
  • Fish kebab (in Marivan, it’s the most famous food to try there and ridiculously cheap for a whole fish)

Some of my memorable restaurant experiences were:

  • Moslem restaurant, Tehran (very famous for tahchin and you’ll find a long line of locals every lunch time, although it moves quite quickly, the meals are enormous)
  • Hernocafe, Kashan (near the bazaar, this cozy and beautifully decorated cafe serves delicious food, I had the kofte which was one of the best meals I had in Iran)
  • Baam cafe, Yazd (quite popular with tourists as it’s rooftop offers one of the best views over the city, staff also speak good English)
  • Niayesh Hotel and Restaurant, Shiraz (it has all the main Iranian dishes you would want to try, but it’s basically aimed at tourists only)
  • Vakil bazaar cafes, Shiraz (outside the bazaar in a sort-of square you can find small cafes around the edges with outdoor seating, they mostly serve drinks and snacks but it’s a nice place to sit back and watch life go by, all the cafes have a similar menu which includes interesting mocktails)
  • Bastani traditional restaurant, Esfahan (it’s often busy as it’s situated on the edge of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, you go for the traditional interior design and experience rather than the outstanding food, although it’s not terrible)

Alcohol is illegal and banned in Iran, however, it is possible to buy on the black market where it’s smuggled in from Armenia or Iraqi Kurdistan. However, I would be careful asking around for alcohol, although some locals do drink quite regularly.

Kofte
Kofte

Accommodation in iran

Hostels in Iran are of a high standard, like often flashpacker standard. From as little as 5 euro per night, you’ll likely be in one of the nicest hostels you’ve ever stayed. A common feature is that they all offer very nice breakfasts included as well as shared kitchens if you prefer to make your own meals.

There are also numerous guesthouses and hotels, many offering accommodation in historical or traditional houses which is a popular choice for travellers to experience in Iran. Although, increasingly, hostels are also opening up in beautifully restored buildings, so backpackers can get the same experience for less.

Booking.com and AirBnB do not have hotel listings for Iran, however, HostelWorld does and most backpackers use it to book places in advance. Couchsurfing is also very popular (although, I heard good and bad experiences from people using it in Iran).

Start searching for accommodation in Iran on HostelWorld here.

Some of my most memorable stays were:

  • Arian Hostel, Tehran – one of the most beautiful hostels I’ve ever stayed. It’s a recently restored traditional house and it’s been ornately decorated in Persian style. It’s not the cheapest hostel at 8 euro per night for a 12 bed dorm but I must say I loved my stay there. Check it out here.
  • Pava Hostel, Esfahan – basically, the upper floor in a family’s home, this is not a traditional house or beautiful building, but it’s extremely clean and the owner is one of the nicest and most helpful people I came across. He will provide all the information you need for your stay in Esfahan and it has a homely feel for 6 euro per night in a dorm. Check it out here.
  • Sana Historical House, Kashan – the most popular choice in Kashan for backpackers, it’s very well known. It’s inside one of the historical houses and for 6 euro per night, it’s a bargain for the quality of the place and facilities. Check it out here.
  • See You in Kurdistan, Marivan – recently opened by the expanding See You in Iran crew, this place is cozy and nicely decorated but the highlight is mostly the couple who run the place and the interesting people you meet while staying there. It’s not cheap for 10 euro per night but it’s worth it. Also, it’s the only hostel in Kurdistan province. Check it out here.
Souvenirs iran

Souvenirs

Souvenirs can be found in the major cities, like Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. The main gifts that can be bought include Persian carpets (of course), ceramics, printed table cloths and wall hangings, jewellery and scarves.

The best bazaar for shopping is Esfahan, where you’ll find the greatest choices and a large range of shops. You will find similar products in Shiraz, Yazd and Tehran, but much less choice and a smaller scope for bargaining.

If you have any other questions about travelling to Iran, 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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