What is like to travel in Iran? Are Americans really allowed to go?
We have been asked these questions on numerous occasions from fellow travelers. So, we thought we would write a straight up post from the perspective of two Americans who have traveled in Iran. There is some interesting stuff below for travelers who can visit Iran without the (minor) restrictions specific to American, British, and Canadian tourists, but that is not who we are writing for.
Contrary to popular belief, Americans can and do travel in Iran. For sure, you need a little patience with the paperwork and the constraints of traveling in an Islamic Republic. You also need to be cool traveling with a guide and having a fixed itinerary. But, overall it is a very straightforward, safe, and extremely rewarding place to visit.
We traveled to Iran from May 22 to June 11, 2015, during the negotiations between Iran and the Western powers to lift sanctions. It was an exciting time to be in Iran and an indicator of the greater openness to come. While Americans who want to travel in Iran are still subject to some restrictions, it wouldn’t surprise us if travel in Iran becomes easier as time goes on. Visitor numbers in Iran are set to increase, so go soon!
Getting an Iranian Visa
Getting a visa to Iran isn’t difficult, but the process does take longer for Americans (and Brits and Canadians). You need to engage an Iranian travel agency to facilitate the visa process. We used UpPersia, which organized every aspect of our visit and we highly recommend. It took about three months from when we submitted our information to UpPersia to when we received our visa authorization codes.
When you apply for a visa, you must specify an Iranian embassy where you will pick up your visa. This location cannot be changed, so plan ahead. When you get the authorization code, take it to your chosen Iranian embassy or consulate, where you will make a payment and receive the visa in your passport. We picked up our visas at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul. The cost was 60 euros per person, although this could vary by location.
There is no Iranian embassy in the United States. Americans planning their trip from home can send their passports and authorization codes to the Iranian interests section of the embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C.
Americans, Brits, and Canadians need a guide
Americans, Brits, and Canadians need to have a guide for the entire trip. The guide meets you at your port of entry and is responsible for you until leave the country. UpPersia provided us with an excellent guide, Ali, who met us in Tabriz and accompanied us all the way to the Turkmenistan border. Iran is not like North Korea where guides follow you everywhere. We had time to explore on our own and Ali encouraged us to do so. UpPersia provides male and female guides if you have a preference.
There are pros and cons to having a guide. A guide is a window into the culture of Iran both past and present. Our guide was very candid about his country, so don’t think you will have a sanitized view of Iran. We heard it all, warts and all. Ali found us the best and cheapest food everywhere and introduced to tastes we would not have found on our own. As we said on many occasions, we chose an expensive way to get the cheapest food!
Ali was extremely knowledgeable about the historical sights and the cultural present. He also helped us get to remote or obscure places like the oases and caravanserais of the eastern desert.
The drawbacks are that guides are expensive and sometimes their presence can be a little stifling. This is no reflection on Ali, just a fact for backpackers who are used to traveling on their own.
Americans, Brits, and Canadians need a fixed itinerary
In conjunction with your tour agency, Americans, Brits, and Canadians have to submit a day-by-day itinerary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This means that there is a degree of inflexibility to your time in Iran. In effect, you have to sleep in the town that is printed on your itinerary. We realized part way through our trip that we would prefer to spend one more night in Yazd and one night less in Mashhad. Sadly, despite the efforts of UpPersia, this was not possible.
So, you are on a guided tour instead of backpacking?
Well, yes. And, no! We chose UpPersia because they offer a “backpacker” tour. They try to replicate as much as possible the experience of being an independent budget traveler despite the presence of a guide. To this end, Ali was more like an extremely knowledgeable fellow backpacker than the typical tour guide. We stayed in low budget hotels, traveled on local buses and trains, and ate in local restaurants.
It must be difficult to travel in Iran with all those Islamic codes, right?
With a few adjustments to your usual behavior and dress code you shouldn’t feel too restricted by Islamic rules and regulations. Woman have to adhere to hejab, meaning that hair has to be covered by a scarf, and arms and legs should be fully covered. Iranians interpret this in a variety of ways. It’s probably best to be conservative, but take your cues from local women. How women interpret hejab is very different in Shiraz than Mashhad. Laura only had her dress code called into question once in Iran and that was in the religious city of Mashhad.
Men also need to dress modestly: no shorts or tight clothing. Ali told us a funny story about a male cyclist he was guiding. The tourist insisted on walking around Tehran in his Lycra leggings. Unsurprisingly, the police made him go to a store and buy some long pants. You have been warned!
Alcohol is illegal in Iran. But as they say in Shiraz, ‘before the Revolution there were five wineries in the city, now there are five hundred!’ In other words, some Iranians illegally make their own wine. We don’t recommend seeking out alcohol because of the risk of landing your Iranian friends in trouble with the police. Instead, have a non-alcoholic Islamic beer. Efes, Baltika, and other major beer brands brew non-alcoholic malt drinks for the Iranian market, probably for the brand recognition just in case the rules are relaxed.
Public displays of affection must be avoided in Iran, even for married couples. LGBT travelers should be aware that homosexuality in Iran carries the death penalty. Although it is highly unlikely that the authorities would sentence gay foreign tourists, it would be best to be discreet. Our guide, who generally had a liberal and progressive outlook, surprised us one day when he expressed a strongly homophobic opinion. Hopefully, with Iran’s greater openness to the West, these opinions will gradually become less common.
Is it safe to travel in Iran?
Iran is safe. Really! A number of friends and family questioned our sanity when we said we were going to Iran. But, let’s be clear. Iran is not Iraq. Nor is it affected by the civil wars and terrorist violence that we know all about in other areas of the Middle East. In fact, I would say that Iran is safer than any other country we have traveled in and definitely safer than home. There is the odd bout of pickpocketing and bag snatching in Tehran but foreigners aren’t singled out for crime.
Traffic is your main safety worry, but even that is easy to cope with if you learn how to cross the street like a local. The only word of advice I would give regarding safety is this: on day one, take a quick lesson from a local in crossing the street. On first view, Iranian traffic looks absolutely insane. On closer inspection, you will realize it just has different rules to home.
Since traffic lights and pedestrian crossings aren’t much respected, you will have to learn to walk straight into the oncoming traffic. You should pick a gap in the traffic, however small, look the oncoming driver in the eye, maintain eye contact, and walk slowly gesturing with your arm for the car to slow. Continue to do this as you walk into another oncoming stream of traffic. Do not make a sudden run for it if a gap opens since drivers quickly jump lanes to exploit this too.
The key is to be utterly predictable in your movements. Drivers respect this and will slow down to allow you to cross.
Iranians are religious fundamentalists, right?
Wrong again. It is irritating that the press at home insists on portraying Iranians as long-bearded or chador-clad religious maniacs. A recent article in the British press, showed a line of chador-clad women waiting to cast their vote in a recent election. Some Iranian women wear the chador, but many do not. These images are utterly misleading. The religious police are extremely unpopular in most areas of Iran. Images of the Ayatollahs, Khomeini and Khamanei, are ubiquitous but we got the feeling that like in George W. Bush-era USA, the conservative faction of the government was not representative of the average person’s views and outlook.
So how do modern Iranians wish to be seen?
As Persians, the inheritors of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. We got the sense that Iranians consider their Persian heritage equally if not more important than Islam to their national identity. They consider themselves to be a modern and sophisticated society, and they are most definitely well-educated and forward looking.
Iranians were surprisingly candid and very open about their views. They will tell you what they think about their government and their hopes for the future, and we even got some unprompted insights into the tricky matter of dating in an Islamic Republic. During our visit, there was a lot of talk about the impact of the ongoing talks to lift sanctions. It is clear that young Iranians want improved relations with the West and, given that Iranians are highly educated and tenacious, it wouldn’t surprise me if in the near future Iran becomes the next economic tiger.
Got it. But travel in Iran has to have some downsides…
OK. You are right. Nowhere is perfect. Pollution in the cities is terrible. This is a legacy of old cars and poor refining technology in part due to sanctions. If you are sensitive to pollution, we would advise limiting your time in big cities. Vegetarians will have a hard time avoiding meat, which even crops up in vegetable dishes (check out our guide to Iranian food). Those who need their daily exercise may suffer too. We didn’t see too many swimming pools or gyms. Even if you could tolerate the heat and pollution, jogging outside would probably draw too much attention.
I hear Iran is expensive, too?
Daily costs are definitely way above backpacker norms if you are on a tour. Even if you are traveling independently, hotels are expensive. Expect to pay a minimum of $50 for a double room and much more in Tehran. Most hotels are aimed at domestic business travelers, and even in places where there are backpacker-like establishments, prices are high since competition is negligible. Couchsurfing could be a great way to cut costs and meet Iranians if you are not subject to the guided tour requirement.
We noticed a little bit of foreigner pricing too. We ate in a restaurant in Esfahan with Ali one day and went the next day without him. On both occasions we ordered the same meal and the price was double when were on our own. Still, the food was damn cheap. A big meal costs $1-$2 per person. Local and intercity transport was very cheap, as was entry to museums and historical sights. The most expensive sights, such as Persepolis, have an entry fee of 150,000 rials (about US$5). Lesser attractions cost 100,000 or 50,000 rials (about $3 or $1.50).
OK. But surely, Iranians have many reasons to hate Westerners?
On the contrary! This interaction between Laura and an Iranian border guard sums it up:
Guard: (Looks at Laura’s passport) You’re from America?
Laura: (expecting to be berated for US foreign policy) Yes…
Guard: Welcome to Iran! (Hands passport back)
Forget about the pictures of angry flag burners on Fox News. Iranians love foreigners, especially Americans. Every day, strangers on the street asked us where we were from and gave us a sincere “Welcome to Iran!” Young Iranians were eager to distance themselves from the anti-Western policies of previous governments. Iran truly has the nicest people of any country we’ve visited.
When our car broke down on a desert highway, a friendly truck driver picked us up, dropped us at our intended destination several hundred kilometers away, and refused to take a dime from us. We lost count of the times locals invited us to dinner, picnics, or to visit their home. To be honest, the friendliness can get quite overwhelming at times.
Iranians must be a humorless bunch after all those sanctions and religious rules…
Nope, again! In fact, Iranians have been among the most hilarious people we have met on the whole trip. They have a wicked sense of humor and are quick to show it. Ali was guiding an American tourist a while ago. They came across a large group of students in a city square. They asked the tourist where he was from and when he said ‘America’, a few whispers went around and they started chanting ‘Death to America, Death to America!’ The tourist went white with fear. The students started laughing and told him they were joking! An invite to join their picnic soon followed.
So, we should go to Iran?
Damn right you should! If you have the funds, then give it a shot now. If the amount of interest in my TripAdvisor reviews is at all indicative there are a lot of people looking to visit soon. Go before before the tourist masses arrive. You won’t regret it. Countries coming out of long periods of isolation are always fascinating places to visit. Travel in Iran now will be a thoroughly uplifting, especially for Americans.
Have you been to Iran? If you haven’t, would you travel there? Leave your thoughts in the comments!