Are you asking yourself: “should I travel to Iran?” Then look no further amigo – you’ve found the ultimate list of things to know before you go.
In reality, Iran isn’t as alien and scary as it might seem at first glance. After being cast as the dark, mysterious villain for decades, the country is now starting to peek its head through the door to the West. Although recent years have seen a surge in tourism and a relaxation of visa regulations, there still isn’t a lot of updated information out there on backpacking in Iran.
But fear not! We’ve put together a list of everything a budget backpacker needs to know before travelling to Iran. And by everything, we really do mean everything.
Lean back and prepare to have these 82 essential Iran travel tips served to you on a silver platter.
Further reading: All of our other posts about backpacking in Iran
The Iranian Visa Situation
1. Travelers who don’t need a visa: you don’t need to worry about a visa if you’re from Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Egypt, Georgia, Lebanon, Turkey or Syria. Iran allows the lucky citizens of these countries to stay in Iran for up to 90 days without a visa.
2. Travelers who need to get a visa at an embassy: if you’re from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Britain, Canada, Colombia, India, Jordan, Pakistan, the USA, or Somalia you’ll need to get your visa from an embassy before you go.
3. British, Canadian and American travelers need to have a guide: yep, strictly speaking, if you guys want to go to Iran you’ll need a guide to accompany on your entire trip. There are ways to get around this if you want to travel independently but do so at your own risk.
4. Travelers who can get a visa on arrival (VOA): if you’re from any of the remaining 180 countries in the world, you’re eligible for a 30-day visa on arrival. This is by far the easiest and cheapest option for getting into the country and the way we got our visa. If this sounds like what you want to do, read our guide for full instructions on how to get the Iranian visa on arrival.
5. Don’t worry about getting a letter of invitation (LOI): a few years ago it was all the rage in Iran for travel agents to have to get you a letter of invitation (LOI) before you could get a visa. You would still need to pick your visa up at an embassy or the airport and you would obviously have to pay the agents for the service. Nowadays, since Iran is trying to improve its tourism image, you don’t need a LOI to get a visa. Save your dollars my friends!
6. No travel to Israel: regardless of which visa you apply for, you’ll be turned down if you have any proof of travel to Israel. This includes passport stamps from Israel, stamps from neighbouring countries’ land borders with Israel and Israeli passports. As you can see, Iran and Israel are not the best of friends, and there really isn’t any way around this one.
7. You’ll need a visa to visit the US after going to Iran: as of 2016, if you’ve travelled to Iran since 2011 you’re no longer eligible for the US Visa Waiver Program and will need to apply for a regular visa through an American Embassy.
8. Iran is super safe: forget everything you’ve heard in the media. Iran is a stupidly safe place to travel and there’s little to no petty crime. Wait and see, you’ll soon find yourself letting down your guard much more than you would in most Western countries. As always though you should use travel insurance. We use World NOMADS while we travel and highly recommend them.
9. Iranians don’t hate Americans: we met several Americans travelling in Iran and none reported any issues with anti-Americanism. Sure, there are occasional protests and some interesting propaganda posters here and there, but this is fuelled by the government. The vast majority of Iranians are normal guys that drink Coca-Cola and watch Hollywood movies.
10. Crossing the road is terrifying: make sure you tell your family you love them before venturing into the Iranian streets.Traffic rules seem to be some sort of general guidelines and you can forget everything about pedestrian priority. Your best bet is to maintain eye contact and look like you know what you’re doing.
Internet Tips For Iran
11. Good luck finding fast internet: warn your mom that you won’t be answering many Skype calls while in Iran. We only managed to track down fast internet in private homes. If you do find a café with wi-fi, it’s normally frustratingly slow.
12. Get an Iranian SIM card: instead of constantly chasing wi-fi you can buy a prepaid data card for your smartphone. We got an Irancell card for €8 which worked like a charm for the whole trip. Here’s a quick guide on how to activate your Iranian SIM card.
13. Download Telegram (the Iranian WhatsApp): Iranians do use WhatsApp, but Telegram is the go-to messenger service. If you want to make staying in touch with your new Iranian friends as smooth as possible, it’s a good idea to download the Telegram Messenger app.
14. Western media is blocked: the Iranian government has set up a massive firewall to block the access to a large number of Western websites including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, BBC, NY Times, CNN, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and Gmail.
Use A VPN While In Iran
15. Download a VPN: fear not – the firewall doesn’t mean Iran is in a dark vacuum with no social media or news from the outside. All you need to access the blocked sites is to download a VPN or virtual private network. We recommend using PureVPN, which is the VPN we personally used in Iran (and have continued using ever since). Jump over to accessing the internet in Iran guide to learn more about the internet in Iran and find other recommended VPN brands.
16. Download your VPN before going to Iran: Obviously, the Iranian government does a good job of limiting the access to VPNs inside Iran, so make sure you have yours before you travel.
17. Don’t use a free VPN: be very careful with free VPNs when looking for the best VPN for you. Sure, free equals perfect for us budget backpackers, but when it comes to VPNs, the trouble you risk is so not worth the $5 saving.
The Money Situation In Iran
18. ATMs: Iranian ATMs don’t accept Western credit cards. Sounds like a hassle, we know, but it really just means you’ll need to bring all the money you plan on spending in Iran in cash.
19. We spent €18/day: since you can’t get money out in Iran it’s important to have a pretty good idea of how much you’re going to spend. We’ve compiled everything we spent and broken it down in this post about budgeting for Iran.
20. Run out of money? If you’re desperate to take out money in Iran, some shops are able to act as an ATM but they charge stupid fees (up to 30%!).
21. Don’t exchange money in the banks: there’s a thriving black market currency in Iran and you’ll be ripped off by 10% if you exchange your money in a bank. No one – and by no one, we actually mean no one – uses the official rate. Hostels, hotels, restaurants and taxis all use the black market rate.
22. Exchange your money in the streets: just remember to check for fake notes and the usual money scamming. We didn’t have any problems exchanging our money in the streets, but our hostel did warn us.
23. Rial is the currency, but prices are in toman: the Iranian currency is a little tricky. The official currency in Iran is rial, but in daily life, prices are quoted in toman. Confused? 1 toman = 10 rials, meaning you should just add one zero to the price to convert it to rials. This is to make things simpler, as there’s quite a lot of zeros in rial prices. However, some tourist restaurants and attractions do show their prices in rials to help out the gringos.
24. Iranians are ridiculously friendly: wow. Just wow. Iranians are some of the most genuinely hospitable people we’ve ever met on our travels. Get used to everybody saying hello, asking where you’re from and maybe even inviting you home for dinner!
25. Say yes: go for it! Amazing, genuine experiences lie around the corner if you’re willing to be spontaneous. Join the spice shopman and his family for dinner at his house if you’re invited. You’ll be treated like a long-lost relative, meet some awesome people and of course munch down some exquisite home-cooked food.
26. Don’t go in the taarof trap: taroof is a puzzling mind game guaranteed to confuse a gringo or two. It’s a custom in which Iranians offer to do something nice without actually expecting the other person to accept. It’s basically an advanced game of politeness where you have to figure out if the offer is real or not.
Example: an Iranian offers to pay for your tea. If you suspect he might be using taarof, you should offer 3 times to pay for the tea yourself. If he still insists, you’re good!
27.Iranian sellers are not pushy: no need to worry about pushy sellers, these guys are more interested in taking a photo with you rather than trying to squeeze money out of you.
28. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs: call an Iranian an Arab and you will be put in jail for the rest of your life. Not quite, but it is true that some Iranians do take offence to being called Arabs due to cultural differences.
29. Watch some zurkhaneh training: this strange, traditional sport involves singing, drums, athletics, and lots of sweat. There’s clubs in most cities and it’s worth the entrance fee to watch.
30. Toilets are everywhere and free: there’s plenty of public toilets in the bazaars and in the streets, and restaurants generally have no issue lending their toilets to gringos with weak bladders without making them buy anything.
31. Carry toilet paper: make it a habit to carry a roll of toilet paper with you as this is rarely provided outside private homes. Realizing this too late is always a bit of a (dirty) bummer. Also, instead of a toilet, ask for the WC since this word is more common in Iran.
32. Iran is squat toilet territory: get ready to exercise those thighs! Squat toilets are widespread in Iran and only fancy hotels and restaurants have western toilets. New private houses often have one of each. Personal advice: watch your pockets when on the squatter potty! We can say from bitter experience that an iPhone fits perfectly in the drain.
33. Iranians speak excellent English: anyone from elderly ladies to teenagers knows at least a few words of gringo language aka English. It’s also very common for Iranians to strike up random conversations with foreigners to practice their English. We once had a 30-minute conversation with a group of students that came up to us randomly as we were drinking tea in the bazaar. So much fun!
34. Officially Iran uses a different calendar: according to the Persian calendar, we are currently in the year 1395 and the Iranian New Year, Noruz, is held on 21-24 March or Jomeh: 11. Dey 1394 as the date is called in Iran. But don’t worry, our Gregorian calendar is also widespread, so you won’t be about 700 years late for your flight.
35. Get a cheat sheet with the numbers in Farsi: Iran doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, so having the numbers from 0-9 written down in the local language, Farsi, is a great help. This way, you’ll be a little less helpless when looking at prices, timetables etc.
36. Brush up on your Farsi: knowing a few words in Farsi is an excellent way to make Iranian friends (or just make people laugh at the stupid gringos). Here are 4 easy words to get started:
Thank you: tashakor/merci
Very good: kheily khoobe (pronounced hreily hroop – this will make any street food vendor crack up!)
Halfway Through – Here’s Some Useless Fun Facts
37. Donation boxes: you’ll see these blue and yellow donation boxes absolutely everywhere in Iran. They’re put up by the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, a charity that provides financial aid to poor families in a number of countries including Kosovo and Palestine.
38. Iranians love nose jobs: Iranians say that ‘God left caps lock on when he created their noses’ and we’re not going to risk losing any Iranian friends by getting into that one, as they’re actually the nose job capital of the world. It’s a bit of a status symbol and you’re guaranteed to see plenty of band-aid-wearing Iranians waltzing around.
Dress Code For Women In Iran
39. Dress code for women: as a woman in Iran you need to wear a headscarf, cover your legs and arms, avoid tight clothes and not show any cleavage. Luckily, you can still take your sexy sandals for a spin as showing your feet and ankles is completely fine.
40. The rules are slightly more flexible for tourists: this is true, but let’s face it, you won’t be showing off any fancy summer dresses in Iran. For much more information and inspiration on the dress code, check out our what to wear in Iran post.
41. These rules don’t apply in private homes: Iranians wear and do what they want inside their own homes. If your host is okay with it, you’re normally welcome to take off your headscarf and set that mane free.
42. Women sometimes have to wear a chador: some religious sites require women to wear a chador in order to enter. A chador is a big “sheet” that covers your hair and entire body. It may sound a little daunting but fear not – the chadors are provided at the entrance and are super easy to put on.
Ha! Men Have A Dress Code Too
43. Dress code for men: surprise – men also have outfit restrictions! Men are not allowed to wear shorts or shirts that are tight and/or have short sleeves.
44. Except if you’re doing sports: we met this one Dutch guy that managed to get through a whole month in Iran wearing shorts. This was only possible because he was traveling on a bike and literally took it with him everywhere he went. Apparently being sporty (or even just walking his bike) justified the shorts. So yeah, if you’re able to fit a bike in your backpack, shorts may be an option. Otherwise, throw on a pair of pants and just avoid the hottest months.
Traditional Iranian Food
45. Eat away from the tourist area: take a walk 3-4 blocks away from the main tourist area and you’ll find some killer feeds and stupidly cheap prices.
46. Must-try restaurant food: one of the most memorable dishes you’ll have in Iran is fesenjan, a walnut-pomegranate sauce served with chicken – yum! It tastes unlike anything you’ve ever tried before. Another fun dish is dizi, a distant relative of the Hungarian goulash.
47. Street food is dirt cheap: Iran’s street food scene is not super varied but it’s dirt-cheap. The perfect backpacker meal in Iran is ash, a thick spinach stew that keeps you full for hours, can be found everywhere and only costs €0.20.
48. Must-try sweets: where to start – the bazaars in Iran are booming with all sorts of sweets! High on the list are shirini nargili, a coconut macaroon, and halva, a turrón-like sesame paste (and it’s even healthy!).
49. Don’t miss out: the Iranian kitchen is booming with exotic flavours and dishes. Check out our complete guide to all the scrumptious food you have to try while you’re in Iran to make sure you don’t miss out!
Can You Get Alcohol In Iran?
50. You can get beer in Iran: well, non-alcoholic beer anyways. To be fair, alcohol-free beer is actually not that bad at all and is available in most tourist restaurants and some street food stalls. Iran has many beer brands, but we recommend the lemon-flavored Istar beer.
51. There is a black market for alcohol: Iran is a dry country, so you won’t see a drop of alcohol in public. However, drinking is a pretty normal thing for many Iranians in the private sphere, and if you know the right locals, you can get your hands on alcohol. But be warned – it’s quite expensive. Prepare your wallet if you’re dead set on a Persian wine and cheese night.
52. Try doogh, our favourite Iranian drink: you’ll also run into doogh, a salty yoghurt that accompanies most traditional meals. Warning: some of us (Mariana) think it’s pretty horrible, others (Liam) think it’s nice and refreshing.
53. Water is everywhere and free: bring a re-usable water bottle with you to Iran as there are free water fountains on almost every street corner.
Accommodation In Iran
54. There are hostels everywhere: since 2015-16 there has been a huge growth of hostels in Iran. The main group is called Seven Hostels and they have their own or an affiliate hostel in almost every major city. Our favourite was the Persian Hostel in Tehran – definitely look them up if you’re spending a few days in town!
55. Guest houses are cheaper: if you want to get away from the hostel scene there are plenty of cheap guest houses around that have the added bonus of being cheaper as well. Just go for a wander away from the tourist areas and you’ll find something.
56. The receptionist will want to keep your passport: most hostels/hotels will ask for your passport at check in and only hand it back when you check out. This might be an issue as you’re not unlikely to be subject to a passport check by a random police officer in the streets at some point during your travels in Iran. Best bet is to get a photocopy of your photo page and give that to the accommodation and keep your actual passport with you.
57. Use Couchsurfing: even though Couchsurfing is illegal in Iran, it’s super popular. Again this goes back to Iranians being incredibly nice. So get on, request some couches, give them your Telegram number and get ready to meet some amazing people.
58. Don’t forget to take your shoes off: no matter where you’re staying, whether it’s a private home or a hostel, all Iranian accommodation options have one thing in common: no shoes allowed inside!
Travelling As A Couple In Iran
59. Men and women don’t sit together on buses: unless you’re married, men and women are not allowed to sit next to each other. This means a male passenger will have to move if the seat next to him is free and a female passenger wants to sit there.
60. Don’t show public displays of affection: we actually did see a few rebellious Iranian couples holding hands and kissing in public, but this is definitely not allowed by Iranian law. As a gringo, you should opt for the safe side and save those cuddles till you’re no longer in the public eye.
61. Pretend you’re married: as always, the rules are slightly bent for tourists and unmarried foreign couples don’t need to have an express wedding in the bus terminal to sit together.
62. No shisha in Esfahan: that’s right, if you want to sit back and suck down a shisha (hookah) with your special someone, you’ll have to do it somewhere else than in Esfahan. The city has actually made shisha illegal as it promotes boys and girls fraternizing.
Rules For Women
63. Men and women don’t shake hands in public: in Tehran, a few men did actually reach out to shake Mariana’s hand, but this didn’t happen anywhere else in Iran. To avoid awkward misunderstandings, female tourists are best off going for a smile instead of a handshake.
64. Separate wagons for men and women on the subway: the first two wagons of the train are strictly women only. There’s also a special section for women on the platform which is marked with a yellow line on the floor. Men are never allowed in the women’s wagon but women can go in the men’s wagon if they’re accompanied by a man. Again, the rules are bent for tourists – Liam once ended up in the women’s wagon and the women just laughed and told him not to bother changing wagons.
65. Women enter buses in the middle, men in the front: public transport within the cities has different sections for men and women, and the two sexes enter in different places. The two sections are separated by a row of seats or a metal bar, with the front section being for men and the back being for women.
66. Women are not allowed to ride bicycles: yeah, we know. Pretty far out. The official reason for the ban is to further minimise the exposure of women’s bodies as if the hijabs and chadors weren’t already doing a pretty good job.
67. Many places are closed in the afternoon: between 1 – 4 p.m. most local places like cafes and shops are shut so Iranians can get out of the heat and eat lunch with the family. Think of it like a Middle Eastern siesta. Tourist attractions generally stay open during this time.
68. Tourist prices are 8 – 15 times the price of the local price: as a tourist, you’ll pay on average ten times the entrance price an Iranian will.
69. Haggle on ticket prices: at most gardens, shrines etc., you’re able to sweet talk your way to 2 x 1 tickets or paying the Iranian price which is a fraction of the tourist price.
70. Visit mosques in the afternoon: many mosques are closed during the day. The chance of getting inside is bigger in the afternoon around 5 PM when they start opening for prayer.
71. Even better – go at night: if you want an unforgettable mosque experience you should head there after dark when the mosque is all lit up in different colors.
72. Men and women enter separately: this was most common when we entered a mosque or shrine. Once you’re through the entrance you can meet back up and explore together.
73. Visit the Pink Mosque in Shiraz early: the stained glass windows at the Pink Mosque or Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz cast some absolutely stunning shadows in the early morning hours. This secret is very much out and the first bus loads of selfie-stick-holding tourists arrive around 8 a.m. Head to the mosque at sunrise and enjoy an undisturbed photo session.
Photography In Iran
74. Iranians don’t mind photos: Iran is a travel photographer’s wet dream. Unlike for instance Moroccans, Iranians don’t mind getting their picture taken. In fact, they might even pose for you! This happened to us in the bizarre bazaars of Iran.
75. Except if you take photos of things you shouldn’t: just don’t try and take any photos of buildings you think the government might get touchy about. Iranian police officers are not known for turning a blind eye, so try and stay out of trouble. Facing spying charges in an Iranian jail somehow doesn’t sound that fun.
Tips For Getting Around Iran
76. Take buses between cities: at €0.7 per hour, the public buses between cities are cheap as chips. There’s nice comfortable buses running all day and night between most big cities.
77. Use VIP buses for overnight trips: if you want a little more luxury, go for a VIP bus which is around €1.3 per hour. They only have 3 seats per row and more leg room, which is great when you want to take an overnight bus to save money and time. Roughing it is fun, but a good night’s sleep is priceless.
78. Intercity buses don’t stop for food: neither the VIP or normal buses stop for food along the way. They do hand out some dope lunch boxes with anything from cookies to pieces of cake, though.
79. No toilets on buses: not only are there no toilets, the drivers also don’t necessarily make unrequested toilet stops. Walking up and kindly informing that you will explode within the next 10 minutes should do the trick.
80. Use public transport: public transport within major Iranian cities is very cheap. The subway in Tehran is only €0.3 per ride – compare that to Barcelona where it’s 8x the price! We like you, Iran.
81. Bike taxis at the subway stations: the guys sitting around on bikes at the entrance to the subway stations in Teheran are bike taxis and will take you anywhere cheaply.
82. Few buses run on Fridays: Friday is the prayer day in Islam and is basically like a Christian Sunday. Many shops are closed and public transport is less frequent. If you plan to catch an intercity bus on a Friday, it’s a good idea to double-check the bus schedule – we once had to wait 2 long hours because we forgot it was Friday.
Have you had any experience with the tips mentioned here? Did we forget anything useful in the post? Or do you just want to say hola? Drop us a line – we love making new friends!
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