Iran is hands down one of the most incredible countries I have ever visited. I fell in love with this Middle-Eastern gem, and have been raving about it to anybody (and everybody) who will listen ever since I left!
However, I must admit that a trip to Iran isn’t always as straightforward as a trip to places that are visited more often, and a little knowledge about what to expect can go a long way, and help prevent any unhelpful surprises.
So if you are planning on heading to Iran in the future, here is a comprehensive rundown of everything you could possibly need to know to make your adventures go as smoothly as possible!
Getting In and Out
It is possible to arrive overland into Iran from Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. It is also theoretically possible to cross into Iran from Pakistan and Afghanistan – but anyone choosing to do so must be aware that these border crossings can be volatile, and doing so may pose a significant risk. For the most up to date information regarding the safety of these crossings, contact your nearest Iranian Embassy or Consulate. It is also worth noting that if you do choose to travel into Iran overland, most people will need to have organised their visas in advance.
Alternatively, arriving via flight is a safe and easy option. International flights arrive into Iran from Istanbul, Dubai, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, London, Kiev, Abu Dhabi and many more major airport hubs. Arriving on an international flight also makes you eligible to get your Iranian visa on arrival, which is (most of the time) easier than applying for it in advance.
The obtaining of an Iranian visa is actually much more straightforward than one would think – provided that you aren’t travelling with a passport from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada or Israel.
For detailed information regarding getting an Iranian visa on arrival – click here.
One of the most important things to know about Iran before you arrive there is that ZERO foreign debit or credit cards will work in Iran. You won’t be able to withdraw money from ATMs and you won’t be able to use your cards to make payments.
You will need to take ALL the money that you’d need for your ENTIRE trip into the country in either Euros or USD. These currencies can then be exchanged for Iranian Rials once you arrive in Iran. Surprisingly, Iranian people are not fussy about which currency you use, and most hotels will accept Euros and USD in addition to the local currency.
Even cab drivers will be happy to accept USD if the denominations are small enough! This is handy to know if you are planning to arrive into one of the smaller international airports (such as Esfahan or Shiraz) late at night, as the currency exchange offices may not always be open – so having a few smaller notes can prove very useful for that initial cab ride to your hotel.
Also, depending on whether the hotel goes by the official or unofficial exchange rate, it can sometimes actually prove more cost effective to pay with Euros and USD, so it always pays to ask which exchange rate is used.
In terms of the safety of carrying cash, instances of pick-pocketing and petty theft do happen, but these are very uncommon. Use standard travelling precautions when storing and carrying your cash and you will most likely have no issues.
The Unofficial Exchange Rate
When it comes to exchanging money in Iran, there are two different exchange rates.
The official exchange rate is for every $1 USD you get 32,433 IRR and for every €1 EU you get 36,394 IRR*.
However, in reality, you can get a whole lot more bang for your buck. Generally, when exchanging money at official exchange offices in Iran, you can get around 40,000 IDR per $1 USD and around 41,000 IRR per €1 Euro. So basically, you’ll have more money to play with than you think!
If you choose to pay with USD or Euros for hotels or day tours, first ask if that hotel or company uses the official or unofficial exchange rate, as depending on their answer, you may be better off paying in Iranian rials, or you may come out on top if you pay with either Euros or USD.
It is worth noting that if you are left with Iranian rials at the end of your Iranian adventure, getting these exchanged back into USD or Euros will result in a financial loss, so try not to exchange huge sums of money. Instead, exchange smaller sums more often, which will result in you being less likely to be left with what is essentially a useless currency once you leave Iran.
Getting The Hang of a Two Currency System
So, if being able to use multiple currencies with two different exchange rates wasn’t difficult enough, Iran has to go and have two different ways of referring to their one local currency!
The Iranian Rial is the official local currency in Iran, however, more often than not, prices will not be expressed or written in ‘rial’, but in ‘tomans’.
To put it as simply as possible, one toman is equal to 10 rials. So, if something is listed as being 100,000 rials (approx $3 USD) – it may also be referred to as 10,000 tomans.
As a general rule of thumb, if something looks too cheap to be true, it probably is, and it always pays to clarify which ‘currency’ the quoted price is in. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but as long as it is always in the back of your mind you shouldn’t ever find yourself getting ripped off by opportunity seizing vendors.
Dressing With Respect
If you are a dude, relax and take it easy, because you can wear pretty much whatever you want in Iran. However for women, the rules are a lot more strict.
Wearing a hijab is a non negotiable part of travelling in Iran. It is not an option. Failure to comply with this could land you in some serious hot water, so if you don’t want to wear a hijab, travelling to Iran might not be the best idea.
For an in depth discussion on appropriate dress for female foreigners in Iran – stay tuned to future posts.
Visiting Religious Sites
Part of the appeal of visiting Iran is the opportunity to observe and explore awe-inspiring Persian architecture, and some of the best examples of such architecture lie within religious sites, such as mosques.
Most mosques will allow women to enter while wearing the same clothing that would be considered appropriate while walking down the public streets in Iran, but at some of the more conservative places of worship, women may be required to wear a chador.
A chador is a full body length of cloth (kind of like a cape) which wraps around the body and over the head, only leaving the face exposed. While this may sound intimidating, it isn’t, and at any mosques where such dress is required, chadors are provided to guests to borrow at the point of entry.
It is also worth noting that in many mosques having a small amount of hair peeking out from underneath the hijab is considered okay, but at more conservative mosques you may be asked to completely cover your hair as a sign of respect.
Booking Day Tours
When it comes to booking day trips and tours, there is pretty much no point in attempting to do so in advance. There are a tonne of travel agents in each city that will happily assist you in booking day tours, and furthermore, most hotels act like mini travel agents and can book trips for you too!
It does however, pay to shop around. Sometimes the price difference between a minibus or a private car and driver can be pretty minimal, so depending on who you are travelling and what you like in a day tour, you may find it worthwhile to go for the ever so slightly more expensive option.
Either way, expect to pay around $20 USD to hire a private driver for half the day, which if you can get four people in the car, works out to only $5 each.
Getting between cities is remarkably easy in Iran. The country has an incredibly well connected bus and train service, allowing you to get pretty much anywhere you need.
Bus trips can be easily booked on the fly, all you need to do is head to the local bus terminal and go from counter to counter until you find a bus going to your destination within a reasonable time frame. Bus tickets are incredibly cheap – expect to pay around 100,000 to 150,000 rials ($4-$6 AUD) for a 3-6 hour trip. It is also worth noting that these trips always come with a little ‘snack pack’ – which is included in the ticket price and will contain something light to eat and drink during your journey.
Booking train tickets can be a little more tricky. Train travel is very popular in Iran, and as a result, seats can book up several weeks in advance during the high season. Advance booking of tickets is possible through iranrail.net and for foreigners, you will need to pay via a Western Union bank transfer.
If you are travelling in the low season, tickets can be bought a few days in advance through a local travel agent. They will need your passport to process the booking, and pay very close attention to the ticket they book you – all times on tickets are in 24 hour time. I got burned by this oversight during my journey! Rail tickets are a little more expensive – around 240,000 rials for a 5-6 hour journey, but it is a lovely way to travel, and well worth it if you have the opportunity and means.
A Small Grasp on Farsi
For anyone worried about the language barrier, my only advice – don’t be!
Iranian people may not be commonly fluent in English, but they also won’t expect you to be fluent in Farsi, and it is much easier to communicate than you’d think. Commonly used words such as ‘taxi’, ‘bus’ and ‘train’ are understood by most Iranians, and they are also generally familiar with the English names for tourist attractions and important places – which makes getting from place to place easy.
It does however, pay to know a few small bits of Farsi.
‘Salam’ is hands down, without a shadow of a doubt, the most important word to remember! Though this easy to pronounce word (sah-lahm) really only means ‘hello’, it serves as an all purpose greeting to anyone you meet. It is actually quite incredible to see how much this simple word will open Iranian locals up to you! If you find anyone staring or looking at you, a simple ‘salam’ will almost always result in their face brightening into a big smile, and them warmly returning the greeting. It is a pretty wonderful word to have in your back pocket!
The Persian word for ‘thank you’ is ‘mamnoon’, but 9 times out of 10, you will instead hear people using the French word ‘merci’ – either is completely acceptable.
Lastly, in order to protect yourself from store owners and street vendors who would very much like to overcharge you, being able to recognise the numbers in Farsi is incredibly helpful!
I found the above chart incredibly helpful (I kept a screenshot of it on my phone) and by the end of my time in Iran, I could recognise all of these numbers without even needing to think.
On my train ride from Yazd to Kashan I attempted a Sudoku puzzle in the local paper which was in Farsi, and though I struggled with it the first time, I eventually found it a great way to learn and remember the numbers!
The most commonly used electrical plugs are the same as the EU 2 prong style. For those with these plugs, no adapters will be required. For anyone else, an EU adapter will serve you just fine.
Haggling Your Way ‘Round Town
A little haggling will get you a long way when in Iran – especially when it comes to taxis! Taxi drivers will almost always try to charge you 40-50% more than the trip would cost a local, so if they ask for 100,000 rials (approx $4), respond by requesting the trip cost 50,000 rials ($2) and you will likely end up getting the trip for 60,000 rials ($2.50).
Internet Access and VPNs
Internet access is pretty notoriously bad in Iran! Most hotels will have wifi, but it will likely be very slow and very patchy – so be patient and don’t expect a whole lot.
Also, many popular websites are blocked for use in Iran – Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter are some noteworthy examples of this. However, this is very easily circumvented by using a VPN – which for anyone who isn’t too tech savvy – is a way of making your device appear to be connecting through an ISP in a different country, meaning that all the blocks that apply to the actual country you are in don’t exist.
This may sound dodgy, but in reality, VPNs are very commonly used all over the world – especially in countries with widespread internet censorship like Iran and China; and also in countries with hideous metadata retention laws – such as Australia.
I am not going to list the VPN that I used here in this article, as many VPNs themselves are blocked! However, it isn’t hard to find one that works – so just download a bunch of free VPN apps on your phone or computer before you arrive and you have a good chance that at least one will work well for you.
Lastly, if you don’t luck out with a VPN, websites that are not blocked include Instagram, Whatsapp and most email servers, so you will still always be able to contact family, friends and any new Iranian pals!
Safety and Security
Regarding personal safety and security, I have gotta be honest, I had absolutely no concerns during my time in Iran. I felt safer walking down back alleys than I would back home in Australia, and overall the country felt much safer than most!
You really only need a smidge of commonsense (keep your passport secure, have a few copies of your visa, don’t leave valuables unattended etc) to stay safe in Iran.
Staying on Budget
Iran is such an unbelievably cheap country to travel through, and staying on budget is easier than you’d think. For $20/day you can eat well, sleep comfortably and see some truly incredible sights!
A few handy ways to save money in Iran include shopping around for the best exchange rates, requesting a low season rate in any hotels or guesthouses, haggling for transport and eating at the less fancy restaurants. You can save a lot of money without a tonne of effort!
Sleeping and Mixed Dorms
While it may seem logical that dorm rooms would separate the sexes while in Iran, this is often not the case! While female only dorms are available from time to time, more often than not mixed dorms are the only option, and these dorms are like any other dorms in the world!
Booze Ban and Illegal Moonshine
Yup – alcohol is technically illegal in Iran. If you make local friends (especially in the bigger cities like Esfahan and Tehran) it is not unheard of to come across a little bit of illegal moonshine! If you do choose to imbibe, do so smartly, and make sure to stay inside the home of whoever you are drinking with – public drunkenness is a sure fire way to land yourself in hot water.
Appropriate Conduct Between Sexes
Basic rule of thumb – keep it G-rated people!
Physical contact between men and women in public is something that you won’t see a whole heck of a lot of while in Iran. You may see the odd couple holding hands as they walk down the street, and you will likely see a fair few handshakes, but hugging and kissing publicly is pretty taboo.
You could get away with a quick hug while saying goodbye to someone, but that is honestly as much as you should push the line.
It is quite funny though, once you get out of the public spaces, these rules of conduct do seem to vanish! I travelled with an Aussie guy for a few days while in Iran, and we had no issues with staying in hotel rooms by ourselves – not a single eyebrow was raised.
In fact, the female owner of the hotel that we stayed in in Kashan knew for a fact that we had only just met a few days prior, yet she smirked and giggled as she told us about the ‘very quiet’ room that we would have aaaaaall to ourselves!
Learning To Trust Strangers
Learning to leave all of your ingrained ‘stranger danger’ behind is one of the hardest parts of travelling in Iran. Most travellers (and most people in general) have grown up with what is a mostly healthy sense of distrust towards those we don’t know. It is a defense mechanism that serves to protect ourselves and it makes sense to have it!
But, while in Iran, to have the absolute best backpacking experience, you need to learn to get past these ingrained values and learn to trust people – even those you don’t know, all while knowing that the best adventures are the ones that happen when you say ‘yes’ to all new opportunities and experiences.
People in Iran are inherently good, kind and giving. They will want to meet you, greet you, feed you, learn your life story and help you during your journey! So while a healthy sense of skepticism and carefulness is always required, toning it down a few notches will help you have the best trip possible.
Why You Should Travel To Iran
If you are looking for the kindest people, delicious food, otherworldly architecture, stunning deserts like you’ve never imagined and an off the beaten track backpacking trip like no other, then you should definitely make a point to visit Iran.
I guarantee it will be one of the most incredible trips of your entire life, and one that will give you so many memories to treasure for the rest of your days.