We had so many questions before we visited Iran and we found it pretty hard to find some of the answers, so we have put a collection of FAQs up here to help you plan an awesome trip to Iran!
Why should I visit Iran?
Despite its less-than-friendly image in mainstream media, Iran is one of the most fascinating and beautiful countries we have ever visited. The history of the country is incredible, but it is the people that make this country well worth the journey. Iranians are some of the friendliest we have ever encountered, so expect to be stopped numerous times throughout the day for a quick chat or to be asked if you need help.
The food is also great – just make an effort to avoid ‘kebab fatigue’. Iranian cuisine has plenty of variety so be sure to check out some non-kebab options along the way.
One of Iran’s biggest draw-cards for us was visiting an Islamic nation that is so different from our own and learning more about a religion that is so often demonised in the media. Learning about the history of Islam, visiting Iran’s stunning mosques and seeing prayer and religious celebrations were highlights of our trip. If nothing else, admiring the stunning architecture should be reason alone to put Iran on your travel bucket list.
Is it safe to travel in Iran?
This was the most common question we had from friends and family before we headed off to Iran and it is absolutely a fair question. The answer is that Iran is possibly one of the safest countries we have ever visited. At no point during our two weeks in Iran did we feel in even the slightest danger. Theft and violent crime against foreigners is almost unheard of in Iran. We are sure you will find the Iranian people as friendly, trustworthy and keen to help as we did.
As with travelling anywhere though, common sense should always prevail. If in doubt, go with your gut. There are also pretty strict rules in Iran around dress and behaviour, but as you don’t do anything stupid you won’t have any trouble with Iranian authorities.
In terms of political unrest and terrorism, Iran has a stable (albeit a bit strict) government with very tight border controls. So despite its rather volatile neighbours (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) it is a much safer place to visit than those countries. Keep up to date with your country’s official travel warnings, but perhaps take them with a grain of salt.
What should I wear?
This question mostly concerns women, but there are some dress rules that men need to observe as well.
- You must wear a headscarf/hijab covering your hair at all times in public. You do not need to wear it in your hotel room. Some guesthouses and hotels are fine if you do not wear a headscarf in common areas, but check with staff if you’re unsure. If you are a guest in someone’s house they may also allow you to take it off. If in doubt, just ask.
- Women should also wear long pants, and a long-sleeved loose fitting top that covers your bum. Sandals and flip flops are OK but most local women wear closed shoes.
- Men have it much easier than women. Pretty much the only no-go for men are shorts and singlets. Long pants and a t-shirt with any choice of footwear are fine.
Can I use ATMs and my credit card?
For cash withdrawals – no. Iranian ATMs do not accept foreign cards, so make sure you bring plenty of cash with you. US dollars or euros are your best bet. Some hotels, restaurants and stores will accept foreign Visa and Mastercard credit card but this is very rare – definitely do not rely on it. Bring enough cash to cover your expenses and some extra for emergencies. It is easy to find money exchange offices, and they offer good rates. Black money exchange is not really a thing.
How much does it cost to travel in Iran?
We travelled quite comfortably in Iran. We stayed in private rooms in hotels and guesthouses, ate in restaurants for almost every meal, did not skip many attractions and caught VIP buses everywhere. For us, US$90 per day for 2 people was plenty. Expect decent double rooms to cost between US$30-45 per night, a restaurant meal to cost US$3-$8, and attractions to cost US$4-$8.
Iran can be done much cheaper though, especially if you are Couchsurfing. We received a lot of spam offers on Couchsurfing from guides, drivers and guesthouses, so read profiles and messages carefully to make sure you’re on the same page about payment. There are also cheaper guesthouses and some hostels offering dorm rooms with shared bathrooms. You can also eat more fast food or eat in less touristy areas, and take local buses rather than VIP buses. Avoiding taxis can all bring your budget down significantly (especially in Esfahan where tourist pricing is in full swing).
What is the currency?
The currency in Iran is one of the trickier ones that we have had to navigate. The currency is called the rial but most prices you see and most prices you will be told are in toman. It will take some getting used to but 1 toman is simply 10 rial, so if the price is 10,000 toman it is 100,000 rial. For current exchange rates, visit www.rialconverter.net.
The currency has notes ranging from 1,000 to 1,000,000 rial, but often you will quoted an amount in toman. It is pretty confusing at the start, but once you get to know how much things should cost it makes sense. If you are unsure, just ask the person you are giving the money to, and do the conversion to make sure you aren’t getting ripped off and away you go.
Do I need to barter for taxis?
Absolutely! We recommend taking the price the taxi driver has given you and aim to settle at about 75% of the initial price. Make a counter offer of a bit over half, and then work your way up from there. Occasionally we got a nice taxi driver who didn’t try to rip us off blind so we didn’t really barter. Also, the taxi counters at the Tabriz and Shiraz bus stations are reasonable set rates. The apparent ‘official’ taxi counter at the Esfahan Kaneh bus station is a complete scam though – catch a cab on the main road next to the station.
Do I need to tip?
As with a lot of countries, it will come down to what you thought of the service. If the meal was excellent and the service was great, absolutely leave a tip. Nothing massive is expected though (10% is plenty) and it’s usually easiest just to round off the change. If the restaurant has a service fee included, don’t worry about a tip.
How do I book accommodation?
As Iran is slowly opening up, so websites such as Booking.com are starting to become more useful. For the moment, however, you will probably have to call or email hotels directly to make a booking, or try your luck by arriving on the day. Accommodation choices are still fairly limited and can be relatively expensive (US$30-45 per night for a double room). We recommend checking out TripAdvisor, your Lonely Planet guide, speaking to fellow travellers or asking for a recommendation from your current hotel/hostel.
We recommend emailing your hotel or giving them a call to re-confirm your reservation the day before you arrive.
Can I access the internet?
The internet is surprisingly easy to access in Iran. The notable sites that we were not able to access were Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and some foreign news sites. Most hotels, cafes and restaurants will have wi-fi of varying quality but don’t expect to find it in too many public spaces.
Of course, you can access whatever you want online if you use a VPN – we used Betternet VPN which is free and worked a treat! You may also find the occasional hotel/hostel with a VPN installed into their modem.
Can I make phone calls?
Our Australian SIM card did not work at all in Iran. This may not be the case with every country’s SIM cards but regardless we would highly recommend getting an Iranian SIM.
The calls and data are dirt cheap, and it is very handy for organising accommodation. Iranian SIM cards will work for local and international calls, although we had trouble receiving international SMS. We used IranCell (MTN). We bought our SIM card from a phone shop near the corner of Jomhouri Avenue and Valiasr Street in Tehran. The shop assistants registered the SIM card and loaded credit for us in the store. We bought 100,000 rials of credit, which lasted our entire two weeks in Iran.
Do I need a visa & is it hard to get one?
Barring a few select countries, pretty much everyone needs to get a visa to visit Iran. Israeli citizens cannot visit Iran.
You can apply for a visa before you arrive. Most nationalities can get a visa on arrival at Iran’s international airports, with notable exceptions being US, UK and Canadian citizens. We have heard that this process can take anywhere between 30 minutes and 6 hours. It seems that rejections either way are rare.
Can I visit mosques and shrines?
You will know when approaching a mosque or shrine in Iran whether you can go inside. You will clearly see a ticket stand, or there will be someone the entrance to tell you whether you can enter. If in doubt, ask a local. In our experience, most mosques and shrines on the tourist trail were open to the public.
Some mosques and most shrines require men and women to enter via different entrances, but this will be clearly laid out to avoid any confusion. Women may also be required to wear a chador at some shrines, but these will be available at the entrance (usually for free).
We aren’t married, can we stay in the same room?
Strictly speaking, it is illegal for unmarried men and women to stay in the same bedroom. In practice, however, you will not get too many questions about it as most hotels turn a blind eye.
If you are in a more conservative area of the country or if you just want to be on the safe side, simply say that you are married when someone asks. You can also wear fake wedding rings to appear a tad more legit. We met one couple who had borrowed relatives’ wedding rings, which had done the trick.
How do I get around?
It’s pretty difficult to book most transport within Iran from outside the country. However, for trains you can visit www.iranrail.net, which is the unofficial website of the Iranian railways and allows you to book tickets outside of Iran.
For the most part though your best bet is to book your bus or train tickets a day or two in advance either through your hotel or hostel, or a travel agent. Travel agents will charge a small commission of around 40,000 rials. You can also buy tickets from the ticket sales desks at bus and train stations on the day of departure, but if there are infrequent connections you may get stuck for a while. At the bus station, each company will have its own ticket sales desk. If you have a ticket voucher from a travel agent, you will need to visit the bus company’s ticket sales desk at the bus station to exchange your voucher for a ticket.
For more organised travellers, you can visit a travel agent and plan your whole trip at once and see if you can negotiate some form of discount.
Where can I sit on public transport?
As with Iran’s currency, this system can be a little tricky at first but does not take long to get used to.
Intercity Buses & Trains
- If you are travelling from one city to another it’s pretty straightforward. VIP intercity buses have a 2-1 seating configuration.
- Single women travelling solo should sit in a single seat or next to another woman.
- Couples can sit next to each other.
- Single men travelling solo should sit in a single seat or next to another man. Locals will move to make this work.
- The first and last carriages are women-only. Other carriages are mixed sex.
- For a couple travelling it is totally up to you. There will be plenty of women in the mixed sex carriages so you can both travel there. Otherwise, you can split up with the woman in the women-only carriage if you prefer.
- All women are expected to sit up the back of the bus or minivan, and men at the front.
- However, in some cities we saw couples sitting in the middle of the bus together. Single men and women should not sit next to each other though. As with any situation in Iran, if you are unsure a local will be happy to help out.
What is the food like?
The food in Iran is fantastic! The cuisine varies a lot depending on where in the country you are but the staples include lamb and chicken kebabs, minced lamb kofte, dizi (a stew-like concoction), roast chicken with rice and barberries, lots of flat bread, eggplant, and a great range of salad. Each area of the country will have its own speciality or twist on a dish you have already seen so make sure you try everything at least once!
Iran also has a fascination with fast food, albeit lacking the big names like McDonalds, KFC and Burger King as they are American. You will find plenty of little diners selling everything from hamburgers to fried chicken. They make for a nice change from the local cuisine and are a great place to meet locals.
Is it good for vegetarians?
For a cuisine that mainly revolves around meat, Iran is not too bad for vegetarians. Every restaurant we visited had a few of vegetarian options, usually eggplant based. We even encountered a couple of restaurants in Tehran that were solely vegetarian. The vegetarian dishes available include salads, eggplant dishes (like kashk-e bademjan), falafel, herb omelettes (kuku sabzi) and rice dishes. For non-vegetarians, these options make a great substitute from eating kebabs for days on end! A good article for vegetarians travelling to Iran is here.
Are you planning to visit Iran? Have we missed any questions? Comment below with your questions and we will add them to the FAQs!
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