Iran Travel Tips
USEFUL TOURIST INFORMATION FOR TRAVEL TO IRAN
Women traveling to Iran
Iran travel FAQs
When you travel to any foreign country, it can be hard to get the lay of the land. So Iran Traveling Lotus provides for your reference a mini-guide to navigating the Persian way of life. Read it now to acquaint yourself with the basics of how things get done in Iran. You can read through the whole guide by using the navigation at the left, or skip around to read the parts that interest you more. If there are topics that arent covered in our mini-guide, please use our Forum to ask for advice or further information. Or contact one of Iran Traveling Lotus. were here to help.
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Asia: Middle East: Iran
Government Islamic Republic
Currency Iranian rial (IRR)
Area 1.648 million km2
Population 66,622,704 (July 2002 est.)
Language Persian and dialects 58%, Turkish and dialects 26%, Kurdish 9%, Luri 2%, Balochi 1%, Arabic 1%, Turkish 1%, other 2%<
Religion Shi'a Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 10%, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i 1%
Electricity 220V/50Hz (European plug)
Calling code +98
Internet TLD .ir
Time zone UTC+3:30
Iran (Persian: ایران) is a large country in the Middle East, between the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea, it is bordered by Iraq to the west, Turkey, Azerbaijan's Naxcivan enclave, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the northwest, Turkmenistan to the northeast, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the southeast.
Ardabil, Azarbayjan-e Gharbi, Azarbayjan-e Sharqi, Bushehr, Chahar Mahall va Bakhtiari, Isfahan, Fars, Gilan, Golestan, Hamadan, Hormozgan, Ilam, Kerman, Kermanshah, North Khorasan(Khorasan-e-Shomali), South Khorasan(Khorasan-e-Jonoobi), Khuzestan, Kohkiluyeh va Buyer Ahmad, Kordestan, Lorestan, Markazi, Mazandaran, Qazvin, Qom, Semnan, Sistan va Baluchestan, Tehran, Yazd, Zanjan
Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling shah was forced into exile. Conservative clerical forces subsequently crushed westernizing liberal elements. Militant Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979 and held it until 20 January 1981. During 1980-88, Iran fought a bloody, indecisive war with Iraq over disputed territory. Key current issues affecting the country include the pace of accepting outside modernizing influences and reconciliation between clerical control of the regime and popular government participation and widespread demands for reform. Unemployment amongst the young is also an issue, due to Iran having the largest percentage of young people in the world.
Mostly arid or semiarid, subtropical along Caspian Sea coast.
Rugged, mountainous rim; high, central basin with deserts, mountains; small, discontinuous plains along both coasts. The highest point is Mount Damavand (5,671 meters).
A valid passport and visa are required for travel through Iran. In the year 2006 the rules for obtaining tourist visa changed and it has become much easier for many nationals to get in to Iran by obtaining tourist visa at the airport. At the Imam Khomeini and Mehrabad airports in Tehran, and also the airports at Mashad, Shiraz, Tabriz and Esfahan, issues tourist visas for one weeks stay in Iran for holders of ordinary passports from the states below:
Albania, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus Denmark, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam.
It is possible to get a extension of the one week visa which are issued by Aliens Affairs Bureau law enforcement forces.
Although it has become remarkably easier to get a tourist visa in recent years, whether the process takes one Day or one month depends largely on your nationality and the staff of the embassy you are applying to. Your best bet is to apply to the Iranian embassy in your own country at least three months before your departure, but it is possible in other countries. Women need to make sure they are veiled in their submitted passport-sized photos. Nationals of Israel are currently barred from entering Iran for any reason. Citizens of Japan, Korea, most EU and some Arab countries can now get a one-week tourist visa upon their arrival in major airports for US$50 cash. US citizens can apply for a visa at the Iranian Interest Section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, DC. Transit visas are usually easier to get than tourist visas (usually for one or two weeks) and very useful for people traveling between Europe and South Asia. Chances are your bags won't be searched for salacious material, but if found, it will be confiscated and will complicate your arrival. Don't try to bring in any magazines (including fashion magazines) or books that might offend strict Islamic sensibilities or criticize the government.
Most overseas travellers from Europe will arrive at Mehrabad airport in Tehran. By now most flights from the Middle East, Central and South Asia land at the new Imam Khomeini International Airport based 37km southwest of Tehran and it is planned to move all international flights to this airport within the next few years. There are 70 smaller regional airports, for example those in Shiraz, Mashhad, and Isfahan, and these have daily flights to many international destinations.
Dubai has scheduled flights to many Iranian cities, including Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan, Kerman, Lar, Mashhad, Tabriz, Kish Island, Bandar Abbas, Bushher, Zahedan, and is therefore worth considering travelling to Iran from. Flights are operated by Emirates (for Tehran), Iran Air, Iran Aseman Airlines, Mahan Air and other Iranian companies. Fares are relatively cheap on Iranian carriers, ranging from $100 to $250 for a return trip depending on your destination and time of booking.
Iran Air connects Tehran with some of the major European cities as well as destinations in Asia and Middle East. European companies landing in Tehran include British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM, Alitalia, Turkish Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Aeroflot and Air France, so finding a flight to Iran should not be too difficult.
There are no direct flights from North America at present but you could travel via either Europe or Dubai. Visitors from Australia or New Zealand should consider travelling via Dubai.
International passenger trains for Iran run weekly to/from Istanbul (Turkey) and Damascus (Syria).
* The Istanbul service runs via Ankara, includes a ferry over Lake Van, crosses the Iranian border then stops at Tabriz before arriving in Tehran. The journey takes 69 hours (3 nights travelling). Services leave Istanbul WednesDay evening (arriving SaturDay evening) and Tehran ThursDay evening (arriving SunDay evening). The train includes couchettes and a dining car.
* The Syria service does not cross Iraq, stopping at Aleppo before crossing the Turkish border, heading to Lake Van and running along a similar route to the Istanbul service. This journey takes 54 hours (2 nights travelling) leaving Damascus MonDay mornings (arriving Tehran WednesDay evening) and leaving Tehran at the same time (MonDay) with corresponding arrival in Damascus (WednesDay evening). Couchettes are available between Lake Van and Tehran, but the Syrian leg between Damascus and Lake Van contains only reclining seats. A dining car is only occasionally provided.
* The Quetta-Zahedan line connects Pakistan and Iran by rail. There is no connection of Zahedan railway with the rest of the Iranian Railway system, this means that you must take bus or other transportation from Zahedan to Bam which has railway. The railway from Bam (Kerman) is beeing expanded to reach Zahedan and will probably be finished in 2009. A train leaves every 1th and 15th of each month from Quetta to Zahedan and the journey takes 11 hours.
Many people drive to Iran via Turkey, in the absence of cheap flights.
You can find Seir-o-Safar agencies in Istanbul, Antalya and Ankara to buy cheap bus tickets for Tehran.
There are some scheduled services from Baku to Bandar Anzali on the Caspian Sea and from cities on the Persian Gulf to cities on the Iranian coast. They are usually of low quality.
While not as comfortable or fast as Europe or North America, Iranian transport is of high quality, and is very affordable. There are few places the very cheap buses don't travel to, the train network is limited but comfortable and reasonably priced and travel by air is laughably cheap, especially by international standards(in fact one of the cheapest in the world).
For anyone on a tight deadline, affordable domestic air services are a blessing. The major national carrier Iran Air, and its semi-private competitors ( Iran Aseman Airlines - Aseman meaning "sky" in Persian , Mahan Air, Kish Air, etc.) link Tehran with most regional capitals and offer inter-regional flights for no more than US $30.
Their services are frequent, reliable and safe are definitely worth considering to skip the large, monotonous distances within Iran. Planes are aging, and maintenance and safety procedures are sometimes well below western standards, but it still remains the safest way to get around Iran providing the huge death toll on the roads.
Tupolev Tu-154 and other Russian planes are still used by some carriers (Iran Airtours notably). However, the odds are you will board a Shah-era B727 or some more recent Fokker, ATR or even Airbus A310 if you're lucky. Busy domestic routes are sometimes flown by B747SP, and the extra boarding and run-up time are worth the thrill of flying in one of the last of these shortened Jumbos still operated in the world.
Tickets can be bought at airports or travel agents dotted through the most major cities. Book early during the summer months of August and September since finding seats at short notice is virtually impossible.
You can also find domestic tickets in some Iran Air offices abroad (Dubai for instance), but expect to pay a little more due to the change rate applied. Domestic tickets for other companies must be bought inside Iran.
The Iranian domestic bus network is extensive and thanks to the low cost of fuel, very cheap. In fact the only drawback is speed: the government has limited buses to 80 km/h to combat lead-footed bus drivers so long haul trips such as Shiraz to Mashhad can take up to 20 hours.
There is little difference between the various bus companies, and most offer two classes: 'lux' or 'Mercedes' (2nd class) and 'super' or 'Volvo' (1st class). First class buses are air-conditioned and you will be provided with a small snack during your trip, while second class services are more frequent. Given the affordability of first class tickets (for example IR 33,000 from Esfehan to Shiraz), there's little financial incentive to opt for the second class services, espcially in summer.
You can buy tickets from the bus terminals or ticket offices up to a week in advance, but you shouldn't have a problem finding a seat if you turn up to the terminal an hour or so before your intended departure time.
Most cities operate comprehensive local bus services, but given the low cost of taxis and the difficulties of reading Persian-language signs (which, unlike road signs, do not have English counterparts) and route numbers, they are of little use to the casual traveller. If you're cash strapped and brave enough to try, however, remember that the buses are segregated. Men enter via the front or rear door and hand their ticket to the driver before taking a seat in the front half of the bus. Women and children should hand their ticket to the driver via the front doors (without actually getting on) before entering via the rear door to take a seat at the back. Tickets, usually around IR 200, are sold from booths near most bus stops.
Raja Passenger Trains [] is the passenger rail system. Travelling by train through Iran is generally more comfortable and faster than speed-limited buses. Sleeper berths in overnight trains are especially good value as they allow you to get a good night's sleep while saving on a night's accommodation.
The rail network is comprised of three main trunks. The first stretches east to west across the north of the country linking the Turkish and Turkemenistan borders via Tabriz, Tehran and Mashhad. The second and third extend south of Tehran but split at Qom. One line connects to the Persian Gulf via Ahvaz and Arak, while the other traverses the country's centre linking Kashan, Yazd and Kerman.
Tickets can be bought from train stations up to one month before the date of departure, and it is wise to book at least a couple of Days in advance during the peak domestic holiDay months. First class tickets cost roughly twice the comparable bus fare.
Low fuel costs have made inter-city travel by taxi a great value option in Iran. When travelling between cities up to 250 km apart, you may be able to hire one of the shared sav?ri taxis that loiter around bus terminals and train stations. Savari taxis are faster than buses and Taxis will only leave when four paying passengers have been found, so if you're in a hurry you can offer to pay for an extra seat.
Official shared local taxis, identifiable by some kind of orange paint marking, also ply the major roads of most cities. Their usually run straight lines between major sqaures and landmarks, and their set rates (between IR 1,000 and IR 5,000) are dictated by the local governments.
Hailing one of these taxis is an art you'll soon master. Stand on the side of the road with traffic flowing in your intended direction and flag down a passing cab. It will slow down fractionally, giving you about one second to shout your destination--pick a major nearby landmark instead of the full address--through the open passenger window. If the driver is intereseted, he'll slow down enough for you to negotiate the details.
If you're in a hurry, you can rent the taxi privately. Just shout the destination followed by the phrase dar bast (literally 'closed door') and the driver will almost be sure to stop. Negotiate the price before departure, but since you are paying for all the empty seats expect to pay five times the normal shared taxi fare.
You can also rent these taxis by the hour to visit a number of sites, but you can expect to pay from IR 10,000 to 20,000 per hour, depending on your bargaining skills.
A large road network and low fuel costs of historically made Iran an attractive country for exploring with your own car. However a recent government fuel tax on foreigners entering Iran by private car has somewhat dimmed the allure.
Foreigners arriving in Iran with their own car will need to have a carnet de passage and a valid international drivers' license. Petrol stations can be found on the outskirts of all cities and towns and in car-filled Iran, a mechanic is never far away.
Do not underestimate the sheer chaos of Iran's traffic, particularly in Tehran. The often ignored road rules state that you must drive on the right unless overtaking and give way to traffic coming on to a roundabout. Drivers frequently top 150 km / hour on intercity highways a new law requiring car occupants to wear seatbelts is laughed at more often than complied with.
Be aware also that motorcycles will be often be seen transporting up to five people, sans helmets.
Persian (called F?rsi in Persian, فارسی), an Indo-European language, is Iran's national and official language. Although written with a modified Arabic alphabet, the two languages are not related but persian does have many loan words from Arabic.
Many young Iranians in major cities, and almost certainly those working in international travel agents and high-end hotels will speak conversational English but basic Persian phrases will definitely come in handy, particularly in rural areas.
Road signs are often double signed in English, but few other signs are. As an extra challenge, most Persian signage uses an ornate calligraphic script that bears little resemblance to its typed form. This can make comparing typed words in phrase books--such as 'bank' and 'hotel'--to signs on buildings quite difficult. However it is still worth memorising the Persian script for a few key words such as restaurant, guesthouse, and hotel (see relevant sections below for the script).
Be aware that Kurdish and Azeri languages are also spoken in areas of large Kurdish and Azeri populations.
The rial (ریال) is the official currency of Iran, however to save time in a high-inflation economy prices are sometimes quoted in tomans (تومان). One toman is equal to ten rials.
As a general guide, written prices are given in rials and prices quoted in conversation are in tomans. To confuse you even further, shopkeepers will often omit the denomination of high prices, so you may be told a jar of coffee costs 2 tomans (meaning 2,000 tomans or IR 20,000) and that a fine rug will cost 3 tomans (meaning 3,000,000 tomans or IR 30,000,000). In conversation, 1 Chomejni denotes IR 10,000.
Most travellers spend the first few Days of their trip coming to grips with this mind-boggling system, and money changers on the border will often exploit this confusion to rip you off. Be careful, and if in doubt, always ask a shopkeeper or moneychanger if they are quoting a price in rials or tomans.
Iran is still a cash economy, so bring enough hard currency for the duration of your stay. US dollars are the most useful, and new bills in good condition are perfered, even getting a better rate. Trade embargoes mean that banks will not forward cash advances on your foreign credit cards and they are only accepted by select stores for large purchases, such as Persian rugs. Most will be happy to forward you some cash on your credit card at the same time as your purchase. If you are desperate for cash, you can also try asking these shops to extend you the same favour without buying a rug or souvenir, but expect to pay dearly for the luxury.
Travellers' cheques Although in theory central banks in provincial capitals are able to cash them, the paperwork and time involved make them impractical for tourist use.
ATMs exist in major cities, and there are point-of-sale devices in some larger stores, but only local bank cards are accepted. Bank Tejarat is now providing a prepaid smart-card service for foreign tourists travelling to Iran. Using this service, you can buy a prepaid smart-card with foreign currency which can be used on the domestic ATM and point-of-sale network for withdrawing rials. You can apply for this service at some travel agents, if they support the service, or by visiting the special Tejarat Bank kiosk in Tehran's Mehrabad international airport. Before your departure, the remaining credit on the card can be changed back to foreign currency. Since the domestic ATM network is prone to malfunctions, and point-of-sale devices aren't common in stores, having a cash reserve (either rials or foreign currency) is still recommended.
Accommodation in Iran ranges from luxurious, if a little weary, five star hotels (هتل) in major cities to the small, cheap mos?ferkhuneh (مسافرخانه) and mehm?npazir (مهمانپذیر) guesthouses that are littered about most centres. Moreover, staff in mos?ferkhuneh often are so happy to provide room for non-Iranians, as these facilities have a recommandation from local governments to serve all tourists.
Iran is still a relatively low crime country, although thefts and muggings have been on the increase in recent years. Keep your wits about you, and take the usual precautions against Pickpockets"> pickpockets in crowded bazaars and busses.
In particular, the tourist centre of Esfahan has had problems with muggings of foreigners in unlicensed taxis, and fake police making random checks of tourists' passports. Only use official taxis, and never allow 'officials' to make impromptu searches of your belongings.
Try not to travel in the southeastern area of Iran, meaning the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, and also to some degree Southern Khorasan province. Drug trade is very common with smuggling from Afghanistan and other crimes as robbery, killing and kidnapping. Some cities as Zahedan, Zabol and Mirjaveh are particularly dangerous but that doesn't mean that every place in this area of Iran is dangerous, Chahbahar which is close to the Pakistani border is a very calm and friendly city.
Anyone crazy enough to venture within firing distance of the trouble-plagued borders of Iraq and Afghanistan is asking for trouble.
Women travellers should not encounter any major problems when visiting Iran, but will undoubtedly be the subject of at least some unwanted attention. Perceptions of Western women among local men, fuelled largely by satellite television and Baywatch reruns, have led to the assumption that all foreign women like to dress and act like Pamela Anderson. A stern look should be enough to deter amorous locals.
Gay and lesbian travellers should err on the side of discretion in Iran. Under the strict Sharia law, sodomy is punishable by death and lesbian sex is punishable with lashes, though this law only applies to Iranian citizens and those who engage in such activities with Iranian citizens. While public displays of platonic affection between members of the same sex -- such as holding hands, arms draped over shoulders and kissing on the cheek -- are not uncommon, foreign visitors who are gay or lesbian probably should be very discreet considering the possibility of harassment by security forces. The vast majority of Iranians have unfavourable views of same-sex relationships, but this rarely manifests in personal, violent attacks against homosexuals. In the event that a gay or lesbian visitor is somehow "outed," they can be expected to be immediately deported.
Watch out for joobs (جوب), the open storm water drains that shoulder every road and are easy to miss when walking in the dark.
Ignore the media hype, your chances of facing anti-Western sentiment as a traveller are slim. Iranians make a clear distinction between the Western governments they distrust and individual travellers who visit their country. Americans may receive the odd jibe about their government's policies, but nothing more serious than that. However, it is always best to err on the side of caution and avoid politically-oriented conversations, particularly in taxi cabs.
Iranian traffic is horrendous. Drivers attack their art with an equal mix of aggressiveness and incompetence and view road rules as mere guidelines. Take care when crossing the roads, and even greater care when driving on them.
There are alot of military and other sensitive facilities in Iran. Photography near military and other government installations is strictly prohibited. Any transgression may result in detention and serious criminal charges, including espionage, which can carry the death penalty. Do not photograph any military object, jails, harbours, or telecommunication devices, airports or other objects and facilities which you suspect are military in nature. Be aware that this rule is taken very seriously in Iran.
Apart from being up to date with your usual travel vaccinations (tetanus, polio, etc) no special preparation is needed for travel to Iran.
Tap water is safe to drink in most of the country (and especially the cities), although you may find the chalkiness and taste off-putting in some areas (mainly Qom, Yazd, Hormozgan and Boushehr provinces). Bottled mineral water (?b madani) is available everywhere. Also, on many streets and sites, public water fridges are installed to provide drinking water - quality comparable to bottled water.
Despite progress in recent years, the pace of liberalisation in Iran remains slow and its legally-enforced Islamic codes of conduct dictate many aspects of public life. Respecting the dozens of unspoken rules and regulations of Iranian life can be a daunting prospect for travellers, but don't be intimidated. As a foreigner you will be given leeway and it doesn't take long to acclimatise yourself.
Perhaps the most visible mark of Iran's Islamic leanings is the conservative dress expected of its citizens. Although normal, Western style clothing is acceptable in private homes, when in public women are required to cover everything but their face, hands and feet.
The most common uniform consists of a head scarf (roo-sari, روسری) to conceal the head and neck, a formless, knee-length coat known as a roo-poosh (روپوش) and a long dress or pair of pants. In and around holy sites, you will be expected to dress even more modestly in a ch?dor, a full-length swathe of black cloth designed to cloak everything but your face from view.
The dress code can be daunting during your preparation, but roo-saris, roo-pooshes and ch?dors can be bought cheaply in Iran. Watch or ask friendly Iranian women for guidance and marvel at how young women are pushing the boundaries of modesty with colourful head scarves that cover only a fraction of their hair and figure-hugging roo-pooshes that reveal every curve of their bodies.
Men have a slightly easier time of things. Short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts are acceptable for daily wear, but long sleeved shirts are still required for holy sites and formal occasions. Shorts and three-quarter length pants are only acceptable on the beach.
Visiting holy sites
Although no trip to Iran would be complete without a glimpse at the stunning architecture and sombre environments of its mosques or holy shrines, many travellers are daunted by the prospect of walking into the foreign world of a mosque. Don't let these fears stop you; Iranians are welcoming and will understand any unintended breach of protocol.
Some mosques, and most holy shrines, require women to be wearing a ch?dor before entering the complex. If you don't have one, there are sometimes kiosks by the door that lend or hire ch?dors. It is better for men to wear long-sleeved shirts inside a mosque or shrine, though this is not mandatory.
Shoes are not worn within prayer areas of a mosque or shrine. Busier mosques have free shoe repositories where you trade your shoes for a token. Also try to avoid mosques on the holy Day of FriDay and don't photograph a mosque while prayers are taking place.
Holy shrines, like those in Mashad and Qom, are usually off limits to non-Muslims, although the surrounding complexes are usually OK. Always ask first before you enter a room you are unsure of.
The number 110 is the police number without any code but you may also access emergencies via this number. Other Emergency Services are also available via 115 for Ambulances and 123 for the Fire Department.
Americans must go to the US Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy for assistance. Services are limited.