Iran, a country with years of history from the Persian Empire till the silk road route. Desert sceneries, tall mountains while standing on the roof of an old historical city. Furthermore, one of the most hospitable country in the world which is struggling with a bad reputation. More travelers are discovering Iran, but only limited information is available. With this backpacking Iran guide, I will give some general information about i.a. visa, transportation, culture, and at the end, I recommend you some places to go.
- Obtaining a visa for Iran
- Visa on arrival
- Visa extension
- Entering and exiting Iran
- By airplane
- Border crossing
- Money and Budget when backpacking Iran
- How much does Iran cost?
- Rial or Toman?
- Hostels in Iran
- Solo female travel
- Dress code
- Acces blocked websites
- Alcohol and drugs
- Gay and Lesbian travelers
- Where to go when backpacking Iran?
Obtaining a Visa for Iran
Since the end of the sanctions in 2015, getting a visa for Iran is becoming easier. British, Canadian and American citizens, however, are obliged to have a guide at all times in Iran. It is officially not allowed to travel independently, but there are some ways to do it anyway. UK, Canadian and American citizens have managed to get a visa without joining a tour, read more here. Obtaining a visa in advance is possible in Istanbul, Tbilisi or Yerevan. Citizens of the following countries don’t need a visa to visit Iran: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Georgia, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela.
Visa on arrival
As a Dutch and European citizen, I was able to get a visa on arrival. Obtaining a visa on arrival was in my experience very easy. This post includes all the details. Every country EXCEPT holders of passports from the following countries can obtain a visa on arrival: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, India, Iraq, Jordan, Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, United States.
Visa on arrival is for a maximum stay of 30 Days. You can receive your visa on arrival at the following airports in Iran:
- Imam Khomeini International Airport
- Isfahan International Airport
- Kish International Airport
- Mashhad International Airport
- Dayrestan Airport
- Shiraz International Airport
- Tabriz International Airport
It is not possible to get a visa on arrival at the land borders.
Costs: $75, – visa costs + $15,- health insurance fee. Payment is possible in euros and dollar.
Extending your visa in Iran is possible in multiple cities. People have different experiences with the visa extension. Some people extended their visa for 15 days, some for 30 and others even got denied. The visa extension price is around $10. Here, you can read more about an Iran visa extension.
Iran and Israel are far from being friends. If you ever have been to Israel, be sure that you are not traveling with a passport with an Israeli stamp. They will ban you when you have an Israeli stamp or any clear proof that you have been to Israel. Currently, Israel doesn’t stamp passports anymore, so it is possible to visit Iran without replacing your passport.
Entering and Exiting Iran
I arrived in Iran by plane from Istanbul at Iman Khomeini International Airport (IKA) in Tehran. When you arrive in Iran, it is most likely that you will arrive at Khomeini Airport as well since it handles most of the international flights. At the airport, there is the opportunity to exchange money and to buy a sim card. From Khomeini airport, you can catch a taxi to town (taxi fare is around 700.000 IRR). Tehran is planning to extend the metro network to the international airport, but it is not clear when it will be finished. A cheaper option will be to take a taxi to the nearest metro station: Shaded metro station.
Note that you need a visa in advance if you want to enter Iran overland!
Iran shares a border with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Since I arrived in Iran by plane, I don’t have experience with crossing borders to or from Iran. It is possible to go from Iran to every country listed, but be careful when crossing the border to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Caravanistan has plenty of information about border crossing.
Money and Budget when Backpacking Iran
The most important thing to know about money when you are planning to visit Iran: Foreign bank cards don’t work in Iran! The only option is to bring a lot of cash with you in dollar or euro. Other currencies will be difficult to exchange. Exchange offices can be found everywhere in a tourist city. Hostels and hotels may also exchange money. Check with a couple of offices to know which one has the best currency rate. It is not recommended to swap your money on the streets since they can give you fake money. The currency in Iran is called Rial.
How much does Iran cost?
Iran is not the cheapest country to travel in, yet not the most expensive. My budget was around $20 a day. I took 900 euros with me which was more than enough. At the moment, 1$ is equal to 32.000 IRR.
These are the average costs of products and services:
- Small water bottle: 6000 IRR
- Can soft drink: 15.000 IRR
- Tea: 30.000 IRR
- Falafel sandwich: 40.000 IRR
- Cheap restaurant: 162.000 IRR
- Dorm bed in Hostel: 325.000 – 488.000 IRR
- Bus ticket Tehran-Isfahan: 293.000 IRR
- Entrance fee tourist sights: 130.000 IRR
Tips to make your Iran stay cheaper:
- Do a lot of CouchSurfing (more about Couchsurfing you will find at the accommodation section).
- Don’t eat at tourist restaurants
- Don’t take a VIP bus
- Learn to bargain!
Rial or Toman?
Because of high inflation, prices in Iran can be a bit confusing. It is getting more confusing because locals never use the name Rial but always Toman. Toman is basically Rial minus a zero. So for example, you are taking a taxi, and the taxi driver says: “50.000 Toman”, it means you have to pay him 500.000 Rial. Don’t worry, after a while; you will get used to the money. And don’t feel bad if some locals (especially taxi drivers) ripped you off, it happens to almost everyone. See it from the bright side: you will finally be a millionaire.
Going by bus is very convenient in Iran. From Tehran, you can practically go anywhere by bus. Just go to the nearest bus terminal, follow the sound of the shouting man, or ask around for the city you want to go to. Many hostels can help you to make a reservation for your bus. On most bus rides, they provide you with water, snacks, and air conditioning. For long rides, it can be more comfortable to go with a VIP bus. It is a bit more expensive, but those buses have bigger seats, more space and leg support.
The Iran rail network is quite expanded and cheaper than buses, but also slower. It is also possible to take a sleeping train with a bed. I never took the train, but of what I heard from other travelers, it is comfortable. Except if there is someone fat laying above you 🙂 For more information about the rail networks in Iran, use this website.
Going by airplane is a good option when you have enough money and short in time. From Tehran, you can take a domestic flight to, for example, Shiraz, Yazd, Kish, etc.
The biggest scammers in Iran are taxi drivers, with no doubt. Taxis in Iran don’t have a meter so ripping off tourists is easy for drivers. Ask a hostel, or any locals for the taxi price from point A to B. Although when you have the correct price in your head, it keeps some time to insist taking you for the right amount of money. If one doesn’t want to take you for that price, the next taxi driver will be around the next corner. Shared taxis also exist, but I didn’t figure out how that worked. I always avoided taxis, except when there were no other options.
Even hitchhiking in Iran is possible and I heard many good things about it, although I didn’t try myself. Most of the locals, don’t know what you are doing when you are putting your thumb up next to the street. Finding a ride is not difficult, but learning some phrases in Farsi to explain what you are doing will be helpful. Otherwise, people will think you are looking for a taxi and take your money. Read more about hitchhiking at the Iran hitchhiking guide.
Hostels in Iran
The number of hostels in Iran is getting more and more. In almost every main city like: Tehran, Yazd, Isfahan or Shiraz are hostels located. Forget about hostelworld.com and booking.com in Iran; they will not help you in any way. Rather use this website which tells you about all the hostels in Iran and from the Seven Hostel website, you can even make a booking which is necessary for your visa application. Hostel prices for a dormitory bed vary between $10 and $15. Men and women are sometimes separate, but in my experiences, most of the time not. Note that internet access is very limited in hostels.
Couchsurfing in Iran
Couchsurfing is one of the greatest things you can do when traveling in Iran. There are many hosts across the country, who are thrilled to invite you. It is a perfect way to get to know the Iranian culture better and to make new friends. I wrote a separate article about my experiences and tips for Couchsurfing in Iran.
Travelers are describing Iranian people often as friendly and hospitable, and I can agree. Because their country has been closed to the outside world for so long, many are curious to foreigners. Expect smiles, invitations, delicious dinner, oh and not to forget: a lot of selfies.
Iranian food exists out of a lot of rice, beans, meat and very sweet desserts. Good food is not hard to be found. When you are staying with a family, I can assure you they will make you stuffed. If you don’t fancy to eat in a restaurant, sandwiches kebab and falafel (costs around $1.5) are easy to find in every city.Meal in a simple restaurant cost between $5 and $10.
Being vegetarian in Iran is not always easy but possible. Most of the time, I was eating falafel sandwiches, but some restaurants also offer vegetarian food. It will be helpful if you know the Farsi translation for: “No Meat.” Being vegetarian, was more difficult for me during when I was staying with locals, because it would be impolite to refuse food. But when I told my hosts in advance, many understood and cooked a special meal for me,
Solo Female Travel
Despite the bad image of traveling solo as a Woman in Iran, I can tell you it is possible. It is a different culture, and there are a few things to be prepared for and keep in mind. I wrote an article about: Visiting Iran as a Woman.
For women, and as well men, there is a dress-code. You can’t just hop in your comfortable short pants and T-shirt, as you do on a regular vacation. Don’t worry it is not too bad; you will get used to it (as long you avoid desserts). Here some brief information. Women are required to wear a headscarf, cover their bump and where sleeves till the elbows. For men, it is easier because they can just walk around in a t-shirt. Shorts for men are not prohibited but inappropriate.
Tarof is a confusing term in Iran especially for direct people like me. Tarof is an act to be polite to someone. If someone offers you tea, you need to say “no” for three times before saying: “yes” the fourth time to be polite. When someone offers you to pay for something, it doesn’t mean that someone wants to pay for it but is trying to be polite. Don’t worry about this that much though. Insist three times and after that, just accept that it is an act of Iranian hospitality.
Since the official name of Iran is: The Islamic Republic of Iran, you can already guess that the majority is Muslim. Unique about Iran is that it is the only Muslim country with a Shia Islam majority. But not only Shia Islam exists in Iran. There is also a minority of Sunni Islamics, Christians and even Zoroastrianists where you can learn more about in Yazd.
Acces blocked websites
Websites and apps like Facebook, Twitter but also news websites like BBC are blocked by the Iranian government. Services like Instagram and Whatsapp are however not blocked. How do get access anyway to those websites? The solution is simple: a VPN connection. There is nothing scary about a VPN connection, it simply means a private connection. Also, people in Iran are using a VPN connection (even the president). In the apple store or google play store multiple VPN applications are available.
Alcohol and drugs
Alcohol and drugs are officially forbidden in Iran. You can’t find alcohol in any story. What if you want to try alcohol and drugs? First of all, be careful because most of the alcohol and drugs are homemade and no one checks the quality. I can’t tell you how to get it. To be honest, it always came to me. Ask young people about it, and if you meet the right people, you will get alcohol or drugs easily.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Homosexuality is by law forbidden in Iran. But as a single gay, lesbian person or couple you can still visit Iran. As a couple, you should just not tell everybody that you are a couple and don’t kiss on the streets (this is even not accepted as a straight couple). You can also find love as a gay man or lesbian in Iran. I heard stories of gay travelers who met handsome Iranian men via a dating app 😊
Where to go when Backpacking Iran?
I stayed in Iran for four weeks, but that was not enough to discover such a big country. There are many places to visit, but I will give you a push in the right direction. Hereby, an itinerary of places which I visited during my Iran trip.
Tehran, the capital city, and like many others my first destination in Iran. Tehran is a big busy city with the Alborz mountain scenery in the North. There are many things to explore in Tehran: former US embassy, diversity of museums, palaces where the Shahs (Kings) used to rule and a big bazaar. The best way to explore the city is by metro which will take you anywhere you want. When you are done with busy city life, go for a hike in the mountains and enjoy a cup of tea with Iranians. Read more.
Kashan, an oasis city and a perfect in-between place when you are on your way to Isfahan. Kashan used to be a stop on the Silk Road route and remnants of the wealth are interesting historical buildings. Buildings like: old historical houses, a hammam, a beautiful mosque and an old bazaar with many hidden places. In my opinion, a beautiful city where you need to spend at least two days. Don’t forget to check out the rooftops! You will not regret it. See more
Isfahan is one of the most visited and famous destinations in Iran. With his glorious square, blue mosque and surrounded by a bazaar. Isfahan used to be the capital city of the Persian Empire, and you will notice that in many ways. I loved the Nasq-e-Jehan Square where I sat down and watched people while some stopped to have a conversation with me. Furthermore, there is an Armenian quarter with a historical church. Enough to explore!
This city, was my favorite place in Iran, although it was burning hot during the summer. Yazd looks a bit similar to Kashan, but it has a larger historical center and more things to see. It is a city which you will expect when you are thinking about the movie Alladin. Mud brick houses, small alleys, carpets, I was only missing the camels. Yazd is the home of one of the oldest religions in the world: Zoroastrianism. Explore this Zoroastrianism sights, visit the temple with the thousand-year-old fire and enjoy a sunset at the temple of silence.
Kerman not a very known city in Iran. I almost felt like an Alien when I walked on the street while people wanted to take selfies all the time. The people were friendly, and I even got invited for a music evening with Suffi people! Kerman got an ancient city center with a bazaar, some mosques and a lovely tea house which used to be a hammam. Most of the people go to Kerman to visit the Kaluts desert. Because I was there in summer, it wouldn’t have been pleasant for me to visit the Kaluts. But only Kerman itself was already worth a visit.
Many will think about the famous red wine when hearing the name Shiraz. Despite the fact, the name of the famous red wine is coming from Iran, it will be hard to find a bottle of wine in Shiraz. Nowadays, Shiraz is famous for its beautiful mosques and poet Hafez. Hafez is very appreciated in Iran, in almost every house you can find a poetry book of Hafez. The historical center is not too beautiful when you already visited places like Isfahan or Yazd. But, I recommend you to spend at least two days in Shiraz. Most of the people, visit Persepolis after Shiraz.
Kurdistan is also not a touristic destination. When you arrive in the Kurdistan province of Iran, you clearly notice the sense of a different culture from the outside. Men are wearing baggy jeans with scarf bonded around their waistline, and women are wearing long colorful dresses. It is not always peaceful between the Iranian government and the Kurds, but a save region to visit as a traveler. From the major cities Kermanshah or Sanandaj, take a bus to a smaller town or village and introduce yourself to the Kurdish culture and hospitality.
If you miss something in this article, have any questions or find something incorrect, please let me know! 🙂
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