Often I just rock up to a country without much prior planning. No accommodation booked, no currency, nothing – I just wing it when I get there. Yes sometimes I even forget to check if I need a visa to enter a country, this is how laid-back/disorganised I am when it comes to travel!! But I knew I needed to plan ahead with my trip to Iran – you simply cannot turn up there unprepared, it could cost you being refused entry into the country! Read on to learn the 10 things you need to know before you visit Iran!
You must check the visa requirements for your country before you travel to Iran!! Certain passport holders MUST obtain a visa beforehand at an Embassy (such as UK, USA and Canada and several countries neighbouring Iran). And there is further bad news for British, American and Canadian passport holders – you can only enter Iran as part of a tour group, you cannot travel around independently (as these countries no longer have Embassies in Iran), so you really need to plan your trip in advance!
The majority of other passports require visa on arrival for €75, but some countries such as some Arabic countries and countries on the Europe/Asia border require no visa, so make sure to check beforehand.
Fortunately Iran no longer stamps your passport, so as to avoid any problems for you when travelling to other countries afterwards, however you MUST hold onto your visa paper for the duration of your trip and present it at immigration when you leave the country.
You are also advised to bring 2 passport photos when applying for your visa (ideally for women their hair should be covered) but they didn’t ask me for them. Also have your return flight details handy just incase they ask for them.
In order to get a visa for Iran you need to have travel insurance specific to Iran and you will be asked to show it at the airport. Many American, British and even Australian travel insurance companies don’t provide cover for travel to Iran due to the sanctions imposed by the USA, so be sure your insurance states it is valid for Iran – it is not enough for your travel insurance to state ‘worldwide’ – it specifically needs to state Iran. Insurance company IATI covers travel to Iran, but their policies are a little expensive. If you’re on a budget then I recommend purchasing insurance through 1stQuest – a really helpful Iranian company that charges only €15 for 2 weeks. Alternatively you can purchase it for €14 at the airport like I did.
Make sure you have booked at least your first night’s accommodation in Iran before you arrive. The immigration officers WILL phone your hotel to check you have a booking there, so make sure you have this already sorted, otherwise they could deny you entry into Iran. Read my guide to staying in traditional Iranian houses here!
As a woman you will need to wear a hijab (head scarf) to keep your hair covered when in public. Arms and legs need to be covered at all times and you’ll need to wear loose clothing that doesn’t show your figure – you can wear an ankle length skirt or trousers, so long as the shape of your buttocks can’t be seen (many women wear fitted jeans but with a jacket covering below their buttocks). It is really important to abide by these rules, not only as respect, but you could get in trouble with the police if you are dressed inappropriately.
Therefore make sure you take time to pack your suitcase and plan your outfits otherwise you’ll be stuck wearing the same couple of outfits for the whole trip (although fortunately clothing in the bazaars in Iran are very cheap if you do get stuck)! Luckily for me it was winter and pretty cold so I was wrapping up and wearing layers to keep warm anyway, but even in the heat of the summer women need to wear long sleeves and cover their legs, so just bear this in mind if you plan to visit in the summer.
Also make sure to pack one scarf in your handbag as you’ll need to wear your headscarf before you leave the plane when you touch down in Iran, so keep it somewhere accessible (Immigration won’t let you through unless you have a headscarf on).
Bring Euros with you:
It’s almost impossible to get your hands on Iranian Rials outside of Iran as many countries don’t want to deal with this currency. Therefore you’ll need to bring cash (USD or preferably Euros) with you to Iran – you can’t withdraw any money from any International bank card (VISA/Mastercard etc) at cash machines in Iran due the limitations placed by the USA: pretty much all global banks have refrained from dealing with Iran. Once you get to Iran you can change the money into Iranian Rials at the many currency exchange shops.
However if you’re travelling around Iran for a while or you don’t like to keep too much cash on you, luckily a new Iranian company has introduced the Mah card – a prepaid debit card for travellers in Iran. It gets delivered to your accommodation in Iran, you load it up with your preferred currency and it changes it into Iranian Rial. It can be used anywhere in Iran and once you are finished with it when you leave, any money you have left over on it you will receive back in cash (Euros or USD). Click here to visit the website and order your card (you will need to pay a one-time €19 service fee).
Two different currencies (rial and toman):
Iran confusingly has 2 types of currency: rial and toman. The Iranian rial (IRR) is the official currency of Iran (all money is printed in rial), but Iranians all work in toman and prices will commonly be given to you in toman. The same bank notes (rial) are used for both currencies, it’s just one toman is equal to 10 rials, so to convert rial to toman you just take 1 zero off the end of rial and you have toman. Simple right?!
Just be careful when you’re paying for things that you check your money carefully – there are a lot of zero’s on the notes and you don’t want to accidentally pay 10 times more than what you should have paid by giving the wrong note (although I’m pretty sure most Iranians would tell you if you accidentally paid more). When you’re asking for prices, sometimes it is worth to just double check whether it is in rial or toman, to avoid any confusion.
It may seem confusing for Iran to have two currencies, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. The reason for both currencies being used is because for centuries the currency was in toman but in 1932 it changed to rial. However, the locals preferred the old toman system and still referred to it, plus it has one less zero so that of course makes things easier!
Actual currency rate v artificial currency rate:
When you download the exchange rate on a currency converter it will tell you 1USD is worth roughly 42,000 rial because this is the “official” exchange rate – what the Government wants it set at, but it is artificial and not accurate! In Iran 1USD is actually worth around 100,000 rial (10,000 toman). Confusing I know, but trust me on this. You see, not only are there two currencies, but there are two exchange rates in Iran!! One that is formally fixed by the Central Bank of Iran (1USD:42,000 rial) and the other rate – the “street” rate, the open market rate which is the one sold to the public at exchange shops and by street vendors (1USD:100,000 rial).
So therefore, don’t use a currency converter app if you want to convert prices as it won’t be accurate. If you’re struggling, ask any local Iranian, they all know the exchange rate and will be able to help you. Alternatively, just write some conversions down on a piece of paper like me, if you’re prone to forgetting and getting confused!
Seeing as Iran is a Dictatorship the internet in Iran is censored. The Iranian Government wants to control what information people have access to over the internet, so they block a lot of non-Iranian social networks and international media. Therefore I recommend to download a VPN before you go, so you can access websites that the Iranian Government blocks and otherwise you would not be able to view, including Facebook, Youtube, CNN and BBC news. I downloaded Turbo VPN which is really good and gives you a free 7-day trial (after I left Iran, I just cancelled it so I wouldn’t get charged anything).
Also, to make your life easier, I recommend to download an offline map of Iran on your phone (personally I use maps.me) so you can see a map and get directions to places even when you have no access to the internet. Downloading Google translate and the Farsi (language spoken in Iran) keyboard may come in handy, but many young people in Iran speak English so you won’t often have problems with a language barrier. Still, it’s always handy to have. You can also consider buying a local SIM card for very cheap as often wifi is not readily available in many restaurants and public places (the only place I ever found wifi in Iran was in my accommodation – even I couldn’t get it at Iran’s International airports).
Iranian hospitality and Taroof:
Let me tell you something about Persian (Iranian) people. They are so friendly and welcoming – locals will often invite you in for tea and it’s not considered weird at all. They don’t want anything from you, they just want to practice their English and genuinely want to get to know you as they don’t see many tourists. People will even sometimes come up to you in the street and thank you for coming to visit their country, or thank you for not listening to the media and making up your own mind about Iran.
You also need to know about taroof. Taroof is an etiquette custom unique to Iran that tourists may find quite confusing at first. Taroof is an unwritten rule and a way of showing respect and politeness. Basically it is where Iranian people will decline something they want, or say something they don’t mean, out of respect for the other person. For example, taxi drivers may decline money for the ride they just gave you, so you will need to ask again, sometimes even a couple of times. In the end you will always need to pay, you just need to insist more if they keep declining! They are only being polite by refusing your money at first. It may seem strange, but taroof is a behaviour that is highly valued in Iran, and it shows people how they should treat each other: with respect.
Just one more important thing to add about the Iranian people. They are Persians. They are not Arabs and may get offended if you mix them up. Persians are very proud of their unique identity, culture and their history and they are very different to Arabs, both culturally and appearance-wise. Yes the Farsi (Persian) and Arabic languages look and sound fairly similar and Iran is a Middle Eastern country with a Muslim majority, but it is not an Arabic country.
Taxis and transport:
At the airport when you arrive, just change enough money for a taxi as the exchange rate at the airports is not as good as in the cities, and there are plenty currency exchange shops in the cities.
When getting taxis, before you get in, ask a local how much the trip should be, as it is very hard to negotiate with the taxi drivers, so just stick to the price the local told you. Fix the price BEFORE you get in the taxi. Unofficial taxi drivers (just normal people driving their cars) also will sometimes offer you a lift, this is much cheaper than regular taxis.
A great little app to download is ‘snapp’ – Iran’s answer to Uber. The price is set beforehand so there is no need to haggle with the taxi driver, making your life easier. Also the website is in English, making it very popular with tourists in Iran. I used it a few times and definitely recommend it!!
Around Tehran you won’t even need to use taxis as you can use the metro very easily – it is pretty easy to navigate round, and a ride is only 10,000 rial (10 cents!) so you can’t go wrong there! The metro is really clean, with separate carriages for women. Definitely try to ride the metro if you can, it is fascinating – like a full on market in the carriages! People selling all sorts of nic-nacs and people often buying from them! I never saw anything like this before in my life, it was so interesting to observe!
Travelling between cities in Iran:
Iran is easy to travel round – there are lots of good bus and internal flight connections. Unless you find a cracking deal or you just don’t like last minute travel, a good tip is to wait until you are in Iran to book your domestic plane tickets if possible, and get a local to help you book flights on Iranian websites such as flightio as fares are much cheaper than on international websites. You’ll need a local to help you as the website is only in Farsi and you’ll need to pay with an Iranian debit card.
So there you go, those are my top 10 things you need to know before you visit Iran! I hope you do decide to visit this beautiful country and it’s kind people and incredible architecture. That you will see the country for what it really is, not for how to is depicted in the media, and know that many of the Iranian people do not agree with their Government. I feel this country is so misunderstood and during my time there I felt SO safe and welcomed, far more so than in any other Islamic country I have travelled around. Give Iran a chance, I promise you won’t regret it!
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