How to guide for travel in Iran
Before I left for Iran I struggled to find all the information I wanted in one place, or at all. So here is my “how to travel in Iran” guide.
How to dress in Iran:
Wherever you are travelling it is usually best to take your cue from what locals are wearing. Iranians tend to be a very stylish bunch, but it’s easy to fit in with a few basic pieces of clothing.
Iran’s dress code is policed, and I would recommend adhering to it.
Men: it’s pretty easy for men, long trousers and a t-shirt will be fine, but it’s probably best to have a long sleeve shirt. Remember it gets cold in winter with snow in many places, and it is extremely hot in the summer (40°C+/104°F+).
Women: the dress code for women is a lot more complex and in the height of summer can be very oppressive.
- Long trousers or a long skirt
- Long sleeved shirt/cardigan/manteau* (jacket) that reaches at least three quarters of the way to your knees, and preferably longer. If you choose the cardigan or jacket option, you can wear a t-shirt or tank-top underneath but be mindful of showing too much of the curvature of your body and no cleavage. That means a really a low cut tank top isn’t the best idea in case your manteau blows open.
- A hijab, which can be loosely wrapped around your head, but be mindful of it slipping off
- Slip on shoes are a great idea too, if you go into people’s homes (and chances are you will be invited at least once), or into a traditional hotel/restaurant, you will need to take your shoes off
Travelling in summer I packed a few pairs of lightweight cotton and linen trousers, a couple of long sleeved shirts and a couple of manteaux style jackets I made to wear over tank tops, plus a few lightweight cotton scarves to wear as hijabs.
If you are sticking to the big cities of Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz and Esfahan you will be fine in colourful clothing and your hijab can slip back a bit on your head. I wish I had packed some slightly less colourful clothes for wearing in the more conservative places like Yazd and Kashan, but in the end it wasn’t an issue.
*Manteaux are the jackets Iranian women wear if they are not wearing the full black abbayas, which tend to be worn by the more religious women and those living in more conservative places. I converted an old kaftan pattern a friend had and bought some cotton fabric.
How to get an Iranian visa:
If you go searching for “Iran visa” you will come up with a lot of results that are actually old. Even the Iranian Embassy to Australia’s website is out-of-date.
The good news is unless you are travelling on an Israeli passport, or for some reason have an Israeli stamp in your passport (unlikely as Israeli entry and exit permits are slips of paper not fixed into your passport), you can travel to Iran.
There are a few countries who don’t require a visa at all, others who must apply in advance (including Britain, the USA and Canada), but for the majority of nationalities a visa on arrival (VOA) is available, for varying lengths.
Being Australian I was able to get a VOA, which for me was a simple process of having a confirmation of my first night’s accommodation, pay an insurance fee of €20 (can be paid in US$ as well) and then a visa fee of US$160 (could have been paid in Euros). The whole process took less than ten minutes, and the only question I was asked was “are you are a tourist?”. I had a 30 day visa stamped in my passport and I was on my way.
I have read a variety of different accounts of getting a VOA, including different fees (not by much and I guess the differences were because of exchange rates), many more questions being asked and the need to fill out a form. So be prepared, and if you are a journalist, find another profession for your stay, i.e. don’t mention it to anyone, even once you’ve cleared immigration.
You can also apply for a visa reference number before going which gives you pre-approval for a visa which is then issued at the airport when you arrive. The advantage of this is it negates the tiny possibility of being refused a VOA.
If you want to be absolutely sure you have a visa, fill out an application form (found on your nearest Iranian embassy website) and send it off to your relevant Iranian embassy along with your passport and passport photos, you will need to wear a hijab in the photo if you are female (you don’t need them if you are getting a VOA).
You can also engage an Iranian travel agent online (I’d recommend seeing Trip Advisor for reviews as to who to use) to organise the visa process for you.
At the end of the day, it comes down partly to what is available to your nationality, and what you feel comfortable with doing. I had no problems with the VOA process, but others have found it harder.
If you want the latest official information, then the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, should hopefully be up-to-date.
How to use Iranian money:
The cause of much frustration of any traveller in Iran is coping with the currency.
First of all, you MUST take all the cash you will need. Iran’s banking system is closed off to the rest of the world which means you CANNOT withdraw money from an ATM, or use your credit card for purchases.
Personally I chose to take US dollars because many hotels and shops will accept dollars which cuts down on exchanging it. And for three weeks I decided to take $3000, coming home with almost half of that. I took extra in case of any emergencies.
So, once you have your currency of choice exchanged into Iranian Rial the fun begins.
Scenario: you get into a taxi, with a fist full of hundreds of thousands of Rial. The taxi driver takes you to your destination and indicates the cost is “nine”. You start rifling through your wad and discover you only have denominations of 50,000, 100,000 and 200,000, nothing vaguely close to nine.
What your taxi driver is actually saying is the cost is 9,000 Toman.
What’s a Toman you’re probably now asking. Well, because the denominations of the Rial are generally high, it is broken down into Toman.
1 Toman = 10 Rial
So back to your taxi driver asking you for “nine” –
9,000 Toman = 90,000 Rial
“But they’re asking for nine!”
Yes, I hear you and this is why it so very frustrating.
Prices will be quoted by the digit before the thousands (the numbers after the comma) and then you pay in Rial (90,000 Rial in the case of your taxi ride).
What this means is you are constantly doing mental arithmetic to essentially first convert the number to Toman by multiplying by 1000 and then into Rial by further multiplying by ten.
The easier way of course is to think about it in terms of tens of thousands of Rial. In other words multiply the number quoted by ten thousand:
9 x 10,000 = 90 thousand Rial
22 x 10,000 = 220 thousand Rial
But always check whether the person is quoting in Rial or Toman, most will give you the price in Toman, but sometimes it is Rial.
And keep all the really small denominations you may get like 5,000 Rial, they are handy for buying drinks like water and soda. Oh, and don’t be surprised if you get lollies and chocolate as change.
Clear as mud? Good.
How to get around in Iran:
The bus system in Iran is cheap, easy and the network vast.
The domestic planes are okay, but it would be remiss to not mention Iran does not have a great air safety record. Partly this comes down to the fact that sanctions have stopped new planes and parts from being bought. That said, it’s cheap and the networks are pretty expansive. You will need to book through a travel agent though (which are everywhere), you can’t book online unless you have access to an Iranian credit card.
In some of the bigger cities like Tehran and Shiraz there are metro systems. The Tehrani Metro is very efficient and criss-crosses the city allowing you to get to just about anywhere. You can even buy everything from jewelry to underwear to fruit and vegetables from the hawkers who get on an off. The same on the Tehrani bus system, which fills in the gaps of the Metro system. They both operate on a travel card (Oyster, Opal, Myki, Octopus, MetroCard) system, so top up and away you go (I can’t remember the exact price, but it was cheap as chips).
The Metro system has women only carriages, though women are allowed to travel in the other carriages. The buses though are segregated – women in the front, men in the back… and avoid rush hour if you can, they get VERY packed.
Which language/s are spoken in Iran?:
The official language of Iran is Persian/Farsi. Kurdish Iranians also speak Kurdish, some speak Arabic and fair number speak at least a little English.
Take a phrase book, it will help.
Is alcohol available?:
It is… but not legally, and if you are caught drinking, you will likely end up in jail. You will see the remnants of those who defy the law lying around, and I have read stories of young Iranians going out into the desert to party. There are also some underground nightclubs in Tehran, but don’t ask me where they are.
How to buy a SIM card in Iran:
There are plenty of mobile/cell phone stores around that sell SIM cards. Don’t believe any seller who tells you they need your passport details. They don’t.
How to access the internet in Iran using a VPN:
Iran has strict censorship placed on the internet. Many sites can’t be reached, including Facebook, Twitter and the BBC News site (three I wanted to use).
You can get around this by loading a VPN onto your laptop or smart device. It’s best to try and find out which ones are working best before you leave; it’s a movable feast, a download them before you go. I did manage to download a couple while I was there, but it’s a hit and miss affair.
Basically a VPN allows you to access the internet by making it appear that your device is in another country. There are plenty of how-to instruction guides on how to set them up.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you went to Iran? Or is there something you want to know that I haven’t mentioned? Write me a comment.