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Motorcycle travel in Iraq – an overlander’s guide

Biking through Iraq? Yes, it can be done! Here’s my guide to motorcycle travel in Iraq with everything I learned from one month of biking solo across Iraq.

 

Rolling green mountains dotted with herds of sheep. The world’s most ancient cities scattered throughout the desert. A culture of hospitality where opening homes to strangers is completely normal.

Iraq isn’t exactly every motorcyclist’s dream, but if you give it a chance, you can see why it now lures adventurous bikers in. Despite the concerns of family and friends.

The country is not without its challenges—not surprising, considering how recently and repeatedly Iraq was consumed by war—but these days, motorcycle travel in Iraq is most definitely possible. If you’re overlanding the Middle East, riding around the world, or just interested to get off the beaten track, here’s a guide to motorcycle travel in Iraq with everything you need to know.

Table of contents: motorcycle travel in Iraq

 

Alex on her motorcycle on an offroad track in front of Lake Dukan in Kurdistan

Enjoying a wee offroad quest to Lake Dukan in Iraqi Kurdistan. These are typical landscapes for the safer (and more-visited) northern Kurdistan region.

Need to know: Federal Iraq (south) vs. Iraqi Kurdistan (north)

Before we go further, a wee geography lesson! Iraq is one country divided into two regions.

A map showing the division of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Red in the north marks the smaller territory of Iraqi Kurdistan.

A map of Iraq’s divisions. The red in the north is Iraqi Kurdistan, yellow is “Federal Iraq” in the south.

South Iraq, AKA “mainland Iraq”, AKA Federal Iraq, is in the south. It’s bordered by Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Kuwait. If you want to see big cities like Baghdad or Mosul, or visit historical sites in Iraq, this is your region. Infrastructure in south Iraq isn’t as developed and people are generally poorer; a consequence of suffering from decades of war. You need a visa for all of Iraq to visit this region, which many nationalities can get at certain land borders or if you fly in.

Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in the north of Iraq, with a predominantly ethnically Kurdish population. Kurdish people are spread across Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey (and are fighting for an independent state in all). Kurdistan has its own military force and was considered safe even at the height of Daesh occupation in Iraq. Because of this, infrastructure is better in Kurdistan than in the south, and they’re more used to tourists visiting as Kurdistan has long been considered safe. You can get a visa for Kurdistan on arrival at any land border, but you cannot easily travel to southern Iraq on a visa from Kurdistan; the south doesn’t recognize it as an official visa.

 

Alex standing with her motorcycle in front of the abandoned, graffitied remains of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces

Photoshoot (thanks to a friendly guard) at the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Babylon, Iraq

Is motorcycle travel in Iraq safe?

Yes, at the moment, Iraq is safe enough to travel with motorcycle.

Some regions of the country still have problems with extremists, but these areas are not easily accessible by tourists. The most common “dangerous” region of the country visited by foreign tourists is the border crossing between Jordan and Iraq; tourists are escorted by military in particularly hot areas. You don’t have to worry about accidentally ending up somewhere dangerous; police or military will stop you well before you reach your destination.

What are actual safety risks for motorcycle travel in Iraq?

Like in many countries, the biggest safety risk for bike travel in Iraq is… traffic. Iraqi drivers are remarkable, to say the least, and many have a fondness for daredevil maneuvers and poorly-timed sudden movements. There are few speed cameras in (south) Iraq, and the country doesn’t even bother putting lane lines on many of the main roads; what’s the point if no one follows them?

Another real risk to note is land mines in Iraqi Kurdistan. Though not a risk on the roads themselves, wild campers should be cautious when picking a spot and/or hiking in Kurdistan, especially in areas close to the Turkish border. Some natural areas are heavily mined, and tourists have died as a result. Stick to established paths and camp sites as much as you can, and keep an eye out for warning signs if going offroad.

 

Solo female traveler on a motorcycle in Ur, Iraq

The guard at the ancient city of Ur let me drive up close for a photo… and offered to take the photo for me!

Motorcycle travel in Iraq: what was it like?

For context: I was a 30-something American woman traveling solo on a rainbow 1996 Suzuki DR650 that had definitely seen better days thanks to a Saudi driver smacking into me a few weeks earlier. That is to say, not your stereotypical RTW Dude On Shiny Adventure Bike. Traveling as a woman has its own set of challenges (and benefits), but most of the information in this guide applies to riders of any gender. Onwards!

What was motorcycle travel in Iraq like? Riding through Iraq was a treat, primarily because of the people. Everywhere I went, people were excited to see someone (let alone a girl!) on a motorcycle and were always ready to chat or lend a helping hand where needed. It led to all kinds of curious adventures and connections—as biking often does—and every day brought unexpected surprises. Usually the good kind.

Landscape-wise, traveling by motorcycle in south Iraq was a bit bland. The whole area is essentially a sprawling ancient river delta; it’s flat as can be and often dusty and deserted. If you’re excited by ancient history—like I am—exploring all the Mesopotamian sites makes up for the monotonous landscape. If you’re not… well, you have alternatives.

The Iraqi Kurdistan region in the north is a different story. It has everything you need for great adventure riding: random dirt roads up spectacular mountain passes, small villages in the middle of nowhere, and a culture very accepting of wild camping. In my experience, Kurdish people were less hospitable than folks in the south—likely because they’re more used to tourists—but still quite kind and willing to help travelers when needed.

In both regions, the main headache for motorcycle travelers is checkpoints on the roads. Security checkpoints are common all throughout Iraq, and though most of the officials were friendly and pleasant to deal with, they can take time. It’s a formality I’m quite familiar with after years of running motorcycle tours in Pakistan, but I understand not everyone is used to such hurdles. If you’re okay with waiting while officials pretend to knowingly flip through your passport every hour or two, you’ll be fine in Iraq.

Rainbow motorcycle parked with luggage in front of the blue Ishtar Gate replica in Babylon, Iraq

Couldn’t resist the most cliche tourist photo in Babylon: parked in front of the Ishtar Gate

Motorcycle travel in Iraq: Logistics and planning

Do you need a Carnet de Passages for Iraq?

Yes, Iraq is listed as a CdP country on the official Carnet de Passages website.

However, I have heard of some people sliding through without a CdP, and not all officials even knew what a carnet was, anyway.

If you’re riding past Iraq, though, you’ll need to have a carnet for other countries such as Iran, Kuwait, and Jordan, so get yours ready.

Best time for motorcycle travel in Iraq

In summer, Iraq gets hot. Like, really hot. 50°C+ hot. Needless to say, summer (May – September) is not ideal for riding. Even in the mountains of Kurdistan, people told me it’s too hot (sometimes above 40°C) to really enjoy summer riding.

I visited Iraq in winter (January – February) and it was chilly to cold in the south, and too cold in the mountainous parts of Kurdistan. I pushed through with a heated vest and grips, but it was not pleasant when the weather turned sour.

Spring (March – April) and autumn (October – November) are the best times to motorcycle in Iraq, both in the southern river plains and in the northern mountains. Trees will still be colorful, temperatures will be mild to hot, and rain should be a bit less. Spring is particularly promising as Iraqis celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, toward the end of March.

Visas for Iraq

At this time, a handful of nationalities can get visas on arrival at main border crossings into Iraq, or by flying into the country. Visas on arrival are also available for Iraqi Kurdistan if crossing in from Turkey or Iran.

However, know that visas for Iraq are not the same as visas for Iraqi Kurdistan. A visa for Iraq can be used to visit all of Iraq. A visa for Iraqi Kurdistan can only be used to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. If riding in from the north, you might have trouble biking further south into Iraq; some bikers leave their bikes in Kurdistan, fly into Baghdad to get a visa on arrival for all of Iraq, then return to Kurdistan to keep biking. The government doesn’t like this, though, and it may take several attempts to get on a flight without your motorcycle.

Motorcycle travel in Iraqi Kurdistan with mountains behind the road

Traveling by motorcycle in Kurdistan in winter was… well, cold. But scenic!

Border crossings for Iraq

If you’re traveling overland in the Middle East before entering Iraq, you have several options for entry. However, know that not all countries bordering Iraq have active border crossings open to tourists.

Open crossings:

Jordan – Iraq: Only the Trebil crossing is open for tourists. Crossing this border used to require several days of military escorts, but now it’s more relaxed and escorts are only required for part of the journey. However, the situation can change as the area is more unstable than other parts of Iraq, and every once in a while they stop giving visas on arrival at this border. Make sure to check in advance.

Kuwait – Iraq: The Kuwait – Iraq border crossing at Abdali/Safwan is the only open border, about 1 hour’s ride away from Basra. It’s a relatively straightforward border process these days, and visas on arrival are available to relevant nationalities.

Iran – Iraq: There are several border crossings between Iraq and Iran, in both Federal Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. People often take advantage of this and go in and out of Iran to get around the visa issues with trying to cross from Kurdistan to Federal Iraq.

  • Bashmakh (Iraqi Kurdistan): Big border crossing used for shipping, can be chaotic on the Iranian side. Iraq side is straightforward.
  • Parwez Khan (Federal Iraq): Little-used border crossing east of Baghdad. Requires a bit more patience as they don’t see many foreign tourists and won’t know what to do with you.
  • Shalamcheh (Federal Iraq): Easy border crossing close to Basra.

Turkey – Iraq: Ibrahim Khalil at Zakho is the only border crossing that allows foreign tourists and issues visas and insurance.

Closed crossings

Saudi Arabia: As of March 2023, the Arar border crossing in the south is open only for trade and Hajj pilgrims from Iraq. You need to travel via Jordan or Kuwait to enter Iraq.

Syria: There is no border crossing open to foreign tourists between Iraq and Syria. You need to go through Jordan or Turkey.

Motorcycle parked at the Christian Mar Mattei monastery in Iraq

One of the coolest places I stayed at during my motorcycle travel in Iraq: Mar Mattei, an Orthodox Christian monastery in the mountains

Entry and exit fees for vehicles in Iraq

Entry fees: When entering Iraq, overland travelers are required to pay a $100 temporary import fee for vehicles at the border. The fee must be paid in US dollars.

Exit fees: When exiting Iraq, I had to pay a 38,000 IQD fee at the border in cash. Local currency, not dollars. 38,000 is the fee for motorcycles; the fee for cars and trucks might be higher.

Insurance for motorcycle travel in Iraq

I couldn’t find anywhere to buy insurance for my motorcycle when I crossed from Kuwait to Iraq. I asked around in the border area, but everyone seemed confused about why I wanted insurance. They told me it wasn’t necessary, and that I could just go… so I did! No one ever asked me for proof of my insurance and I never had any major accidents, so all was well enough.

I did hear of other travelers crossing in from different land borders who were able to purchase insurance at the border. Good luck if you want to sort out some kind of insurance for your motorcycle travel in Iraq; I can’t help you there.

Basic routes and itineraries through Iraq

There aren’t many open roads for travel through the south of Iraq, meaning most tourists follow the same routes and itineraries in Federal Iraq. There’s always room for deviation, but if riding south to north or vice versa, you’re likely to want to include…

Mosul – Samarra – Baghdad – Babylon – Karbala – Najaf – Nasiriyah and the marshes – Basra

Iraqi Kurdistan is a different story – it’s possible to do a loop and deviate to side valleys and villages. But most people make sure to at least include the following locations in Iraqi Kurdistan:

Duhok – Soran – Erbil – Sulemaniyeh

Motorcycle travel in Iraq offroad in farm fields in the Kurdistan region

Going offroad in farm fields in Kurdistan with the help of the Kurviger app

Maps and navigation in Iraq

Navigating while driving in Iraq wasn’t so straightforward; Google Maps navigation doesn’t work anywhere in Iraq! Maps itself works, so you can find locations and look up addresses, but the navigation feature won’t be an option.

So… what to do? I used a mixture of several apps to navigate while in Iraq:

  • Waze: Commonly used by local people to navigate in cities, but I found it frustrating since many streets and points are not loaded, and if there isn’t a street leading to exactly the point you’re going to, Waze freaks out and says it can’t find a route.
  • Maps.me: Every traveler’s trusty steed, but a bit limited in Iraq, and the automated spellings of Arabic place names with latin script were sometimes so indecipherable that I didn’t like looking at it.
  • Kurviger: A useful German-made app for planning fun motorcycle routes. Lots of customization options, and navigation works, but beware: these routes will take much longer than the “straightforward” route. Fun for offroading if you’re in Iraqi Kurdistan! Normally the app is paid, but I used a free beta version.

How much time do you need to motorcycle through Iraq?

You could combine both of the aforementioned lists and visit them all in 2-3 weeks, with no need to ride more than 200km in a day. More is always merrier, but do give yourself time to relax… and deal with checkpoints!

Road conditions in Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan: The roads in Iraqi Kurdistan are… fine. They’re not as sleek as the highways in neighboring oil states, but the main roads are well-maintained enough with petrol stations at regular intervals. There are plenty of dirt village roads once you deviate from the main roads, however.

Federal Iraq: Infrastructure is not good, to say the least. Many of the highways have huge ruts from heavy trucks driving on them, dangerously large potholes can be found on main roads, and roads are sometimes coated with slippery mud and sand. Unmarked speed bumps are also a common threat. Ride cautiously.

Toll roads in Iraq

Are there toll roads in Iraq? Not in my experience! Rather than having to pay any tolls, security checkpoints were the regular occurrence throughout Iraq. There are plenty of places where you have to drive through a toll-like plaza and show your passport, but I didn’t have to pay any tolls during my motorcycle travel in Iraq.

A motorcycle parked at the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk

Parked in front of the 7000+ year old remains of the ancient city of Uruk… after a muddy, messy offroad quest thanks to Google Maps being oversmart

Petrol in Iraq

Petrol prices in Iraq

Iraq is an oil state; filling up is delightfully cheap. During my motorcycle travel in Iraq in January 2023, the cheapest petrol was around US$0.25 per liter. Whether or not you want to use the cheapest petrol brings me to my next point…

Petrol quality in Iraq

Despite being an oil state, petrol quality in Iraq is not as guaranteed as in neighboring countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Petrol quality is apparently better in the south of Iraq; Kurdistan is another matter. Many people in Kurdistan warned me about using the cheapest petrol, saying it was extremely dirty. I used it anyway on occasion, but if you’re riding a fuel-injection bike, be careful.

Spare can for petrol in Iraq

Carrying a spare can for petrol in Iraq is a must. Not because distances are large, but because filling your tank with petrol (“benzin”) in Iraq is a pain. Supposedly because a bike once caught fire while fueling up somewhere in Iraq, motorcycles are now banned from petrol stations.

To fuel up, you need to park your motorcycle outside the station, then use a jerrycan to bring petrol to your bike. Most Iraqis are only putting in a few liters at a time; it’s tedious when you want to fill your tank completely!

Sometimes petrol stations in the middle of nowhere are flexible, especially where foreigners are concerned, but it’s best to travel with a jerrycan if you want to do motorcycle travel in Iraq.

Motorcycle parked inside the Martyr's Monument in Chibayish, near the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq

The safest parking: inside the gated and guarded compound of the Martyr’s Monument near the famous Mesopotamian Marshes.

Are motorcycles safe when parking in Iraq?

Across the country, most people assured me my bike would be safe if parked on the street overnight with a simple lock on it, so long as the guesthouse had cameras. My concern: electricity isn’t always 24/7 in Iraq, meaning security cameras aren’t, either!

Mostly I managed to find secure parking in cities (either gated or inside the hotel), but I did have to leave my bike out on the street a few times overnight and it survived. I saw newer BMWs parked on the street for several days in Baghdad without issue, too. Just make sure someone at the hotel knows (and cares) that it’s there.

It’s worth noting that a tourist did have their motorcycle stolen in Erbil while I was in Iraq, so it’s not 100% safe. The bike was eventually returned after it caused a big ruckus in the news, but use caution when possible.

Motorcycle camping in northern Iraq with a herd of sheep and goats walking in the background

Unexpected guests while motorcycle camping in Iraqi Kurdistan

Can you camp while overlanding in Iraq?

Motorcycle camping in Iraq can go two ways, depending on where you are:

Camping in Iraqi Kurdistan is safe and quite common—feel free to camp as needed while motorcycling around Iraqi Kurdistan! The main risk with camping in Kurdistan, as mentioned earlier, is land mines. Stick to campsites and paths that have been clearly used already, and watch out for signs warning of land-mined areas.

Camping in Federal Iraq is riskier and less common. I asked many locals, and none of them recommended camping in south Iraq. They all said that “probably” nothing would happen, but they wouldn’t risk it, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

That being said, some people camp next to checkpoints at tourist sites, since they’re more secure. I asked for permission to do so several times… and each time, the guards ended up giving me a room instead! I never once had to open my tent in south Iraq, and considering how hospitable people in the region are, I would expect the same for you.

How hard is it to find mechanics, spare parts, and engine oil in Iraq?

I wasn’t sure what to expect with regard to bike maintenance in Iraq… but motorcycles are so common in Iraq that finding a mechanic wasn’t particularly hard. Every major city has a small biker community happy to help out fellow travelers.

However, if you need any spare parts or major work done, most of the motorcycle parts come from Baghdad—it’s best to get any major work done there. Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, will also do, but they still get their parts from Baghdad.

Motorcycle travel in Iraq - the road to Mar Mattei monastery

That time I broke down on the side of the road while en route to Mar Mattei monastery. A kind local helped me out, and even rode 50 km to get me a new battery after sunset!

Resources for motorcycle travel in Iraq

  • Iraq Bikers: A massive motorcyclist network with local chapters in all the major cities (and then some). Not all of the bikers speak English, but they’ll help you get in touch with people who do. They have a Facebook and Instagram presence, and their president, Bilal, can be reached on Whatsapp at +964 772 228 8842.
  • iOverlander app: The Holy Grail of overland travel information. The app has everything you need from places to camp, motorcycle mechanics, hotels, and more. I added most of the places I visited/used to the app already, so head there for my hotel and mechanic recommendations!
  • Park4Night app: Another useful overland travel app, though I’ve found it more specific to people traveling in cars and campers.
  • Iraqi Travellers Café: The most useful Facebook group about travel in Iraq, with thousands of members from inside and outside Iraq. A great place to go if you have any questions about travel in Iraq.
  • Couchsurfing: Though I found it a bit strange in Iraq—a lot of hosts are actually tour guides trying to sell their services on the platform—there are still some genuinely good hosts to be found in Iraq. Useful for finding a place to stay with safe parking and good company!

More blog posts about Iraq

 

Alex Reynolds profile picture

Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

9 thoughts on “Motorcycle travel in Iraq – an overlander’s guide

    Hanne Gasbjerg Hjulmand says:

    Hi Alex

    What a terrific post! I am danish solo female traveler, who dreams about going from Europe to Turkey, down Kurdistan, Federal Iraq, then Kuwait, Saudi and Oman. You think this is doable?

    Thank you so much for all your inspiration. You inspired me to solo-ride in Pakistan, and I absolutely loved it.

    Dom Dom says:

    Hi I crossed Turkish/Iraky today ( 21 may 2023 ) no more VOA you need to apply for EVisa on line same cost 75$+ 2,5 $ fees .
    You will pay 30$ for tax to import motorcycle . That’s all : keep on moving

    fekkak says:

    hello, bravo for this beautiful adventure is for great sharing.see you very soon

    Harold Hardin says:

    Thank you for an SEO tool that provides a major ROI!

    You can even sign up for a see-through version with Vegas Glass Kayaks.

    You make learning enjoyable.

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